On The Stepford Wives

Featuring Nicole Kidman (Batman Forever, The Hours), Matthew Broderick (Godzilla), and Christopher Walken (Batman Returns, Sleepy Hollow, Hairspray), The Stepford Wives is a science-fiction satricial film directed by Frank Oz (Follow That Bird, Little Shop of Horrors, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppet Christmas CarolIn & Out).

It is a remake of the 1975 film of the same name, which was also based on the Ira Levin novel, The Stepford Wives. According to The Guardian article, “Living dolls“:

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 The Hitchcockian malevolence has gone; male violence has been replaced by charm and a microchip.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. 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.

The comedy lies in the excess. The message is that when a woman breaks out of her nature-intended back-seat role, she loses her restraint and all sense of proportion. Where the proto-feminist Joanna (Katharine Ross) was struggling to make it as a photographer in 1975, in 2004 she has become the high priestess of tasteless television. Her latest idea for the ultimate reality show, I Can Do Better, drops happily married couples on to a no-expenses spared paradise island, and throws temptation at them like coconuts. Will Hank have wild sex with his bosomy hostess? Will his meek wife fall for the entire cast of a porn movie?

While the network affiliates are clapping louder than a gospel tent revival meeting, Hank appears in the aisle and takes a pot shot at Kidman. Soon after, she is fired. 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).

The message here is: you got what you wanted, girls, but how much has it cost and was it worth it? Rightwing thinktanks all over the world point to increasing divorce rates, child crime, and rocketing levels of family stress, and blame it on women who are more interested in personal achievement than family life. 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. The assumption is that women have made their point, and now it’s time to restore some sanity. They ignore the fact that women’s achievements have made little impression on working practices, which are still aggressively anti-family, geared around the outdated template of one parent working and the other at home.

In Stepford, mothers who have been re-programmed have all the time in the world to play, as well as to bake cakes and keep the house looking spotless. A 1975 audience watching these models manage everything perfectly would have felt deep unease at their own situation. The seduction of a happy family is enormous, but what woman can find time for herself in such a scenario?

For us, now, the sight of Kidman baking 500 fairy cakes in an effort to be a “real” woman is funny, because we don’t suffer from the anxiety of a generation whose mothers were those 1950s housewives. Women who made the first decisive breaks with the powerful mantras of a patriarchal world felt anger and guilt in varying proportions. That women deserve to be punished was implicit to both the earlier film and the novel. That women have a right to be themselves – literally, ie a right not to be reprogrammed – is embedded in the new Stepford.

The question raised here is part of the post-feminist debate: what is this self we have fought for the right to be? Kidman’s Joanna is going through an identity crisis as serious as anything a re-programming might bring about. After her nervous breakdown, her husband tells her that they haven’t had sex in a year, and that her kids hardly know her. She has made it to the top, but her life has collapsed. (Strangely, we are not asking how men have made it to the top without their lives collapsing underneath them. Answer, of course: they have a wife.) Walter may be a new man in some respects, but he is still a man, and cannot help feeling that life in Stepford – the life that so unnerves his wife – is “the way life should be”. Joanna decides to give it a try.

The Stepford Men’s Association is the constant in both films; the 19th-century New England mansion is the only location to have been re-used from the original. As before, it’s a frat den – pool, porn, whisky and cigars, and underneath it all, the laboratory, where women arrive as themselves and leave looking like porn stars with a tin of polish. New Stepford men don’t work any more; they have all cashed in their stock options from Microsoft, Aol and Disney instead. Joanna’s new gay Stepford friend Roger identifies the Men’s Association as Ralph Lauren-meets-Sherlock Holmes, and points to the fact that most men prefer each other’s company, until it comes to sex and housework.

It’s a bold move adding a gay couple to the film’s plot, revealing the progress our society has made in terms of tolerance and inclusion, as well as exposing the out-dated idea that homosexual relationships work along heterosexual lines. It’s a pity that Roger is a gay stereotype, but it is very clear that he is not a woman and cannot become one. When he gets his Stepford makeover, he becomes not more sissy but more masculine. Out go the floral shirts and in comes the Brooks Brothers business suit, straight haircut, and nomination as the local Republican candidate. 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. The early goals of feminism were not just about women’s liberation, but men’s liberation, too. When Walter realises that he doesn’t really want a 50s world and a 50s wife, he is acknowledging that feminism has been a force for good, as well as a difficult social re-alignment.

