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You Can’t Stop Stepford

Originally posted October 2019

I want to talk about two movies that scream for context. By 1975, through consciousness raising, bra burning, and symbolic jettisoning of razor blades, feminism was scaring men. In 2004, the United States had walked into Iraq under what was later known to be political fabrication, Lance Armstrong won his 6th Tour de France—later known to be the result of illegal doping, and the U.K. banned fox hunting.

Also, in 1975, The Stepford Wives was released, adapted from Ira Levin’s suburban thriller. In 2004 the film was remade by Frank Oz, aka Miss Piggy and Cookie Monster. Before starting my review, opinion, and serialized listing of facts, I need to disclose that I had not seen the remake until today because one of my failings is that I often form opinions without knowing the facts.

Stepford Wives ’75 is a good candidate for Horror Month. For openers, the film introduces a New York couple who move to the Connecticut suburbs with their two children. Joanna, mother and would-be photographer, left out of her husband’s decision to debark Manhattan, is disquieted and mournful. As a boilerplate troubled-couple film, Stepford Wives is B movie criteria. But hints of danger are expressed in her husband’s eyes, Joanna’s sketched portrait in which the husbands show great interest, the wives’ bizarre behavior. William Goldman’s (All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride) bewitching script propelled the film into a box office bonanza.

I really enjoyed Stepford ’04. Frank Oz added generous doses of comedy. Glenn Close and Christopher Walken portray Stepford’s leading citizens, Nicole Kidman’s Joanna is an obsessed, ambitious television producer who has been fired for over-hyping a reality program with mortal consequences, and Matthew Broderick is her ever-suffering husband. Both films follow Joanna as she tries to unravel the mysteries of Stepford and unwittingly walks into her own unpleasant destiny.

Oz has freshened the bleak inevitability of Stepford ’75. Yes, similarities are obnoxious male privilege and over-sexualized women, but the malicious mind behind the science differs in Stepford ’04 in a significant and satisfying way. The science itself is updated with the use of bionics, rather than murder followed by replication. Also, the outcome of Oz’s version is, of course, not the inevitable triumph of men over women as in ’75, but the triumph of women over men.

Levin’s novel is described as satirical science fiction. I read the book, but I really don’t remember it well. Stepford ’74 has been stripped of satire and loaded down with depressive futility. The satire has been re-infused into the ’04 film with delightful glee, and a generous dose of black humor. Oz also gets to exercise his puppetry chops in the CGI creation of a robot dog.

I was going to title this blog “How did we get to Stepford?”, but the chant from the ’04 film, when the only gay couple undergo the Stepford change, seems preciously appropriate. The question is still valid. Catch-phrases like “white male privilege”, “Incel” and the “manosphere” populate Internet speech in increasing numbers. I argue that the executive branch of today’s elected president has shown a big green Go sign to misogynous trolls. Watch both movies. Re-read Levin’s book, along with Margaret Atwood, Jean Rhys and Maya Angelou. Follow the history of female whistleblowers who were ignored and disrespected before MeToo.

Perhaps the real horror is that women can never, ever, be complacent.

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