Starring Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, and Patrick O’Neal
You can take The Stepford Wives two ways. The obvious interpretation of the horror-satire is that the life of a housewife is so drab and unfulfilling that it’s only by force, science, and trickery that any woman ends up that way. Being a housefrau is inherently unsatisfying, The Stepford Wives posits, because it reduces you to a machine. Lip service is given late in the movie to the idea that being a homemaker is okay and fulfilling, as long as you choose it yourself and you aren’t forced by crazy people. But The Stepford Wives was actually criticized as antifeminist upon its initial release. It’s possible to interpret the film as mocking feminism through exaggeration, which shows all men as balding toads and the dread of feminists as laughable because, no, there’s no one really trying to replace you with a robot. Everyone on the DVD interviews swears up and down that the first interpretation is the accurate one. But it’s worth noting that both methods—exaggeration for intensity and exaggeration for irony—have been used in the history of the movies.
Here’s another neat thing: it is the men in The Stepford Wives whose thoughts and motives are inscrutable and it is through the eyes of a woman that we see everything. If someone in a movie is going to be irrational, it’s usually a woman, and we understand why the men do what they do. (Most horror films with female leads are not so much interested in what the girl is thinking as with the male fascination of women in danger.) This reversed arrangement reflects The Stepford Wives’ idea of the flawed, “traditional” marriage in which the women blab their heads off while the men reply in clipped monosyllables and never give their wives a straight answer about anything. This is also why we only catch the faintest of glimpses of where the new and improved wives come from. The source of the new wives is within an entirely male sphere of machines and grinding self-importance, inaccessible to our female POV. The best we get is to drive past big corporate campuses with word like “Computech” and “Systems” and “Robotics” out front. Like all good satires, the explanation behind the supernatural gimmick makes more sense in an English major kind of way, and not exactly logically.
The Stepford Wives is a sunny horror movie. Everything awful is in the daylight, nothing is keeping Our Heroine in Stepford except her social obligations, and mundane spaces get wide-angled into spookiness. Katherine Ross (Elaine from The Graduate) is Our Heroine, mother, wife, and aspiring photographer more-or-less dragged by her balding husband (Peter Masterson) to the all-American suburb of Stepford, where he gets the requisite suspiciously good deal on his house. He loves Stepford: everything’s so cozy, all the women are beautiful, and he gets to network with the big wigs at the Men’s Association. She’s weirded out: all the women are not only housewives, but cooking, cleaning, and the material well-being of their husbands and children represent their entire universe. They don’t read, hang out, have any thoughts or opinions. The scene in which the ladies get all wrapped up in talking about ironing and different brands of soap plays like a commercial made by Satan. But, wow, they sure look good.
The movie has the same tone as Rosemary’s Baby, combining creepy, wide-angle detachment with a macabre use of the fonts and banal music of a 1950s’ “woman’s” picture. Remember how the opening credits of Rosemary’s Baby were in pink cursive? You get the idea. The movies ought have a similar tone: they’re both based on novels by Ira Levin. I don’t think The Stepford Wives was intended to play completely straight when it was originally released and it probably gets even more laughs now (the 2004 remake is aimed at comedy). There are places where we should laugh but they’re just so damn creepy.
The protagonists of most stories of this type are basically windows for the audience; Katharine Ross is a little deeper than that—her marriage is bumpy and her photographic ambitions are always being thwarted—but not intrusively so. She is joined in her suspicions and nosing around by the second-newest-girl to Stepford (Paula Prentiss). They bounce around Stepford in tacky clothes, no bras, and no make-up—the antithesis of the Stepford wife. She and all the other women in the DVD interviews are getting pretty wrinkly, but it’s fitting that none of them has subjected herself to botox.
The biggest targets of satire are the husbands of Stepford, who exhibit a complete lack of imagination when it comes to playing God. At an early dinner party the movie makes a point of showing just how boring they are. When they have a chance to revamp their spouses, the best they can think of is to turn their wives into commercials (I like that the Stepford wives hold all household products so that the brand name is visible). We do not see how they are able to convince themselves that they’d be happier married to mindless slaves than human beings, but this is part of the film’s strategy of shrouding the male motives while keeping the women transparent. If I had to replace my wife with a robot I would make her able to play guitar or at least kickbox. If I had to put up with all that cooking, cleaning, and sunny-faced idiocy I’d want to eat a bullet.
The Stepford Wives is not quite a classic, but it has an economical single-mindedness to both its satire and its creepiness. It’s also partly responsible for contributing a phrase to the vernacular that wasn’t there before. Any movie that can do that is pretty cool. So next time your sweetie is off for a lingerie shower you can say to her “so, what are you and the other Stepford wives doing today?”
Finished July 17, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Friday & Saturday Night
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