January 8 - The Stepford Wives

  

   Few films have entered the cultural lexicon quite like The Stepford Wives. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you can probably conjure up an image or two from it, of fembots, regressive gender roles, and frilly ‘70s fashions. I worried that my own familiarity with the plot would make The Stepford Wives a bit of a bore, but knowing the twist didn’t keep me from getting swept up in the action. I found The Stepford Wives to be a finely-tuned thriller with hardly a wasted moment.

            Though largely remembered as an allegorical story about the patriarchy of the suburbs and backlash against feminism, The Stepford Wives is also a story of one woman’s paranoia and persecution. Joanna Eberhart is an aspiring photographer who moves from lively New York City to quaint Stepford with her husband and kids. Her husband, Walter, claims they agreed on the move together, though Joanna doesn’t quite remember it that way. Joanna is determined to preserve her individual identity in the face of suburban conformity and the pressures to be a housewife and mother, but soon finds that forces, even her own husband, are conspiring against her. One by one, her friends are transformed into typical Stepford Wives, in their long and frilly frocks, with an undying devotion to cleaning, mothering, and offering up sexual pleasures to their husbands. Joanna is increasingly alone, and soon the sinister Men’s Association comes for her too.

            A sort of feminist Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives taps into a broader fear of the loss of self and ties it to the constricted role of women in the white suburban upper-middle class. The movie works great as a Twilight Zone metaphor – of course these sleazy husbands would prefer a robot who fulfills their every whim than a human woman with a will of her own – but it manages to stretch that premise to film-length through its character work. When Joanna discovered her best friend had become a robot, I gasped, even though I knew what was coming. And the movie never lets you forget that the men, in their shock, despair, and eventual complicity, are arranging to have their wives murdered by their own doppelgangers. It is dark and chilling stuff, and through it all Joanna is a striking protagonist, determined, persistent, and increasingly bold in her desire to hang on to herself.

            I was honestly surprised to find this received middling reviews at the time from feminists and workaday film critics alike. Today, it feels like a stone-cold classic, socially-conscious horror done right. Maybe I’m just a sucker for ‘70s film-making – that shot-on-film warmth, those clothes, those lingering shots – but I think this one stands the test of time.

 

The Talent: The rare film where the director is the least famous guy involved. You probably know screenwriter William Goldman from his novel The Princess Bride. The movie is based on a book by Ira Levin, who wrote another tale of wifely distress, Rosemary’s Baby. The acting talent are all an interesting bunch, but I was especially impressed by leading lady Katherine Ross, who throughout her prolific and lengthy film career has appeared in some of my favorite films. She’s Elaine in The Graduate and Donnie’s psychiatrist in Donnie Darko!

 

Subgenre: Social commentary horror, sci-fi horror

 

Story Type/Archetypes: Doppelgangers, body snatchers, town with a secret

 

Sense of Place: Much is made of how safe Stepford is compared to Joanna’s former home in the big city but of course it isn’t terribly safe for Joanna, who misses the noise, the bustle, the activity, and not being murdered and replaced with a robot lookalike. Is this one of the first horror movies to locate its horror distinctly in the American suburb? And of course, with the horror coming from a recognizable locale, we also have it coming from within the home and the family. The greatest threat to Joanna is her own husband.

 

Mood: Very much a solving-a-mystery horror, with lots of gathering of clues and eerie menace as we see Walter and his fellow Stepford husbands behaving very strangely indeed.

 

Are there heroes?: For a lot of the film, it’s Joanna’s friend Bobby who’s the most active. Bobby has a big personality and an off-color quip for every situation, and she’s certain that something is wrong in Stepford. She and Joanna have a great dynamic.

Who are the monsters (and why are they scary)?: You’ve got to love a film where the men are the bad guys, and they’re bad because they would prefer women not be human beings.

 

And where’s the audience?: I think we’re firmly in Joanna’s corner, though occasionally we sneak a glimpse around the corner to see what Walter’s up to. But this is very much a classic Hollywood film, so we maintain a bit of distance from the goings-on, like watching a parable on stage. When it comes time for Joanna to meet her fate at the hands of the robot with her face (but not her breasts), we look away.

 

This movie will freak you out of you’re creeped out by…: Suburbs, men

 

Is it a metaphor for something?: Yeah, see above. This one isn’t subtle.

 

Is there a twist?: I mean, in the same way there’s a twist in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

 

What kind of ending is it?: Another bummer. Joanna and the other Wives soft-focus glide through the supermarket in their Stepford best. The new couple, Stepford’s first Black family, bicker at the edge of the screen, suggesting that Joanna will not be the last.

 

The girlfriend’s rating (i.e. how much would this upset my girlfriend?): Rated PG, for men.

 

But how gay is it?: It’s certainly a misandrist film, and I of course was rooting for Joanna and Bobby to run off together. It’s always a little strange when they talk about their sex lives and beaus; Bobby has big dyke energy. On a different note, I can absolutely see lesbians ironically reclaiming Stepford fashion someday.

 

And did it fit the daily theme?: I knew this was going to be a bit of a cheat. I almost watched this film in high school with some pals but, to my disappointment, my friend brought over the terrible ‘00s remake, which is campy indeed. There are moments that feel like they ought to be humorous – like when the Stepford wives, reluctantly attending a consciousness-raising group, rave about their favorite cleaning products. And there’s a certain tragic camp to the final supermarket scene. But this is a surprisingly dark film.

 

Goth Queens / Best Character?: No Goths in Stepford, but Bobby is joining the spunky best friend who meets a nasty end hall of fame, right next to Impetigore’s Dini.

 

Watch this if you enjoy: The Twilight Zone, the ‘70s, hating the suburbs

 

Girlfriend’s Corner: I’d always assumed that The Stepford Wives was a kind of misogynist movie, but it turns out that’s because I was going off a very wild assumption about it: I knew that the wives were ultra-conformists, but that’s literally all I knew, and I assumed that that meant the movie was blaming the titular wives for not imagining futures beyond the staid suburban one they knew.

Nope! Turns out they’re robots or aliens or something and the movie is a second-wave feminist critique of the conformity and lack of ambition or choice affluent society demands of women. That is much cooler than what I was still assuming, even if it’s clearly a text from The TERF Wave of feminism. Wish I’d watched this one!

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