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Literature / The Stepford Wives

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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, all of whom are impossibly beautiful, housework-obsessed, and totally submissive towards their husbands, who in turn are all members of the secretive "Men's Association."

The novel was successful enough to be adapted into a movie in 1975, directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Katharine Ross as Joanna and Paula Prentiss as Bobbie; 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 teenagers 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.
    • Joanna in the book was said to be reasonably pretty or average-looking, in the film she is portrayed by the very gorgeous Katharine Ross.
    • Averted with Charmaine, the book talks of her as resembling Raquel Welch, and the movie casts the just-as-gorgeous Tina Louise.
  • Adaptational Heroism: The therapist that Joanna sees. In the novel, she's a neutral character at best, attributing to Joanna's worries about Stepford to discomfort with being a "good" wife and mother, and - unintentionally - gaslights her about how bad things can really be in Stepford. In the film, she immediately believes Joanna and encourages her to leave.
  • Adaptational Modesty: The wives in the novel and original treatment were dressed sexily. In the film they're just wearing maxi dresses. Joanna, Bobbie, and Charmaine often wear pants, miniskirts, show off their flat stomachs, and some loose shirts before they become robots.note 
  • An Aesop: The film supports the message that divorce is an option and shows how unhappy Joanna is in her situation, that she's never treated like an equal in the marriage. Walter is willing to outright kill his wife and have her replaced with a submissive robot to uphold the image of a perfect family.
  • Affably Evil: Claude in the men's association seems like an endearing stutterer, and he's one of the few that Joanna likes. But as he's heavily involved in the robot process...
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Subverted. Bobbie suspects that there might be something getting dumped in the water that messes with the other women.
  • 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.
  • Big Girl Little Girl: 5'3" Katharine Ross (Joanna) and 5'9" Paula Prentiss (Bobbie).
  • 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.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: In the movie there's Joanna (blonde), Bobbie (brunette) and Charmaine (redhead). They're replaced in the reverse order.
  • The Bluebeard: The entirety of the Men's Association, save founding member Dale "Diz" Coba, simply by the fact that he's single, in the book and first film.
  • Brainwashed: Some of the sequels had this as the method of creating the Wives/Husbands, instead of out-and-out replacement.
  • Brick Joke: It's a minor gag halfway through the film that a black couple might be moving to Stepford. In the end scene we see the very couple bickering in the supermarket about the area.
  • 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. Bobbie's robot double also has bigger breasts, which she tries to hand wave as a push-up bra.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The word "archaic." Bobbie comments on it, and later Joanna uses it to test Robot Bobbie.
  • Crapsaccharine World: The director chose to have bright colours and sunny visuals to contrast with the horror that really goes on in Stepford.
  • Creator Cameo: Director Bryan Forbes doubles for Joanna's hands when she has to stab the 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 DTS) 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.
  • Daylight Horror: Most of the film takes place during the day. Joanna discovering that Bobbie and Charmaine have been replaced with robots happens on particularly sunny days.
  • Demoted to Extra: Royal and Ruthanne, prominent supporting characters in the book, are just referred to as "a black couple" and appear in the background in a single scene in the film.
  • 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.
  • Discriminate and Switch: Ruthanne is worried that her family would have troubles in Stepford due to being black. However, the Men’s Association have no problem accepting her husband in their ranks, so she really should have been more worried about herself being a woman…
  • Downer Ending: In a dark case of Death by Irony, Joanna is murdered and replaced by her own Stepford Wife double. In the final scene where Joanna is buying groceries with the other wives, we see a new couple briefly arguing about Stepford - where the man is insisting it's a good area. This implies that he too will have his wife replaced.
  • 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.
  • Fan Disservice: Katherine Ross in a see-through gown that lets you see nipple? It's from a robot clone of her that's about to murder the original.
  • Final Girl: Joanna could be considered a prototype of this before the Slasher Movie took off at the end of the decade. She's notably more moral than the other two - Charmaine implies she's having affairs and Bobbie has No Sense of Personal Space - and she's the one who tries to fight off the men towards the end. Of course it doesn't work and she's still replaced as well.
  • Foreshadowing: A lot of foreshadowing happens in the film.
