‘Don’t Worry Darling’ is the latest movie to reference ‘The Stepford Wives’: Here’s why the original still resonates

« What will you miss the most in New York? »

« Noise. »

Who wouldn’t want to live in Stepford? It’s a quaint suburb full of beautiful lawns and gorgeous homes. The school system is great. Plus, as the locals will tell you, it’s a very progressive community. (Why a black couple just moved in recently!) But Joanna isn’t so sure. A wife and mother of two – and an aspiring photographer – she instantly bristles in the cozy Connecticut town where her husband Walter has moved her with their children. This Manhattanite can’t put her finger on it, but there’s something stuffy about this place. It’s just too quiet. Joanna misses the noise. He misses the hum of life.

Even if you haven’t seen The Women of Stepford, you probably know that. In the 47 years since the film hit theaters around Valentine’s Day in 1975, the film has cast a long shadow over popular culture. Some films are classics because of their artistry, while others become part of our collective consciousness because they touch on something real about ourselves. Based on the novel by Ira Levin, The Women of Stepford is a good movie, but its staying power comes mostly from the fact that it continues to creep into the national conversation.

This is especially true with the recent release of don’t worry darling (now streaming): Olivia Wilde’s middling thriller, about a happy housewife (Florence Pugh) who discovers her perfect life with hubby Harry Styles isn’t all it seems, has been constantly compared to The Women of Stepford. More a shortcut than a movie, The Women of Stepford is parodied, referenced, simplified and sometimes misunderstood. Too easily, it is reduced to « this film about women who turn into obedient robots ». But while that’s essentially correct, it doesn’t do justice to everything that happens in this teasing, tense film.

THE STEPFORD WIVES, Toni Reid, Carole Mallory, Tina Louise, Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Barbara
Photo: Everett Collection

Levin had already written another novel which was turned into a film in tune with the times, Rosemary’s baby, also about a woman trapped in a golden cage that she only slowly becomes aware of. When he wrote The Women of Stepfordwhich was published in 1972, it was inspired by several different factors: the then-popular belief that we would all soon have domestic robots, Disneyland’s bizarre Hall of Presidents animatronic exhibit, and his own divorce – although in 2002, he insisted, « my wife at the time was definitely not a Stepford wife.

He poured those technophobic worries and personal apprehensions about life in the suburbs into a bestseller, prompting a film adaptation, directed by Bryan Forbes, which starred Katharine Ross as Joanna, with Peter Masterson playing her husband. blissfully oblivious, Walter. Their marriage is an old-fashioned marriage — he’s the emotionally distant earning lawyer, she raises the kids — but a slight whiff of feminism is also evident. Not only does Joanna want to pursue her photography, but she finds herself bored by the sleepy luxury of suburban Stepford. Too many women are obsessed with cleaning – their whole personality is built around talking about cleaning products – which Joanna finds overwhelming. None of them have hobbies? None of them are alive?

Luckily, Joanna meets Bobby (Paula Prentiss), who has also recently moved into the community and is equally appalled at how little interest it is getting. Angered that Stepford has a men’s association, which has nothing comparable for women in town, these quick friends decide to organize their own group. The problem is that none of the wives are interested – and, even more troubling, the few nurturing women in town inexplicably begin to drop out of their extracurricular activities. (Tina Louise’s Athletic Charmaine doesn’t think her beloved personal tennis court is being destroyed – after all, she really should be pouring her energies into her husband’s needs, right?) Walter doesn’t think that Stepford is so bad – isn’t she glad they have a bigger house, with a room to develop her pictures? – but Joanna begins to suspect something sinister is afoot.

The Women of Stepford wasn’t the first film to suggest that Picket Fence, USA wasn’t as glorious as advertised – films such as Invasion of the Body Thieves and night of the living dead examined the rot at the heart of American domesticity — but it crystallized different anxieties about a changing society, one that embraced suburban contentment but also pushed back an old patriarchal mindset. Read both feminist and anti-feminist at the time, The Women of Stepford sounds a lot like a horror movie about how women faced resistance from society as they tried to escape outdated roles for themselves.

« The Women of Stepford wasn’t the first movie to suggest that Picket Fence, USA wasn’t as glorious as advertised, but it did crystallize different anxieties about a changing society, a society that embraced suburban contentment but also pushed back a old patriarchal mindset.

Granted, the film’s melodramatic qualities can now seem almost campy, but Ross brings such a subtle edge to Joanna that it’s only ultimately that it becomes clear that Stepford is just that character’s latest displeasure. . Whether it’s visiting a scientist ex-boyfriend who reminds her of the life she had before settling down or struggling to develop her eye as a photographer, Joanna not only resists the Stepford’s brainwashed vibe – she’s terrified of entering the prison that domesticity often creates for women. Being turned into a dead-eyed, wise non-person was a huge fear for her long before we encountered the actual robot replicas that were made of Stepford’s wives.

Shortly after the release of the book and film, the notion of « Stepford’s wife » emerged as a derogatory euphemism to describe an insidious form of commonplace groupthink – particularly among women – which could often be sexist. and degrading. (“Stepford wife” is sort of the original “Women Be Shopping.”) But the film makes it pretty clear that the history portrayal of programmed acquiescence wasn’t a condition Stepford women wanted – it was imposed on them by their husbands, who would prefer that life go back to the way it was. The pretty, smiling, servile wives are an ugly male fantasy – a grotesque hold on to a past, regressive world order.

Photo: Everett Collection

But the phrase persisted for other reasons: The Women of Stepford lays bare the animosity city dwellers feel towards the suburbs, which are often viewed as safe and conformist, the kind of place where once vital folks go to die – or, just as tragically, become contented fools. In Stepford, mindless consumerism runs rampant – the film ends in an eerily shimmering supermarket as robot women shop – and the messy vitality of life has been wiped away like grout on the bathroom tile. Everything is flawless, nothing seems real. Long before The matrix turned it into a meme, The Women of Stepford warned of the terror of taking the blue pill of narcotized naivety.

Over the next few years, Hollywood attempted to revisit and remake the creeping paranoia of the 1975 film. courtesy of Jordan Peele, whose Oscar-winning directorial debut get out turned Stepford into a radical takedown of systemic racism. Peele, who is quoted The Women of Stepford and Rosemary’s baby as sources of inspiration for get out, not only expanded the concept of the original story, but also critiqued it, pointing out intolerance beneath a nation’s well-meaning platitudes. (You can easily imagine the people of Stepford insisting they would have voted for Obama for a third term.) By comparison, don’t worry darling just get ideas from The Women of Stepford — along with those from other movies, which I won’t elaborate on to avoid spoilers — to craft a toothless commentary on the patriarchy that doesn’t feel as fresh as what Levin had in mind decades ago.

Currently, The Women of Stepford is hard to find online – it’s only available on Tubi, which requires you to watch ads throughout the film. Normally I don’t pay much attention to it, but in this case they added a spooky new texture to the movie. Watching sparkling, attractive women selling products like Febreze, equating happiness with a clean house, was almost as disturbing as anything else in The Women of Stepford.

Tim Grierson (@timgrierson) is the primary US spokesperson for Screen International. A frequent contributor to Vulture, Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times, he is the author of seven books, including the most recent, This is how we make a movie.


Back to top button