The Stepford Meme

May 20, 2014
'Three Ways Women Can Relate to Each Other'

Bizarre advice anywhere but Stepford

A recent article from lds.org entitled “Celebrate Nurturing” was associated with a meme on the church’s Facebook page encouraging women to build friendships using three “techniques”:  speaking confidently of motherhood, speaking more often about nurturing, and expanding your circle of sisterhood.  This bizarre advice (the first two parts anyway) has little practical application, and raised more hackles than just my own; Gina Colvin had this to say about it.

While the original article was written by a woman, it’s hard to see how the advice as distilled into the meme would actually strengthen female relationships.  As Gina points out:

But isn’t it well meaning and kind?  No its not, in the same way that circulating a graphic of happy Pacific Islanders with the  slogans:  Speak Confidently in English, Speak Less Often of your Culture,  Expand your circle of Nice White Friends‘ is not kind and means more than innocent support  for a group of people.  It speaks at Pacific Islanders from a position of power in order to address their imagined deficits or essentialized traits and works to affirm prejudices already in public circulation.

She further posits that “the excessive valorization of  the feminine reproductive body and their  supposedly inherent nurturing qualities is a euphemism for men wanting more sex and hot dinners,” a point with which I happen to agree.  Most men I know don’t see women this way, but it seems to be the way women are viewed in official publications of the church.

Since the meme was published, I haven’t been able to quit thinking about the 1975 thriller, The Stepford Wives, based on Ira Levin’s 1972 novel.  The word “Stepford” has been used as shorthand for a seeming Utopian white picket fence community that is actually fake, a cover for something more sinister, which is one theme of the story.  But the aspect of the story that has haunted me is the experience of the women who move to the community as they try to build friendships and to find a way to fit in.  If you haven’t seen the movie, I encourage you to watch it.  IMO, it holds up over time.  I’d watch the original with Katharine Ross, although there has been a remake with Nicole Kidman a few years ago.  Katharine Ross beats Nicole Kidman any day in my book.

What do Stepford wives talk about? On what do they base their friendships? Oh right; they don’t have friendships because they are robots, not people.

Katharine plays Joanna, a photographer and young wife and mother who moves with her husband and kids from New York City to the town of Stepford.  She and her friend Bobbie, another new arrival, are disturbed by the behavior of the other women in the town.  All the other women are entirely devoted to family and their husbands, never contradicting or expressing a contrary opinion, exhibiting total submission to their husbands.  The wives in the community dress with an exaggerated femininity, wearing long dresses and floppy hats wherever they go, even to the grocery store, speak passively and softly, and they have no personal interests that would foster a shared intimacy with female friends. These docile and submissive qualities extend to their sex lives, as Joanna observes through the hedge.  A husband comes home in the middle of the day and his complaisant wife serenely allows him free access to her body as she gardens.  Behind it all is the Stepford Men’s Club, a secret organization for the town’s husbands.  None of the wives mind being excluded.  They are numbly content to cater to their husbands’ needs, tending the home with no personal interests, opinions or needs of their own.

But it is precisely those interests, opinions and needs that bind women together.  Women don’t go to lunch to chat about motherhood, confidently or otherwise, or if they do, what a boring conversation that would be!  And I’m not even sure what a conversation about nurturing would entail.  “What’s your favorite nurturing activity?  Mine too!”  You can value motherhood and even nurturing (whatever that word means) without it being the basis of your female friendships and without it being a topic of casual conversation.  In fact, it cannot be the basis of friendship because motherhood and nurturing are impersonal and conceptual.  It is our flaws, our uniqueness, our vulnerability that creates friendship.  It’s our shared opinions, our hopes and dreams, our fears and disappointments.  At times it’s our shared complaints and worries, and yes, even gossip. Telling women to base their friendships on talking about motherhood and nurturing is like telling chefs to build relationships by talking about nutrition.  That’s not the content of close friendly relationships, any more than nutrition facts capture the essence of one’s interest in gourmet cooking.

