“The Stepford Wives”

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Living dolls version

By Jeanette Winterson

Originally conceived as a horror film, The Stepford Wives is now being played for laughs. So, asks Jeanette Winterson, what does this say about feminism today?
At the premiere of the original Stepford Wives in 1975, the film’s director Bryan Forbes was assaulted with an umbrella by a woman he described as a “militant libber”.
It is unlikely that this will happen to Frank Oz, who directed the glossy re-make. His film is as funny as its predecessor was dark. The Hitchcockian malevolence has gone; male violence has been replaced by charm and a microchip.

What a difference 30 years makes. The two films are snapshots of a changed and changing society. That Ira Levin’s novel, one of the most disturbing stories written out of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement, has been turned into a comedy in less than half a lifetime, is cause for celebration – and investigation.

The plots of both movies are broadly similar: the American dream suburb of Stepford, Connecticut, has perfect houses, perfect lives, and perfect wives. But the wives turn out to be robots, manufactured by the big brains down at the Men’s Association. Why live with a dowdy, nagging ball-breaking bitch, when you could have a Barbie in a baby-doll nightie?

This plastic Eden would be perfect were it not for occasional newcomers. Then, the men have to be persuaded that wife-murdering and re-programming is in everyone’s best interest. The women have to be prevented from snooping while their doppelgänger is being processed.

But horror to comedy is a big leap, made possible here by the seismic shift in the status of women. Horror works by preying on what we fear, consciously or unconsciously.

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At the beginning of the women’s movement, men and women feared a disaster of Stepford proportions: men would never cope with the new threat to their status, and women would be made to pay. Murdering and turning us into robots is the price of feminism, the earlier film seemed to say.

The fabulous opening of the new film would have seemed an unobtainable utopia 30 years ago. Now, it is very funny: comedy works by playing on what we recognise, not on what we fear.

So when Nicole Kidman, as Joanna Eberhard, appears in executive black, cheerleading a vast presentation for her television network affiliates, we recognise the type. She is superwoman and she is “having it all”. She is what feminism promised.

A nervous breakdown speeds Joanna, her husband Walter, and their kids, to a new life in Stepford, where Joanna buys their dream home (her income notches six figures above her husband’s).

There is a caring-sharing Stepford mentality at work in those real-life politicians who now talk about “making it possible” for women to stay at home.

Men must be men in Stepford, even if they are gay. The message is that owning a penis is everything, no matter how you choose to use it. The double message is that no guy should behave like a girl, any more than girls should behave like guys.

Of course, not all men are cavemen with computers. The original Walter colludes in the murder of his wife. The updated Walter cannot bear to press the button that will turn her into a supermodel. Some men, it seems, have changed.

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And it seems that in Stepford, some women would rather keep it that way. The radical re-write reveals that the brain behind the whole scheme is not a man, but a woman – the saintly Claire Wellington, played by Glenn Close.

Once an eminent neuro-surgeon, she decides to build a “better” world, beginning with her own robot husband, Mike, before moving on to the Stepford women. http://www.theguardian.com

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(If you don’t want to know the ending, look away now.) While the film doesn’t offer any answers, the upbeat end is in one sense positive. Ross wound up dead. Kidman finds out who she is, saves her marriage and goes back to work. That’s progress.  

THE HORROR STEPFORD WIVES

Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) is a young wife who moves with her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) and two children from New York City to the idyllic Fairfield County, Connecticut suburb of Stepford. Loneliness quickly sets in as Joanna, a mildly rebellious aspiring photographer, finds the women in town all look great and are obsessed with housework, but have few intellectual interests.

Katharine Ross as Joanna Eberhart-Tmc

The men all belong to the exclusionary local Men’s Association, which Walter joins, to Joanna’s dismay. Neighbor Carol Van Sant’s sexually submissive behavior to her husband Ted, and her odd, repetitive behavior after a car accident also strike Joanna as strange.

Things start to look up when she befriends another newcomer to town, sloppy, irrepressible Bobbie Markowe. Along with the glamorously beautiful tennis playing trophy wife Charmaine Wimperis (Tina Louise), they organize a Women’s Lib consciousness raising session, but the meeting is a failure when the other wives hijack the meeting with cleaning concerns. Joanna is also unimpressed by the boorish Men’s Association members, including intimidating president Dale “Diz” Coba.

Stealthily, the Men’s Association collects information on Joanna including her picture, her voice, and other personal details. When Charmaine returns from a weekend trip with her husband as an industrious, devoted wife who has fired her maid and destroyed her tennis court, Joanna and Bobbie start investigating, with ever-increasing concern, the reason behind the submissive and bland behavior of the other wives.

Bobbie and Joanna start house hunting in other towns. Later, Joanna wins a prestigious contract with a photo gallery with some photographs of their respective children. When she tells Bobbie her good news, Joanna is shocked to find her freewheeling friend has abruptly changed into another clean, conformist housewife, with no intention of moving. Joanna panics, and visits a psychiatrist, to whom she voices her belief that the men in the town are in a conspiracy of somehow changing the women.

The psychiatrist recommends she leave town until she feels safe, but when Joanna returns home, the children are missing. Joanna and Walter argue and get into a physical scuffle. In an attempt to find her children, she thinks Bobbie may be caring for them.

Joanna, still mystified by Bobbie’s behavior, becomes increasingly desperate and stabs Bobbie with a kitchen knife. Bobbie doesn’t bleed but goes into a loop like a malfunctioning computer, thus revealing the real Bobbie has been replaced by a fembot. Despite sensing she may be the next victim, Joanna sneaks into the mansion which houses the Men’s Association to find her children.

There, she finds the mastermind of the whole operation, Diz Coba, and eventually her own unfinished robot-replica. Joanna is shocked into paralysis when she witnesses its soulless, empty eyes. The Joanna-replica brandishes a stocking and smilingly approaches Joanna as the screen abruptly cuts to black, presumably suffocating Joanna to death.

At the film’s end, “Joanna” is seen placidly purchasing groceries at the local supermarket, along with the other “wives”, all inappropriately glamorously dressed, politely saying little more than hello to each other. In the background, a black couple (new residents of Stepford) argue, and it is likely the wife is poised to become the conspiracy’s next victim. Still images show a cheerful Walter along with his children in the back of the station wagon, picking up his wife from the supermarket.

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2 thoughts on ““The Stepford Wives”

  1. You (Thank you) gave me a good laugh/reminisce. I was a young married then, and that Stepford Wives film offered such a tempting alternative to the realities of give and take in marriage! Beyond that, we men pondered of the computerization that would have been needed to . . . . Weren’t we terrible, back then?

  2. (Chuckle, chuckle) Terrible is the right word. Now that we are at the high-end in technology, there’s talk about automated, robotic husbands. Scary…!

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