Revolutionary Road and The Feminine Mystique

“… Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is to feminism as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is to environmentalism: works that defined a movement and changed the world so profoundly that the worlds described within them seem alien to my modern eyes.” So writes Elizabeth on (I love a good review!)

revolutionary roadWhich is precisely why I recommend “Revolutionary Road” to those of you who haven’t seen it. All you need to envision the woman that Friedan was writing about is contained in this film. Set in the 1950s, it’s the story of Frank and April Wheeler, typical suburban couple. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (reunited after all these years!), these two carom off each other in their efforts to break out of the stereotype that is their life: he’s got a meaningless job in the city, she’s a bored housewife (what we now call a stay-at-home mom, or SAHM). They both feel trapped, but don’t know how to set themselves free.

This is a cautionary tale. And a mirror. How many of us can recognize our parents in DiCaprio’s and Winslet’s portrayals? But the difference between most of our parents and the Wheelers is that our parents probably never tried so hard to break free of the expectations that constricted them.

Betty Friedan’s book has been criticized for focusing only on white women who didn’t have to work. “Revolutionary Road” could be criticized for the same reason. Neither covers the plight of women who are minorities and/or poor. Or do they? Can’t any of us relate to the desire to realize our dreams? And the frustration that comes from being unable to do so? Especially when it is our being female that keeps us from breaking out of the traps that confine us?

Both “Revolutionary Road” and The Feminine Mystique portray women who can’t, or are afraid to, speak for themselves. April tells Frank that they need to get out of their rut so that he can become the man he was meant to be. She doesn’t say a word about needing to do it for herself. But when their plans fall through, she is devastated. She talks about her disillusionment that maybe they aren’t special after all. But she is really talking about herself. It’s just that her dreams are completely dependent on what he chooses to do. When she realizes that Frank wants her to stay in her little world, she finally takes things into her own hands, with disastrous results.

It’s interesting to speculate about how things might have turned out if the feminist movement had taken place ten or twenty years earlier. If April had felt vindicated for feeling the way she did, would she have had the strength and inspiration to go after what she wanted? How would a young wife and mother of today handle her situation? Would they feel just as trapped or would they feel that they had options?