The Stepford Wives

The re-make of The Stepford Wives is less feminist than the original, and misses an opportunity to make an interesting statement about contemporary gender relations, says Natasha Forrest. Directed by Frank Oz (2004).

Natasha Forrest, 20 July 2004

This review contains a spoiler about the final twist at the end.

When William Goldman wrote the screenplay for the original film version of The Stepford Wives back in 1975, he did not intend the robotic, 'ideal' women of Stepford to be prim and proper housewives in floral dresses and frilly aprons. After all, if a group of frustrated, feminist-fearing husbands really got together to design an ideal woman on whom to model their wives, they would probably come up with something more in line with the semi-naked sex kittens who adorn the pages of lad mags, wouldn't they?

the original film had the potential to provide a thought-provoking commentary on male fear of feminism

This, at least, is how Goldman envisaged the original Stepford Wives. But when Bryan Forbes, the director of the first film, cast his wife, Nanette Newman (who was apparently not the sex kitten type) in one of the leading roles, Goldman felt the need to abandon the more credible male fantasy and replace it with something which most people under the age of seventy have trouble accepting as anyone's fantasy. Thus the original film, which had the potential to provide a thought-provoking commentary on male fear of feminism at the height of the second wave movement, ended up being kind of ridiculous because few people could relate to the men's desire to transform their wives into Martha Stewart. I was quite excited, therefore, when I heard that The Stepford Wives was being remade, assuming that this time, surely, they must be abandoning the frilly frocks and dealing with a somewhat more realistic anti-feminist fantasy. The fact that they had not was an early sign that the updated Stepford Wives was hardly making a serious attempt to deal with contemporary gender roles.

Clue number two was the fact that, unlike the original movie, The Stepford Wives 2004 was billed as an out and out comedy. The general consensus in the mainstream press seems to be that, back in the seventies, when men were afraid of the power which feminism was bringing to women, the idea that a group of men might create a suburban community in which to brainwash their liberated wives and turn them into submissive, cooking-and-cleaning robots was a terrifying premise for a thriller. But not now! Now, in these days of equality and enlightenment, when men are completely comfortable with powerful, successful women, the storyline is too absurd to be played for anything more than cheap laughs.

Well of course it's absurd, but so are a lot of science fiction thrillers which address legitimate social issues. What's really absurd is the idea that contemporary society - because it's hardly fair to blame men for everything - is no longer afraid of strong women. Only a few years ago in the United States, Hillary Clinton's political involvement with health care reform incited such nationwide rage that she was forced to start sharing cookie recipes on morning television in order to preserve her husband's popularity as President. Quotes from Paul Rudnick, the screenwriter of the updated film, indicate that he has a healthy understanding of the relevance of the film to a contemporary audience. He argues that "there's still social pressure. Everyone's looking at the guy whose wife makes more money, going "he's the chick," and goes on to comment that "straight white males act like the angry new endangered minority."[1] Whether he was only saying this to defend his involvement in this doomed remake or whether he was forced to compromise his vision in favor of something easier for a mainstream postfeminist audience to swallow, something certainly went wrong along the way because the end product lacks any trace of feminist integrity.

the most preposterous and outright farcical case of feminist stereotyping I've seen for a long time

You only have to watch the first five minutes to witness the most preposterous and outright farcical case of feminist stereotyping I've seen for a long time. Nicole Kidman plays an updated version of protagonist Joanna Eberhart, who is now a selfish, power-crazed director of a leading television network who makes obnoxious TV shows with titles like 'I Can Do Better!', featuring selfish, power-crazed women mercilessly beating their weedy, pathetic male opponents at everything and laughing in the face of their downfall. Incidentally her husband Walter, played by Mathew Broderick, is also weedy and pathetic. This pretty much sets the standard for the level of gender analysis to which we are subjected for the following two hours, with Bette Midler, as Nicole's 'feminist' ally in the suburban utopia of Stepford, sealing the lid on the 'feminist as evil misanthropist' stereotype with her 'men are pigs and blondes are dumb' jokes. For a film that claims to be criticizing or at least mocking the backlash, it certainly does a good job of playing up to society's worst fears of feminism. And yes, I know it's supposed to be satirical, but satire just becomes meaningless in the context of a film which seems unwilling, afraid or simply too confused to commit to any particular ideology or viewpoint.

I got the impression that the filmmakers had decided to avoid any controversy by refusing to deal with contemporary gender issues or anything vaguely resembling the lives of 21st century women. The ongoing pressure on women to be attractive and submissive as well as successful and independent was simply not something they wanted to touch, if, indeed, they had even considered it. So instead of portraying realistic female characters juggling jobs, families and eating disorders, we are presented with a choice between a return to the fifties or a wholly unfeminist vision of a future where women rule the world and take pleasure in aggressively humiliating men. By reducing the feminist movement to a struggle between psychotic executives and obsessive cookie bakers, the film is rendered entirely meaningless, not to mention boring. The really frustrating thing is that a thoughtful and nuanced remake might have actually struck a chord with people in the current climate of makeover mayhem, where reality TV shows like 'The Swan' (a U.S. show) unapologetically turn average looking women into busty, botoxed clones on a weekly basis. At least the women of Stepford don't have to endure dozens of painful and life-threatening surgery procedures to achieve perfection.

the film refuses to deal with contemporary gender issues or the lives of 21st century women

As far as the plot goes, not much has changed from the original, except that Stepford now accommodates gay people! Oh, and there's a new twist at the end (so look away now if you want to be surprised), where we find out that Stepford was actually created by a woman nostalgic for a simpler era, rather than a group of misogynistic men. In the hands of someone with a pinch of integrity or feminist knowledge, this could have been quite an interesting interpretation, particularly regarding the timing of this remake in relation to developments in feminist thought since the original film was made. After all, one of the more jarring aspects of the first film was its simplistic representation of patriarchal society as a conspiracy of men against women, an idea which third wave feminists are perhaps even more likely to critique than their second wave counterparts due to the influences of postmodernism on contemporary feminist theory. An acknowledgment that women's liberation is more complicated than women pushing forward and men pulling them back would therefore have been a welcome and timely take on the story for a third wave generation. Unfortunately, however, I imagine that this level of subtlety would be lost on the filmmakers and have to conclude that they simply changed the ending for the sake of changing the ending.

Apologies to those who were expecting a detailed plot summary. If you really want to know what happens, watch the trailer, as it pretty much tells the whole story, or alternatively, watch the original version of the film. It may be flawed, but at least it has feminist intentions.

References

  1. Maureen Dowd, 'Stepford Wives Remake No Match For Today's Botoxed Reality' in The Federal Observer, June 24th 2004
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