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She, robot; he, well, he's not happy at all

Once, 'Stepford Wives' played on women's fears. This time, it's more about the men's.

June 20, 2004|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

"The Stepford Wives," the darkly comic remake of the 1975 thriller, couldn't have been made 30 years ago. Back then, the second wave of American feminism promised a bright future. Progressives brimming with optimism predicted that once the revolutionary dust settled, equality would be good for everyone. If there was anything to fear, they assured, it was the status quo.

Not everyone agreed, including the fictional men of Stepford. So in Ira Levin's novel and the film it inspired, suburban husbands replaced their wives with robots, preventively transforming their mates into a masculine ideal of womanhood before real life, and the times, changed the gals into something worse.

Helllllllp! You'd think we'd be angry at movies that make our scariest nightmares grist for entertainment. Yet when "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Stepford Wives" spun creepy horror movies from common, elemental fears, audiences happily trembled with recognition. The terror in the Stepford of yore was of wifehood, that stultifying role that robbed women of their brains and souls and reduced them to obedient dolls. Both genders were unsettled by change, but women's fear of domestic servitude was paramount.

Whimpers to wails

The new movie, while played for laughs in the key of high camp, reflects a significant shift in sexual politics. What was once a feminine paranoid fantasy has become a tale of masculine revenge. The action of the first film was driven by men taking a preemptive strike against feminism. Now, their impulses are punitive. In 1975, wary Stepford husbands believed no good could come from their wives straying from hearth and home, but whatever threats lurked in the wider world were imprecise. The guys behaved like gardeners aware that a pest was loose among the roses. It was hard to tell how destructive it would be, but better to kill it than let it spoil the pretty flowers. Perhaps liberated wives would have more opportunities to cheat on their husbands. Once they could get jobs formerly reserved for men, their intellectual superiority would be obvious to all, and how painful that would be. Maybe, just maybe, women would rule the world. After years of watching their spouses out-run, out-think and out-earn them, the 21st century husbands have seen the future, and they don't like it.

Thus "The Stepford Wives" joins the ranks of "Fight Club," "American Beauty" and "Changing Lanes," turn-of-the-century exegeses on male rage. Not that anyone could really blame the hubbies. Nicole Kidman's Joanna Eberhard is driven and exhausted, overworked and, inevitably, underloved. She's typical of the many women who acquired opportunity, then wore it badly. Anyone watching her at work and at home would conclude that her role models fought for the right to be cranky. She'd have to admit that once women decided they didn't have to be as stoic as men, their whimpers crescendoed into a deafening wail. In the bestselling anthology of essays, "The Bitch in the House" (William Morrow, 2002), a sisterhood of 27 aggrieved authors sounds off about work, motherhood, marriage, sex and solitude, or the lack thereof. Kristin van Ogtrop, managing editor of Real Simple, titles her contribution "Attila the Honey I'm Home." She writes, "Here are things people -- okay, the members of my family -- have said about me at home: 'Mommy is always grumpy.' 'Why are you so tense?' 'You're too mean to live in this house and I want you to go back to work for the rest of your life!' "

One could almost sympathize with Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick), just a little, even if his response -- substituting an automaton for a real woman who's better at everything -- is excessive. Joanna is not only fiercely ambitious. She's stupefyingly self-absorbed. The film makes the case that narcissism, more than female empowerment, is the contemporary plague. Let's get this straight: The men are sneaky wimps. The women are selfish monsters. Children are accessories, and dogs, mechanical or real, are props. So just who gets custody of a happy ending in Stepford?

Murder would be a foul enough solution to marital distress, but it's a minor insult compared with the outfits the wifely replicants must wear. Stepford wives supposedly dress to please their men. Yet the town's dweebs obviously have no impure thoughts about their children's baby sitters, have never seen an issue of Maxim or an Aerosmith video. Images of their mothers must turn them on, because they dress their animatronic wives in frilly, flowered Mommy frocks and aprons. Thousands of online porn sites can't be wrong. A lot of men, and especially men out to punish their successful, whiny, uppity wives, think women in short shorts and black leather bustiers are hot. Even in Connecticut.

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