Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
Urban Dictionary defines “Stepford Wife” as a term “used to describe a servile, compliant, submissive, spineless wife who happily does her husband’s bidding and serves his every whim dutifully.” The 1975 movie, The Stepford Wives, based on Ira Levin’s novel, would probably add to that definition that these women also give their husbands the best sex of their lives, even (heaven forbid) in the middle of the afternoon.
The term is engrained in our society, usually with negative connotations. Nobody wants to be a Stepford Wife. We all want to believe we have free will and can experience our own thoughts and emotions. It’s a terrifying notion that someone could take that away from us. If you’ve never seen the original movie (and I pray you’ve never seen the awful remake), you may not really understand how effective it was, especially in the mid-70s, at bringing this term into our consciousness.
When researching this feature, I happened upon another term with which I was not familiar: cult of domesticity. This was a prevailing value system in the 19th century among the upper and middle classes in the United States and Great Britain. It maintained that “true women” should possess four virtues: piety, purity, submission and domesticity. At various times in history, women have advocated for their rights and the cult of domesticity ceased to exist.
In the 1950s though, it rose again when television began to portray women as stay at home mothers. The cult of domesticity shaped an idealized myth about family and the woman’s role within it. The women’s liberation movement in the 1970s was another period of rebellion for the gender and The Stepford Wives was a brilliant satire on the phenomenon. Annoyed by their wives, the men of a seemingly idyllic town create a literal cult of domesticity by replacing them with robots.
Where do the members of the “men’s association” come from and how did they coincidentally converge in Stepford? I mean, one of them used to work for Disney (whom I assume designed animatronics), one of them is a famous artist (whom I assume helps create the lifelike features of the robots) and one of them is conducting a speech study (which I know for a fact is a ruse for collecting the sound files for the robots, with the exception of the word “archaic,” it seems.)
Walter Eberhart (Peter Masterson) is merely a lawyer. But he moves his wife and two children from the hustle and bustle of New York City to a suburban community where “you don’t even have to lock your doors.” It doesn’t take long for him to join the Men’s Association and see the potential value of replacing his wife with a robot, particularly when she is so darned independent and opinionated. Just leave him alone and let him do his work, dammit!
And it doesn’t take his wife Joanna (Katherine Ross) very long to figure out something fishy is going on in Stepford. When an equally independent and opinionated woman moves to town with her husband, the two women find a common bond in trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss) comes to the conclusion that there’s something in the water. She’s afraid Joanna won’t believe her theory, which is funny because it’s less fantastical than the truth.
What does it say about the cult of domesticity that things don’t end well for Joanna? Not only does it provide a downer of an ending, even though I love the dark sci-fi outcome, but it may also state that no matter how much women want the same opportunities as men, their place is really just in the home. You’d think Levin might be sexist, perhaps misogynistic, but that’s not the tone of The Stepford Wives. It doesn’t take itself that seriously.
But it is a seriously fun movie. I’ve already alluded that it’s terrifying and satirical, but it’s also a brilliant suspense thriller. When Joanna and Bobbie meet Charmaine, she’s a normal, tennis-playing housewife who agrees to help them establish a women’s equivalent to the men’s association. But a couple days later, the tennis court is being torn up to make room for her husband’s swimming pool and Charmaine is more concerned with cleaning and baking.
Joanna feels ultimate despair, though, when Bobbie is converted. More than anyone, Bobbie represents the humanity that’s lost when these women become robots. It’s a huge loss for a woman who feels trapped in her surroundings, and it’s a huge loss for an audience who loves this wacky woman. (Prentiss is wonderful as Bobbie. I became a huge fan of the actress after seeing The Stepford Wives.) Even the fate of Bobbie’s robot is heartbreaking in the context of the movie.
Besides the psychological terror described, the finale of The Stepford Wives is physically scary as Joanna goes to the men’s association (which happens to be an old, dark house) on a stormy night to retrieve her children, but instead meets her fate. Confronting the leader, she asks, “Why.” To which he replies, not in endless, moustache-twirling-villain-speak, but with a simply statement that is infinitely more effective, “Because we can.”
Firmly planted in our pop culture landscape, The Stepford Wives spawned three TV movie sequels, Revenge of the Stepford Wives, The Stepford Children, and even a gender reversed version called The Stepford Husbands. None were nearly as enjoyable as the original. Nor was the 2004 remake. (Although at the time The Stepford Wives was ripe for an update, or even an all-out spoof, the remake succeeded in being neither.) Forget all of those, but don’t forget the original.