Capitalism and patriarchy create monsters—but inside the darkness there lurks a strange utopia. In Stepford Daughters, Johanna Isaacson explores an emerging wave of horror films that get why class horror and gender horror must be understood together. In doing so, Isaacson makes the case that this often-maligned genre is in fact a place where oppressed people can understand, navigate and confront an increasingly ugly and horrifying world.
What happens when your smile is no longer yours? Films like Hereditary and The Babadook show women coming apart at the seams as the promises of both the family and waged work fail them. In Get Out, we see how poor women and women of color perform the invisible labor that makes society run while experiencing domestic work as a kind of possession. In “coming of rage” films such as Assassination Nation and Teeth, we see the ways social reproduction leads to a futureless horizon. Robbed of their dreams but not their power to resist, these heroines emerge as the monsters and avengers we need.
About the Author
Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. She is the author of The Ballerina and the Bull, has published widely in academic and popular journals, and runs the Facebook group "Anti-capitalist Feminists Who Like Horror Films."
What People Are Saying
“Johanna Isaacson’s Stepford Daughters is a brilliant and critically important elucidation of how ‘class horror is gender horror’ in the twenty-first century. The book explores twenty contemporary horror films that depict how public and private, work and family, have become intertwined under neoliberal politics—and how labor at home and in the workplace has become increasingly feminized and devalued. With an incisive theoretical framework and incredibly rich and illuminating readings, Isaacson’s book offers a much-needed approach to horror, eloquently demonstrating how horror films can both diagnose the problems of neoliberal and gendered capitalism and give us monstrous figures who resist and transform.” Dawn Keetley, editor of Jordan Peele's Get Out: Political Horror
“Johanna Isaacson is a worthy successor to Robin Wood and Carol Clover, and Stepford Daughters deftly analyzes some of the most popular and accomplished contemporary horror films at the nexus of feminism and capitalism. Full of brilliant insights that apply decades of feminist theory to horror cinema, this is essential reading for horror scholars, pop culture enthusiasts, and anyone who desires a greater insight into the intersectional dynamics of the capitalist class war.” Michael Truscello, author of Infrastructural Brutalism: Art and the Necropolitics of Infrastructure
“Surveying dozens of recent horror films and engaging a rich critical archive of social reproduction theory, Stepford Daughters makes provocative and evocative interventions into contemporary cultural theory. A leading scholar in the field of horror criticism whose work is also broadly accessible, Isaacson offers readings that are at once militant and playful, and she persuasively locates in the horror genre a radical current of Marxist-feminist critique that we need now more than ever”. Annie McClanahan, author of Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and 21st-Century Culture
“Johanna Isaacson's Stepford Daughters draws from social reproduction to explore the way in which contemporary horror illustrates the intimacy of exploitation. It proposes not just a new understanding of recent horror films, but a groundbreaking illustration of the monstrosity of daily life under contemporary capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy.” Jason Read, author of The Production of Subjectivity: Marx and Philosophy
“In this brilliant and compulsively readable book, Johanna Isaacson unpacks a bunch of recent horror films, focusing on what they tell us about gender and class oppression. Horror films in the 21st century are a kind of social realism. They hold a mirror up to social conditions that are so ubiquitous and so commonly taken for granted that we have forgotten that we can fight back against them. Isaacson shows us how horror films can work as tools for understanding, and even for social transformation.” Steven Shaviro, DeRoy Professor of English, Wayne State University
”Stepford Daughters is a powerful exploration of the trans-generational horror of women’s experience under contemporary capitalism. In an analysis attentive to the possibilities of horror film as a mode of realism, which explores in horror form the anxieties that shape our lives, Isaacson expertly brings together Marxism, feminism, and Queer readings into exciting new configurations. Tapping into the 21st-century horror film renaissance, Stepford Daughters offers an insightful reading of our bad times and how we might end them.” Benjamin Noys, author of Malign Velocities: Accelerationism & Capitalism
“Johanna Isaacson is one of the boldest, most lucid critics working on horror today. Stepford Daughters includes some of her most original and paradigm-defining works on the subject, opening in particular a whole new avenue of thinking regarding the intersections between class and gender in horror. Full of exciting insights and bravura readings, this book is a landmark not only for the study of horror, but for the study of contemporary cinema in general.” Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, author of Screening Neoliberalism: Transforming Mexican Cinema, 1988–2012
