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?
Now those who are regular readers of my reviews know I’m not big on horror, however the more I heard about Get Out (2017) I knew it was probably something I should check out. Being more than the regular run of the mill horror film, with the formulaic jumps and build-ups to the next time you jump out of your seat. Here there’s something more subversive going on which is bringing an audience who may have stayed away. There’s also the non-controversey by raised by Samuel L. Jackson who said that Daniel Kaluuya being an English actor should not have been chosen for the lead as he would not understand the struggle of other brothers in America. Forgetting that unfortunately that racism is universal. There’s also the argument that as we have seen with other Black leading actors, British actors are classically trained so maybe more qualified for the roles they are getting. Ultimately they are acting, if they convey the emotions and ideas of the character that develops the narrative then it doesn’t matter as long as they have been cast right for the role. So Mr Jackson, on this one – pipe down and look at the bigger picture, the lack of fair and more honest representation of African-Americans, whoever plays them, American or British, or even South African, as long as they can relate to the role and give at least a competent performance, then and only then are you improving the image of black life in the world.
Staying with the racism theme which underlies what the film is about, added the increased tensions in America with the Trump administration Get Out is a very pertinent film. With Obama now part of modern history we are seeing a darker side we had hoped was no longer present come to the fore. The underbelly of racism has been given a voice to speak up during last years election, Trump feeding on the hate and resentment that has been created in the last few decades due to globalisation, increasing equality (which still has a way to go) tensions are high to uneasy.
These tensions are felt by Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) whose about to meet his girlfriends parents. To be fair who wouldn’t be. Wanting to make a good impression on them, hoping they will accept you as a part of your partners life. Add to that he’s black, which will make him the elephant in the room of White family in suburbia, so what he is feeling is normal with the addition of his heritage. Here’s hoping it goes well, even with reassurances from girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), her parents loved Obama, they would have voted for him a third time, maybe laying it on a little too thick, its enough to calm him for the ride over Rose’s home.
The ride over isn’t as straight forward as you’d think it would be, the audience is not allowed to be too relaxed when it comes to this film. A deer running out in the road invites a racist cop who asks Chris for ID even though he wasn’t driving, reflecting the black prejudice towards Black people. It’s like we’ve entered a world of heightened prejudice, oh wait this is America through a very sharp lens. Then the fun begins when the couple arrive at the family home, it all looks a little too good to be true, a Black grounds keeper who is anything but normal, you could say his personality has been sucked out of him. I was reminded early on of The Stepford Wives (1975), as wives return home, after a brief period away, the same yet so very different. We only get glimpses of the groundskeeper and house-maid (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel) who as we see show no signs of even being – human, they appear to be more white in attitude and personality.
Onto meeting the family, which goes smoothly enough, if only a little too smoothly, we can see it like a sales pitch which is being repeated and delivering the product a little to well, there must be some cracks to this family façade. It’s on the first night when Chris is restless he falls foul to hypnotherapy by the mother Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) who we already know has a great cure for quitting smoking. Leading him into a session of hypnotherapy that is only the beginning of how creep things are going to get.
It’s only with the annual family gathering do things start to get really questionable, all white guests who bend over backwards to be polite to Chris whose really uncomfortable by all the guests. Making overly nice comments about Black people, it’s either desperate or plain creepy. When his phone camera goes off when he talks to the only other black guest Andrew Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield) who snaps out of his ultra-friendly personality to reveal a more human and terrified side to him. The cracks are starting to show in this façade of a gathering. There’s something sinister involving brain-washing going on at least. Or as comic relief suggest, Rod Williams (LilRel Howery)
“…Their probably abducting black people, brain washing them and making them slaves. Or sex slaves. not just regular slaves, but sex slaves and sh_t. See? I don’t know if it’s the hypnosis that’s making em slaves or wot not, but all I know is they already got two brothas we know and there could be a whole bunch of brothas they got already…”
The final act reveals what’s really going on, a white cult who lure in Black people to harvest them for superior body parts, leaving them practically lobotomized, without personality, unless your camera flash goes off the suppressions diffused to reveal the true horrors. You could say they are White supremacists who acknowledge that Black people maybe superior but will not allow this to get out, ensure social control, white at the top, blacks in their place. Is this the future for Trumps America or a prediction of what it is to come. Are we over-reacting to what is going on? Only African-Americans and the makers of the film truly know what is going on for them. I can be presented with all the racially motivated police shootings, demonstrations that the news presents me. Get Out is a suburban take on how to present this real anxiety that has not gone away. With a nice dose of humour to lighten the mood or we would come out of the film shaken by the images. Instead I came away relieved to the resolution, justice is served yet leaves you thinking could this really be going on, can people operate like this. I know I won’t be going to the Armitage’s.