    • In the opening scene, Joanna and her children witness a man carrying a rubber doll "woman" on a busy New York street.
    • When Carol is put into a police car, which doubles as an ambulance, Joanna comments on how despite only just arriving in Stepford she's pretty sure the hospital is not in the direction the car took her.
    • When Joanna first meets Dale Coba, he tells her: "I like to watch women doing little domestic chores.", to which she replies "You came to the right town."
    • It's also revealed that Coba worked in Disneyland in the past. When she speaks to the psychiatrist, Joanna says they turn the women to "Disneyland robots" in Stepford. Of course, she doesn't know at that point, that it's actually very close to the truth.
    • When Joanna is driving around town, and later when she and Bobbie are driving out of town, you can see a number of biochemical and computer tech research laboratories located just outside Stepford.
    • When Ike Mazzard draws sketches of Joanna, the camera gazes at the drawing's eyes for a long time. This foreshadows the very eerie black, empty eyes of her unfinished robot counterpart, as well as the dull, lifeless gaze of the replacement Joanna in the final scene.
    • "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!"
  • Four Is Death: Joanna notes that both Bobbie and Charmaine were replaced after they had been living in Stepford four months. It seems it takes about four months to perfect a robot wife.
  • Gaslighting: Downplayed but Walter tries to convince Joanna that she's getting unusually suspicious about the wives in Stepford, asking for her to see a therapist.
  • Genki Girl: Bobbie is a lively, energetic Motor Mouth. Notably when she's been replaced, her robot's attempt to recreate this is incredibly creepy.
  • Girliness Upgrade: Joanna and Bobbie especially after their robots are made. Even when Joanna meets her robot double, the robot has perfectly styled hair.
  • Hope Spot: Walter agrees that they'll move out of Stepford in about a month. But then Bobbie gets replaced and Joanna soon realises that she's going to be soon as well.
  • 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).
  • Lady Drunk: The robot Carol tries to cover up her malfunction at the garden party by saying she's a recovering alcoholic.
  • Light Is Not Good: The Stepford Wives are usually seen in white or pastel colours.
  • Lousy Lovers Are Losers: Invoked In-Universe and Played With. When the Men's Association recruits Walter, he and the other men seem motivated by the fact that their wives are not the All Women Are Lustful type. After they get transformed, they're shown to be extremely enthusiastic whenever and wherever. However, one of the first signs Joanna gets of Walter's betrayal is that, rather than having sex with her, he prefers to masturbate. Their sexual relationship also gradually becomes poorer and poorer in the book.
  • Missing Mom: Unbeknownst to the kids of Stepford, their mothers become this after being killed and replaced with robots made to please their fathers.
  • Monochrome Casting: Used to show how conservative Stepford is. It causes a stir among the residents when there's news that a black couple are moving there.
  • 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.
  • Obvious Villain, Secret Villain: The rest of the Men's Association are pretty clearly villains, with their braindead, old-fashioned wives and passive sexism towards Joanna. However, Joanna is horrified to discover that her own husband Walter has been recruited as one of them. Whether or not the audience shares her surprise is debatable.
  • 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.
  • Repetitive Audio Glitch: One of the robots glitches out and starts saying "I'll just die if I don't get that recipe!" over and over again.
  • 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. She's a Type 3 - believing that Joanna has reasons to be suspicious, and offering to help in any way that she can.
  • Significant Wardrobe Shift:
    • When a woman has been replaced with a Stepford Wife, she's shown in a frilly 1950s style dress.
    • In the scenes where it's established Walter won't be on Joanna's side, he wears his shirts with two buttons undone from then on.
  • 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.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Played for Drama. The men of Stepford think their wives should do so, remaining in traditional gender roles.
  • 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 her robotic double was simply taken along to Canada.
    • May be somewhat justified, as it appears that all the men moved their families to this town precisely because they knew what was happening and wanted in on the action, not that they got there, found out, and were talked into the idea. Stepford doesn't make men misogynists; it was made by misogynist men.
  • Take That!: Or else a Shout-Out. The mastermind behind the whole Men's Association conspiracy used to build animatronic robots at Disneyland. Joanna also compares the wives to the robots there. (see: Foreshadowing above)
  • 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.
  • Unnecessary Makeover: In-universe. The process involved making over the wives into living dolls with perfectly styled hair, an excess of make-up and frilly 1950s housewife dresses. It serves to make the wives so perfect they're creepy.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: Getting into a minor car accident causes Carol to malfunction.

