Musing on the Menfolk of THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975)


So I’m not the first person to posit the whole <<patriarchy hurts men/feminism actually helps men, can you believe it?>> formation, nor am I the first this Halloween season to say, hey, maybe it’s worth (re)visiting the 1975 The Stepford Wivesdirected by Bryan Forbes.

Has anyone brought those two points into conversation though? Likely. The internet is huge. That said, I haven’t read it (yet), so here goes!

I showed The Stepford Wives in my Horror class this week: it fit neatly into the “Humor and Horrors of Modern Life” unit of the course and sets us up for next week’s screening of Get Out. It also continued many of the themes and questions we have been asking throughout the semester, namely, how does the horror genre use metaphor to discuss real-life horrors and terrors? How do these movies say what is otherwise unsayable?

The movie is an obvious, chilling but at times campy, commentary on the pressures women face to be what Stepford‘s director calls “Marilyn Monroe meets June Cleaver” — indeed, this is in large part what (white, middle-class) second-wave feminists were reacting against through the women’s liberation movement, though Betty Friedan famously hated The Stepford Wives and mistrusted author Ira Levin’s allegedly good intentions.

But — and I cringe to put this in writing, so imagine it delivered with a thick layer of irony that does not completely undercut my meaning — what about men, you guys? 

The Stepford Wives is a really killer text for understanding how the patriarchy hurts men, even if the argument is more subtly rendered than the film’s “without feminism, women gotta be robots” through-line. Specifically, I want to point to two moments, the first being when the protagonist Joanna’s husband, Walter, comes home from his first Men’s Association meeting. She discovers him, in the middle of the night, drinking a Scotch and staring into the fire. Joanna is worried about him and his mood and urges him to come to bed, and he responds tearily with a deep and seemingly genuine confession of love. Of course, how genuine could it be if, based on what we discover later, he has committed to swapping out his wife with a look-alike robot and condemning his wife to, what? (I mean, murder. He’s condemning her to death. He’s hard to like, but of Ira Levin husbands, I can’t help but hate Guy Woodhouse. Even. More.)

Stepford Wives I Love You.png

I would cross-reference this moment with one of the final scenes: he chases his wife up the stairs, visibly drunk and continuing to drink, as the plan to Stepfordize his spouse is in its final throes. At the risk of sounding like overly sympathetic to a monstrous character: destroying his wife does not suit him. While he does yell at her, in an ugly argument, that he wishes she would spend more time cleaning the house and the children, there’s no reason for him for that teary fireside love fest unless he, like, you know, means it.

Possibly Betty Friedan hated this film in how much it lets the husband character off the hook — he is, somehow, pitiful in these moments, even as he sets in motion the murder of his wife, the mother of his children. And indeed, there is something sinister about the inevitability of Joanna’s destruction. While she runs from the Men’s Association mastermind at first — she is, naturally, the Final Girl in this horror show — the end of her life is not frantic. She recoils but ultimately succumbs. The game is up, and there is no way out.

It is worth, then, considering how Walter is in that same boat as Joanna — and we should do this without releasing him from moral responsibility within the narrative. He does the unspeakable and is of course a villain, but yet the film is at least partially invested in having us know that he is conflicted and even unhappy about it. Maybe it is not just the women who are programmed or trapped: the Men’s Association is the Patriarchy, and yet its members are also victims of their own rules and plans. Thus, we can think about how the Patriarchy programs men who want or at least could do better. This is why Feminism Is Good For Everyone.

Then again, does anyone who reads this blog disagree? Preaching to the cinephile choir 😉

Coda: I cannot tell enough people to watch The One I Love. This indie film co-starring Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss is more than it seems. It is a compelling companion piece to The Stepford Wives in how it asks a similar, if not identical, set of questions through a bizarro genre lens, namely: “What does it mean to love someone? Can we love someone else or only the projection of them that we choose or prefer? Do any of us want to be partnered with Real, Messy People, or is what we really want more selfish and less evolved than romantic comedies would have us believe?”

Watch it watch it watch it. No plot spoilers, just go watch!

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