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Surrendered Wives

To see how feminism is being undone, have a look at The Stepford Wives, redone.

By Dorothy Woodend 1 Jul 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

I saw the original Stepford Wives when I was very young. I don't remember where I saw it or who I was with. All I remember was my piercing sense of injustice, and an anger so great I couldn't contain it in my small body. Early film experiences can mark us in a way that later cinema going can never match and, for me, this was what you might call a defining feminist moment.

The film adaptation of Ira Levin's book, (starring Katharine Ross) was made in 1975 during a heady time in women's history. The Second Wave was cresting and women were mad, bad and not easy to know. Steinem, Greer, Friedan -- the big girls-- had taken the field and feminism was alive, kicking ass and taking numbers.

So it's peculiar that The Stepford Wives should reappear at this particular cultural moment and in the form that it does. The original film was meant as a thriller, a 70s dystopian view of gender politics, one in which the war between men and women was just that, a war, with casualties, betrayals, and death on both sides.

Echoes of Lepine

In the modern version, things have changed. Joanna Eberhard (played by Nicole Kidman) is still an independent woman, a network executive who gets canned after her reality TV series prompts a jilted husband to shout "Kill all the women!" as he tries to shoot her. This joke just isn't all that funny. The echoes of Marc Lepine may send shudders rather than laughs down Canadian spines.

In order to rebuild her obliterated sense of self, as well as her fractured family and foundering marriage, Joanna relocates with hubby and kiddies to the gated community of Stepford, Connecticut, a lovely town where the men are geeks and the women spit money out of their mouths. Joanna isn't there very long before she realizes that things aren't quite alright in good old Stepford.

She hooks up with the resident Jewish broad Bobbie Markowitz (played by who else but Better Midler) and the resident gayboy Roger Bannister (Roger Bart) and the trio begin a quest to find out why the women dress in only Lily Pulitzer and Pucci and the 50s have never ended. The town is run by Christopher Walken and Glenn Close, the Alpha couple from hell. When Joanna's friends are Stepfordized, she realizes that she's next unless she can convince hubby Walter (Matthew Broderick) that love is the answer. This being a modern Hollywood film, there's no such thing as an unhappy ending. The original film ended with Katharine Ross numbly pushing her shopping cart down the grocery aisle. The final shot was a close up of her terrified eyes and it wasn't certain if she was really a robot or just faking it in order to survive. Whichever option, each carried its own horror.

Well-placed consumables

That razor edge is completely gone from the remake of The Stepford Wives. It's a comedy and no one gets really hurt. The women aren't even dead. They just have microchips in their brains. But if you look more closely you'll find other things to be unnerved by.

There are product placements galore in the film; even the film trailer is designed to look like an advertisement. Hummers, Versace, Gucci: people aren't defined by the politics but by their purchases. When the token gay man is roboticized, it's his flamboyant wardrobe that's the first thing to go. Out goes the Dolce & Gabbana and in comes the Brookes Brothers suit. Stepford is also uniformly white; everyone has a giant SUV to drive into their monster house garages. But the most frightening thing in the movie isn't Nicole Kidman's stringy arms, or Christopher Walken's anything. It's memory. Or lack of memory. It's forgetting. Erasure. Real feminism has been replaced with a good looking plastic replacement and no one really noticed.

'Return of the pig'

An article in The Atlantic Monthly (April 2003) entitled "The Return of the Pig", by David Brooks, asked: "Have you noticed that male chauvinism is making a comeback? Thirty years after the feminist revolution, if you look at the rap videos on MTV or BET, you'll find that 'ho' and 'bitch' are just about the nicest words used to describe young women... But these men have not a hint of any quality that might make them attractive to progressive and mature women. Their world has been vacuumed free of empathy, sensitivity, and sophistication. It is as if millions of American men -- many of them well educated -- took a look at the lifestyle prescribed by modern feminism and decided, No thanks, we'd rather be pigs. What caused it?"

Brooks's argument is that feminism is, for many (younger) people, a relic of history, no longer relevant in the modern age. It is this sense of forgetting that worries many modern thinkers. It works extremely well for regressive policy makers. The Bush Administration in the U.S. has quietly but systemically dismantled many sources of information relevant to the position of women. A report from The National Council for Research on Women, called MISSING: Information about Women's Lives states: "Front-line offices designed to assure that the concerns of women are addressed in policy development, such as the Office of Women's Initiatives and Outreach in the White House, have disappeared."

How to keep your man

Other more extreme examples of genuine Stepford behaviour really exist: just have a read of Laura Doyle's The Surrendered Wife: A Practical Guide for Finding Intimacy, Passion, and Peace with Your Man. Doyle advises women to find eternal happiness by letting their husband rule their lives: no arguing, no criticizing, and never, never refuse sex, even if you don't feel like it. Do all this and you too can live happily ever after. Just like Laura Bush, who perhaps likes to relax by bleaching her cabinets and rearranging her book shelves and never saying no to George.

These days, even though women can be network executives, brain surgeons, and NASA engineers, really all they want is the love of their husbands. Like any good surrendered wife, this is what drives Glenn Close's character to kill and then replicate her husband with a robot, although why she didn't give him the body of an Adonis and Orlando Bloom's cheekbones, I don't know.

The Stepford Wives also blunders quite inadvertently into another recent cultural debate. Whereas in the 1975 version, it was the men who were evil, this time, it's actually a woman behind it all. The idea that women can be evil is not a particularly revolutionary -- Eve was the original bad girl -- but many of the modern tenets of feminism were founded on a sense of women as victims and men as victimizers. This has permanently been altered by a few photos out of Iraq.

'Hi from Abu Ghraib'

Barbara Ehrenreich, in a speech at the 2004 Barnard Commencement ceremonies, summed it up quite nicely. "I had no illusions about the United States mission in Iraq, but it turns out that I did have some illusions about women. There was the photo of Specialist Sabrina Harman smiling an impish little smile and giving the thumbs sign from behind a pile of naked  Iraqi men -- as if to say, 'Hi mom, here I am in Abu Ghraib!' We've gone from the banality of evil... to the cuteness of evil...But there's another thing that died for me in the last couple of weeks -- a certain kind of feminism or, perhaps I should say, a certain kind of feminist naiveté. It was a kind of feminism that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims, and male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice."

If injustice is now announcing itself as an equal opportunity employer, the same can't be said of the modern version of feminism. These days, women can still have it all, but only as long as they are hot, well-dressed, buy all the right products, and most importantly, can get and keep a man.

The original film was fairly ham fisted and direct in making its point. The new version might look like a feminist film, talk like a feminist film, but where its heart should be there is nothing but cogs and gears. It's well made, funny, entertaining, and it doesn't have a political thought in its pretty little head. When I walked out of the theatre, I didn't feel anything at all.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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