Original release: February 12th, 1975
Running time: 115 minutes
Director: Bryan Forbes
Writers: William Goldman, Ira Levin (novel)
Cast: Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman, Tina Louise
Ira Levin’s popular sci-fi horror/thriller novel The Stepford Wives arrived with impeccable timing in 1972 amidst the second-wave feminist movement. That same year, Betty Friedan helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus, her revolutionary book, The Feminine Mystique (1963), had been in circulation for nine years, and the National Organization for Women (NOW) had begun establishing chapters in private homes and community centers throughout cities and suburbs of America.
Yet in 1975, The Stepford Wives was adapted for the screen only to be received with general disgust. Friedan stormed out of an “awareness session” which followed a special screening in New York after calling the film “a rip-off of the women’s movement.”
Pauline Kael disliked the film for “the condescension implicit in its view that educated women are not responsible for what they become. Women, the abused, are being treated as a suffering privileged class. This sentimentality is degrading.”
When viewed within their political context, these initial receptions of The Stepford Wives are understandable, since by the mid-1970s, NOW was most concerned with consolidating power between the sexes as the most effective means of disseminating into legislation and the culture at large.
Counterproductive to NOW’s gender-inclusive goal, both Levin’s novel and the film implicate all men in the destruction of women’s lives and envision them as capable of killing for the sake of preserving the conveniences a stay-at-home wife can offer. Most feminists of the time failed to see Levin’s intentions for a novel in which its female heroine is not satirized, but her male oppressors and their sexual desires are.
Director Bryan Forbes has said his film “is far from anti-women, but anti-men, and mostly a fantasy” steeped in an odd mixture of sci-fi and horror genre conventions.
The main commonality between the horror genre and feminism is the focus on the female body: horror wants to invade it while feminism wants to liberate it. The Stepford Wives is concerned with women being murdered (but never onscreen) and their bodies replaced with elaborate animatronics (their male creator, nicknamed “Diz”, used to work for Disneyland) that replicate each wife in Stepford as a sexual and accommodating servant any busy and stressed husband can appreciate.
Forbes uses these themes within a context highly characteristic of 1970s American cinema: paranoia. In this case, male paranoia of the threat posed by the burgeoning feminist movement creates a female paranoia about a rapid regression back to an idealized fetishistic object offering “to-be-looked-at-ness” (film theorist Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay Visual Pleasure nd Narrative Cinema was published in the same year), another odd mixture centered around the fear of losing one’s identity along both gender and marital lines.
The film opens with a close-up, mirrored, unhappy image of our protagonist/victim Joanna Eberhart (Katherine Ross) against bright bathroom wallpaper during the final walkthrough of her old New York apartment. Merely a reflection and not a true self, she suffers from what Friedan called the crisis of a woman’s identity, an American woman who “no longer has a private image to tell her who she is, or can be, or wants to be.”
Before the feminist movement, it was presumed women couldn’t identify with anything beyond the domestic sphere unless it was approached through experience as a wife and/or mother. Joanna’s introductory expression momentarily anticipates a reflection beyond her identity as a mother and wife, namely through her identity as a “hopeful, would-be, semi-professional photographer”, but she walks from the mirror disappointed and nervous about her family’s move out of the city.
Now with nothing to do beyond housework in an expansive Stepford suburban home, Joanna’s paranoia around the brainless, overbearingly friendly Stepford women and the “Men’s Association” her husband begins to frequent becomes the natural outgrowth of restricting the mind and body of women to the narrow confines of the home.
Feminist writer Beverly Jones famously characterized the mother as “the most automated appliance in a household”, which is a fate Levin’s novel literalizes and suggests women already meet halfway through the systematic and monotonic execution of domestic chores. Visually, Forbes draws this same parallel with Stepford wife Carol Van Sant (Nanette Newman), pruning a tree in her front yard cutting to Joanna hanging a picture in her bedroom.
Simple housework and motherhood become political in terms of the shared automation between the female human and her robotic counterpart in The Stepford Wives. Early in the second wave of US feminism, the “mother mandate” (the socialization of women to assume responsibility for taking care of others) became a target for re-evaluation.
Some feminists saw motherhood as a genuinely positive experience damaged by patriarchal devaluation of women’s work while other feminists saw motherhood as the basis of women’s oppression. Forbes’ frequent use of zooms creates Joanna’s fear of enclosure by the domestic sphere. She represents the conflicting views within the feminist movement and suggests the threat of becoming a Stepford wife will inevitably prevail regardless of locale.
Her move from New York (a departure from the NYC NOW stance on motherhood) and into the suburban Stepford community of isolation embeds the fear of losing the ability to embody feminist ideals.
Within the inclusive Stepford community and the fortifying unity of its Men’s Association, men can circumvent the feminist threat through literalizing a Victorian fantasy with a separate-sphere ideology, where men work in the public sector while their subservient wives stay at home to shape a safe haven for their families. Due to their own paranoia, the men of Stepford take fetishism to its extreme, killing off their freethinking wives and replacing them with robot slaves. A wholly synthetic woman, designed by men and programmed accordingly to their desires, no longer poses any threat.
Strangely popular during the feminist movement and the fanatical polar opposite of Betty Friedan, Marabel Morgan’s book The Total Woman (1973) denounces women’s role to nothing more than ego reinforcement and sexual appraisal of the husband, catering to the misogynistic male’s fantasy. Morgan recites
With Morgan’s manifesto programmed into the Stepford wives, the potential for marital conflict and denial of sexual gratification is eliminated. Dale “Diz” Coba (Patrick O’Neal), head of the Men’s Association and the engineer mastermind behind the Stepford robots, rationalizes it best to Joanna:
If The Stepford Wives retains anything from its symptomatic place in film history and its awkward blend of film genres with social issues, it is certainly peculiarity. While there is something far-fetched about a plot to replace women with subservient androids, there is also something revealed about gender expectations and one’s personal apprehension about fulfilling them.
The threat of automation was very real for women in the 60s and 70s, and if The Stepford Wives has mere camp on its surface, it also has a clever and gruesome interpretation on misogyny and what Friedan calls “The Problem that Has No Name” at its heart.
What people remember most about the film is its ending that confirms Joanna’s paranoia. Like polished trophies, the Stepford wives breezily stride through a Technicolor supermarket parade, reiterating subdued salutations to one another.
Forbes’ final haunting sequence once again shows the way in which women are turned into objects of display, to be looked, gazed, and stared at by men, a fate Joanna does not escape. “Yet, in a real sense,” Laura Mulvey has said, “women are not there (in cinema) at all. The parade has nothing to do with women, but everything to do with man.”
Joaquin Villalobos is a burgeoning critic, video editor, screenwriter, and lover of all things film residing in Denver, Colorado. His earliest memory of the cinema is Walt Disney’s Pinocchio at the age of three, an experience sealing his interest in storytelling through imagery. He achieved a Bachelor of Fine Arts at CU Boulder where his work on 16mm and digital video garnered several awards and exhibitions.
His writings on film continue to strengthen his appreciation and understanding of it as both art and commerce. His favorite directors include Pedro Almodóvar, Jean-Pierre Melville, Michael Powell, and Paul Thomas Anderson. More of Joaquin's work can be found at his website, Seen Said and you can follow him on Twitter @SeenSaid.