The term "Stepford wife" has been in the American vocabulary for the last couple of decades, despite the fact that the film has been out of circulation for years. Out of print on tape until a couple of years ago, the concept still proved engaging enough that three made-for-TV sequels have been released over the last 25 years. Most bizarrely, the popular definition of a Stepford wife has changed significantly from its meaning in the original film. For instance, here are the lyrics to the Chumbawamba song "Big Mouth Strikes Again":
Stepford husbands, Stepford wives
With longer scissors, sharper knives
So sugar-sweet, they spend their time
As censors, working overtime
A quick check of the web shows that the term Stepford wife is most often associated with Martha Stewart and Tipper Gore, neither of whom come close to being a Stepford wife. Sure, Martha Stewart is probably a robot, but she's something a lot closer to a T-800.
Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) is a young amateur photographer with two children who moves to the town of Stepford with her husband, Walter. Walter is a lawyer working in New York City, but he has dreamed of moving to the suburbs in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Joanna doesn't enjoy suburban life, it's true, but Stepford is worse than just boring: something else is going on.
For one thing, most of the married women in Stepford are positively obsessed with housekeeping. Bobbi (Paula Prentiss), a sassy woman who quickly becomes Kathy's best friend in town, puts it this way: "It's like maids have been declared illegal and the housewife with the neatest place gets Robert Redford for Christmas." Wasn't that a movie with Demi Moore? Actually, Demi wasn't much of housekeeper, now that we think about it. She left all of those hundred-dollar bills lying around.
But beyond the unnatural cleanliness, Joanna is faced with a number of surreal episodes that further illustrate how unusual the town's populace is. Upon witnessing a fender bender at the grocery store, she notices that one of the women involved in the accident keeps repeating the same apologetic phrases, almost nonsensically. As the ambulance drives away, Joanna also notes that it travels in a direction completely opposite to that of the Stepford hospital.
"I love my new "Britney" bra!"
After some unsuccessful attempts at "women's lib," as Joanna puts it, the two women discover that Stepford wasn't always this way. It once had a women's group with a healthy membership, but that dissolved some years ago. Now the town seems to be under the control of the mysterious Men's Association and its ominous leader, Dale "Diz" Coba (Patrick O'Neal). Why they call him Diz is a pretty big clue as to what is going on: he used to work for Disney World. It soon becomes plain that the women of Stepford are being coerced, brainwashed, or otherwise altered to fit the Betty Crocker mentality. (To give away more would do a disservice to those who haven't seen the film.) When Walter joins the Men's Association and Bobbi herself turns happy homemaker, Joanna feels the noose tightening about her neck.
One could argue that The Stepford Wives is not a horror movie (it is often labeled as a "thriller"), but it is certainly horrifying. The notion that a small group of people could take over a town so entirely is frightening enough; such conspiracies were probably big on the national conscience so soon after Watergate. The idea that women could be so easily "replaced" with Betty Crocker drones is also pretty scary. (Don't their children notice the sudden personality shift?) And we also have to wonder about the physical side of all this. It is implied that all of the Stepford Wives have been "improved," apparently with the design help of a pin-up illustrator based on Alberto Vargas. But why stop there? Are there also Stepford Mistressess, all of whom look like Charlize Theron and Elizabeth Hurley? Sadly, this possibility is left unexplored.
The worst side-effects of Lasik eye
surgery were discovered too late.
But most disturbing of all is the thought that men of any intelligence would so willingly trade their smart, independent wives for mere domestic and sexual slaves. It's hinted at that the "improved" women are the perfect companions, but listening to them babble about "Easy-On" spray starch convinced us that there are some design flaws. Would 1970's men really be so seduced by the image of the 1950's housewife that they would resort to these lengths to get them? The Stepford Wives is written well enough that a plausible case is made, which means that it joins The Handmaid's Tale among the ranks of movies that men do not want to show to the women they're dating.
None of these events would horrify us so easily if it weren't for the way these characters jump quickly to life; within seconds of meeting the effusive and sarcastic Bobbi, Joanna likes her, and so do we. It also helps that each new character on screen brings out something new in our heroine. Every scene reveals another wrinkle in Joanna's personality, which is just as fascinating to watch as the overall plot -- and which makes the imminent "Stepford lobotomy" she fears seem that much more tragic.
The mindlessness of the Stepford wives is what disqualifies them from what the term has come to mean. Women like Tipper Gore and Martha Stewart have ideas (no matter how frightening you find them), and they make those ideas known; the women of Stepford can only defer to their men. We certainly can't envision any of these walking stain removal encyclopedias pleading for the censorship of entertainment in front of a Senate committee or launching their own lines of home decor a K-Mart. Hmmm. Somehow we got turned around into an endorsement of the Stepford process. Now where did we leave Diz's business card?