The Stepford Wives and The Feminine Mystique
Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives, published in 1972, is a satirically dark look at suburban life in the nineteen-seventies during a climactic time in American history—after the civil rights movement, amidst the height of the feminist movement, right before the Watergate scandal, and the resignation of Richard Nixon. In popular entertainment, the Hayes production codes were lifted on film and art was growing increasingly more sinister and risqué as a reaction to real life. Before The Stepford Wives, Levin’s literary work had already proven to be successful adaptations into film. Both A Kiss Before Dying and Rosemary’s Baby were critically acclaimed and drew sizable audiences at the box office. Levin’s work all umbrellaed under the suspense and mystery genre, often about common people and seemingly normal neighborhoods with a lurking of perverseness (similar to Hitchcock films) either with an individual, a family, or an entire community. His follow-up book, The Stepford Wives, was a reaction to the feminist movement and an echo of Betty Friedan’s book, A Feminine Mystique. In fact, the book references her several times as well as popular feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women and the League of Women Voters.
Betty Friedan and her book
While many critics today of Levin’s work consider The Stepford Wives as part of the feminist diatribe and a point of social commentary to the feminist movement, reactions by feminists themselves at the time, not only to the book but also to the movie, felt it parodied their fight for equality. Betty Friedan’s book was heralded as the beginning of the second wave of feminism and in 1964 became an instant best-seller. The book was written from her research of the suburban housewife and all the horror stories of misery they felt; their loss of identity with the push during the Cold War era to create a stable, safe and perfect home for family life. All of the mass advertisements that new household technological conveniences brought—toaster ovens, washing machines and laundry detergents, also seemed to be washing away the personality and independent life of the housewife; this was a genuine fear and the motivation for Friedan’s book, although she actually walked out of the 1975 film.
The Book: Stepford Wives Plotline
Levin’s novel, The Stepford Wives, focuses on Joanna Eberhart, who moves to Stepford, Connecticut, with her husband, Walter, and two children after living in New York City and working as a photographer. She is an attractive and intelligent woman that cares about women’s needs and their right to manage a family and a career. After a month or so in Stepford, she notices that all the women there are somewhat lifeless, caring only for their husbands, children, cooking, and household chores. She even states that the women seem like they are actresses in a TV commercial. There is a bit of comic relief by the woman that she meets in the beginning and becomes friends with, Bobbie Markowe. They quickly go on a hunt to find women in Stepford to form a women’s club, similar to the already formed and avidly attended men’s association as a way to form communal fellowship. Unfortunately, they come up empty handed and Bobbie decides after reading an article about a similar tranquil situation in El Paso that there must be something in the water. They contact the Department of Health but everything comes up clean. Joanna meets another woman like herself that has also just moved to Stepford. There is an earlier mention in the book by the Welcoming Wagon that a young black couple will be moving to Stepford which the woman that runs the committee is unsure about but guesses it should be natural since Stepford is so liberal. Joanna later meets the wife (Ruthanne), a famous children’s literary writer at the library and is of course thrilled. Unfortunately Bobbie soon turns just as the other women have into a robotic housekeeper after a weekend away with Dave, her husband. Joanna then becomes frighteningly suspicious of the men in town. She feels something is going on at the men’s meetings, so she heads to the library where she finds out through research of Stepford’s past, that all the women were smart, feminist-career minded leaders and even had Betty Friedan herself speak at one of the women’s club meet-ups. This really unravels her and her husband suggests that she see a psychiatrist, which she agrees to but only if it is a woman outside of Stepford. The doctor is supportive and helpful toward her and gives her a prescription for tranquilizer’s to calm her down. She goes home and confronts her husband again more forcibly and he sends her to the bedroom to rest but she breaks out of the window and flees the house. Two of Walter’s friends pick her up in the snow as she makes her way to Ruthanne’s. They coax her back home and she agrees but only if she can see one of the wives bleed real blood. They decide to ask Bobbie and head over to her house, Bobbie brings Joanna to the sink with a knife but the book ends that scene ambiguously, not knowing whether she did it or not. The final scene is in the shopping market and is from the point of view of Ruthanne, she sees Joanna at the super market and she unfortunately has changed like all the other women. The book ends with a scene between Ruthanne and her husband, she is working on her next book and asks him to get the kids something to eat and whether he minds “I don’t mind” (pg 121) he answers, concluding that the same thing will probably eventually happen to her.