The 2004 version provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: Walter references "The Wind Beneath My Wings". The song was a huge hit for Bette Midler, who plays Bobbi, in 1989.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Unlike his previous incarnation, Walter loved his wife through and through and put a stop to the Stepford husband's scheme.
  • Adaptational Ugliness: In comparison to the original film, Joanna is dressed down considerably and presented as less attractive. Bobbie too (but that was true to the original book). This is so that their robotic counterparts are Beautiful All Along.
  • Alas, Poor Yorick: After Mike's head gets ripped off and he's revealed to be a Stepford Husband, Claire (his wife and creator and the actual Big Bad) takes his head and gives out a Motive Rant before giving him a Last Kiss, which ends up fatally electrocuting her.
  • 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?
  • And I Must Scream: Unlike the novel and original movie, the wives here have computer chips implanted in their brain, enabling their husbands to control them with a remote. Imagine being trapped inside your body and watching it be made to go wherever someone else wants, and do whatever that person chooses, all the time with no way to fight back.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Walter and Joanna prove to be in love after all.
  • Camp Gay: Roger Bannister, who has a very flamboyant and effeminate personality compared to his husband. When his partner has him undergo the "program," Roger is much more Straight Gay but reverts back at the end.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Joanna's hair and clothes are visibly lighter at the end of the film than at the beginning, indicating that even without conforming to the Stepford ways, she is genuinely trying to soften her personality.
  • 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. Afterwards, 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.
  • Death by Adaptation: Mike Wellington, Stepford president Dale Coba's remake counterpart.
  • Delayed Reaction: It takes a few moments for Joanna to realize she's been fired in response to the destructive debacle she had inadvertently caused.
  • Denser and Wackier: This remake is more like a romantic comedy instead of the horror and satire of the original.
  • Downer Ending: Subverted. Walter destroys the computer controlling the wives, freeing them of their brainwashing.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Walter and Joanna both are horrified and disgusted when they realize that all the wives are being brainwashed. In defiance of the original version, Walter says he likes that Joanna is her own person.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Both Joanna and Bobbie's Stepford Wife selves are blonde (and therefore more attractive).
  • Evil All Along: Claire is implied early on to be one of the first wives who was turned into an android by her husband. Turns out she was the one who killed and replaced her husband and is, in fact, the Big Bad of the film.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: This is the undoing of the baddies. 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.
  • Female Misogynist: Claire is the true Big Bad, blaming feminism for ruining men.
  • Gay Conservative: The Straight Gay in the gay couple. His partner later becomes one as well.
  • Heroic BSoD: Joanna nearly has one after realizing Bobbie has fallen victim to the Stepford husbands.
  • Good All Along: Turns out Walter only goes along with the other husbands' conspiracy in order to help Joanna bring them down from the inside.
  • Immoral Reality Show: Joanna made several of them during her time as a network executive.
  • The Man Behind the Man: The viewer is led 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.
  • Lighter and Softer: Than the original movie and book, both of which had a Downer Ending.
  • Married to the Job: Joanna at the start of the film. Part of the reason for the move to Stepford is so she can spend more time with the children.
  • 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.
  • Relationship-Salvaging Disaster: It's revealed that the Stepford plot accidentally fixed Walter and Joanna's marriage. While Walter was threatening to divorce Joanna, he became fearful of her safety and disgusted that the townsfolk wanted him to brainwash her. They then conspire to stage a fight and take down the organization from the inside out.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Hank, the disgruntled reality show contestant, at the very beginning, after one of Joanna's shows destroys his marriage.
  • 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.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Joanna, Bobbie, and...really all of the original Stepford Wives for that matter, given that in this version the husbands just installed easily reversible mind control chips into their brains instead of murdering and replacing them with robot look alikes.
  • Stepford Smiler: In addition to the obvious, Walter is also one of these, until he cracks.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • Thanks to the setting update, this happens. It turns out that no, you can't convince every man to brainwash or replace their wife because not every husband is an Entitled Bastard even if they're having marital problems, especially when divorce is an option. Walter becomes a Fake Defector so that he and Joanna can save all of the wives because while they could escape and expose the scheme, it would leave all the women as brainwashed hostages, and besides which they have no proof. What's more, the publicity revives Joanna's career.
    • A contest that ends up in two of the contestants divorcing and the husband going crazy and shooting his wife, her lovers, and trying to kill the executive producer is only going to end up Overshadowed by Controversy and heads are going to roll. Joanna probably also didn't did herself any favors by trying to pitch a "reunion" special with all of the injured parties.
  • Take That!:
    • "So I wondered, where in the world would nobody notice a town full of mindless, lifeless robots? 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.
  • A Taste of Their Own Medicine: In the very last scene, the Wives, now free of the effects of the microchips, have inverted their situation by placing their husbands under house arrest. Laser-Guided Karma of the highest order.
  • 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.
  • Too Dumb to Live: After spending half the film paranoid about the Men's Association and seeing what happened to Charmaine after a "weekend getaway" with her husband, Bobbie happily goes off on a surprise vacation with Dave.
  • 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.


Video Example(s):

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


Joanna Gets Fired

After causing a controversy, it takes a few moments for Joanna to realize she's been fired from her TV executive job. As she leaves the office for the final time, she acts like she takes it in stride, but the moment the elevator closes behind her, she loses it.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / DelayedReaction

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