When discussing the troubles of our society, much of the attention seems to go toward a particular person or group. Our culture does seem to love its conspiracy theories and to point to individuals as particularly toxic. Blame for ills is often directed toward police, the media, or a particular candidate for high office to name just a few examples. While I certainly don’t discount the responsibility those people bear, I also try to give as much attention to how I (and my allies) also contribute.
Take a look at Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives. (Warning: There are spoilers for both the novel and the movies upon which it is based.) Joanna moves to Stepford with her family full of energy and interest in what was then referred to as “women’s liberation”. She is soon disappointed to find that the Women’s Club disbanded years prior, and that most of the women in town were docile housewives uninterested in feminism. The one exception is Bobbie who moved to Stepford just a few months earlier.
The two women suspect the men’s association in town might have found a way to brainwash the wives of Stepford. Together they investigate theories of how the men are executing their conspiracy. They inquire with the EPA about chemicals in the environment, but the findings who nothing unusual. When Bobbie seems to undergo the same transformation into a humble domestic, Joanna comes to believe the Stepford wives are being murdered and replaced by robots.
Fearing for her life, she begins making plans to escape. When she thinks she has run out of time, she runs away in a panic and is quickly found by a number of the men she believes to be conspirators. They try to calm her and when confronted with her theory, they ask what they can do to disprove it. Joanna tells them she wants to see her friend Bobbie bleed to confirm that she’s not a robot.
As she prepares to ask her best friend to cut herself, Joanna starts to question the sanity of her request. Later we find Joanna has become just like all the other wives of Stepford, no longer working outside the home or striving for greater gender equity. She is completely dedicated to her house and family. Is this Joanna or a robot?
While the novel leaves the question unanswered, both film adaptations support the robot theory. Many of the leading men in Stepford possess the knowledge and resources that would be necessary to build life-like robots. When confronted with this theory, some of these men denied it as completely unrealistic. This could very well be gaslighting, trying to convince Joanna that she is out of her mind when she learns the truth.
On the other hand, viewing this outside the context of a horror novel or movie, this idea is quite unreasonable. Joanna even begins to think so herself. If my neighbor were to say something like this to me, I would think she is having some trouble with her mental health. Lifelike robots are still very much science fiction. In reality, humans have completely failed to make a machine that can even walk or talk like one of us.
Maybe the men’s association in Stepford is a front for a conspiracy to enslave their wives, or maybe the secret is just in their solidarity. It could be they’re able to hold onto their power simply through supporting and encouraging each other. This would be the hardest kind of conspiracy to defeat: It has no explicit evil purpose and doesn’t really exist in the form we envision.
Conspiracies can make for interesting stories, but exposing one, even on a global scale, isn’t really likely to change our culture. I certainly do believe there are people who spout dangerous ideologies and work (consciously or not) to oppress less-advantaged groups. Defeating them will require a conspiracy, one built on speaking the truth and supporting each other in our pursuit of equality. We need to recognize how factors such as our own fatigue and complacency are contributing to injustice.
Fighting for social justice is difficult, tiring, and slow to yield results. We need our own conspiracy. There’s no need for secret meetings. We can do it all out in the open. After all, if we take away the joy of exposing our plot, they might give up on trying to stop it.