Posts tagged “Bechdel Test

The Stepford Wives (1975) Revisited

Taking the time to watch The Stepford Wives (1975) tells me fire sure that it’s far superior to the 2004 comedy remake really pales in comparison, the feminist bite that I found here is watered down substantially. The original even just on the surface is darker and sinister. I’m not going to compare the too, I just don’t see the need really when the original’s packed full of ideas, which I’m going to explore. I will however start by comparing this sci-fi paranoia with Westworld (1973), the amusement park populated with android hosts who are at the beck and call of the human guests whim, be them violent, sexual or anything in between. The idea of the android being used for human pleasure was only scratching the surface of how far it could be explored. Of course in the theme park a malfunction saw the robots take over and that was that until the poorly made sequels (that no-ones ever seen). In the theme park we acknowledge early on that these are not humans, in on the illusion, waiting for it to go horribly wrong. For new visitor Peter (Richard Benjamin) he is all too aware of the possible consequences of his actions, using and abusing these hosts who at least look human. He wont kill any of them, even when the safety features are in place. The illusion is all too real for him.

It’s the illusion that photographer, wife and mother Joanna (Katharine Ross) who moves with her lawyer husband from New York for a new life in the suburban town of Stepford. On the surface you have the idyllic American dream, the big house, the kids and if your lucky the perfect wife. Well most of the other residents do. All with perfect bodies and spotless houses, funny how they all live within a few miles of each other. This gated community living the dream. Joanna however starts to see cracks in the dream, with all the spare time on her hands she finds herself starting to go mad. For me I think part of that illusion and mystery is lost due to the knowledge of the remake which gives away the plot. It was about rediscovering how Joanna came to that which made the revisit worthwhile.

Leading up to that discovery she befriends recently moved in Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss) who shares the same concerns start to look at little closer at the wives of Stepford who would rather live the life of the ideal wife, keeping the house spotless, makes cakes and talk as if they were selling a household product. They are living adverts for the ideal married life… for the male anyway. Perfect in every-way for the husband to enjoy, having less to worry about at home, coming back from work to a clean house and a woman who worships him. Honestly every man does want that but ultimately that’s just a childhood fantasy. The generation depicted in the film, grew up in the 1940/50’s with stay at home mothers who only ventured out to get groceries and pick up the children. An image and ideal woman who according to Freud all men look for, their mothers, someone to compare to what is basically an impossible goal to reach. These boys who become men desire that in the women they meet. Who in-turn want the father in their husband – that’s if we are looking at a heterosexual relationship. In Stepford that ideal becomes a reality for the men who are rarely at home, either at work or the men’s club.

If in Westworld the desires of the guests; male or female are met, then in Stepford only the desires of the men are being catered for. Its a male dominated environment, that reflects reality of the time. The Women’s liberation/feminism was in full swing. Women fighting for an equal voice, to be taken seriously in a male dominated society. Looking back, how much has really changed since that time. I don’t think I am really qualified to give a definitive answer. I can say in short that there is still a way to go. The workplace has made progress, the depiction of women in film and TV has improved if only slightly. Print and digital media is also slowly catching up. Its about keeping the ideas alive and fighting for what is basically equal rights, respect and representation in society as new generations grow up.

Stepford Wives is full of fear, the fear of unknown if women were allowed to be free thinking, independent people, free to act, work and dress as they please without fear of being objectified, ignore and treated less than their male counterparts in life. The ideal, yet softened feminist for the screen. Both Bobbie and Joanna represent women who can think for themselves, have a laugh and see the town for what it is. They become fixated with the wives who they can’t really hold an intelligent conversation with. We see one wife Carol (Nanette Newman) whose clearly a recovering alcoholic malfunction, or so we are lead to believe, her reaction is more robotic, there’s nothing human about her beyond her form. Her presence is rather sinister, perfect hair and body, she has achieved the ideal that adverts and the media promote, and so have all the other wives. Joanna and Bobbie then encounter Charmaine (Tina Louise) who comes with her own marital problems. Then a few weeks later a trip away and she’s transformed into a new woman, blossoming almost, yet under the facade is another shallow obedient wife.

I’m reminded of The Simpsons episode Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy the fictional Barbie doll complete with pull-string that allows her to talk. Playing archaic female stereotypes that are being fed to young impressionable girls. Lisa takes it upon herself to design and sell her own doll with her own independent thinking and sayings. The little girl playing the giant toy company at their own game. Only to come back with the same doll, this time wearing a hat. Showing how easy it is to sell to children and how little they really care about the impact they have in their development. The men of Stepford are the same really, taking the women they met, and improving in their desire image, having overall control over their wive. The men are once again in charge. Leaving all the women subservient, quiet and of little hassle to them.

It’s in this fictional American town there’s the illusion of hope for the men, restoring order to things so they can go about their lives not needing to progress socially, science has caught up enough to allow them to turn the clock back on the women who’ve been fighting them since the 1960’s. Feminism has no place here, its fought and won with male ingenuity and science – and because they can. It’s that easy in science fiction to solve a social problem with technology, now just wait until it malfunctions.

