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Book vs. Flick: The Stepford Wives

Contributed by
Jun 19, 2018

By the time of the release of the book version of The Stepford Wives in 1972, Ira Levin had already written A Kiss Before Dying and Rosemary's Baby, both now considered classic thrillers. The Stepford Wives was stylistically no different than these previous entries, but its contribution to overall pop culture lies more in its basic concept than Levin's skill as a writer, or the actual story within the book.

The term “Stepford Wife” has been assimilated into the vernacular; it's meant to describe a woman who seems a little too perfect, intent on pleasing her husband and family above all else. The Stepford Wife is occasionally funny and often sad but ultimately terrifying, as her perfection comes with an unhealthy sense of reality and a desire to protect the illusion at all costs.

The story has been made into multiple films—the first being a play-by-play of the book in 1975, followed by mostly irrelevant sequels like Revenge of the Stepford Wives, The Stepford Children, and The Stepford Husbands. The original film retains some of the message of the novel, but the sequels render the feminist angle completely moot by implying that “women objectify men, too,” a derailing stance that overlooks centuries of very specific societal oppression towards women.

Seldom applied to feminist discourse, the term "Stepford Wife" urges us not to forget that there is a feminine element behind the oppression of women. Typically, however, it's used as a casually demeaning insult for a specific kind of woman, once again leaving it more or less useless for any kind of ongoing feminist discussion.

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The book begins with this Simone de Beauvoir quote: “Today the combat takes a different shape; instead of wishing to put a man in a prison, woman endeavors to escape from one; she no longer seeks to drag him into the realms of immanence but to emerge, herself, into the light of transcendence. Now the attitude of the males creates a new conflict: it is with a bad grace that the man lets her go.” This quote pretty much summarizes the plot of the book, but it also establishes Levin's apparent sympathy for the female characters within. It's taken from The Second Sex, which was released in 1949, 23 years before The Stepford Wives, so it seems like an interesting choice in a book that consistently references Betty Friedan's much more contemporary The Feminine Mystique throughout its pages.

At a screening of the 1975 film, Friedan is known to have walked out, annoyed by what she felt was an exploitation of the Women's Liberation movement. Many people cite this walk out as the result of her “misunderstanding” the film's intention. Besides being incredibly condescending to imply that one of the foremost feminists of the era just didn't get the fairly basic concept behind the movie, it deemphasizes that this particular showing was intended for women—and was badly received by most of the audience.

At the time, there were barely any widely released books, films, or television shows that emphasized feminist characters. The depiction of women being turned into subservient robots couldn't have been well-received for most feminists, particularly the woman whose work is rendered useless within the pages of the novel. There are many stances on which I am diametrically opposed to Friedan, but, objectively, I enjoyed the film for what it was, while acknowledging that my modern perspective is much different than feminists of the '70s. What reads as camp to me was contemporary for them—and much more difficult to make light of.

The novel begins with Joanna and Walter moving to the Connecticut town of Stepford with their two children, neither of whom particularly influence the direction of the story except when they show up as plot devices. Joanna doesn't really seem to like her children, which goes uncommented upon except to help establish her general dissatisfaction with her life as a housewife. Walter joins a mysterious Men's Association, first dismissing it as archaic and sexist and insisting women should be allowed in. Of course, he changes his views over time.

Walter is called out as a bad male feminist in the book, and while there isn't a strong focus on his motivations, his weak commitment to Women's Liberation when it's convenient definitely prophesied a larger conversation occurring in today's world. Joanna makes friends with Charlamagne, a woman who doesn't particularly like her husband and tries above all to avoid having sex with him, and Bobbi, a woman who does like her husband but doesn't put up with any grief from him. Charlamagne seems to change overnight into a supportive wife, and ultimately the same happens to Bobbi. Joanna feels increasingly isolated, attempting to strike up a friendship with Ruthanne, the mother and wife in the only black family in town who only recently moved to Stepford after Joanna. Joanna discovers that the men in Stepford all had prior careers in robotics and technology, then deduces that they're turning their wives into robots. She attempts to flee, but to no avail.

