The Stepford Wives
The re-created woman

by Lilly Ann Boruzkowski

from Jump Cut, no. 32, April 1987, pp. 16-19
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1987, 2006

THE STEPFORD WIVES portrays the feminine condition in a bourgeois, patriarchal society.[1][open notes in new window] It is also a modern day horror film as it contains many of the icons, themes, motifs, and modes of discourse characteristic of the classical horror film. The possibility, indeed, desirability, that a horror film provide political/ sociological/ philosophical insights as well as genre entertainment is my focus in this study.

THE STEPFORD WIVES was released in 1975, in the middle of a decade characterized by big budget science fiction and disaster films.  These included STAR WARS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, THE BLACK HOLE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, and AIRPORT. In a historical decade noted for advances in the women's movement, Hollywood chose to emphasize male "Buddy" films such as THE STING, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, THE LAST DETAIL, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, and CALIFORNIA SPLIT. As Molly Haskell explains in From Reverence to Rape:

"The growing strength and demands of women in real life, spearheaded by women's liberation, obviously provoked a backlash in commercial film: a redoubling of Godfather-like machismo to beef up man's eroding virility or, alternately, an escape into the all-male world of the buddy films from EASY RIDER to SCARECROW."[2]

The seventies also introduced the nautilus school of acting with films such as ROCKY and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. This trend flourishes in recent films (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, THE TERMINATOR, STAYIN' ALIVE, RAMBO), where a "Body by Jake" seems a requisite for male stardom.

Horror films in the seventies became dominated by evil children (THE OMEN, THE EXORCIST, CARRIE, IT'S ALIVE), animals (THE SWARM, WILLARD, NIGHTWING, PIRANHA), and gore (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT).

Although revisionist feminist attitudes surfaced in non-horror films such as JULIA, NORMA RAE, GIRLFRIENDS, and AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, the image of women in horror films reached its nadir with THE EYES OF LAURA MARS, featuring Faye Dunaway as a commercial photographer with a penchant for sadomasochistic layouts.

In this historical period, THE STEPFORD WIVES had a relatively short theatrical life and met with neither popular nor critical acclaim. One explanation for its failure with a mass audience may be that although women should be its most responsive audience (since the film concerns sexual oppression in a patriarchal society), women do not form the majority of horror film aficionados. Second, the film does not supply the cover-your-eyes gore, jump-in-your-seat scares, or horny-teenagers-in-suburban-locations eroticism appreciated by the teenaged, box-office-rewarding audiences of FRIDAY THE 13th and HALLOWEEN. Third, the film emphasizes the fact that the dominant images of women in our culture are male-created and controlled. Such a theme cannot gain immediate acceptance by the very culture responsible for the ideology the film exposes.

The majority of film critics who examined the film seemed blind to its greatest accomplishment — its synthesis of genre formula with social observation. Richard Schickel, in a review entitled "Women's Glib," suggests:

"Why not a little less discretion about the sexuality of a grown-up barbie? Or perhaps the opposite tack should have been tried. The piece could have been an exercise in pure terror, avoiding overt social comment."[3]

Rather than praise the film for its positive feminist elements, reviewers instead concentrated on the film's negative images of men:

"… a shallowly satiric suburban joke that says some ugly and unsupported thing about what kind of women men really want."[4]

"… the movie never shows a single man whose feminine ideal exceeds gatefold dimensions. That too is a form of dehumanization."[5]

"Stepford hits men below the belt … If the movie had any wit or perspective, we'd see how the men, accepting their role as providers, strapped themselves into boring jobs and turned themselves into creeps, and maybe we'd even see some of the young wives' delicious relaxation in the pleasure of having snared men who were going to take care of them."[6]

Curiously, while critics writing for mass market publications failed to appreciate the social relevance of the film, the sole reviewer cognizant of its social theme wrote for a horror-film publication, Cinefantastique. David Bartholomew recognized the film as unique among recent horror films:

"THE STEPFORD WIVES is probably the only viable, intelligently conceived movie about women and their future made in the past decade … (it) is one of the select few genre films more important fo its ideas than its genre excitements."[7]

To be included in the horror genre, a film does not need viscerally to "scare" the spectator, but rather to address issues and ideas which are "scary" or "frightening." The horror film can be seen as a cathartic nightmare, a means of dealing with fears which our unconscious mind prefers to repress.[8] These fears most frequently concern death, powerlessness, alienation, mutilation, technology, changing social structures, and loss of control.[9] And loss of control can be over events, one's body, or one's mind.

