Why Is Hollywood Still So Obsessed With The Stepford Wives?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Warner Bros., Shutterstock

Written by Katie Silberman and directed by Olivia Wilde, Don’t Worry Darling is transparent about its references to The Stepford Wives, a cult classic that has influenced other contemporary directors of social thrillers such as Jordan Peele. The similarities between the films are plenty: There are housewives, husbands on pedestals, male-only secret societies, mid-century décor, and a woman who questions and challenges the reality that’s presented to her. Both of these works are responses to the politics of their eras and uncertain about the future of feminism in America. But why does Hollywood continue to replicate the aesthetics and tropes introduced in The Stepford Wives? Could that really be an effective measure for just how far gender politics have seemingly evolved?

In Don’t Worry Darling, the cozy familiarity of a mysterious suburban enclave occupies a nebulous space, out of time: It’s in the past, away from any kind of politics, and the women who live there are somewhat robotic. Florence Pugh’s Alice, one of the women in a development called Victory Project, dreamily dressed in flowery dresses and aprons and wrapped in floral shirtwaists, stays in town as her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), goes off to work looking like he’s been plucked from a Mad Men costume party. The routines are the same (make dinner, buy stuff, lounge and drink), and the power dynamics remain unchanging. As the cracks in Alice’s flawless world begin to disrupt her sense of self, the film’s striking resemblance to that other story of suburban perfection hiding an abuse of power beneath its mod façades becomes even clearer, and Wilde’s modern interpretation of Stepford’s aesthetics are called into question.

Photo: Merrick Morton/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives was published in 1972, several years after Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and founded the grassroots activist group National Organization for Women. The sexual revolution of the late 1960s and the strengthening of the feminist movement at the time forced broader swaths of society to examine the role gender played in their lives, often unequally, and Levin’s work recast those cultural anxieties with a surprising amount of empathy and consideration. The Stepford Wives — which follows protagonist Joanna Eberhart’s move to Stepford, Connecticut, and her quest to uncover why all the women seem like robots (it’s because they are) — is really about women caught between the social necessity of arguing for their rights and a capitalist culture that just wants them to buy stuff.

The book was adapted by screenwriter William Goldman and director Bryan Forbes, and while other horror films of the era — The Brood, Carrie, and Black Christmas — treated women’s bodies as sites of fear or transcendence, and grappled with the patriarchal culture’s anxiety about the displacement of male power, few films dealt with explicitly feminist politics like The Stepford Wives. The film is deeply concerned with the bodies of its characters, but it also invented the Stepford wife, an archetype that is defined by resistance to the thought of a woman as autonomous. Despite the film and term being an engaging critique of patriarchal norms, “Stepford wife” entered common parlance to describe a woman who is androidlike, bland, submissive.

In both the book and the film, Joanna, with her friend Bobbie (the only other normal in town), attempts to revive Stepford’s National Organization for Women chapter, which once hosted Friedan as a keynote speaker. They try to raise some feminist consciousness, but the conversation mudslides into another advertisement. “Talk about anything,” Joanna begins, trying to establish that the group is a space for safe and open discussion. “Sex, money, our marriages, anything at all.” Instead, the women talk about how best to starch a shirt.

Between the publishing of Levin’s novel and the release of its 1975 film adaptation, Roe v. Wade had made abortion legal nationwide. The panic over that decision, and over women’s bodily autonomy in general, is marrow-deep within The Stepford Wives, in which the eponymous spouses are killed and turned into fembots who speak in commercial advertisements for cleaning products and shriek with pleasure at their husbands’ undoubtedly mediocre love-making.

Sarah Marshall, writer and host of the You’re Wrong About podcast, argues that the term “Stepford wife” has been “robbed of its brutality by becoming a cliché.” She also argues that, despite Stepford’s origins as a book, “our shared language comes from movies.” What makes a woman a Stepford wife, Marshall told me, “Is that you’re constantly serenely cleaning stuff, nothing ever perturbs you. You’re also built along the lines of a Playboy Playmate, constantly, enthusiastically having sex with your husband who’s probably not good at it.”

When Nannette Newman played Carol van Sant, a Stepford wife in the original film, she brought the trope to life with less overt sexuality than how it was originally written. The Stepford wife as we know her now is, as Marshall describes, “a beautiful woman in her 40s, out of the Playmate model and into the prairie dress. Very lacy, a little bit pseudo-Victorian style.” As time and various values around femininity have changed, so has the Stepford wife: She’s still ultrafeminine and sexually appealing, but not lascivious.

