What is The Stepford Wives about? As originally conceived, it’s a feminist satire about the desire of suburban men to turn their wives into automotons. Ira Levin’s 1972 novel is a perfect combination of humor and suspense, told almost entirely from the point of view of one of those wives: Joanna Eberhart, and creates a brilliant sort of nervous anxiety around the ambiguity of whether or not her paranoia about what’s happening to the women of Stepford is real or in her imagination. But there’s a certain name that recurs in both Levin’s novel and the 1975 movie adaptation directed by Bryan Forbes that seems to have a much greater significance now than anyone possibly could have intended back then: Disney.
Back in the early 70s, it probably seemed like Walt Disney’s impact on popular culture was waning. Hollywood was entering a new era of realism and this “New Hollywood” wave of creativity could be interpreted as a response to the family-friendly conformity practiced by Disney and the movie industry in general during the notorious Production Code days. Disney cartoons and animated features were on the way out too, cheap, low-budget affairs compared to the luxurious productions made during Walt Disney the man’s own lifetime. No one could have known or even guessed that in just a few short decades, the Walt Disney Corporation would have succeeded in replacing some of the most beloved fictional characters of all time—from Kermit the Frog to Luke Skywalker to Captain America—with animatronic duplicates of their own insidious design.
The scientific mastermind of the Stepford Men’s Association is Dale Coba, played in the 1975 film by a sinister Patrick O’Neal. Dale’s nickname is “Diz” after the company he used to work for—Disneyland, to be specific—and it’s easy to see why Stepford would have been an obvious next logical step for him, creatively and professionally. Both Disneyland and Stepford are artificial constructs designed to recapture a bygone American past, a conservative vision of the future based on reactionary nostalgia. If you can create the illusion of pirates and US presidents through the magic of animatronics, why not build yourself the perfect wife using the same technology?
Disney serves as a crucial clue in Levin’s novel as well as in the movie adaptation, leading Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) to the truth of why the Stepford wives seem to enjoy cooking, cleaning, and precious little else so much. Was this just a little bit of real-world detail to make the conceit of wifebot duplicates plausible? Or was it a prediction of the future of the entertainment industry and possibly the entire world? The Stepford Wives is a potent metaphor for the way a certain type of man tends to desire a docile, sexy domestic servant in lieu of a real human woman with desires and ambitions of her own (which is one reason why the concept has endured as a familiar touchstone for so long), but it might also be a metaphor for how so many in the general viewing public seem to want challenging, thoughtful, or thorny entertainments replaced by frictionless sitcom counterparts, easy viewing entertainment units that will never make you feel confused, frightened, or really to have any thoughts at all. And I know I’m not the only person who gets a headache whenever I see Disney advertising that describes their customers as being part of “a family” — if you think about it, a concept that isn’t really too far removed from being married to a robot.
Ira Levin could have been accused of doing some duplicating himself when The Stepford Wives was released, since it shares more than a few structural similarities with his earlier hit, Rosemary’s Baby. They’re both about women who gradually discover that they’ve been betrayed by their husbands, who value their own material desires and the validation of their patriarchal peers than their own wives, and they’re both about a sinister conspiracy gradually and subtly revealed in such a way that makes their protagonists fear for their lives and their sanity in roughly equal measure. As to the film versions, Rosemary’s Baby was a critical commercial smash while The Stepford Wives was a box office disappointment, although it did purportedly gain a larger audience thanks to subsequent TV viewings and home video.
Levin is one of my favorite novelists, he seems to have a natural gift for drawing out suspense, making it seem effortless but never mechanical (so to speak). His The Stepford Wifes is a very quick read, even if you know exactly where it’s going, characterized by not just Levin’s signature suspense but also a great satirical sense of humor as well. The film is funny in its own way but also owes something to the paranoid zeitgeist of 1970s Hollywood thrillers, Levin’s wicked humor is still there in the plot but it’s refracted by the film’s more somber tone, and the film’s Joanna, as well as the audience get a very cold comfort that the book doesn’t provide: an explicit confirmation that she’s not crazy, and that her belief in what’s happened to the Stepford wives is accurate.
Even if The Stepford Wives isn’t as funny a movie as it is a novel, it does make up some of the slack thanks to Paula Prentiss. She plays Bobbie, Joanna’s only friend in Stepford and the only other wife who doesn’t act like an automaton, with an infectious, bouncy wit, and for me anyway is the true star of the film.
Commercial disappointment aside, The Stepford Wives did manage to spawn three made-for-TV sequels in the 80s and 90s: 1980’s Revenge of the Stepford Wives, 1987’s The Stepford Children, and 1996’s The Stepford Husbands. It also got a comedic remake directed by Frank Oz. I haven’t seen it yet but a quick look at the screenplay tells me the word “Disney” only appears in it once, which could have been interpreted as a bad omen — the robots were already being put in place, and it wouldn’t be long before they’d take over completely.