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. The film, the poster in particular, also inspired The World's End.

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.

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

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Bobbie in the novel was shorter, toothier, and had a thick, pear-shaped figure; the tall, slim Paula Prentiss was cast to play her. Walter was bespectacled and a bit pudgy, which Walter Masterson was not.
  • Adaptational Modesty: The wives in the novel and original treatment were dressed sexily. In the film they're just wearing maxi dresses.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: The men get away with murdering and replacing their wives with robots and suffer no negative consequences.
  • 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. It's also sporting a new large bustline. This is a minor Special Effects Failure, as they were supposed to be empty sockets — the black contact lenses reflected the ambient lighting. However, Tropes Are Not Bad, as they serve to highlight the creepiness of the double and the monstrosity of the people who created it.
  • 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.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: If this bunch of suburban husbands can create robots this realistic, they could make fortunes in all sorts of legitimate ways...and after that, if they want hot babes, they'll have all they can handle.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: The novel shows Joanna finding Walter late at night at home shaking (she worries it's DTTS) and finds him masturbating. He states he didn't want to wake her up, yet she states she won't mind him waking her up for sex.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Seemingly crossed by Joanna after she sees her own replacement, as she is shown slowly backing away and either unable or unwilling to fight back.
  • Downer Ending: In a dark case of Death by Irony, Joanna is murdered and replaced by her own Stepford Wife double.
  • Dramatic Thunder: The first film's climax takes place during a thunderstorm.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: This is the undoing of the baddies in the remake: They never consider the idea that Walter would prefer a wife who challenges him and is her own person over a robot who only caters to his every whim.
  • 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!"
  • Karma Houdini: The husbands of Stepford get away with everything, and the last shot is of Joanna buying groceries with the other wives, implying she's been replaced with a robot too.
  • Kill and Replace: The core of what's going on in Stepford (though the duplicates aren't the ones doing the killing).
  • Missing Mom: Unbeknownst to the kids of Stepford, their mother's become this after being killed and replaced with robots made to please their fathers.
  • Motor Mouth: Julie Kavner's character in Revenge.
  • Murder by Inaction: The Big Bad of the original movie stands nearby, petting a dog all the while, as Joanna is seemingly garroted by her own Stepford Wife clone.
  • 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 this in-universe 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.
  • 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. In the book, they were model sexy. See the Trivia page for Levin and Goldman being upset with the casting and costuming.
  • The Shrink: Joanna visits one of these at Walter's insistence.
  • Sinister Minister: There is a clergyman in the background, not specified if he's a priest or minister, but he is revealed to have an involvement in the conspiracy.
  • 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.
  • Straw Misogynist: A whole town full of them. Apparently not a single husband in Stepford objected to having his wife murdered and replaced by a fembot because said fembot is beautiful, submissive, and traditional. That includes Walter, who seems happy letting his kids have a robot for a mother so long as she is submissive, docile, sexually attractive, and not a threat to his masculinity. The only exception may have been the Pilgrim family patriarch, as they moved out before the events of the movie — but we don't know if they got wise and decided to escape, Killed to Uphold the Masquerade, or if the wife was murdered anyway and simply taken along to Canada.
  • 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 to the extent of the pharmacist and his wife. Again, justified for most of them. Charmaine thinks that her husband chose her as something of a trophy wife, and does not love her.
    • And notably when we see Joanna's robotic double, the breasts have been enlarged. This suggests that part of the process can make a wife Hotter and Sexier than her human counterpart.
  • Uncanny Village: Stepford's quiet placidity is portrayed as creepy right from the start.

The 2004 version provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Heroism: Unlike his previous incarnation, Walter loved his wife through and through and put a stop to the Stepford husband's scheme.
  • 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?
  • Camp Gay: Roger Bannister, who has a very flamboyant and effeminate personality compared to his husband.
  • 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.
  • Denser and Wackier: The portrayal of the robotic nature of the wives was meant to be this, complete with some classic cartoon sound effects.
  • Downer Ending: Subverted. Walter destroys the computer controlling the wives, freeing them of their brainwashing.
  • Female Misogynist: Claire is the true Big Bad, it's her idea to have the wives replaced by robots.
  • Gay Conservative: The Straight Gay in the gay couple. His partner later becomes one as well.
  • Not His Sled: The 2004 remake had its own shocking surprise ending, where it's revealed that the wives weren't actually 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: Joanna discovers that Bobbi and her family have one after their "robotization". He's VERY heavily implied to have once been their actual dog.
  • Scream Discretion Shot: After being fired from her executive job, Joanna shows a facade that she takes it in stride, even bidding everyone a cheerful farewell. Once she's in the elevator, however, she lets out a mighty Skyward Scream.
  • Stepford Smiler: In addition to the obvious, Walter is also one of these, until he cracks.
  • Take That!:
    • "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.
  • The Unfair Sex: Pretty much every single show Joanna made was designed to make men worthless and promote women as the superior. This led to the events that caused her to be booted from the industry.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: What appears to be the villain's main motive for turning the women into robots.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: At one point in the movie Joanna and Walter's two children disappear, and are never seen or heard from again. During the Larry King Live interview, they are clearly seen sitting in the background behind Walter, alive and well.
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): The Stepford Wives 2004, The Stepford Wives 1975