The glossiness of Stepford will irritate some. Everyone is rich, everyone is white. The black family, so prominent in the novel, disappeared in the first movie, and they haven’t returned here. The gay storyline is the new minority angle. (This is a comedy, remember, and gay stereotypes are funnier than black.)

You could also argue that these alpha females, all re-programmed from successful bitches and bores into lovely wives who do dresses and dusting, hide the fact that after 30 years of apparent equality, the majority of women are still low-paid and lacking in opportunities. Few women chair companies. The original Stepford dream, or nightmare, where women rule the world, is a long way off.

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. This is an uneasy moment, masked by comedy. She gives a speech nostalgic for the old days, when men were men and women were women. What is the message here? Surely not that women want things back the way they were – pre-career, pre-feminism?

I prefer to think that the comedy is working subversively, asking difficult questions about what it means to achieve and, perhaps more importantly, why it is that women have invaded traditional male territory without really changing it. (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.

Additionally, according to The Daily Beast article, “American Dreams: ‘The Stepford Wives’ by Ira Levin“:

The original hardcover jacket calls The Stepford Wives “one of those rare novels whose very title may well become part of our vocabulary”—which is one of those rare examples of a jacket copy prophecy come true. Forty years after the novel’s publication, the adjective “Stepford” has not only entered the lexicon (“blandly conformist and submissive” according to the Collins English Dictionary), but is trending upward this political season. The word is invoked almost daily by pundits to describe not only Mitt Romney, but his wife Ann and their entire loving brood.

Yet those who call Mitt a “Stepford Husband” do so confusedly. They mean to say that he is bland and conformist, but in the context of Ira Levin’s novel, a Stepford husband is an entirely different creature from a Stepford wife: he is conniving, angry, murderous. And no Stepford husband would ever tolerate a wife with as consuming a personal passion as dressage.

The Stepford Wives has one of the most enduring premises of 20th-century American fiction. Joanna and Walter Eberhart move with their two children to the suburbs in the hope of a more comfortable life. They abandon New York—“the filthy, crowded, crime-ridden, but so-alive city”—for two-point-two acres in Stepford, a “postcard pretty” town with white frame colonial shopfronts and indistinguishable streets with names like Harvest Lane and Short Ridge Road. If you squint you might confuse Stepford with John Updike’s Eastwick, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Hill Estates, or John Cheever’s Shady Hill. The main difference is that the homes of Stepford are kept unusually clean by unusually beautiful, and unusually buxom, wives. These women, Joanna observes, resemble “actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers, shampoos, and deodorants. Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in the talent, playing suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real.”

As Joanna discovers too late, the Stepford Wives are not real at all. They are androids—the brainchild of a neighbor who moved to Stepford from Anaheim, where he designed animatronics at Disneyland. (The Stepford Wives is one of the earliest, and canniest satires of the Disneyfication of American culture.) The men of Stepford have conspired to upgrade their spouses, replacing them with more attractive, subservient, and sexually acquiescent replicas.

What’s often forgotten by those who casually invoke the name of Levin’s fictional suburb is that his subject is, quite explicitly, the feminist movement. In the novel’s opening scene, when Joanna is asked by a woman from the Stepford Chronicle to list her hobbies and special interests, she replies, “I’m very interested in the Women’s Liberation movement. Very much so in that. And so is my husband.”

He is?” says the astonished reporter.

Joanna learns that strange things only began to happen in Stepford after Betty Friedan herself came to speak to the Women’s Club half a dozen years earlier, following the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Joanna finds an article in a yellowed copy of the Stepford Chronicle about the speech: “Over fifty women applauded Mrs. Friedan as she cited the inequities and frustrations besetting the modern-day housewife.”

One of the more subversive aspects of Levin’s premise is that it takes only the mildest acts of rebellion to induce the men of Stepford to slaughter their wives. Friedan’s visit, after all, did not bring about any major rebellion. The women of Stepford don’t burn their bras or write manifestos. They merely neglect to wear lipstick, except at social functions; become indifferent to housework; and pursue private hobbies, such as photography, or writing books for children. But for the men of Stepford, these are crimes punishable by death. Even those most sensitive to discrimination—such as the town’s token Jewish and black patriarchs—are easily persuaded to replace their wives with robots.