Horror also provides a spectacle, with the viewers often having an active relation to screen events (averting eyes from the screen, nervous laughter, gasping, sado/masochistic identification with camera/characters — achieved through editing and camera movement) characteristic of the genre. The spectacle, with its strong erotic connotations, can be examined both psychoanalytically and as a mode of discourse. As Edward Lowry suggests in "Genre and Enunciation: The Case of Horror":

"… we should be alerted to the possibilities offered by an analysis of enunciation for providing a significant explanation of the horror film s penchant for violence against women, allowing us to understand the genre as a privileged site for the playing out of male castration anxieties in terms of horror, and at the expense of the female body."[10]

THE STEPEORD WIVES shows women reduced to objects. Their husbands destroy and recreate their bodies. And the motif of re-creation is one central to the misogynistic tendencies in the horror film. The women here are victimized both physically and psychologically through such a re-creation process.

THE STEPFORD WIVES specifically addresses the changing role of women in contemporary society and apprehensions about technology. The "horror" has its basis in current social and cultural ideologies. The evil is not "out there," but in our culture, our society, our home, our family, and the very beliefs which govern our lives.

The basic plot of THE STEPFORD WIVES concerns men who discover the ultimate method of controlling women. The men create robot duplicates of their wives, which have no will and become men's sexual and domestic slaves.

The physical creation of a monster has remained a staple of the horror genre since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Two types of creation generally characterize the horror film. The first consists of the fashioning of a figure from natura1 materials (the clay creature in THE GOLEM),[11] or from human parts (FRANKENSTEIN). [12] The second type of creation is less physical — "thoughts" are given a life of their own (FIEND WITHOUT A FACE).[13]

When a woman gets "created," her appearance remains crucially important. This directly contrasts with the aesthetic involved in creating a male monster. The 1931 FRANKENSTEIN monster was created out of spare body parts. Dr. Frankenstein had tried to provide his male creature with a good mind, although an assistant's error prevented this. In FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN,[14] the woman's physical appearance became primary. Hertz, Frankenstein's assistant, initially wanted to reject the woman because she was "twisted, deformed, broken." The emphasis on ideal feminine beauty in that film was so great that Frankenstein and Hertz did not stop at curing her limp and facial scar, but went to the cosmetological extremes of curling her hair and dying it blonde.[15] Hertz immediately equated her identity to her physical being. He answered her question "Who am I?" with "You're a very lovely girl".

Beyond using the creation myth, THE STEPFORD WIVES mirrors the mise-en-scene of classical horror films in featuring a dark, evil mansion in which the horrific event transpires on an archetypal stormy night.

The film opens showing a typical nuclear family.[16] Joanna, an amateur photographer; her husband, Walter, a lawyer; their two children; and their dog, Fred, move to the quiet Connecticut suburb of Stepford to escape the "madness" of life in Manhattan. Joanna and Walter's initial contacts with the Stepford residents reveal that most men spend their evenings at the sexually exclusive Men's Association, while the women obsessively clean house and tend to their personal appearance. Joanna meets Bobbie, another recently arrived resident, and soon develops a strong friendship with her — apparently the only other woman in town who would dare to have a messy kitchen. Joanna and Bobbie attempt to raise the other women's consciousness by organizing a women's discussion group.

Consciousness raising, the initial means by which many politically aware women establish interconnectedness and break silences about common experience and feelings, has been a bedrock of the feminist movement. The consciousness raising groups reflected the skills that women have learned well: how to listen and how to talk to each other, how to empathize, how to give emotional support.[17] However, at such a meeting, the Stepford women soon lapse into discussing the relative merits of spray starch rather than relating to each other's oppression. Only one woman, Charmaine, expresses interest in feminist issues. The others relate only to husbands and children, not to each other.