Ira Levin did have a habit of creating works that were based in feminist commentary without having strongly feminist main characters. While Joanna does eventually revolt, it's only after rationalizing her husband's bad behavior for the entire book. Part of the insidiousness of Stepford is the way women are gaslit into believing they're having some sort of a breakdown, but Joanna doesn't make it particularly difficult for those involved to carry out their insidious plans. It's admirable when she finally does take a stand, though it's also well after two of her friends are changed into totally different people right before her eyes.

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It's difficult to understand the exact aim of the 2004 big-screen remake, even in the pre-planning stages. From the beginning, it seems intended as a weirdly non-feminist take on the story, which does make me question who exactly it was made for. Director Frank Oz essentially disavowed the film in interviews, adding that its $90 million budget was too much money. The Stepford Wives did turn a profit, but it's a wonder how it got financed since no one was really clamoring for a remake.

Written by Paul Rudnick, the script introduces a gay male character named Roger in place of the astrology-loving Charlamagne of the novel. The attempt to draw parallels between the plight of women and gay men could have been interesting if it had been explored rather than simply assumed, but the concept flounders and never fully develops. Betty Friedan, constantly referenced in the novel, had a long history of refusing to align with gay activists in the fight for equality between the binaries, which seems like something one would like to comment on in this instance—but, as with most of the commentary of the film, it falls flat. Roger is a likable character, but his presence distracts the script even further away from ever forming a cohesive stance.

Notably, Ruthanne and her husband Royal are absent from both remakes. One questions why, in 2004, there was no attempt to add or update any of the now cringe-inducing commentary that occurred in the novel around the relationships between white women and black women in suburbia. While similar themes would be more fully explored in Get Out years later, it still feels like a missed opportunity to have failed to address them here.

This incarnation of The Stepford Wives is more centered on quips than on plot development or feminist commentary, often swinging into fully anti-feminist territory. Rather than being employed as a part-time photographer, this version of Joanna is a TV executive who creates bizarrely gender-specific reality television shows. At a premiere, a man shoots at her, which leads to her losing her job, which then leads to her having a complete mental collapse. The insistence that the mindset of powerful women tends to hang by a thread is prevalent—and overall, fairly offensive.

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There is a nod to the 1975 film adaptation towards the end, with the women all walking around a too-bright grocery store right before the story defies all logic and swings into an extremely forced “happy ending.” We discover that Walter has been swayed not to murder his wife and turn her into a robot, and together they overthrow the Stepford couples by hitting buttons on a remote control. Somehow, that makes the wives no longer robots, back to their old selves.

We also discover that the true engineer behind the Stepford robots is Claire Wellington, a particularly intense Stepford wife who murdered her husband and his mistress before moving to Stepford, wishing for a world where “men are men and women are women.” That brings us to the epilogue, in which, strangely, Walter and Joanna stay together, despite the fact that he definitely considered murdering her and replacing her with a robot—and very nearly went through with it. I'm not sure what the moral of the film is. It reads like someone took three different scripts, cut them into pieces with scissors, shook them up, then taped the pieces together again out of order.

The place where this film really fails its audience is not in making a woman the villain, but in making the villain a woman whose goal is to uphold misogynistic ideals. By indicating that women are also complicit in idealizing their mates in an unhealthy way, the film neglects a world of nuance. Yes, women are also guilty of making unreasonable demands of their partners, but classically have been unable to wield the same societal power which would make it possible to enforce said demands. The specifics of discrimination against women are purposefully rendered incidental by the storytellers when compared in this way. The fact that women can definitely be misogynistic and wield misogynistic ideas to the detriment of other women requires some context, lest the argument itself be used to derail and diminish the goals of feminism.

The strangest part of this movie is that it's bizarrely regressive. Taking place over 30 years after the novel, the film insists that once women get what they want, they wouldn't be able to handle it—rather than making any kind of a point on the women's issues that once informed the concept behind The Stepford Wives.