Plot of each film
In 1975, Levin’s work was adapted for film—directed by Bryan Forbes and screenplay by William Goldman. The film stars Katherine Ross as Joanna, Peter Masterson as Walter, and Paula Prentiss as Bobbie, in addition to a very attractive female cast following closely the themes of beauty perfection the book proposes. Besides a few costuming and casting issues, the film follows Levin’s work very closely and Joanna’s devolution into a suburban nightmare. The film takes liberty to cut a couple of repetitive portions within the novel and Bryan Forbes changed a bit of the scenes leading up to the ending. The film adds a bit more horror when Joanna stabs Bobbie and there is no blood (does not stab her in the book) also in the book she does not pelt Walter in the head with a fireplace tool nor is there a half-naked fembot with large breasts that kills her. Forbes made these changes without Goldman’s support in order to heighten the macabre. The film also deletes the scenes with the black couple which was odd, since the book ends with them. Forbes chose to leave the mention of a ‘black couple moving to the neighborhood’ and end with a brief ambiguous shot of a black couple arguing in the shopping market before the famous lady stroll in their long frilly silhouettes and straw hats. Goldman and Forbes also chose to leave all nods to Betty Friedan and her book out of the dialogue which seemed to water down their assertions that the book and film were part of the polemic argument that feminism supported. There is no mention further by academic criticism as to why the black couple is really deleted from the movie. Maybe the writer and director did not want to muddy the storyline about female marginalization and avoid the one of racial inequality. Although the civil rights movement occurred in the prior decade, this might have served to the advantage of homogenizing the feminine struggle as non-biased. The feminist movement cut across all racial lines, however, the plight of black women’s struggles were much different from the suburban white housewife.
Since the film had a good amount of success, it was made into several sequels—in 1980, with Revenge of the Stepford Wives, in 1987 with The Stepford Children, and in 1996 with The Stepford Husbands, making it clear why the idea of the ‘stepford wife’ became such a recognizable part of the American vernacular. All three of these films were made for television movies until 2004, when Frank Oz directed and Paul Rudnick wrote an updated adaptation of either the book or the 1975 movie, which was difficult to tell since Levin’s story was changed quite a bit. The updated version played as a romantic comedy instead of a dark satirical thriller. It had a large budget with a very high regarded ensemble of first rate actors which only lent to the overall disappointment of the nefarious attempt at adaptation. In the newer version, Joanna, played by Nicole Kidman, is a CEO for a large reality show production company that challenges married couples by putting them on an island and hooking them up with other people to see if they “can do better”. Certainly this was a well intended point for social examination since this narrative idea was an exact replica of the reality show Temptation Island that ran from 2001-2003, right before this film was produced. In the movie, Joanna is fired after one of the contestants loses his marriage and tries to shoot her at a big show rally where she pumps up her corporate audience. She is displaced and her husband, played by Matthew Broderick, quits the company too and moves them to the suburbs to start a new life. Levin’s storyline is followed closely from here, in fact, Bobbie’s character, played by Bette Midler, is a closer representation to the book than in the 1975 film version because she is a short, frumpy, pear-shaped woman (until the transformation of course). Her husband, Dave, is played by Jon Lovitz and the Dale Coba character that heads up the Men’s Association in the book is named Mike Wellington in the 2004 film and played by Christopher Walken. His wife is played by Glen Close, which in a strange twist at the end winds up being the antagonist and mastermind behind the chip implementation into the brains of the wives in order to lobotomize them into domestic perfection.
