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Stepford Holds Up a Mirror to Modern Society
By Leslie J. Thompson

The gentleman in the white tuxedo jacket offers his hand to the woman at his side. She takes it demurely, and they step onto the dance floor. As the first notes of a waltz rise into the air, he twirls her around so that the buttery yellow skirt of her ball gown spreads into a full circle. The fitted bodice of her dress shows off her delicate waistline, and she throws her head back in delight, her smile beaming toward the heavens. She is every inch a lady.

But it’s not real. It can’t be. And if you want to live this way, there is something terribly, terribly wrong with you.

So preaches The Stepford Wives, director Frank Oz’s dark comedy remake of the 1975 cult horror classic, based on the novel by Ira Levin. Such beauty, civility and class simply don’t exist anymore, we are told. Prettiness and courtesy are bad, selfishness and cynicism are good. Sure, the message is delivered tongue-in-cheek. But even in poking fun at ladder-climbing career women and the nebbishes who love them, The Stepford Wives promotes a pernicious agenda: Status is the ultimate measure of success, so grab everything you can and squash those who stand in your way.

Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken and Jon Lovitz in The Stepford Wives
Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken and Jon Lovitz in The Stepford Wives
In the film’s opening scenes, we see über-achiever Joanna Eberhard (Nicole Kidman) plummet from the pinnacle to the nadir of her career in the same day. Summarily ousted from the television network of which she was president, she heads home to her husband Walter Kresby (Matthew Brodderick) and their two children,and promptly has a complete mental breakdown. The couple decides to start over with their marriage by moving to idyllic Stepford, Connecticut, a town stuck in time. Here, neatly manicured lawns border stately homes, and the wives spend weekends at the day spa, while their husbands kick back with cigars and scotch at the Men’s Club. Life is perfect.

Of course, lurking beneath the polished exterior, the town holds an ugly secret: The women have all been “programmed,” turned into vapid robots by quirky mad scientist Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken) with the consent of their spouses. The evil dweebs must be stopped, and the women set free from their boring Betty Crocker lives! (Instead, we should aspire to be like Martha Stewart, charged with insider trading as we build a lucrative home economics empire.)

The good old days are gone, the movie tells us. If people actually live by traditional gender roles or seem genuinely happy, they must be brainwashed. Everybody knows that real women don’t wear beautiful, tailored dresses and prepare healthful lunches for their children. There are no more town picnics, no more bake sales. Instead, we live in a world of two-career households in which parents spend an average of 17.5 hours per week with their children, according to a national survey. We have kids who buy their lunches from vending machines and suffer from morbid obesity before they hit puberty. We have teenagers raised on video games committing homicide in school halls.

Stressed out corporate gamer Joanna Eberhard (Kidman) tries to play nice.
Stressed out corporate gamer Joanna Eberhard (Kidman) tries to play nice.
As viewers, we are shown that you can’t be selfless, caring and devoted unless you’re a robot. But Joanna doesn’t even try. Sure, she goes on a one-day muffin-baking binge and dons a frilly frock to blend with the locals. But she stays close to her cynical sidekicks, man-hating author Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and flamboyantly gay drama queen Roger Bannister (Roger Bart). In the end, Joanna’s me-first attitude, mean-spiritedness and outright fear prevent her from striving to mend her ways or her marriage. No, The Stepford Wives is not meant to be a morality play, nor is the film a total wash. The costumes are stunning, the script has its moments of levity, and Bette Midler looks smashing as a blonde. But ironically, the comedic remake of this horror classic is far more terrifying than the original, because it holds up a mirror to show us just how grotesque our society has become.

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