A Stepford Wives Tale: Looking back at the reaction to The Stepford Wives

In 1975, the feminist movement was finally beginning to get results. This movement is often referred to as the ‘second wave’, and is perhaps the one that made the biggest impacts and changes in the lives of women across the world. By 1975, there had been the following achievements: sex discrimination was made a violation of the 14th amendment; the first Women’s Studies department began at San Diego State University; followed shortly by a Women’s Studies program at Cornell; Eisenstadt v. Baird overturned laws that restricted unmarried persons’ access to contraception; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was amended to prohibit discrimination based on sex along with race, color, religion and national origin.

As the women’s lib gained more and more followers, and achieved actual changes in law, it wouldn’t be that far-fetched to believe that there were some men (if not many men) out there who were wishing for the return of the ”good old days”. Where men were the breadwinners and the women played house. In fact, that fear is the basis of The Stepford Wives which is set in either a paradise or a prison (depending on your gender) where the men of Stepford and the representation of patriarchy and the passive, docile women are the representation of those repressed in society.

The Stepford Wives

The Stepford Wives is based on the 1972 Ira Levin novel of the same name. Levin was behind other books such as Rosemary’s Baby,  and The Boys From Brazil. The film was directed by British director Bryan Forbes with a screenplay by William Goldman. It follows Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) who moves with her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) and two children from New York City to the idyllic Connecticut suburb of Stepford. Joanna feels like a fish out of water and finds the women in town all look great and are obsessed with housework, but have few intellectual interests. The men all belong to the exclusionary local Men’s Association, which Walter joins, to Joanna’s dismay.

Things start to look up when she befriends another newcomer to town, Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss). Along with the glamorous beautiful tennis playing trophy wife Charmaine Wimperis (Tina Louise), they organize a Women’s Lib consciousness raising session, but will the other women be inspired to fight back against the forced gender roles or will Joanna, Bobbie and Charmaine succumb to whatever is affecting the other wives of Stepford?

The Stepford Wives

Upon it’s release, The Stepford Wives was criticised by many second-wave feminists who declared it exploitative trash. A 1975 New York Times article described how Columbia Pictures invited feminist activists to a Stepford screening, only for them to meet the film with “hisses, groans, and guffaws.” Betty Friedan called it a “rip-off of the women’s movement” and then apparently “stomped out of the screening room.” But is The Stepford Wives actually anti-feminist and mocking the women’s lib movement? Or is it actually pro-women’s liberation, and actually critical of men, which I believe is the case.

As discussed by Elizabeth for Political Flavors, the film is critical about the men of Stepford, they are the real villains and in her words ”They are cold-blooded misogynist murderers. If you empathize with them, there is something wrong with you.” Elizabeth goes on to explain that the novel was dealing with the worries and anxieties of women who belonged to the second wave movement, because they feared that all of their hard work could be undone by the men in charge.

As Megan Hess for Cinemablography states in her piece regarding Second Wave Feminism and The Stepford Wives, “Levin never explicitly states what leads the men of Stepford to begin killing their wives and replacing them with animatronic copies, it could be interpreted as a dramatic fear reaction to the second-wave feminist movement. Many women were no longer content to hold the same sociocultural roles they always had – roles which benefitted men. Their efforts to gain equality in educational and professional spaces threatened men’s status as the dominant group.”

When asked about whether the film as anti or pro feminist, Forbes was quoted of saying “If anything, it’s anti-men! If the men are really stupid enough to want wives like that, then it’s sad for them. I thought the men were ridiculous to want to make women into servile creatures.” The men are presented in a negative light, Joanna’s husband Walter is clueless, and comes as less educated and aware then his wife. The fact that he conforms to the rules of Stepford is the ultimate betrayal, and as we have connected with Joanna following her throughout the film we empathise for her on a personal level. The rest of the men in Stepford comes across as sleazy opportunists with backwards views, which is more evident now looking back in 2018.

The Stepford Wives

Indeed, the film had it’s fair share of lovers as well as haters, and it was groundbreaking for many reasons. As discussed by Judy Klemesrud for the New York Times, with its “frequent references to the women’s movement, “The Stepford Wives” is one of the first films to deal with feminism in any manner.” Klemesrud details the reaction of viewers during a screening of the film and a discussion afterwards, which was put on by screenwriter Eleanor Perry, and her daughter, Ann Bayer. As Klemesrud states in her piece, the reason for this special screening was “because the film includes a consciousness‐raising session” and  so women could get the chance “to air their feelings—gripes, praise or otherwise—about the film and its ideas.”

It is interesting to read about the opinions and views of the women at Perry and Bayer’s viewing session, as we see how the film divided its audience. A writer called Linda Arin was the first to voice her opinion of the film, stating: “I think it’s completely ridiculous. It dumps on everyone—women, men, suburbia. It confirms every fear we’ve ever had about the battle of the sexes, and it says there is no way for people to get together and lead human lives.”

Although there are those who enjoyed the film, with writer Gael Greener being reported as saying “I loved it — those men were like a lot of men I’ve known in my life. They really do want wives who are robots.” Eleanor Perry also agreed and is reported of saying that, “The film presses buttons that make you furious—the fact that all the Stepford men wanted were big breasts, big bottoms, a clean house, fresh‐perked coffee and sex.” Indeed, the way the women are presented after their transformation, with their perfect hairstyles, long flowing dresses and white gloves, presents a male fantasy of an ideal woman from of the Victoria era before the suffragette movement.

The Stepford Wives

Later in the article, Klemesrud notes how someone at the discussion stated, “Men made this film, right?” clearly it was evident from the dialogue the person declared. And perhaps maybe, The Stepford Wives would have been stronger if it had been directed by a female or the screenplay had been penned by a woman? Either way, looking back at the 1975 version makes me realise that it is an underrated horror classic, and I think if an adptation came out today it would be more popular, but that’s only if it was played as a straight horror and not a comedy (yes, I’m discussing that remake here).

Personally speaking, I believe The Stepford Wives, is pro second wave feminism, and is very critical about the treatment of women. It is a very important film as it captures the feelings of men and women alike at that very specific point in time, offering us a way to look back and see just how far we’ve come although there’s clearly work to be done still. Just keep an eye out when you go to do your grocery shopping because that’s when we’ll know that fiction has become a reality.

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