After discovering from an old newspaper article that many of the women were once professionally and politically active feminists, Bobbie and Joanna conclude that something — natural or unnatural — has transformed them. They become certain of this when Charmaine unexpectedly converts to an attitude of husband adoration, self-sacrifice, and obsessive domesticity.

Bobbie and Joanna initially suspect environmental causes such as chemical waste or water pollution for producing such personality alterations. The original fear of industrialization run amok then becomes replaced by their knowledge that the husbands, in cooperation with the Men's Association, are eliminating their wives and replacing them with android duplicates.[18]

The men employ their varied and collective scientific talents in stages to gain total domination over each woman. The initial re-creation stage involves having an artist sketch a woman's portrait. The drawings then serve as blueprints in the construction of the woman's "double." Joanna's portrait session provides the first overt indication in the film of the discrepancy between a woman's physical reality and the ideal which men fantasize. Joanna, gazing upon her portrait, comments that she doesn't equal the image, she simply isn't as attractive. She admonishes the artist for blighting the lives of countless young women by comparing them to likenesses which can never become their reality.

Historically, men's capturing of the woman's image has been crucial in establishing men's dominance, and it has traditionally been associated with power over the depicted. As James George Frazer explains in The Golden Bough:

"… they [portraits] are often believed to contain the soul of the person portrayed. People who hold this belief are naturally loath to have their likenesses taken; for if the portrait is the soul, or at least a vital part of the person portrayed, whoever possesses the portrait will be able to exercise a fatal influence over the origin of it."[19]

In the film, in the second stage of a woman's transformation process, a linguist requires the woman to taperecord a word list, purportedly for a study of regional dialects. The list lets the men program the androids with a restricted vocabulary. Limiting words, the primary means of expression, also limits knowledge, understanding, self-expression, and creativity. Potentially dangerous words are excluded from the vocabulary, ones such as "archaic," which was originally used by Joanna to describe the sexually exclusive Men's Association. In symbolic terms, women cannot have any control over nor can they conceptually deal with that which they cannot name.

The third preparation phase for transformation involves the men's constructing a model of the woman's bedroom. When the Men's Association tour Joanna's new home, they become too interested in the bedroom furnishings and remain longer than protocol would allow. In film, an entry into a bedroom has a voyeuristic component, one which relates to the classical horror motif of the villain's intrusion upon the bedroom and attacking the woman while she's defenselessly asleep. The women's "final transformation" in THE STEPFORD WIVES occurs during a second honeymoon weekend, culminating in a confrontation in the "new" bedroom.


The film indisputably attacks Freudian theories of femininity and their expression as a "feminine mystique" in popular culture. As Betty Friedan interprets Freud's question, "What do women want?" she explains:

"It says this femininity is so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it … The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women's troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love."[21]

The film depicts and confronts a modern patriarchal fear: that, strengthened by the women's movement, contemporary women have gained sufficient knowledge and power to refuse to be defined and oppressed by education, family structures, socialization, and ideological brainwashing. The film indicates that when the traditional means of sustaining the patriarchy begin to fail, then men must find a new means of oppression. The men, technocrats, pool their talents to reconstruct women mechanically and to create wives to "lack" personality, intelligence, knowledge, skills, practicality, ambition, creativity, and free will. The men want the women "contained" and pressed into non-creative, non-fulfilling, non-rewarding labor in service of the men.

Freudian bedrocks of feminine psychology are concepts of penis-envy, castration, narcissism, and masochism. Stepford is a Freudian Paradise. The Men's Association President, "Diz," a man who likes "to see women doing little domestic chores," seems like a composite Hugh Hefner and Sigmund Freud. And Diz acquired his nickname from employment at Disneyland, a fantasy world where mechanical dummies exist for the spectator's gaze, amusement and pleasure.