The Horror Film and Social Commentary
Ira Levin’s book and hence the ‘horror film’ itself are often used as a form of social commentary which in this case were drawing upon heightened fears of change within the American social-structural dynamic of the time. The feminist movement was a direct backlash to the hyper-domesticity of the decade prior, questioning the status quo. Should women become educated? Should women compete for the same jobs as men? Is their place only in the home? Can she be a homemaker and run a company? As women moved into those formidable positions of wearing many hats and their ability to juggle it all in the decades to come, the question became whether they could still be successful in dual roles. By 2004, Hollywood was ready to resurface the themes and tropes of the original book and film, as a way of putting these social implementations to the test. What was the current discourse on domesticity, marriage, gender roles, work and family life? For this, the 2004 film does broach these topics, however, the problem really is in the execution, style, and holes in the storyline. The 1975 adaptation has become a cult classic despite its campiness in the end; in fact, this may have even led to the appeal as an important precursor to later horror films. Yet, overall, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman’s adaptation stays within the same genre of the book. It allows the audience to follow clues within the film that create suspense, symbolism, foreshadowing, and what would become cinematic iconography. The image of the man walking across the street in Manhattan with a dummy in the beginning of the film, the famous shot of the animatronic Joanna at the end with blackened eyes, combing her hair, and the final scene of all the women of Stepford strolling down the supermarket aisles in soft, floor length gowns and hats set against nineteen-fifties Rosemary Clooney-esque underscoring. In the 2004 version, not much is left to the imagination, except maybe a robotic dog as a foreshadowing to the inevitable fate; but it really is not a clue since most of the audience knows what is to come (like watching James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic adaptation).
Adaptation vs. Homage
If a film adaptation can change the entire genre of the book from a suspense thriller to a romantic comedy, a critical question might also be to ask where the line is between adaptation and homage? The film 10 Things I Hate About You is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. Same story line as the play, similar cast list, but set in modern times which means no Shakespearean iambic pentameter. The dialogue has been given a modern facelift but it is still considered an adaptation. The contemporary film, released in 2017, Get Out written and directed by Jordan Peele is, as he stated, a loose adaptation of Levin’s Stepford story with hints and influences also of Rosemary’s Baby. Peele grew up a block from where Rosemary’s Baby was filmed and was always intrigued by Levin’s work and the horror genre to act as a mirror for social examination. While his film does not explore the status of gender roles and female equality as in The Stepford Wives, he uses the storyline by updating and racialising the Stepford-trope and works to question the mainstream post-racialism of modern American culture. Hence the argument is not the feminist movement but the Black-Lives-Matter movement. He does so by making the story focus on the black characters being the ones that go out to the suburbs and are soon lobotomized into docile creatures for domestic use or taken for their superior physical genes. The film provides even more clues and symbolism than its 1975 precursor, leaving the audience taking careful note of everything that is happening in the plot line—hitting the dear on the way out to the suburbs, the bingo scene, the brother playing the ukulele on the front porch, and the cotton pulled from the chair later in the basement scene, all serve as allegory to the plot as well as larger black historical themes. When Chris, the protagonist, arrives at his white girlfriend’s house to meet her family (a nod to another important film, Looks Who’s Coming to Dinner), he is confronted with all sorts of confusing white-liberal supposed non-racial remarks; her father makes sure to let him know that he “would have voted for Obama for a third term if able” and that his father was beat out to the Olympics by Jesse Owen, even the white guests that come to the party later mention golf and Tiger Woods in order to appease him. Like in Stepford, Chris’ girlfriend, Rose, like Joanna’s husband, Walter acts as a distraction to the horrific outcome, using tenderness and complacency as an ulterior motive. Peele’s film is also timely like Levin’s Stepford Wives, using overarching themes and subtext to address current social and political imbalances and/or inequities. Ultimately, an audience does not want to be spoon fed and neither the original Stepford Wives nor Get Out does this. They use the horror genre to inflate a current societal unease and do it with popular entertainment sure to make a lasting impact within their viewing audience.
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Sterritt, David. Film critic of The Christian,Science Monitor. (2004, Jun 11). ‘Wives’ is all women’s glib ; new version of ‘the stepford wives’ flunks feminism 101.
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Levin, Ira. The Stepford Wives. New York, Random House, and London, Joseph, 1972
The Stepford Wives, directed by Bryan Forbes (1975)
The Stepford Wives, directed by Frank Oz (2004)
Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele (2017)