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Literature: The Stepford Wives

The Stepford Wives started life as a 1972 novel by Ira Levin. In it, Joanna Eberhart, her husband Walter, and their two young children move from New York City to the eponymous Connecticut commuter-town. Joanna becomes friends with fellow new arrival Bobbie Markowe, as the two of them also become more and more concerned with the behavior of the other housewives in Stepford, who are all impossibly beautiful, housework-obsessed and totally submissive towards their husbands, who in turn are all members of the "Men's Association." The novel was successful enough to be made into a movie in 1975; William Goldman's script was fairly faithful to the original, with the major difference being a far more explicit finale showing what was happening to the wives. In both versions, the wives were robot duplicates that replaced the original women after their husbands had them murdered. Both versions of the story had Downer Endings.

While just a modest hit in theaters, the film quickly sprouted a meme in the 1970s, with the term "Stepford Wife" becoming a catchphrase used to describe female homemakers who were content to be "sexually repressed and concerned with domestic life, as opposed to being free and liberated women."

No theatrical sequels were made, but the movie spawned, over the course of two decades, three made-for-TV "sequels": The Revenge of the Stepford Wives, The Stepford Children, and The Stepford Husbands. The lack of Levin and/or Goldman's involvement was painfully obvious, and all three films were also victims of bowdlerization: in Revenge and Husbands, the victims were not killed and replaced but instead merely brainwashed, while Children had the replaced teenager left alive for no readily-apparent reason, allowing in all three cases for a rescue and happy ending. The movie was also Recycled IN HIGH SCHOOL! as Disturbing Behavior.

In 2004, Frank Oz directed a more overtly comedic remake of the original film. The production suffered from severe behind-the-scenes turmoil, including actors walking off the project and some last-minute reshoots. Many viewers found the revelations of the resulting finale to come completely out of left field and contradict the rest of the movie, but as always, Your Mileage May Vary.

The original film/novel, and its sequels, provide examples of:

  • The Beautiful Elite: The wives, anyway, with a little enhancement after they're replaced by robots.
  • Black Eyes of Evil: When Joanna meets her robot double in the film, it hasn't quite been finished yet and is sporting a pair of these. (This is a minor Special Effects Failure, as they're supposed to be empty sockets— the black contact lenses reflected ambient lighting.) It's also sporting a new large bustline.
  • Brainwashed: Some of the sequels had this as the method of creating the Wives/Husbands, instead of out-and-out replacement.
  • Broken Record: In addition to the example under Foreshadowing below, there's also the robot Bobbie after Joanna stabs her with a knife.
  • Buxom Is Better: Apparently Walter thinks so. Katharine Ross was extremely beautiful but also flat-chested. When Joanna meets her robot double at the climax, the camera lingers on the robot's much larger breasts.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The word "archaic." Bobbie comments on it, and later Joanna uses it to test Robot Bobbie.
  • Downer Ending: Joanna is murdered and replaced by a Stepford Wife robot.
  • Dramatic Thunder: The first film's climax takes place during a thunderstorm.
  • Extreme Doormat: The Stepford Wives do nothing except follow their husbands wishes, and cook and clean. This especially evident at the attempted feminist meeting Joanna and Bobbie set up, where most of the other wives initially cannot talk about anything as they are away from their husbands, and revert to talking about cleaning products, almost like in an advertisement.
  • Foreshadowing: "I'll just die if I don't get that recipe!" .... "I'll just die if I don't get that recipe!" ... "I'll just die if I don't get that recipe!"
  • Motor Mouth: Julie Kavner's character in Revenge.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Walter seems to have a moment like this after a Men's Association meeting, presumably after he's agreed to join and have Joanna replaced. Later in the film, however, Walter has obviously gotten over his doubts at having Joanna killed. Ed is shown as distraught when Charmaine is taken away, but he too obviously gets over it, as shown by his triumphant smile when the tennis court is being uninstalled.
  • Paranoia Fuel: Joanna experiences in-universe this when she realizes that either her husband is going to have her replaced with a robot that no one will be able to tell isn't her, or she's going crazy and this is all in her head. She isn't sure which of these two scenarios is worse.
  • Phlebotinum Breakdown: One of the Wives malfunctions while attending a garden party. And Robot Bobbie breaks down after Joanna stabs her in the gut.
  • Pyrrhic Villainy: One of the few high points in Revenge of the Stepford Wives was an older Men's Association member revisiting the painful realization of what he had given up by having his wife remade.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Screenwriter William Goldman's original vision of the 1975 film had the Wives all dressed like "Playboy Bunnies sans ears and tail". Then director Bryan Forbes cast his actress wife Nanette Newman as one of the Wives, and whatever talents as a thespian she possessed, her physique wasn't remotely up to it. The story was changed to have all the Wives ended up in long flowing dresses that made them look like '50s housewives. This may have been for the better, as one of the book's key themes was how the women were unwillingly pressed into domestic servitude and forced to give up their ambitions, and the housewife outfits highlight that much better than the skimpier outfits originally planned would have.
  • Ridiculously Human Robots: Indistinguishable from the real thing, unless they have a breakdown, or you stab them.
  • Robotic Reveal: Again, only explicitly done in the movie(s).
  • Robotic Spouse: The members of the Men's Association are replacing their real wives with these.
  • Sexbot: Part of the duties of the perfect robot housewife.
  • The Shrink: Joanna visits one of these at Walter's insistence.
  • Stepford Smiler: The Trope Namer, with the remake providing the page image. In the final scene, all the women have them.
  • Stepford Suburbia: Ditto. The empty sterility of American suburbia is a major theme in the original film.
  • Take That: Or else a Shout-Out. The mastermind behind the whole Men's Association conspiracy used to build animatronic robots at Disneyland.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: As with Ira Levin's earlier Rosemary's Baby, this is played with a bit before being averted.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: One of the archetypal examples.
  • Trophy Wife: Charmaine is bitter that she is this, that Ed never loved her but only married her because of how she looks. Robot Charmaine does not care, of course.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: The town pharmacist. Justified, since he's married to a Stepford Wife. Joanna even lampshades it when talking with the psychiatrist, as an example of why she believes there's something sinister going on in Stepford.
    • Many of the men in Stepford have wives that are more attractive than them, albeit not at the extent of the pharmacist and his wife. Again, justified for most of them. Charmaine thinks that her husband choose her as something of a trophy wife, and does not love her.
  • Uncanny Village: Stepford's quiet placidity is portrayed as creepy right from the start.

