THE STEPFORD WIVES: Lost in Translation From Book to Screen, Part II

January 18th, 2022

As discussed in my previous post, THE STEPFORD WIVES is a significant film in cinema history, focusing on the conflict and struggles American women faced specifically due to their sex. But the film could have benefited in depicting the wives of Stepford in a more sympathetic light, thus allowing the viewer to see them as not just robotic characters but rather as tragic reminders of the violence these women experienced at the hands of ruthless, controlling men.

The satirical and humorous elements of the film are largely derived from reducing these female “characters” to suburban caricatures obsessed with cleaning their homes and pleasing their homes. In the nearly fifty years since the film’s release, the term “Stepford Wife” is still commonly used as an insult against any woman perceived as shallow, obedient, and/or not so bright. Perhaps this is the inevitable and unfortunate consequence of a film where much of the humor comes at the expense of the victims whose punishment is played for laughs. Too bad. Perhaps the film would be more faithful to the feminist book had Ira Levin titled the book “The Stepford Husbands” instead. After all, it’s the men who should have earned our contempt and disdain and not the wives whom they’ve destroyed. None of those women began as mindless robots with perfect bodies and an unhealthy obsession with cleaning. It was the very fact that they were vibrant, free-thinking and professionally accomplished that riled the insecurities of the Stepford husbands who invented a whole new brand of domestic violence to subvert them that way.

Unlike the book, the film falters by featuring scenes in which the sole purpose of which is to ridicule the wives of these Stepford husbands. In one, Joanna has gathered the wives for a female  consciousness awareness session in hopes she might engage these women with relevant topics and interests outside their limited world of waxing and dusting. The session quickly descends into farce as they are clearly more interested in discussing the wonders of cleaning agents then in the pertinent issues confronting the modern American woman. I recognize that this scene can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Some may view this scene with horror at seeing these wives devoid of any thoughts or ideas. And the viewer feels compassion for Joanna who is clearly distraught by the behavior of the wives. But there is also a sense that these women are being portrayed as vacuous bimbos worthy of derision. The audience is encouraged to find humor in a type of woman that society also holds up as ideal. In another scene, a Stepford wife is having sex with her husband in the middle of the day while loudly proclaiming him the best lover ever. While I once found these scenes laugh out loud funny, they no longer seem quite as entertaining. Now there is a discomfiting sense that the male director and studio executives derived an almost perverse pleasure at ridiculing these robot figures who physically resemble women and reducing them to mere objects of scorn and contempt. It is also worth noting that the scene doesn’t originate from the novel but was written into the screenplay.

Additionally, certain scenes from the book that were omitted from the film would have offered a more balanced approach to the portrayal of the Stepford Wives. One of the most riveting scenes is when Joanna discovers that the rise of the Men’s Association aligned proportionately with the decline of the League of Women Voters as well as the suspension of the Women’s Club due to a sudden diminishing membership. The Men’s Association is now poised to purchase a home that will be forbidden to women to enter (except for those being turned into robots.) Some insight is also provided into the women who have been replaced by androids. Joanna learns that the wife of the Men’s Association President Mrs. Coba (she is never given a first name) majored in languages at college and was “using her spare time to write a translation of the classic Norwegian novel “The Commander’s Daughters.” The reader never meets Mrs. Coba, but it’s illuminating to learn these details of her life before it was snuffed out. The other wives may have also been ambitious and accomplished with interests separate from their domestic responsibilities. Many of them probably identified with the women’s movement since they formed groups responding to the political needs and interests of women. Ira Levin was careful not to portray them in a contemptuous manner that would inspire mockery. And so he provided details to remind the reader of what was lost. The movie needed this exactly this type of scene to humanize the former real women of Stepford thus not diminishing the horror and tragedy of what has befallen them.




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