In Stepford, men consider the archetypal Freudian woman the ideal. Liberated women stand as potential threats to the patriarchal order in their outspokenness, persistence, aggressiveness, and goal or career orientation. The men view these women as potentially castrating females having "masculine" or "active" characteristics. Liberated women, like the monster in the classical horror film, here become the repressed, the "other." They must suffer because they are different and therefore unacceptable. Unlike the traditional horror film monster, however, the women get subdued before the repression can manifest itself in female violence.[22]

The way the men create androids which enact women's "proper role" can be related to how Freud outlined the paths open to a woman once she comes to terms with her own "physical lack" or castration. At that point, a woman may become neurotic or sexually inhibited. She may modify her character and develop a masculinity complex (the path Joanna and Bobbie seem to have taken in terms of career orientation and codes of dress and behavior). Or, lastly, she may pursue the path of "normal" femininity. Accordingly, all the characteristics that Freud assigns to women — narcissism, masochism, passivity, great need for love, lack of a sense of justice, envy, and general inferiority — delineate the mold into which the Stepford women are cast. The Stepford wives no longer will possess any attributes Freud would classify as active and masculine, such as aggressiveness, strength, or career and goal orientation.

The re-created women are narcissistic because they have been programmed into a woman's "proper function" — to please a man physically. THE STEPFORD WIVES places primary importance on the youth and physical attractiveness of the "new" women, although the original wives were in no way "deformed" or "imperfect." In fact, the men suffer from overweight, baldness, and speech defects. And although sexuality is emphasized, the women have only a domesticated sexuality. Unlike the FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN character who used her physical attractiveness to lure and murder for revenge, the Stepford woman's sexuality is powerless, concealed under her pinafore dress. While the woman is sexual, she must at the same time seem a non-threatening little girl who belongs to her husband.

"The paradox of female sexuality being a vehicle for a woman to find a home, so to speak, and yet once she has found that home, needing to hide her sexuality or channel it into producing babies, means that all women live with the split of simultaneously having to be sexual and yet having to curb their sexuality."[23]

The woman becomes object: "… isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualized property."[24] She is helpless, ineffectual, and no longer able to defend herself. Most important, she no longer possesses a "self" to defend.

This paradigm explains Bobbie's post-honeymoon reaction to her old friend Joanna when Joanna comes to Bobbie's house in search of her children. Shocked by the neatly coiffed, made-up, impeccably dressed, and organized Bobbie, Joanna stabs Bobbie with a kitchen knife and then exclaims, "You're not human. You don't bleed." The knife wound is traditionally a symbolic castration. Here it can have no effect on Bobbie since she's already been castrated/ mutilated — she has nothing more to lose. The android Bobbie's futile response is to remove the knife and offer Joanna coffee.

The men, fearing castration, feel threatened by the powerful female. Joanna is punished for attacking her husband with a fireplace poker. She is lured to the dark, mysterious, dangerous Men's Association building, or "The Terrible House."[25] The house personifies its residents who are bound to archaic tradition and the old Freudian order. Joanna runs through the house alone, hunted, and set in opposition to a much larger and stronger group — a typical position for a woman in the horror film.

In that house Joanna meets Diz. He attempts to convince her of the justice of submitting to the standards of feminine conformity and oppression as determined by the patriarchy. Again, within the horror film tradition, films dealing with living-dead creatures usually show a zombie trying to convince the last "normal" creature that the new mode of existence is desirable (e.g., INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS[26] or THE LAST MAN ON EARTH[27]).

Diz leads Joanna to the bedroom chamber. There she meets her mechanical, beautiful double and ultimately loses her "self." She also finds Fred, the dog she lost days ago. Fred's presence offers a metaphor for what the men expect from their wives — to be man's best friend; to be trained, loyal, submissive, obedient, non-demanding, and ever-present.

When Joanna meets her replacement, the android sits at a dressing table. As the double rises to confront Joanna, we notice through her diaphanous Frederick's-of-Hollywood dressing gown that she isn't an exact duplicate of Joanna either, but a "new, improved" version. In the tradition of created women, her breasts are larger, her waist narrower, her hips fuller. The duplicate has a 36-24-36 Playboy physique, considered by the men an improvement over Joanna's beautiful but less nubile, natural body.

