The Stepford Wives and the Backwards Feminism in the 2000's
Written by Samantha Wolfe
Stepford Wives is a 1975 cult classic horror film, starring (my queen) Katharine Ross as Joanna Eberhart, a photographer that moves with her husband, Walter, and two young children from the chaotic noise of Manhattan, to the quiet, seemingly perfect town of Stepford. Upon arrival, Joanna immediately notices the oddities of her neighbors, as every woman is a flawless idealized housewife, near copies of one another. Their days are spent cooking, cleaning, baking, and submitting to every whim of their husbands. Their husbands on the other hand, spend most of their time together, in meeting of the secretive Men’s Association.
Eventually, Joanna befriend her neighbor Bobbie, who appears to be the only sane woman in town. Together, they try to solve the mystery of Stepford… why do they all act like robots? After a few dead ends, Joanna visits Bobbie only to discover that she, too, has transformed into another Stepford Wife. After a scuffle that ends with Joanna stabbing Bobbie in the torso, she finds there is no blood. Bobbie is a robot. All the wives are robots.
Horrified, Joanna attempts to flee the town to retreat back to Manhattan, but as she cannot find her children, she goes to the ominous Men’s Association. There she finds her own robot waiting for her. She fights, she loses. She becomes a robotic perfect housewife. The movie ends with this famous scene, where all the housewives are grocery shopping, exchanging minimal small talk.
This film’s obvious message is grim—often men don’t want a real human being as a wife; they want a flawless, effortless version of a woman. One who, as Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne so eloquently put it, “smiles in a chagrin loving manner and then presents her mouth for fucking.” Beyoncé also explores this concept throughout her self-titled record from 2013, specifically in the track “No Angel”. “I know I drive you crazy, but would you rather that I be a machine who doesn’t notice when you late or when you’re lying?” Despite the film’s age, its message still rings true to women today.
The film was remade in 2004, directed by Frank Oz and starring Nicole Kidman as Joanna and Bette Midler as Bobbie. Much of the film is changed, most notably, it’s now a black comedy, rather than the science fiction/horror of the original. Any inkling of real feminist ideology is stripped. Joanna is no longer a photographer, but an executive of a major TV network. She loses her job after a former contestant of her reality show attempts to shoot up the convention where she is showing new shows for the network, most of which are extremely unkind towards men.
Whereas in the original, Joanna often challenged Walter to be better, work as a team, and listen to her, here Joanna allows herself to be guilty of every last problem in both her life and her husband’s. Walter, here played by Mathew Broderick, asks her to change her ways or else he would take the kids and leave. She obeys, and tries to be more like the other wives in Stepford. The validity or implications of this plot point are never brought up again.
The mystery of the town is revealed to the viewer early on, as at a Men’s Association meeting the men reveal to Walter the truth about their wives. The process is shown again when Roger, Joanna and Bobbie’s gay best friend, unknowingly undergoes the procedure.
I haven’t mentioned Roger yet, played by Roger Bart. He joins the pair in kinship, after he moved to Stepford with his long-time partner after some issues in their relationship. He is a very stereotypical gay man from 2004. Highlighted hair, designer clothing, and constant slightly sexual one-liners make up the entirety of his character. His inclusion, I feel, is a lazy attempt at masking the overall regressiveness of the film. Of course, including gay characters, even if underwritten and stereotyped, is never a bad thing. In fact, there is something positive to be said about his “straightening out” after the procedure being treated in the film as wrong. But that is not enough to make up for the amount of backsteps this film takes.
After Roger, Bobbie too is changed, and finally Joanna. They remake the grocery store scene. There’s still twenty minutes of movie time left.
Finally, the film ends with the twist that that Joanna never became a robot, her and Walter agreed to fake it until they could set everyone in the town free. To add more damage, it’s then revealed that the mastermind behind the whole operation was Glenn Close’s character, Claire. She turned her husband into a robot, and planned to turn everyone in the town, apparently starting with the women. She gives a long villain’s speech that opens more questions than it answers, and dies after being electrocuted from kissing her robot husband’s disembodied head. The wives, now back to being human, get revenge on their husbands by… making them go grocery shopping. Now they have to do housework. That’s the same thing, right?
Clearly, this film was not interested in making a statement, or even in restating the one made in its predecessor. Not only are no men really at fault here, it was all due to some woman who went crazy and made everyone suffer. Removing the bleak ending of the original in favor of some kind of husband/wife power couple narrative is cowardly and problematic.
This film epitomizes the progressivism in mainstream media in the 2000’s. This was the age of massive hate campaigns toward Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. It was made two years after Halle Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress, the first and at this time only black woman to ever do so, after which she was mocked for months because of her reaction. This was not a kind time towards women.
While going through school in the 2000’s, I learned that after feminists won the right to vote, they continued to exist for decades, now just burning bras and spitting on heroic Vietnam vets in the 60’s and 70’s. Without it explicitly being said, it was taught that in the 80+ years since the suffrage movement, feminists have been running around with hairy armpits and screaming at men, making a mockery of the noble cause of the early 1900’s. This idea appears to be shared in the general public at the time, as feminism until extremely recently was treated as a punchline, and is then reflected in our media.
The original Stepford Wives was made in the peak of the Woman’s Movement, a time during which marital rape was banned, abortion was legalized, and Title IX was passed, which ensured educational institutions could not discriminate on the basis of sex. The United Nations even declared 1975 as International Women’s Year, due entirely to the progress made by feminists at the time.
We now take this progress for granted, because of course marital rape is wrong, of course universities shouldn’t discriminate against women. But it was not always this way, and to assume so is to discount decades worth of blood, sweat, labor, and tears from women who fought for us just decades ago. The lack of appreciation has real life effects, and for evidence, look no further than 2004’s remake of Stepford Wives.