Ironically, the author of the article seems to understand this.  The person who created the meme, not so much.  The author states:

People who share common interests tend to gravitate toward each other. Young mothers tend to quickly develop friendships with one another because of their similar situations in life. Sisters who are finished rearing their families may feel that they have nothing in common with those just starting out. And sisters who have never had children also seem to be in their own circle.

She adds:

“All of us can find joy and fulfillment in the “muddled, mortal middle.” As sisters in Zion, we must look for our commonalities, recognize that we are all striving toward the same eternal goal, and realize that we can help each other along the path”

Expand your circle of friends to people who aren’t like you.

The author’s actual advice was given in the context of a never-married church member, aged 40, who wanted other women to know how to relate to people like her.  She advised that women with children tend to be too sensitive about motherhood when talking to women without children, but that it’s OK to talk about motherhood.  By omitting that, the meme alters the nature of the advice, implying that women (including the teen girl pictured who presumably is not a mother) should all just sit around talking about motherhood and nurturing.  The author also uses the term nurturing very loosely (it’s a very vague term), specifically noting that men also nurture (the meme ignores this) and giving an example of “nurturing” that is talking about a wedding with her niece.  I’m not entirely sure that meets my definition of nurturing, which is reserved for nursing baby rabbits back to health with an eyedropper and strained carrots.  The dictionary defines nurture as “to care for and encourage the growth or development of.”  I suppose I am nurturing the waiter when I leave a tip.  I am nurturing Hollywood when I choose which movie to see (telling them “make more movies like this one!”).  I am nurturing the government when I vote.  The final advice in the article, to expand one’s circle of sisterhood, is actually the only advice being offered in the article:  find ways to relate to people who may be different from you.

Why then is the meme boiled down to a nonsensical version of the author’s advice that sounds like it completely misunderstands how human relationships are formed?  It’s a strange meme; it’s off-putting advice.  It sounds like the sort of advice that the Disney engineers at the Stepford Men’s Club would give.  Memes are a feat of editing.  As Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”  Whoever boiled this one down seemingly wants to give women an approved script (say “motherhood” and “nurture” a lot!) without regard to its practical application.  Come on. We can certainly do better than this.

Just to demonstrate how easy it is to do better, I found a great study on female friendships from the UK.  Here are a few conclusions of that study that would have made a better meme:

  • Don’t judge.  Both male and female friendships are based on trust.
  • Relax!  All people want to feel that they can let down their guard and be accepted for who they are.
  • Listen up.  While men often bond through shared activity (sports, drinking), women bond through conversation.

One final question, readers.  How would a conversation about nurturing go?  I’d love to hear some examples.

Discuss.

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18 Responses to The Stepford Meme

  1. Howard on May 20, 2014 at 6:28 AM

    I’m involved with a lot of charities, most are managed by older empty nest or childless women and they run like a well oiled machines! They are nearly void of gossip, strife or drama. They are very impressive organizations to observe in action. They seem to separate easily into two camps the movers & shakers and the belongers. The M&S team manages typically by consensus rather than org. chart position or pulling rank and the belongers largely trust (and don’t care) what the M&S decide. I have not seen any unilateral decisions made. The only viable divide in these organizations is between those with only SAHM experience and the others. The SAHM onlys contribute well at the mid level say table decoration but often don’t understand the overview or the sales and marketing aspects of fund raising yet some want to have a say but unfortunately the say is often quite naive and thereby derails the goal.

    Recently I’ve had the opportunity to observe a Christian charity managed by men. It’s more org. chart formal and presents a more corporate look and feel. These two groups the women managed and the men managed charities have begun inviting each other to their events with great mutual respect. And in spite of their different look and feel the events come off flawlessly.

    Child bearing and raising involve the middle years of a woman’s life. Then what?

