By Robert Wood
“By turning his money into commodities which serve as the building materials for a new product, and as factors in the labor process, by incorporating living labor into their lifeless objectivity, the capitalist simultaneously transforms value, i.e. past labor in its objectified and lifeless form, into capital, value which can perform its own valorization process, an animated monster which begins to ‘work’, ‘as if its body were by love possessed.’” (Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, 302)
The Stepford Wives concludes in a lengthy shopping scene, set in a grocery store. The bright florescent lights and the well-lit interior operate in contrast to the gothic nightmares of the men’s association building in the previous scene. The camera smoothly captures the circulation of housewives, moving from aisle to aisle, engaging in banal conversation. The camera drifts between the housewives, in a seemingly arbitrary manner, capturing the interchangeability of the various characters.
At this point in the film, we’re aware that every one of the housewives in the film is a robot, standing in for a murdered woman, whom they have replaced. Each is a perfect replica of the woman she most likely murdered, although transformed to conform to the standards of conventional beauty and femininity. Effectively, the simulacra of dead women circulate through the supermarket, mirroring the circulation of the commodities in front of them, containers of dead labor themselves. The scene ends with a shot on the protagonist, Joanna, as she continues her rounds of the shop, walking towards the camera — her movements, mechanical, and her eyes, lifeless. As the credits role, we see a series of stills, showing the still lifeless Joanna in the car with Walter and the children, preparing to fulfill her second and alternating role as domestic laborer: cleaning the house, raising the children, and perhaps more significantly, subordinating herself completely to the needs and desires of her husband, Walter.
Uncannily useful to a discussion of The Stepford Wives is Marx’s description of the process of capitalist accumulation. The commodity form produced by labor is described as a sort of “animated monster” that “begins to work… as if its body were by love possessed” as it is brought into circulation by the capitalist. The living labor needed for that process is simultaneously absorbed into the commodity form as value, the key to the production of surplus value, and is placed under erasure, making the violence of the process invisible. Through that process, the commodity form appears to exist autonomously of that framework, interacting only with other commodities within the conditions of the market. More relevant for our purposes is the implicit reference to Goethe’s Faust in the text through the passage, “as if its body were by love possessed.” The passage refers to the song performed by the various patrons in the scene from Auerbach’s Cellar in Leipzig, introduced as a love song that describes the poisoning of a rat, and his subsequent death. The death throes of the rat are described in implicitly erotic terms, “as having love in his gut.” (Goethe 72) The violent death of the animal takes on the appearance of an orgasm, blurring the libidinal pleasure of the exchange of commodities with the violence of their construction. The narrative of The Stepford Wives inadvertently literalizes this process through its transformation of a class of rebellious housewives into automatons, into entities without the capacity of actions beyond the processes of reproductive and domestic labor, absorbing their affects, their laboring qualities, and even the ways they physically act in the world in the process.
To give the film some historical context, both the novel, written by Ira Levin in 1972, and the film, directed by Bryan Forbes in 1975, clearly respond to the rise in radical and cultural feminism during this period. The text and film, along with Levin’s earlier adapted novel, Rosemary’s Baby, are heavily influenced by Betty Friedan’s 1963 text, The Feminine Mystique. Both narratives constructing their sense of tension and drama through the forms of isolation endured by the main protagonists of the works, and perhaps most significantly, the inability for the protagonists to give a name to the threat that isolates them. Levin is a close and focused reader of Friedan, and draws on gothic generic forms to explore the alienation, loneliness and despair produced by what Friedan called ‘the problem without a name.’ In each case, the cause of that isolation is revealed as a conspiratorial construction, in one case, in the form of a coven of Satan worshipping Hollywood types, and the other side, through a community of middle class professional men. While the conspiracy at the heart of Rosemary’s Baby is primarily used to doubly satire the social life of old Hollywood and the expectations of middle class domestic life, The Stepford Wives contains a more substantial social critique of this life. It produces a critique that draws from Friedan’s work, particularly in the form of the internalized pressures taken on by housewives in their work — but it also establishes a concept of a community of men that is far more in line with the later work of radical feminism, and that theoretical framework’s emphasis on the sex/gender system as the primary contradiction of the current world system. The reestablishment of the terms of the feminine mystique, of a form of domestic servitude taken on by the artificially constructed housewives of the community, produces the conditions in which the men of the community build their social, political and intimate bonds with each other.
