Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Sexism of 'The Stepford Wives'

I'd be tempted to say that you couldn't remake "The Stepford Wives" that premiered 40 years ago today — except that they did remake it more than a decade ago. It wasn't as good — honestly, can you think of a remake that was as good as the original? — but it certainly wasn't the worst remake I have ever seen.

The original of "The Stepford Wives" really was kind of creepy — and I say that from the perspective of the teenager I was when I first saw it. The original doesn't seem creepy to me now — and the remake never has. I guess it would be strange to feel that way about the remake. It was more of a parody of the original, a comedy. The original was anything but a comedy.

When I first saw it, I didn't think of the sexist angle — that the men had all the choice in Stepford and the women had none. I didn't think of that, only of having one's individuality stripped away. I never really thought of it in gender–specific terms. Maybe I was the only one who didn't.

I'd like to think that is understandable. I'm a writer; writers are creative and very individual. To be stripped of our individuality is a fate worse than death.

Katharine Ross was one of my favorite actresses in those days. She was in many of my favorite movies from that period — "The Graduate," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" — and she was always playing characters who had very strong individual streaks. They all had other flaws — but not in that department.

In "The Stepford Wives," Ross played a photographer. A pretty good one, too, as I recall. When she and her family left the big city for the country town of Stepford, the audience saw Stepford as she saw it — through the lens of her camera. And she began to observe things through that lens — the women of Stepford were all gorgeous and obsessed with keeping their homes clean but had few, if any, interests beyond that.

There was a men's association in Stepford and, to counter it, Ross and a couple of free spirits (Paula Prentiss and Tina Louise) tried to organize a women's lib group, but it dissolved into a discussion of cleaning techniques.

Later, after Louise went away for the weekend with her husband and came back a changed woman, you might say, Ross and Prentiss began to do some investigating of their own — and didn't like what they found. Apparently, there was some kind of conspiracy to replace the individual women with mindless, obedient robots — if that is what they were. That part remained in doubt for awhile until Ross encountered her own duplicate, an android that looked like her and sounded like her but had no interests beyond cooking and cleaning — and had black, lifeless eyes.

My memory is that the movie was well received — but not enthusiastically — and has achieved something of a cult status over the years.

The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Films named Ross its Best Actress for 1975.