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  2. Last Lemming on May 20, 2014 at 7:53 AM

    In the case of Howard’s women-managed charities, a conversation about nurturing might involve the movers and shakers brainstorming about how to bring the SAHMs up to speed on sales and marketing so they can be more productive. It is likely that the term “nurturing” would be used exactly zero times during that conversation, but it is still about nurturing.

    if the point of the meme is to get women to use the word “nurturing” more, then I agree that it is silly. But if the point is to get women to talk about developing the skills of their fellow women (or their children or even their husbands) rather than sit around and gripe about their lack of same, then it is worthwhile.

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  3. hawkgrrrl on May 20, 2014 at 8:33 AM

    Last Lemming: It’s hard to tell what the point of the meme is exactly (unless it is to simply talk more about “nurturing”) because even the example in the article of talking about nurturing was just a single 40-something sister talking to her niece about marriage as they drove past a wedding. I’m not sure what that has to do with nurturing. I agree that skill development (any sort of development, really) could be “about” nurturing without saying nurturing. And yet, why can’t we simply say what we mean?

    Nurturing is some sort of catch-word like providential. Nobody says providential living outside the church, and it’s so much easier to just say “planning ahead” or “having a supply of extra food,” phrases everyone would understand. Within Mormonism, our word choice seems to be about communicating something other than content, perhaps the “insider” status of the speaker, which strikes me as insecure.

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  4. Howard on May 20, 2014 at 10:11 AM

    If the goal is to find a meaningful place for the concept of nurturing it can very easily be found at the heart of our self-esteem, our self confidence, our centeredness (or lack of them) and our personal psychology. Those who missed getting enough while growing up can be nurtured by others as they are taught to self-nurture and while this helps it doesn’t come close to replacing what was missed. So is nurturing important? Yes, vitally so!!! But the LDS church is anything but introspective, creative or progressive. Their idea of nurturing is vaguely about engaging small children by having their mother *always* present. Great! But there’s sooo much more to it than just being present and this is where the nurturing discussion begs to be expanded and there are other options, some even better than always being present like Montessori plus an engaged mom! Kissing kids owies is good! Making casseroles for others? Okay I know it’s LDS tradition but it must be the thought that counts unless the family is so devastated they can’t go out to eat! Empathically enabling by kissing adult owies feels good to the kissie and looks nice to others but teaching them to grow up regarding the non-life threatening owies is much healthier.

    The point is YES children NEED nurturing but how much nurturing do adults NEED (not want)? So what is a childless or empty nest woman supposed to do, practice symbolic nurturing? What’s the point? Isn’t it a waste of talent given they could be running the church, a charity, a company or the world? This is a diversion! Clearly the actual demand for nurturing isn’t great enough to justify the categorical subordination of women to traditional roles if we have to go looking ways to expand nurturing’s application to the point of overwhelming non-traditional roles roles.

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  5. Last Lemming on May 20, 2014 at 10:16 AM

    Yes, we do tend to shoot ourselves in the foot with the vocabulary sometimes. I remember when we were urged to “friendship” people, when we could have been “befriending” them instead. By using a different term, it was implied that it meant something different, and that difference was frequently interpreted to be that friendshipping stopped once someone decided not to join the Church, while befriending was independent of interest in the Church. We know how well that worked.

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  6. Howard on May 20, 2014 at 10:48 AM

    Btw, nurturing is not an efficient way to teach adults just ask the military or medical schools. It may be the way we want to be taught and certainly it’s the way people in volunteer organizations expect to be taught, but learning while under stress is actually far more effective.

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  7. KT on May 20, 2014 at 11:19 AM

    not so sure about this advice… In my experience, I bond with my female friends through conversation, but I often wish I had more female friends that shared my activities (athletics and horses) because sometimes conversation just doesn’t seem enough for me and I see my husband having fun hunting, fishing, and golfing with his friends, and frankly, it seems more enjoyable.
    In the conversations I do have with my friends (which are good), it usually revolves around more worldly topics (we all have advanced degrees though), and our challenges with parenting, and/or parenting and retaining a sense of self, and careers. Not all of my friends have children, and it doesn’t really matter because the things we discuss are generally about our shared experience as women in the world, or not about our gender at all, but about current hot topics and social justice issues. We bounce ideas and opinions off eachother, and respect one another’s varying view points. It’s stimulating, and I think if I had to have a conversation about how I nurture my daughter, I’d be pretty under stimulated.