The narrative opens with the journey from the city to suburb, from the perceived adventure and danger of the city into the safety and boredom of the planned suburb of Stepford. The city is defined by a sense of contingency, ambiguity, and danger. As the Joanna and the children wait for Walter, Joanna’s husband, a man crosses the street carrying a naked and broken female mannequin, stopping to perhaps either chat or quarrel with a pair of onlookers. Joanna takes this moment as an opportunity to begin photographing, a hobby that she wants to turn into a career. When later told the story by one of the children, Walter states that this is the reason that they are moving to Stepford. In contrast, the establishing shots of Stepford are defined by their orderliness, neat houses and coordinated traffic, only interrupted by the gaze of the policeman, who turns to watch the station wagon of the family drive by. The family house is large and white, set in an enormous, tree-filled suburban lot, well distanced from other houses. More significantly, Stepford is defined by silence, a silence that is seen as security by Walter, and is read as an absence by Joanna. That silence and the state apparatuses that transparently enforce it deliberately mark the community as an intensely monitored and disciplined space, constructed as an escape valve from the contingency of the city in the ongoing process of white flight, and a wall to separate those spaces.
Through these establishing shots of the journey and of the new home, the film also immediately conveys that neither the move nor the relationship between Walter and Joanna are without problems. Walter is introduced into the film awkwardly walking into frame carrying the family dog. After tipping the doorman, he immediately turns to criticize Joanna for forgetting the dog, leaving the task to him, an evidently unusual expectation for him. As the narrative continues, the move to Stepford leaves Joanna isolated, desolate, without community. She is placed into the space of the feminine mystique that she had rejected as a feminist college student, playing the role as isolated housewife, and having to convince her children to accept the move. She also has to confront the very real inequality implicit in her marriage to Walter, which is revealed in a fight between the two early in the film. The fight starts because of Walter’s decision to join the Men’s Association of the town, but quickly turns to the decision to move to Stepford, one in a long string of decisions made by Walter without consulting her. The early sections of the film make it clear that Walter has not embraced the kind of misogyny that will come to define the town of Stepford. However, through this pattern of decision-making, he has not embraced the sort of feminism that Joanna believes in, taking on some of the assumptions about housework embraced by the very community he tries to distance himself from initially.
That tension is expanded on through a series of small domestic incidents that run through the initial moments of the film, beginning with the incident Joanna witnesses when she tries to return a neighbor’s casserole dish. As she walks to the neighbor’s house, she sees Mr. Van Sant walk up behind his wife and grope her, turning her around to carefully inspect her cleavage and kiss her on the mouth, only to send her back into the house. On its retelling, Walter interprets this casual act of domination as a form of eroticism, as soft-core porn, implicitly drawn in by the act that Joanna found repulsive. The next day, a small fender bender in the grocery store parking lot is treated as a major crisis by the men observing the incident, from the grocery store manager, calling desperately for an ambulance to the bag boy repeatedly declaring that the incident was not his fault. The ambulance quickly arrives to cart off the woman, who repeatedly states that she is fine, that she only bumped her head. As the ambulance leaves, Joanna observes that it is going away from the hospital. Each of these incidents are initially played comedically. However, the scenes are accompanied by a shift in the music, from the placid elevator music that dominates the film to a more dissonant sound, marking each as a moment of foreshadowing. The incidents point to a substantial difference in interpretation of these events between Joanna and Walter, a difference that leads to his increasing collusion in the community of the men’s association. They also gesture towards the intensive structures of domination and surveillance that define the social relations of the city, both at an individual and a community level. They mark a strong demarcation between the public and the private, between social space of men and isolation of women in their households.