The climactic confrontation with the mirror image clarifies for Joanna the changes she'd seen in Bobbie and Charmaine, as well as the reason for the word list and portrait. Language and image become united in the Lacanian mirror. For Lacan, it is the infant's momentous confrontation with the mirror image which leads to subjecthood, the acquisition of language, and the differentiation of the sexes:

"According to the Lacanian model, the human subject is not only a speaking subject with an unconscious, but also a masculine or feminine subject in relation to the Oedipus complex. Sexual difference is seen as structured by the subject's relation to the phallus, the signifier which stands in for the play of absence and presence that constitutes language. Because the oedipal moment inaugurates sexual difference in relation to the phallus as signifier, men and women enter language differently, and Lacan's argument is that the female entry into language is organized by lack, or negativity."[28]

This is indeed true for the Stepford woman. The android's language, from this moment on, stays restricted to what the men have programmed into her electronic circuitry. Her language also becomes reduced to non-sense, such as endlessly repeating, "I'll just die if I don't get that recipe, I'll just die …" The Stepford woman, like Lacan's woman, remains forever outside the symbolic, outside language.

"It is said, in philosophical texts, that women's weapon is the word, because they talk, talk endlessly, chatter, overflow with sound, mouth-sound: But they don't actually speak, they have nothing to say. They always inhabit the place of silence, or at most make it echo with their singing. And neither is to their benefit, for they remain outside knowledge."[29]

Image, like language, is acquired from outside. As the infant gazes into the mirror it learns to recognize itself and separate from others or more specifically, from its mother. The presence of the mother crucially stands as both a comparison and as a validator. The child's image of itself, therefore, derives from someone else to whom it is compared. The image thus does not offer an exact rendition but a distorted, fun-house mirror reflection, a misrepresentation — for the image with which the child identifies is very unlike itself.

In the STEPFORD WIVES, the android in the mirror is compared not to the mother but to the father. She is physically unlike him yet is created in his image — not his physical image but his image as desire, fantasy, dream, and visual projection. She is the man's ideal image of woman made real, although not quite flesh. She is the fantasy centerfold who comes to life.

The second identification that occurs at that moment comes with Joanna and her double. Joanna is to the android as the child to the mother, for the android is more perfectly formed, more poised, more coordinated. The reflected image is a misrepresentation, not what Joanna is but the image that others, the patriarchy, would give to her. It is the Miss America aesthetic whereby all women are created equal, by a mold. They have the same "vital statistics," the same cheekbones, and the same perfection.

Such an imposed homogenization creates masochistic women — women who feel forced to live up to and according to images which don't resemble them, ones which others have determined for them. Karen Horney explains that women are culturally forced into masochistic positions by

"…a development that is not autonomous but fashioned and molded by existing male ideologies It is fairly obvious that these ideologies function not only to reconcile women to their subordinate role by presenting it as an unalterable one but also to plant the belief that it represents a fulfillment they crave, or an ideal for which it i commendable and desirable to strive."[30]

The re-created Stepford wife is powerless in her inability to speak and see.[31] Rather than castrated, more accurately she has been decapitated. As Helen Cixous writes:

"If man operates under the threat of castration, if masculinity is culturally ordered by the castration complex, it might be said that the backlash, the return on woman of this castration anxiety is its displacement as decapitation, execution, of woman, as loss of her head. Women have no other choice than to be decapitated, and in any case the moral is that if they don't actually lose their heads by the sword, they only keep them on condition that they lose them — lose them, that is, by complete silence, turned into automatons."[32]

The motif of women being decapitated is not unusual in the horror genre. In THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE,[33] a young doctor, Bill, preserves the head of his fiancée, who has been decapitated in a car accident, with the goal of re-creating her. Bill searches for the appropriate body in strip clubs. The "body" he selects is that of Doris, a hitchhiker. Doris turns out to have been a second runner-up in a beauty contest which Bill's fiancée won. Doris now has a scarred face, but her body is the perfect complement to the head. Bill lures Doris to his secluded country home with the promises of plastic surgery and physical perfection. In FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, the man remains decapitated, but Dr. Frankenstein and Hertz reincarnate the woman by infusing her with the life force from the man's head. The "head" begins to control the woman and she resorts to carrying it around with her.

