Sunday, September 10, 2006

[movie] The Stepford Wives

    I know the real reason the wives of the Manhattan suburb of Stepford are so happy. While their husbands work 80-hour weeks, they spend mornings leisurely reading the paper, afternoons playing tennis and socializing, evenings walking the dog through quiet, peaceful neighborhoods. As far as I can tell from the movie, the husbands do all the real work around the house too: planning and supervising new construction projects (like putting in a new swimming pool), doing the yardwork, organizing family vacations and dates with the wife. Even when grocery shopping, the husband comes along with the checkbook to pay for it all.

    I watched the 1975 version of the movie, so I noticed much of the dialog feels anachronistic and even silly today. At one point the main character confides to her friend that she once "dabbled in Women's lib", like it was some secret outlaw organization. None of the wives have, or apparently ever had, careers of any kind, and they show no detectable interest either. It's hard to tell whether that's part of the script -- to make you feel the pain of their lack of self-fulfillment -- or whether it was simply not something audiences would have understood.

    Today we live in an odd time of transition. The Post-Stepford America of the 70s and 80s went through a long period where it became not just an option, but an expectation that women hold down full-time business-oriented careers. Through today's eyes, the Stepford wives look not so much suppressed as, well, lazy. Instead of sitting around all day waiting for their husbands to come home, why aren't they doing something? Meanwhile, today's post-70s men have moved on. There are no men-only associations. Fathers drop the kids at daycare because the mothers need to get to work early. The ironic legacy of Stepford is that most families can't afford to have one person stay home all day, even if he or she wants to.

    The reviews for the 2004 remake are disappointing, but now I want to watch it anyway just to see how the filmmakers dealt with the cultural transition. Are the wives at work too now?  Are there Stepford husbands who are programmed only to please their wives?   Or -- I hope not -- did they leave the basic premise alone and recreate a world that no longer exists?


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