The action of the film really begins when Joanna and her new friend, Bobby, decide to form a consciousness-raising group, developed in response to their discomfort with the everyday forms of domination perpetrated by the men of the community. As they go from residence to residence, they are met with a blank and resolute refusal on the part of almost all the women in the community with a lone exclusion, Charmaine, the wife of an advertising executive. They manage to bring a number of other women into the group through an informal negotiation with one of the husbands, who is pushed into getting the women involved in exchange for Joanna’s participation in an ostensible study on regional accents, a study which is really to prepare for Joanna’s replacement. However, when the women engage in the session, they immediately sabotage its purpose, interrupting the critical comments by Joanna and Charmaine to discuss their commitment, first to baking, then to discuss the virtues of easy on spray starch in terms that replicate the language of advertising. It marks their inability to play any part in a community of women, or to critically reflect on the roles that they play in the household. As the scene pulls away from the immediate concerns of Joanna and Charmaine, the camera work mirrors the commercial language of the women in the conversation, enforcing that artificiality by framing the scene as an advertisement. The domesticity of the Stepford wives literally operates within the language of commercial exchange, of advertising, existing exclusively to facilitate those structures.
The following scenes begin to elaborate a history of the town, and more significantly, the role of the men’s association in transforming its social structures. Through their conversation with an older reporter, the two discover that only a few years earlier, the town had had a thriving women’s group, headed by the now vacuous Carol Van Sant. That group, numbering fifty women, had brought Betty Friedan into speak, establishing a link with the liberal feminist movement. The men’s association was established shortly after that event, and began to transform the society, leading to the ending of the women’s group, and the construction of a regime of surveillance. With the discovery of the town’s recent history, the gothic timelessness of the men’s association is revealed to be a façade, a cover for a very modern organization, intervening in the crisis produced by counterculture, the New Left, and feminism. The history also subtly marks the science fictional nature of the film, placing it an unmarked futurity, and transforming the present of the movie’s production into history. Simultaneously, it reveals that the initial interpretation of the organization by Joanna as an ‘archaism’ is a substantial misunderstanding of it, reading the organization through a series of shallow and deliberately constructed misleading signifiers, notably the gothic figure of the headquarters of the men’s association, rather than the occluded roles that the association plays in structuring the community.
Joanna and Bobby’s suspicions are heightened when they witness the sudden transformation of Charmaine, from a relatively independent woman into a Stepford wife. This revelation and increased isolation initially leads Joanna and Bobby to begin to doubt their sanity, but it ultimately leads to a belief that some outside force is causing the problems of the town. Bobby initially frames this malevolent force in impersonal terms, suspecting some sort of problem with the water polluted by the town’s technological infrastructure. However, research into this only leads to dead ends. Through these dead ends, the film distinctively shifts, dropping the uneasy comedic tone that defined so much of the first half of the film. The violence implicit throughout the film becomes a far more meaningful and palpable threat, and both characters are faced with the possibility that they might be replaced — losing what defines them in the process. The activities and mannerisms of the Stepford wife are revealed as a sort of living death, a profound and complete destruction of the self. What they will not or cannot see is the complicity of the men’s association in the construction of the community — and perhaps more significantly, the complicity of their husbands, to whom they are intimately connected.
Through the process of trying to uncover the conspiracy, Stepford is established to the viewer as a town that is both defined by its large infrastructure of high technology companies, ranging from computer companies to biochemical corporations and as a community made up of highly skilled professionals. Each of the characters in the men’s club is implicitly established as having a role in the conspiracy, from Dale Coba or ‘Diz,’ the president and ringleader of the conspiracy and a former computer expert for Disney, to Ike Mazzard, the illustrator for any number of women’s magazines, to experts in social sciences and advertising. They draw on these skills in order to extract the variety of physical and affective qualities out of the housewives that they plan to murder and replace, operating in an intensely collaborative, if not democratic manner. The act of extraction needed to produce these automatons cannot be disentangled from the process of isolation and fear that the women are put through in the four-month process in which their replacements are constructed. Moreover, that fear and isolation becomes a source of libidinal pleasure for the men to draw upon, a pleasure of domination that ties the community of men together, in an ostensible brotherhood of men, despite the clear background manipulation on the part of Coba, who controls the association through manipulation. In the process, the Stepford community constructs itself as a bulwark against the revolutionary upheaval of the time period, gesturing towards the neoliberal counterrevolution, a counterrevolution that will only acknowledge the existence of individuals and families, to draw on the words of Margaret Thatcher. In effect, the film picks up on the contemporary counter-revolutionary currents, such as the 1973 coup in Chile — a moment the film alludes to in a reference to the political machinations of the conglomerate, ITT.