Any horror film concerning creation must reveal something of the creator's goals and the subsequent control he exercises over his creature. The question of control is sometimes simply resolved, as in THE GOLEM, where the film attributes it to a magical star. Even a child can control the creature if she can obtain the star. In the Frankenstein films, the issue of control often seems more complex. Control can depend on an outsider's power, that is, one other than the creator (THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN). In THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE, the creature cannot control itself but gains control over a "monster in the closet" that will carry out the disembodied head's instructions to destroy the creator, Bill.

In THE STEPFORD WIVES, the men exert virtually total control over the automatons. These creatures will never break free, gain outside aid, kill themselves, be killed, or torn on their creators; they have no will of their own and no power over anything or anyone. They are sentenced to exchanging ideas no more significant than recipes. They will not band together and revolt because they have no community among themselves other than the interaction involved in borrowing sugar. Occasionally their circuitry may fail, but the greatest destruction they're capable of is dropping a dish.

Joanna realizes that women's identity and power are at stake. Her early identity comes from her burgeoning career as a photographer. There her power lies in appropriating the gaze rather than being subject to it. As Mary Ann Doane describes such an identity, "The intellectual woman looks and analyzes, and in usurping the gaze she poses a threat to an entire system of representation."[35] Not only does Joanna's photography allow her to go out into the world and explore it on her own terms, it also awards her financially, making her more independent from her husband.

Upon witnessing Charmaine's change, Joanna develops fears of losing control. She seeks the aid of a psychiatrist in another city when living in an oppressive society in which she is the outsider, the "other," threatens her sanity. She fears that she, too, will lose control and will lose her "self." She realizes her new persona "won't take pictures and won't be me." The psychological consultation is ineffectual, however, since Joanna does not have a psychological problem but a social and cultural one.

The creator in the horror film is almost always a man who subsumes the creative role of both God and woman. Most often, the creator justifies his act of creation in the name of scientific experimentation. In THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE, the scientist's father warns him, "Don't play God." The scientist responds, "What I've done is right. It's the work of science." Sometimes a film gives as the man's reason his inability to reconcile the loss of a loved one. But regardless of such noble pronouncements, the man's underlying reason is always selfish. Bill explains to the head: "I want you as a complete woman, not as part of one. Is it wrong to want to do this? I love you."

In THE STEPFORD WIVES the men create to fulfill their fantasy desires. The android exists for their pleasure only and not to serve any scientific or noble goal. As Diz explains to Joanna prior to her re-creation, "If the situation were reversed, wouldn't you like the perfect stud who would be eternally young and totally dedicated to you, even when you're old and wrinkled?"

"Here we should note that a central conflict in many horror narratives revolves around the difficulties experienced by the rational (the educated and scientific) in recognizing and dealing with the irrational. The patriarchy, no matter how horrific their actions, are able to justify themselves with reason and logic. The men are super-rational, having the authority to define the locus of the rational. Women, as "Other," are set in opposition to the "norm" and therefore posited as irrational…"[36]

The final image in THE STEPFORD WIVES has the doll-like women in their starched pinafore dresses pushing shopping carts around the supermarket. The androids are at home here, for just like the brightly colored packages neatly stacked on the shelves and in their carts, they are also consumer products — manufactured and packaged to attract and please the consumers, men.

In order to put into perspective the haunting final image of the film, the question, "Who is the monster?" must be addressed. Robin Wood posits that the monster is the thing/person that threatens normality: "The doppelanger motif reveals the monster as normality's shadow."[37] To the men, the monster is the liberated woman, the "repressed," the "Other," who questions the norm and standards of the patriarchy. To the liberated women, the monster is the patriarchy who will stop at nothing to maintain control. The doubles are not monsters but pawns in a literal war between the sexes. The weapons the men employ in the war are not psychological or persuasive but the entire corpus of human knowledge. The men have command of law, medicine, computers, technology, finance, and the media. Stepford is a town protected by a modern-day moat of electronics companies.

There is a happy ending in the fictional world. The patriarchy, reinstituted, reigns supreme.[38] But what about the ending in the viewer's world? Any reading of a film depends on the viewer's predispositions and beliefs. Just as RED DAWN can be interpreted as either realistic or as reactionary propaganda, THE STEPFORD WIVES can be read as either a critique or support of the Stepford way of life. The ending must be read in the perspective of the entire film. It gives us a social warning. It cautions us to be cognizant of ideology and of cultural obsessions with appearance and image rather than substance or heart.