    To be honest, my ‘motherhood’ conversations are generally reserved for when I come into contact with an acquaintance, or random mother at a kid’s activity and I’m struggling to have something to talk with the other person about, and so resort to the one thing I know we have in common – parenting. I usually feel pretty disengenuous and inauthentic when having these types of conversations because they just seem so generic, and tired.

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  8. Gambel's Quail on May 20, 2014 at 11:42 AM

    I really dig your expanded definition of nurturing, Hawkgrrrl. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. When someone at church says the word nurturing, it’s like flipping a switch in my brain. It’s the switch that activates scowling and swearing. It does seem to be a code word in the LDS context that means “women taking care of children full time, and liking it.” The actual definition of the word nurture is a lot more flexible. I can nurture the environment, charitable organizations, friendships. I can even “nurture” an interest in mountain biking or art history. Now that’s a definition of nurture I can feel like actually applies to me as a human being.

    Your analysis of the strange meme and the way it twisted an otherwise nice article into a cartoonish idea of what women actually do with their time and how they talk to each other was spot on. I found the meme utterly bizarre. It’s basic interpersonal skills to realize that the way you relate to another person is by asking them questions and finding out what is important to them, not by assuming that only one thing is important to them and talking about it incessantly. Also, as Lemming hinted above, just talking about nurturing accomplishes nothing. In fact, we already talk about it constantly (my switch gets a lot of exercise on Sundays). What matters is actually doing it–nurturing important skills in our communities, nurturing independence. But we could just as easily substitute a less polarizing vocabulary word there–developing skills, fostering independence, teaching and learning.

    Members of the church seem to have been well trained over the past few decades to automatically parrot the words “nurture” and “motherhood” any time someone says the word “woman,” even though our real lives are a lot more complex and we all know it.

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  9. handlewithcare on May 20, 2014 at 4:04 PM

    It’s stuff like this that alienates my daughters from the church , and now my son. He recently described his experience of dating member girls as ‘like being stalked’. At 17 he felt so pressurised to think about marriage when he is anxious to prepare himself to earn a living, and he has found it easier to leave it behind and date a no mo girl, who is very accomplished as well as very nurturant. My daughters find the whole church program reductive-unless you are like the girl in the picture and share her interests, you are less of a woman. It proscribes their ambition and leaves them no space for self determination.Their whole life becomes contingent on being ‘chosen’ by a man.Who wants a life like that, without power over your own future. No wonder girls are not comfortable in young women’s.
    Personally I have no idea of what is being asked of me here. I’ve always spoken of my family , my work and my life generally with my friends-are we being asked to invent conversations about our lives strictly limited to nurturant behaviour? Because most people the world over talk quite naturally about their families, be they male or female,and this implies that maybe people don’t do this intuitively, which is coming out of a siege mentality. The world is full of people doing great stuff, as I type this my husband is nurturing our kids down for the night, supporting our daughters in chatting over their day’s work and ambitions, as well as their plans for their families.I really don’t get what this is all about and it seems to serve to alienate rather than bring together.
    I’ve actually found the best way to get alongside people is to share activities with them, not to accentuate the differences. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to clarify our thinking on this HG. Long may you growl.

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  10. Thomas Parkin on May 20, 2014 at 4:21 PM

    I’ve gotta say I really really really hate statements like ‘men bond through activities and women bond through conversation.’

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  11. hawkgrrrl on May 20, 2014 at 8:36 PM

    Thomas Parkin: Point taken! Actually, although the study said that, I had the nagging suspicion that ALL friendships are based on conversation and that friends also bond (regardless of their sex) when they do activities together.