Joanna’s sense of isolation is only intensified when Bobby herself is transformed into a Stepford Wife, while ostensibly going on an annual romantic trip with her husband, further isolating Joanna. Joanna responds to this complete isolation by panicking, producing a series of symptoms that legitimates her observation. At this point, the narrative deliberately draws from the common critical framework of both the work of Friedan, and the more contemporary radical feminists. The ongoing violence of the community is projected onto Joanna as a form of hysteria that she is supposed to internalize. Walter attempts to manipulate Joanna into believing her fears and isolation are the product of her own personal problems, rather than a response to a concerted conspiracy. Forced to go to a psychiatrist, Joanna chooses to go to an outsider to the community. Through this process, she finally recognizes or perhaps more accurately, acknowledges the existence of the conspiracy in the form of the men’s association.
In response to her desperation–if not, perhaps, to the veracity of her story–the psychiatrist advises her to leave the community immediately, to take her children and run. At this point, the gothic subtext is made explicit, and the rest of the film occurs in the shadows of night, under a torrential storm. On arriving at her home, she discovers that her children are missing, and that Walter had sent them away. Joanna breaks out of her house and confronts Bobby, who she believes has her children; through that struggle, she stabs Bobby, only to reveal that she is an automaton. She returns home, and forces Walter to reveal the location of her child, ostensibly the headquarters of the Men’s Association. Drawn up into the dark corridors of that building by the sounds of her child, she instead discovers Coba, who calmly turns off the source of the sound, a tape recorder, revealing the extent of his manipulation. From there, she runs through the corridors, eventually coming to a replica of her bedroom, with her replica inside. Coba watches as the replacement approaches her, preparing to strangle her with a pair of hose. The gothic corridors of the house mirror the modern amusement park attractions created by Coba in his time at Disney, and reveal the gothic to be a deliberate, technological construct.
The film essentially completes a circuit of counter revolutionary transformation through the isolation and death of the protagonists, and their replacement with robots designed to simulate a sort of idealized femininity. In effect, the film operates through the slow revelation of a gothic secret, a secret that simultaneously reveals the film’s underlying science fictional nature. Most analysis leaves out this aspect of the film, preferring to focus on either the controversies that the film created amongst feminists or the gothic structures of the film. It would be a mistake to dismiss either of those topics; both bring out significant aspects of the film, and lead to interesting conversations. But those foci miss out on the significant manner that the temporality of science fiction impacts the film, through its imagination of a community of men living off the domestic labor of women as a commons, not produced through archaic expectations or as a primitive throwback to another time, but as a modern or even futuristic possibility. The film reimagines the suburbs as dystopia, gesturing towards its ongoing reactionary potential, while transforming its reactionary horizon into an inescapable inevitability. That dimension of the film is a bit of an overreach, missing out on the gaps and lacunae embedded in every counter-revolution. However,the film does act as a sort of weathervane, gesturing towards the sorts of libidinal formations and political collusions that would contribute to that process. In a certain sense, we might think of Dale Coba as the sinister underbelly of Reagan’s pleasant, public persona, both moving from the entertainment industry to enter into politics. Perhaps as significantly, we see the role of transforming women into a type of commons for a cross-class alliance of white men as integral to reactionary politics, understood not as a throwback, but as a threat haunting the film’s present in the form of a future potentiality.