"Jo Isaacson is one of Marxist feminism’s leading lights, and this box of 'tools' for horror viewers is more like an arsenal, chockful of weapons with which to abolish the present state of things. Teaching us how to read both with and against the grain of domestic horror cinema, uncovering the bathtubs full of blood in the 'hiddener abodes' of social reproduction, Stepford Daughters is a true triumph of cultural criticism, and beautifully written, to boot. Via entertaining and ingeniously grouped readings of movies by turns scary, gory, creepy and uncanny, Isaacson takes us on a denaturalizing journey through housework, motherhood, stratified reproduction, emotional labor, migrant and indigenous oppression, and queer monstrosity, bravely pointing towards the horizon called ‘abolition of the family.’ In these pages, we experience the full potential of the critically utopianist 'antiwork' sensibility for which Blind Field, the journal of cultural inquiry Isaacson co-founded, is best known. Inside these elegant interlocking critiques, we glimpse horizons of social possibility beyond the family, beyond whiteness, beyond gender, beyond the state, and beyond capital itself." Sophie Lewis, author of Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation
INTRODUCTION: CLASS HORROR IS GENDER HORROR
You think you know this story. You think it’s the story your mother told you. An ambitious woman with hopes and dreams is submerged in a nightmare. She is trapped in her home, reduced to nothing but a caregiver. You think it’s the story of Joanna from the 1975 film The Stepford Wives. Joanna was smart and educated. She loved photography and dirty jokes. But once she moves to Stepford, her husband joins a “men’s society” that has a plan for unruly spouses: to turn them into robot housewives, content with a friendless, jobless life of chores and husbands, dust and dirt.
Forty-two years later, another woman is trapped in a suburban house with her difficult son. By day, she tries to keep it together, at night a cadaverous spectral monster stalks her dreams. She becomes increasingly dissociated—her mind drifts darkly as she washes the dishes and cleans the house. In the kitchen she finds a slit in the wall pouring out cockroaches. Later, as she lies sleepless at night, an ominous shadow spreads across the ceiling, flying suddenly into her petrified, screaming mouth. After this, she will no longer be an exhausted mother, but the powerful, murderous Babadook ready to slaughter her own child to get back the husband she has lost.
Like Joanna, Amelia, the protagonist of The Babadook, is driven to horrific extremes by domestic life. Some things never change. And yet, things have changed. Joanna was depicted as a victim of what Betty Friedan called “the problem with no name,” entrapment in the home. You can see women afflicted with this problem march in lockstep: the robotic Stepford Wives in their matching aprons, plastered smiles, obsessing over their cleaning products, having relinquished all aspirations and independence. The cure prescribed to them was to get out of their suburban homes and into the job market.
This is not the way out for our single working mom, Amelia. She suffers the demeaning horrors of domestic life but her terrors don’t stop at the threshold of the home. Inside and outside her gloomy house, she is stretched to the max, working a precarious job as a caretaker in an old age home where abandoned elders clamor for her constant emotional labor. The work world has not solved her problems but compounded them. As the pressures overtake her, building to her demonic possession, she calls in sick to her workplace. In response, all her work shifts are taken away, leaving Amelia’s future even more uncertain and strained. It is only then, when the total weight of this merciless world is bearing down on her, that she fully transforms into the monster.
In thinking about the transition from The Stepford Wives to The Babadook we can look back to classic horror films that captured their audiences by building a genealogy, or line of descent. In the thirties we encounter such titles as Son of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter that built on the popularity of name-recognition monsters. While this is no longer the style, horror films are still adept at forming critical lineages. There is a continuous thread of feminist critique throughout the history of horror, but the terms of this criticism mutate to suit changing realities.
In this sense, Amelia is, like other feminized people of horror discussed in this book, a “Stepford Daughter.” By this, I mean that the women of contemporary horror and of the contemporary world at large have inherited the oppressive conditions of the housewife but are examples of how these problems historically transform. We don’t want to forget what our mothers struggled for (and against). As we face a bleak neoliberal world of austerity and precarity, however, we need to know how gendered oppression works now.