On reflections Stepford Wives is a very dark film, drip feeding to you the suggestion that something is wrong, socially critiquing a small town in suburban New York state. We see independent women being stripped of all they have fought for, rewinding the clock to the 1950’s. There’s no hope for any of them here in the cinematic world, filmed like a cheap TV movie the ideas are even sharper because you don’t expect to find them. Even passing the Bechdel test too with flying colours which is even rarer for it’s time. A film that looks dated on the surface with razor sharp contemporary ideas, now when is it being rereleased?


The Hours (2002)

The Hours (2002)I was aware of this film for quite some time, knowing that there was a connection between three women who live very different lives at first. However the more you delve into The Hours (2002) strong similarities start to become apparent in this strong piece of film-making. There aren’t many films that can have a decent plot that moves between different time periods, as we have seen with Cloud Atlas (2012) which needs another look to truly understand what is going on. Maybe it’s a case of keeping things a little simpler and building on that.

Set in three different periods, focusing on three women, connected through Virginia Woolf‘s (Nicole Kidman) book Mrs Dallowaywhich was being written around 1925, whilst Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is reading the book in 1951. Jumping forward to the then present day 2001 with Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep). At first the connections are more based on coincidence, which is nothing really when on film, it’s a carefully constructed world where we know that the ties that bind these women will become strong and wrapped up at the end of the film.

Spending one day with these women is all we need really to understand how complex their lives really are from Woolf  the author struggling to start her book which forms the basis for the film, battling against her mental health issues that continually plague her and her illicit affair with Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson), there are lesbian elements in all three women’s lives, this is immaterial really when you see what they go through over the course of the film. Dealing with the pressures of their lives up to day, the housewife who hides her shame, unable to function as a parent and wife to her family. Whilst Clarissa is confronted with the pressure of setting up a party for her ex-lover’s award ceremony. Richard Brown (Ed Harris) living with Aids and his own mental health problems, a solitary and expressive man who has all but given up on life. Today becomes too much for him, before he receives the highest possible honour in his profession, what more is there for him to achieve. At this point I hadn’t made the connection between the present day and the 1950’s where we find Laura about to commit suicide. It’s her feelings of obligation and love for her son that make her change her mind.

You could say they are all the same person,spread-out throughout the 20th century, coping with the pressures of life, all coping with it in different ways, All very modern, even in their time, two repressed by society. It can be a heavy film, having to concentrate as it moves from time to time during the film. The material is anything but light, discussing what is to be alive, the point of living. I was blown away by Kidman’s performance, lost under the make-up and accent which created a whole new person for us to engage with. Whilst Moore is equally as good, Streep us just Streep on top form as always. I would be doing both Ed Harris and Jeff Daniels as disservice not to mention their acting here also. The pressure is on these actors to give us something great, heavy and dramatic which requires all your attention.

This is a rarity today which should be celebrated, easily passing the Bechdel Test it doesn’t just include women, The Hours puts them  at the centre, showing too that a female heavy cast can be just as engaging, the men are shown to be emotional and strong, even on the sidelines of these women. There are probably connections I have yet to make after one viewing, you could just say it’s down to coincidence, through the passage of time the power of one book has transcended three generations, we are seeing the effect first hand.

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Women on Film

I too hadn’t heard of the Bechdel Test which was a tongue and cheek discussion devised by Alison Bechdel as Kermode does a better job of explaining than me. He’s not the only person to discuss the lack of women in lead roles in film today, especially coming out of Hollywood which are releasing more male heavy films. It was thought a few years ago with films such a Bridesmaids and Sex in the City there was going to be an increase in female orientated films. Sadly that didn’t come to pass. I read an article which again discussed this issue, the lack of females in film.

Just what is it that makes females so unmarketable to a wider audience? Is the subject matter too niche for a male audience, or is it that the profit margins are so healthy? I’m leaning towards the latter myself. Looking at today’s crop of actresses, I can think of more the established ones who have been around since the 1990’s who made romantic comedies which gave them work and position of power and standing to make more films, most importantly longevity.

Basinger at Wesleyan says that old studio system would find and groom young actresses, giving them roles in films that over time would build into a body of work, making stars out of them and a career. With the loss of that, the market has become more competitive, relying on agents and the profitability of the actresses last film, their track record. Plus the fact its easier to market a male orientated film.

The subject matter of female orientated films are more talky, more emotional, and about personal issues. May not be my preference, but there is an audience out there just not as big as the money makers want it to be. It seems now that actresses who once used to fight it out in films like All About Eve (1950) now take on more male roles in films like The Heat (2013). Do we really want to see women act like men, instead of being more natural in feistier films which have more substance? Only time will tell what audiences want and get from Hollywood who are more bothered about the the homogeneity of the blockbuster with so many explosions and C.G.I. sequences etc. to bring in millions of billions of dollars.