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  12. Jeff Spector on May 21, 2014 at 10:18 AM

    I think I’ll respond on Friday morning….

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  13. Elsie Kleeman on May 21, 2014 at 3:32 PM

    It took several years to have children, and during those years I felt like a social outcast at church. As soon as I was pregnant, I suddenly had friends and invitations to different activities. At first I thought it was great, but several years later, in the same ward and after another baby, I’m bored.

    When we get together, we talk about motherhood. Nurturing. Not those words perhaps, but everything is about the kids or our husbands or the home. Any other topic is carefully navigated with church talking points about appropriate media or the wicked world. Everything is done with the children in tow (because doing anything without them takes away time from the family when dad is home). Even the book club now reads mostly parenting books. I stopped going after it was suggested we begin reading children’s books – not because we genuinely liked them or wanted to read them, but because we should know what our kids were reading and know if they were appropriate – all for children who had not yet begun elementary school. This is what speaking confidently and more often about motherhood and nurturing looks like. It’s vapid.

    My husband gets together a couple times a week with men from the ward to cycle. Sometimes they talk about their families, but not about parenting. They talk about their work, things they do or think about, places they’ve been, etc. It is irritating that my social life is determined by my reproductive system while my husband’s is not.

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  14. Ryan Hammond on May 21, 2014 at 10:00 PM

    I think the clear point of the meme is to be a dogwhistle for “courageously” embracing traditional female gender roles and values against those in the “world”. I think the meme wants to encourage that as a way for Mormon women to bond, as if this particular dynamic is somehow lacking in our community. It is playing on the “the world wants to judge me for ‘just’ being a Mom, but my Mormon sisters understand and validate this choice”. Props the them for not having a single white person in the meme!

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  15. Hedgehog on May 22, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    My own preference is to bond with others whilst participating in meaningful activities. Conversation on its own is tough. The meme makes no sense to me.
    The ‘expand the circle ..’ part surely requires that motherhood and nurturing are only very small parts of any conversation.

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  16. Kristine A on May 23, 2014 at 12:25 AM

    This is still driving me crazy. Every time I think about how I’ve bonded with a woman and made friends it’s through being myself, finding something in common, and being able to make them laugh, and helping them in times of need. I had a friend tell me today while I was helping her paint kitchen cabinets that she was interested in becoming my friend when we moved into the ward and there was a sledding activity, I didn’t attend because I had a reading injury. (Yes, I read for so long in the same position I hurt my knee and limped sadly around for two days.)

    Again as an infertile woman in the church – MORE talk of motherhood/nurturing? MORE??? Us outsiders aren’t asking you to NEVER mention it. Anytime I bring up backing of the mommy worship and maybe, you know, talking about the Savior it’s like I’ve invited Satan to the conversation. Let’s just back it off, just a bit, which includes still talking about it.

    ugh. MORE??????

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  17. Ziff on May 23, 2014 at 12:21 PM

    “When someone at church says the word nurturing, it’s like flipping a switch in my brain. It’s the switch that activates scowling and swearing. It does seem to be a code word in the LDS context that means “women taking care of children full time, and liking it.””

    Gambel’s Quail, I think you nailed it. Here’s a more extended version from a 2000 Conference talk:

    “Women of God can never be like women of the world. The world has enough women who are tough; we need women who are tender. There are enough women who are coarse; we need women who are kind. There are enough women who are rude; we need women who are refined.”

    https://www.lds.org/ensign/2000/11/the-joy-of-womanhood

    The message is the same: “nurturing” means you’re on board with cramming yourself into a neat little gender role and shutting up about it.

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  18. jenthemom on May 25, 2014 at 9:42 PM

    I think that my aversion to the meme is the title.

    ‘How women can relate to each other.’

    That is bizarre to me. I don’t need suggestions on how to relate to women… or men or children or animals or aliens. I feel uncomfortable that the church feels that women need to be instructed on how to relate to one another.

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