While Stepford was met with polarized reactions from those involved intimately with the feminist movement in the 1970s (Friedan hated the movie), it made Columbia Pictures “some dollars” according to Goldman, and led to several made-for-television sequels, starting in 1980 with Revenge of the Stepford Wives. The period of films about working women asserting their place in the world like Working Girl, Baby Boom, and Pretty Woman was followed by a golden era of ’90s romantic comedies, where sex, and the battle between and over it, could be joked about as a form of escapism (Clueless, You’ve Got Mail, Notting Hill).

By 2004, director Frank Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick remade The Stepford Wives, casting Nicole Kidman, Glenn Close, and Faith Hill in lead roles. The film updates Joanna’s (Kidman) job from amateur photographer to TV executive, thus questioning if the reality shows of the era which capitalized on gendered dynamics, like The Bachelor and Survivor, could be proof that ideals of the feminist movement had been chewed up and spat out by America’s jagged teeth. The original leaned into patriarchal backlash as uncanny horror, but the remake is zany and colorful. It is a cynical film, a different iteration of the same fear having come to pass, vibrating between the unsettling and the exaggerated.

In the reboot, Joanna is fired from her job at the network where she develops reality-television programs, prompting a nervous breakdown and a move to Stepford where she will ostensibly find serenity, but instead finds robots. Criticism of the remake, which poked at its broadness and supposed defanging, often fails to acknowledge that it gives credit to the perspective of women watching bleary-eyed as market feminism replaced grassroots efforts. Looking back, the passage of Reagan, Clinton, two Bushes, and wars on drugs and terror brought into focus that everyone who exists at the margins could be a target, and ultimately, a demographic to be marketed toward. Feminist ideals devoured by capitalism is as patriarchal as it gets.

Which brings us back to Don’t Worry Darling. The film isn’t really a period piece, but Wilde seduces the viewer with coffee cups being filled, toast scraped over with butter, and quaint trollies that cart ladies around town to shop and attend ballet class. It looks like the 1950s, but it’s an illusion of a time found in illustrated advertisements for better home cooking or dishware. When we do finally get a look at the outside world, far away from the perfectly round cocktail trays and smothering routines, it’s grimy and dark, with Jack hunched over a computer listening to another man’s dulcet tones, a podcasting red pill ready to transform the lives of unhappy men with the click of a glasseslike device (as if taken from an episode of Black Mirror).

An incel who feels he’s been denied a good relationship because he thinks Alice works too much as a brain surgeon, Jack signs up for the expensive device and basically holds her hostage in a simulated world. Victory’s leader, Frank (Chris Pine), whose callous “Jordan Peterson and Elon Musk if they actually had charisma” seductiveness is not as dark as it could be, would travel to the 1950s for the kind of world where women are submissive to their husbands, but the film reveals this world is simply a construct, as fake and hyperaestheticized as Stepford. Victory Project is just an idea of what that time in America was like for the privileged and powerful.

Photo: Merrick Morton/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Overall, Wilde’s film focuses more on replicating midcentury aesthetics than how feminist politics in the era of girlboss feminism have been sold to audiences. Even in the wake of potentially radical change (good and bad) for women and other marginalized groups in different aspects of industry and life — like the Me Too movement, the 2016 presidential election, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the memeification of political figures like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, people posting black squares on Instagram in 2020 — Don’t Worry Darling feels too insular to reach its political ambitions. In the confines of this world, the cracks of Alice’s reality reveal little else but broad-strokes ideas of unequal gender roles, as opposed to a more considered analysis of how power might function in Victory Project.

But Don’t Worry Darling does attempt to recontextualize the current phase of the feminist movement by placing its ideals in dialogue with contemporary forms of digital technology: the glasses Jack forces on Alice are a way of seeing, albeit into a man’s retrofuturist world. (Think Google Glass, but for incels. Meta, but for Men’s Rights Activists.) Dreams of alleviated labor haven’t changed much since the 2004 Stepford Wives remake, but the persistence of tropes introduced in the original film might be evidence of the incompatibility between progressive politics and the capitalist ecosystems that swallow them whole. In Don’t Worry Darling, futuristic technology is supposed to promise the characters a new future, but it does so by shackling everyone to the past. And even though the men in Victory Project talk a lot about going to work, it’s the women who are providing all of the labor.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Don’t Worry Darling is that the Stepford aesthetic is a soothing, familiar, comfortable shorthand for conservatism and lack of progress, and a site where inhabitants can opt out of having bigger political conversations. Utilizing the visual and spatial language of The Stepford Wives to help us understand our relationship to gender, labor, and technology makes it clear that the rights of women and other groups remain stuck, no matter how branded or digital friendly. And as Marshall keenly puts it, the housewife is the best technology. Now, who’s buying?

Why Is Hollywood Still So Obsessed With The Stepford Wives?