Their conspiracy only succeeds because women like Joanna, as soon as they begin to question their domestic roles, feel guilty for doing so. Even as evidence mounts, she distrusts her own suspicions, and finds herself taking her husband’s side in their arguments. She agrees that, yes, perhaps she should be more conscientious with her housework. And maybe it wouldn’t hurt to look in a mirror once in a while. She wonders whether she is delusional—whether she’s the problem, not the other wives. Her sense of guilt is exacerbated by the fact that the children of Stepford, though not clever enough to understand what’s going on, clearly prefer their new mothers, who are constantly baking chocolate-chip cookies, to their old ones.

The Stepford Husbands triumph in the novel, but deep down they know that history will not favor them. In the years following the publication of The Feminine Mystique, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act and granted women the same legal protections given to African Americans in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1971 the government revised its affirmative action guidelines to include women, and in 1972, the year The Stepford Wives was published, Congress passed Title IX, an amendment to the Educational Amendments. As President Obama pointed out in a recent speech marking the fortieth anniversary of Title IX, more women now graduate college than men by a factor of 25 percent.

In 2012 the fantasy of a Stepford Wife seems quaintly anachronistic, a type better suited to the Fifties than the Seventies, let alone the second decade of the 21st century. But Levin’s portrait of the Stepford Husbands is still as vivid, and familiar, as ever: white suburban men, seething with rage at perceived slights, rendered impotent by the tidal changes they see transforming American society. Today’s Stepford Husbands hope that Mitt Romney, deep down, is not an android at all. They hope that he is one of them.

According to Roger Ebert:

‘The Stepford Wives” depends for some of its effect on a plot secret that you already know, if you’ve been paying attention at any time since the original film version was released in 1975. If you don’t know it, stay away from the trailer, which gives it away. It’s an enticing premise, an opening for wicked feminist satire, but the 1975 movie tilted toward horror instead of comedy. Now here’s a version that tilts the other way, and I like it a little better.

The experience is like a new production of a well-known play. The original suspense has evaporated, and you focus on the adaptation and acting. Here you can also focus on the new screenplay by Paul Rudnick, which is rich with zingers. Rudnick, having committed one of the worst screenplays of modern times (“Isn’t She Great,” the Jacqueline Susann story), redeems himself with barbed one-liners; when one of the community planners says he used to work for AOL, Joanna asks, “Is that why the women are so slow?”

Nicole Kidman stars as Joanna Eberhart, a high-powered TV executive who is fired after the victim of one of her reality shows goes on a shooting rampage. Her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) resigns from the same network, where he worked under her, and moves with his wife and two children to the gated community of Stepford, Conn.

It’s weird there. The women all seem to be sexy clones of Betty Crocker. Glenn Close is Claire Wellington, the real-estate agent, greeter and community cheerleader, and she gives Joanna the creeps (she’s “flight attendant friendly”). Nobody in Stepford seems to work; they’re so rich, they don’t need to, and the men hang out at the Men’s Association while the women attend Claire’s exercise sessions. In Stepford, the women the women dress up and wear heels, even for aerobics (no sweaty gym shorts), and Claire leads them in pantomimes of domestic chores (“Let’s all be washing machines!”).

Walter loves it in Stepford. Joanna hates it. She bonds with Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler), author of a best-selling memoir about her mother, I Love You, But Please Die. Her house is a pigpen. Every other house in Stepford is spotlessly clean, even though there seem to be no domestic servants; the wives cheerfully do the housework themselves. They also improve themselves by attending Claire’s book club. A nice example of Rudnick’s wit: When Joanna shares that she has finished volume two of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, Claire takes a beat, smiles bravely, and suggests they read Christmas Keepsakes, and discuss celebrating Jesus’ birthday with yarn.

Christopher Walken is Claire’s husband and seems to be running Stepford; it’s the kind of creepy role that has Walken written all over it, and he stars in a Stepford promotional film that showcases another one of his unctuous explanations of the bizarre. A new touch this time: Stepford has a gay couple, and Roger (Roger Bart), the “wife,” is flamboyant to begin with, until overnight, strangely, he becomes a serious-minded congressional candidate.

What’s going on here? You probably know, but I can’t tell you. When Ira Levin’s original novel was published in 1972, feminism was newer, and his premise satirized the male desire for tame, sexy wives who did what they were told and never complained. Rudnick and director Frank Oz don’t do anything radical with the original premise (although they add some post-1972 touches, like the Stepford-style ATM machine), but they choose comedy over horror, and it’s a wise decision.


One thought on “On The Stepford Wives

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Charmed: Season 4 | The Progressive Democrat

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