1. THE STEPFORD WIVES. Columbia Pictures, 1975. Director: Bryan Forbes. Screenplay: William Goldman, based on a novel by Ira Levin. Starring: Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman, Patrick O'Neal, and Tina Louise.

2. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (New York: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 323.

3. Richard Schickel, "Women's Glib," Time, 105 (3 March 1975), p. 6.

4. P.D.Z., "Suburban Gothic," Newsweek, 85 (3 March 1975), p. 70.

5. Schickel, p. 6.

6. Pauline Kael, "Male Revenge," The New Yorker, 51 (24 February 1975), p. 112.

7. David Bartholomew, "THE STEPFORD WIVES," Cinefantastique, 4 (Summer 1975), p. 41.

8. Stuart M. Kaminsky, American Film Genres (Dayton: Pflaum, 1974), pp. 100-101.

9. D.L. White, "The Poetics of Horror," in Barry K. Grant (ed.), Film Genre: Theory and Criticism (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1977), p. 133.

10. Edward Lowry, "Genre and Enunciation: the Case of Horror," Journal of Film and Video, 36 (Spring 1984), p. 18.

11. THE GOLEM. UFA-Bioskop, 1917. Directors: Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen.

12. FRANKENSTEIN. Universal, 1931. Director: James Whale.

13. FIEND WITHOUT A FACE. United Kingdom, Amalgamated, 1958. Director: Arthur Crabtree.

14. FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN. Hammer-Seven Arts, 1967. Director: Terrence Fisher.

15. It is of further note that Susan Denberg, an ex-Playboy bunny, was cast in this part.

16. For an analysis of the repressive structures of the nuclear family, see Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam Books, 1971).

17. Luise Eichenbaum and Susie Orbach, Understanding Women: A Feminist Psychoanalytic Approach (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 4.

18. Betrayal by a friend/lover/relative has ample precedent in films such as TARGETS, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, and ROSEMARY'S BABY. The concept of the volatile personality with evil lurking beneath the benign facade is a staple of the horror genre.

19. Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (New York: Macmillan, 1950), p. 223.


21. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell, 1963), p. 37.

22. For more detail on the idea of the monster as "Other," see Robin Wood (ed.), The American Nightmare (Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979).

23. Luise Eichenbaum and Susie Orbach, p. 155.

24. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen, 16 (Autumn 1975), p. 9.

25. Robin Wood, p. 20.

26. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Allied Artists, 1956. Director: Don Siegel.

27. THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. La Regina/Alta Vista/American International Pictures, 1964. Directors: Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona.

28. Annette Kuhn, "Introduction to Helene Cixous' "Castration or Decapitation?" Signs, 7 (Autumn 1981), p. 37.

29. Helene Cixous, "Castration or Decapitation?" Signs, 7 (Autumn 1981), p. 49.

30. Karen Horney, M.D., Feminine Psychology (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967), pp. 230-231.

31. See Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, p. 46, for an analysis of why women can readily "… identify completely with the victims of blindness, deafness, physical maiming, cerebral palsy, paralysis, cancer, or approaching death."

32. Helene Cixous, pp. 42-43.

33. THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (also, THE HEAD THAT WOULDN'T DIE). American International Pictures, 1963. Director: Joseph Green.

34. THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN. Hammer, 1964. Director: Freddie Francis.

35. Mary Ann Doane, "Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator," Screen, 23 (September/October 1982), p. 83

36. Edward Lowry, pp. 17-18.

37. Robin Wood, p. 14.

38. REVENGE OF THE STEPFORD WIVES. NBC-TV, 1980. Director: Robert Fuest. Starring: Sharon Gless, Julie Kavner, Arthur Hill, Don Johnson. "Ten years later. The men of Stepford are now chemically re-programming (or "neutralizing") their women to be perfect wives; pills and sirens periodically reinforce their subservience. The method this time is closer to brainwashing than to duplication; the results are the same. Donald C. Willis, Horror and Science Fiction Films II (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1982), pp. 329-330.