The 2004 version provides examples of:

  • Alas, Poor Yorick
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Yes, there actually was a reality show about putting a married couple's relationship to the test by separating them on an island full of sexy people. And yes it was on Fox.
  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    Joanna: Let me ask you something. These machines. These Stepford Wives. Can they say "I love you"?
    Walter: Mike?
    Mike: Of course. In 58 languages.
    Joanna: But do they mean it?
  • Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Joanna. In the beginning, her pet project at the network she works at is a reality TV show similar to Temptation Island. At a press conference, while hyping up her show, she is confronted and shot at by a man whose marriage was ruined by the show, and who shot his cheating wife and her lovers in rage. Afterwords, Joanna is already planning out the reunion show to exploit the carnage she has accidentally inflicted, only to not only be fired from the network, but also blacklisted from television due to her utterly irresponsible decisions in programming.
    • What does it say that that is probably the most unbelievable thing in the movie?
      • Not really. In the scene where she's being fired for the carnage she unleashed, it's stated that the adulterous wife was in critical condition and four out of her five lovers were on life support and that their families were already threatening to sue the network into oblivion. And there was the implied notion that the general public sided with or at least, had sympathy for the wronged husband who's life Joanne ruined, hence making it impossible to air anything Joanne had put together for that fall season. Meaning they had wasted god knows how much money on programming that was now purely radioactive. For Joanne, she hit the jackpot of all the wrong things to do if you are a network executive, in terms of going too far and being fired/blacklisted as her ultimate fate.
  • Denser and Wackier: The portayal of the robotic nature of the wives was meant to be this, complete with some classic cartoon sound effects.
  • Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male/Women Are Wiser/Men Are the Expendable Gender/The Unfair Sex: Pretty much every single show Joanna made was designed to make men worthless and promote women as the superior.
  • Downer Ending: Subverted. Walter destroys the computer controlling the wives, freeing them of their brainwashing.
  • Female Misogynist: Claire
  • Gay Conservative: The Straight Gay in the gay couple.
  • Heroic BSOD: Joanna.
  • The Man Behind the Man: The viewer is lead to believe that Mike is behind the operation, but really he's just a Stepford Husband created by his "wife" Claire, the real Big Bad of Stepford.
  • Married to the Job
  • Not His Sled: The 2004 remake had its own shocking surprise ending, where it's revealed the wives weren't replaced by robots - directly contradicting several scenes.
  • Phlebotinum Breakdown: One of the Wives malfunctions while attending a square dance.
  • Plot Hole: The movie quite clearly indicates the wives are robots (see the ATM wife). Then at the end, they are not. This was due to test audiences disliking the Downer Ending, leading to Executive Meddling and a hastily shot revised ending.
    • It helps that the overall tone of the movie is closer to a Romantic Comedy than the horror/satire of the original. The original ending does feel somewhat out of place with the more comedic tone this one takes.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Hank, the disgruntled reality show contestant, at the very beginning.
  • Robot Dog
  • Scream Discretion Shot
  • Stepford Smiler: In addition to the obvious, Walter is also one of these, until he cracks.
  • Take That:
    • Towards reality TV; see Corrupt Corporate Executive above.
    • "So I wondered, where in the world would nobody notice a town full of mindless, lifeless automatons? And then I thought, of course! Connecticut!"
    • The original's Disney reference is updated with additional digs at Microsoft, NASA, and America Online ("Is that why the women are so slow?"). Most of Disney's pioneering work with animatronics was done in the '60s and '70s, making the reference somewhat dated by 2004.]
  • Unfortunate Implications: The film actually has Joanna ask Claire why she didn't just enslave all the men in response to the reason she created Mike, as though it was a better means of revenge. Partially subverted in that Claire reveals she intended to eventually enslave the entire town. invoked
    • Actually she was just asking why it was just the women and not both
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: What appears to be the villain's main motive for turning the women into robots.
  • With or Without You
    Joanna Eberhart: It's... It's not our world. It's not us. And I'm picking up our kids from camp right now, and we're getting out of here. With or without you.

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alternative title(s): The Stepford Wives
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