Archive for Friday, June 18, 2004

Stepford doesn’t fit anymore

June 18, 2004


— Does anyone remember that the original version of "The Stepford Wives" was a horror movie? Women weren't bribed or brainwashed or seduced into becoming the perfect domestic and sex goddesses of suburbia. They were murdered by their husbands and replaced by robots.

"The Stepford Wives" was a dark backlash movie of the mid-1970s. The main character was Joanna Eberhart, whose tentative steps as a "hopeful, semi-professional photographer" were threatening enough to send her husband off to the Men's Association for an uncomplaining, unambitious replacement. The movie was the battle of the sexes. The men won.

Well, somewhere along the last decades, the Stepford wife became an archetype. She was Mrs. Perfect, Martha Stewart without the CEO title, the cookie-cutter cookie maker. Adoring political spouses were labeled Stepford wives, children with all "A"s were Stepford kids, obedient White House press corps members were called Stepford reporters. The Stepford wife wasn't a victim but a conformist.

Now the archetype has had a makeover. In the 2004 version of "The Stepford Wives," Joanna is a wildly successful head of a network whose specialty is reality programs that test marriage. Joanna, as played by Nicole Kidman, is one of the pantheon of edgy, ambitious Hollywood characters who are either deposed or collapse into a down comforter of family.

From the moment she strides out on a platform, you know another uppity woman is headed for her comeuppance or her epiphany.

In this version, Joanna is shot at, loses her job and her sanity, and is finally whisked by husband Walter to a gated community of SUVs and McMansions.

This is a movie that can't decide if it's still a horror story or a farce. It's only saved by some truly funny moments and the addition of a gay couple into Stepford. But before it collapses into a creative heap, the characters at least dance across the hot coals of modern relationships.

In this Stepford, where kids are virtually invisible, the subject is men, women, marriage, power and love in a world when everything is in transition. The alpha males of 1975 Stepford have been replaced by a pack of slightly nerdy 2004 husbands who want trophy wives with brain chips. But along with these caricatures there are everyday confused husbands and wives.

At one moment, Joanna's husband Walter utters a retro whine: "All of us, we married wonder women. ... We're the girls." But at another moment he tells of romancing his workaholic wife, "I wanted to make you laugh."

In one scene, Joanna, the ex-wonder woman who dresses in Manhattan black at a picnic, is truly freaked out by Stepford's happy weirdos. In another scene, she wrestles with self-doubt: "Maybe I've become the wrong kind of woman and I've made the wrong kind of decisions."

Alas, the moviemakers couldn't decide whether they were doing high camp or culture watch, but somewhere in Stepford there was the kernel of a modern love story. An honest story about the imperfect marriages between men and women, as people, workers, and parents living in the shadow of old traditions and new expectations.

In the real world, there is no single marital script. In a time when every couple is improvising, there's enormous uncertainty and edginess about what we should be doing. And how we should be feeling about it.

Out on the promotion tour, Kidman was reading a book titled "The Bastard on the Couch." It's a collection of essays by men on marriage compiled by Daniel Jones as a companion book for his wife's bestseller by women on marriage.

In it one man writes, "Something's come loose, something's come unglued. ... We no longer feel quite comfortable in our roles, no longer quite fit the people we imagine ourselves to be."

In our own messy, unglued, un-Stepford lives, there are couples who believe in an equality they have trouble defining or living. There are men and women who would both like to come home to a hot dinner. There are husbands and wives who both are doing more than their mothers and fathers.

Meanwhile, many working fathers and stay-at-home mothers are keeping scorecards on who has "the hardest job in the world." Many couples can't always figure out where to get extra credits. Or how to find time for each other.

"The Stepford Wives" is a film with a multiple personality disorder. The filmmakers could never decide which sex was the villain and which was the victim. They pasted a happy ending on as if it were a smiley face on a pink slip.

But if we can't remake the 1970s battle of the sexes in 2004, there's one simple reason: We just don't live in Stepford anymore.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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