Block That Cliche!

Call us hopeless dreamers here at Campaign Desk, but there are some cliches so hackneyed that, in our fantasies, we never see or hear them again during the 2004 election.

“Stepford Wives” nears the top of our list.

Today’s edition of Time profiles Teresa Heinz Kerry. Describing the outspoken, independent Heinz Kerry, writer Karen Tumulty hauls out a variation of the dreaded phrase: “Not even Hillary Clinton strayed so far from the dutiful, adoring Stepford spouse as Teresa.”

In a story about the Democratic candidates’ wives, published January 18 in the New York Daily News, reporter Corky Siemaszko wrote of Dr. Judy Steinberg Dean’s insistence on maintaining her professional life versus glad-handing on the campaign trail. (So much for that resolution.) “But,” notes Siemaszko, “the six other wanna-be First Ladies aren’t Stepford Wives, either.”

So, what’s a Stepford Wife anyway? And what’s the point?

The answer to the first question comes from Ira Levin, who wrote the 1972 book of the same name. Last December 7th, he offered this definition in The New York Times: “an obsessed, perfectionist homemaker” whose husband is about to replace her with a robot. In other words, a bloodless helpmate.

The media at one time branded Nancy Reagan a Stepford Wife; so, too, Laura Bush. Hillary Clinton was branded Not-a-Stepford-Wife (another form of criticism) until she stoically “stood by her man” during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, at which point she became, however briefly, a Stepford Wife. As they say, that was then; this is now.

For today’s voters, the concept of a wife having her own career (and life) isn’t exactly news. That one or two or more might be able juggle their own interests and those of her husband — amazing, isn’t it? — shouldn’t be news, either.

Note to campaign press: The Stepford Wives came out in 1972; the movie in 1975. Come on — you have 29 years of pop culture history since then to draw on. Can we at least come up with a newer cliche to describe what candidates’ wives are — or are not?

—Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.