Such a fantasy is only appealing from moment to moment, though; thoughts of all the repercussions of a rushed escape start to crash in as soon as the Better Homes and Gardens idealism begins to wear thin.
But it’s one that’s nonetheless advertised to the protagonist of The Stepford Wives (1975), the willowy Joanna (Katharine Ross), regularly. Without much warning from her husband, Walter (Peter Masterson), their family, including two teddy bear-clutching tots, will be relocating from the Big Apple to Stepford, a paradisal suburb of Connecticut. No one is happy about it, especially since the move is not occurring because of an all-important job offer but simply because Walter has convinced himself that the loud, metropolitan city is no place to raise a family.
Joanna scoffs. Shackled to the homemaker position, she’s the one doing most of the raising. And she likes New York: she has friends there, and, more importantly, has a better chance of seeing her insecure ambition to become a professional photographer through. But all these arguments cannot be made until the clan actually lands in Stepford. Walter, despite insisting that he’s a husband who believes in an equally-run household, signed the necessary papers before even asking Joanna what she thought about the town.
Upon arriving in Stepford, Joanna is immediately overwhelmed with disillusion. All the wives are Betty Crocker clones in Victorian attire; all the husbands are dominant and humorless. The wives do not do anything else besides cook, clean, and look beautiful; the husbands do not do anything besides go to work, eat the food their wives have prepared for them, and attend elitist, highly secretive meetings for what’s touted a “men’s club.”
Something is clearly amiss, though Joanna can’t quite put her finger on exactly what what the cause is. “I think there’s something in the water that turns us into house-fraus,” her friend Bobby (Paula Prentiss), also new in town, offers.
The ugly truth is divulged later on, though such is something best not said here: One of the more shocking aspects of the film specifically has to do with the big reveal. But what can be said is that the women of Stepford are horrifically being forced into a sort of domestic compliance through sinister means.
Based upon the novel of the same name by Ira Levin (famous for the 1963 masterwork Rosemary’s Baby), The Stepford Wives was released during a major shift in American culture. With the second wave of the feminist movement having become a vital part of public discussion, a new brand of women’s liberation was coming to a head. It was strong enough to solidify the widespread understanding that becoming a wife and mother, and being confined to the homemaker position, was not all a woman had to look forward to in her lifetime. Such an idea was, and still is, of course, at odds with the more conservative side of the spectrum, in which the belief that men should work and make money whereas women should take care of children and the housework snowballs.
It’s fair to call The Stepford Wives a horror movie, given its containing of an ending not unlike one found in an early Stephen King novel; William Goldman’s screenplay tingles in its capturing of a calm before a storm, and Bryan Forbes’ direction is languid and haunting.
But the feature also draws from the female experience for generations, particularly the feeling that you will not be valued unless you’re doing your best Carol Brady imitation, the feeling that you will be vilified if you do anything that deviates from the suppositions of pre-Watergate womanhood.
The female characters of The Stepford Wives are aware of the old-fashioned nightmare, and are therefore terrified of falling victim to the oppressions of earlier renditions of domestic life. Joanna, for instance, yearns to be like Diane Arbus. But she’s concerned that she might turn into the repressed woman her mother was because her existence can now so easily be shaped by what her husband wants. She balks at the thought of ever resembling one of her neighbors.
The Stepford Wives imagines a world where a woman has no power over her own destiny, where she is, against her will, forced to adhere to the expectations of womanhood circa 1950. The film is effective not only because the cinematic night terror that it is isn’t so far off from what real-life women have experienced for generations. It is also effective because the fear of having to change who you are to appease another is so universal.
The conclusion works as a chilling bookend to all the uneasiness: it wonders how many people have so enduringly squashed their identity to please someone else that they’ve forgotten who they used to be. But here’s the movie’s kicker: they actually have.
The women aren’t the only people being controlled in The Stepford Wives, though: the men are, too. They’ve gotten so used to digesting the dos and don’ts of domesticity that they’ve forgotten that the traditionalist husband and wife roles are merely capitalist creations. Men are supposed to spend most of their day working to help bolster the financial gain of another party; women are supposed to be cleaning and cooking while their husbands are at work so the men can ultimately have the energy necessary to increase productivity. (And the understanding that a woman must clean and cook also means that more products will be purchased and that the economy will be boosted as an effect.)
Fortunately, society has developed enough in the last 40 years to make the storyline of The Stepford Wives distinctly feel like part of another era. Women do not as commonly face the reality that, from the moment they graduate high school, they will be expected to marry, reproduce, and not do much more than take care of her husband, her children, and her house.
But the movie nevertheless vibrates in its quiet dread, and Ross, a long-haired belladonna of sadness, and Prentiss, a sassy, snappy, self-sufficient woman, help make the terror urgent. Because the film captures a different time and place so efficiently, it works as a document of the domestic anxieties of another generation. But a scary, disturbing satire it remains. A
1 Hr., 55 Mins.
The Stepford Wives September 15, 2017
here’s something so delectable about the idea of packing up your bags and starting a new life. Of spontaneously playing house in a quaint small town in middle America, taking up a pleasant-enough job and buying a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood. Of making new friends who might even suit you better than the ones who kept you company just a month or so ago. Of just getting away from it all.