Saturday, April 28, 2012

That's not a feminist... THIS is a feminist: The Stepford Wives

When I first sat down to watch the 1975 version of The Stepford Wives, I hadn't read the book. It's hard to come to that film completely fresh, though, as "Stepford Wives" is very much a part of our cultural dialect in North America. I knew it was a movie about creepily perfect wives, but not much else. I may even have been conflating it with The Midwich Cuckoos in my head. What I'm saying is, I was not expecting to have my mind blown.

The film follows a young wife and photographer named Joanna, as she moves to the small gated community of Stepford with her husband and children. She finds herself suddenly surrounded by wives with perfect TV hair, who talk like the women in appliance commercials. They only seem interested in cooking and cleaning and staying busy, busy, busy. Joanna finds it first shocking, and then disgusting, the way these women cater to their every whim and need of their husbands. More frustratingly, her own husband doesn't seem to find it troubling at all, and he joins with the local men's club. 

She finally makes friends with a couple other women who seem normal, by which I mean flawed. Lazy, selfish, sloppy, and interested in the world around them, these are women that Joanna can relate to. A lot of the film is dedicated to building these characters, and letting us get to know them before suddenly taking them away. And when one of Joanna's new friends suddenly has perfect hair and a perfect smile, suddenly wants to talk only about being a good wife, it DOES feel like they have been taken away.

This was a measured and very effectively uneasy film, and I liked it right up until the ending. The ending changed things for me, it took a creepy film and made it downright chilling. Joanna figures out very late in the game that her friends, and all the women of Stepford, have been replaced by robots. The husbands have been duplicating their wives physically, but replacing them with robots that feature more "agreeable" personalities. Joanna stumbles upon her own robot, not quite finished, and the robot strangles her to death. In the end, we see Joanna once more, hair perfect, smiling a greeting as she passes another wife in the grocery store.

It was an uncompromisingly bleak and sarcastic ending, making it clear that recognizing a power imbalance and being morally in the right aren't enough to change things. It is still one of the most effective feminist films I've seen. 

Joanna discovers that the wives are being brainwashed (also, confusingly, she seems to find evidence that the wives are being replaced  by robots?) and then begins a whole mess of confusing twists. Joanna's husband pretends to go along with brainwashing his wife, but has secretly been convinced by her argument not to? Oh, and the head of the men's club is a robot that was created by his wife because she was frustrated with her earlier career woman life (!?) which drove her actual husband to have an affair?! It is a nightmare of meaningless surprises. And the film ends with the husbands of Stepford dressed like perfect husbands, smiling at one another in the aisles of the grocery store.

It was like the people remaking the film did not understand the original at all. "Oh, let's change the ending so that the women win! Ha ha and they'll make the MEN into Stepford Husbands! That will be MUCH more feminist!"

They were wrong. 


  1. How to ruin a movie 101: do this.

    If you're going to change the base of the story, and only make vague allusions to the -actual- story, then it's not a remake. It's just a shitty movie.

    I almost can't believe the remake you describe. But then again, terrible, unfaithful "remakes" are a dime a dozen.

    We have canon for a reason: to have a set of commonly accepted material, and to completely exclude and ignore something like this.

    I've actually never seen or read The Stepford Wives. Sounds cool, and I'll definitely check it out soon. I'll also stay miles away from the remake, thanks.

    I also think it's amusing that the captcha asks me to prove I'm not a robot.

  2. I remember the first time I saw the original film. I was with my gf and it was clear that Joanna was walking into a trap. My gf talked to the TV: "Just leave the kids! They don't even have names!"

  3. After Revenge of the Stepford Wives, The Stepford Children, and The Stepford Husbands, I was pretty certain that returning to the idea yet again wasn't going to yield much. Even to the extent that those sequels did have some interesting ideas (and the question of what made the children compliant was an interesting open question about the original) they lacked impact.

    1. The best film I've seen with the Sepford theme is "The World's End" , give it a go.

  4. Heh, the 2004 The Stepford Wives was a little unsettling to begin with, introduced some interesting characters ... and that's all anyone should watch of it.
    I just can't get over the scene where one of the men uses his wife as an ATM. How did the money get into her?
    Also, the wives were robot-people, which never made any sense anyway. :(

  5. i'm glad you wrote about this, i think that (the original) Stepford Wives is a hell of a movie, and also, it reminded me that i should recommend you read Rosemary's Baby, which is also written by Ira Levin (who apparently is all about the domestic betrayal of women?) and really does not differ substantially from the Polanski adaptation, which i can't remember if you said you watched and disliked, or will never watch because you don't want to support (as it were) Polanski.

    in any case, the book is great. i haven't read Stepford Wives though..