Book vs. Film: The Stepford Wives (1975)
To Swiffer, a Baduism: I'm getting tired of your shit. Call Tyrone. It will be a cold day in hell--or, speaking Alighierically, a day of specific climes in the ninth circle itself, a day none-the-less fantastic, shouting ET TU at Brutus like a tourist--before I am to ever pine over a mop or find superb satisfaction in dusting shelves. Your commercials have been stricken by Stepfordites with mom jeans! I would rather jar worms. I understand advertising enough--I watch Mad Men, afterall, so I know how it works. with liquor, shit!--but, but, but, where are you getting this stuff? What kind of woman is romantically fulfilled by scrubbing the kitchen floor, without streaks? Satire can be a slippery slope to sled (the confusion happens all the time, mostly when convenient) and a schlock reading of The Stepford Wives seems to have come from all that slipping. I blame the film, or films if you wish to be specific, with its overt fetishization of household chores and cads of ersatz (I think you missed this most important of notes) women breathlessly asking each other about the virtues of cleaning supplies.
Spoiler alert: they dassn't be women. They are sexy women with vaginal caress, who don't hak and kibutz incessently, whose brains could be erased while fingertips read their thighs. And are also autistically fixated on housekeeping. Golem women. Paragons of ladylike nostalgie de la boue in broad daylight; afternoon delight. That deal--woman as a robot of sexy sex and laundry--is what people remember most about the film, curiously rated PG though it shows naked breasts and perhaps more prurient, Katherine Ross's love of knitwear with her Joanna in a perpetually frigid breeze: faux women, faux sexiness, faux feminism.
In the book, Joanna is more of a real feminist, and not what can pass as feminism: these film ladies walking around without bras, perhaps making slight reference to Sylvia Plath, once, but mostly just wanting to form a girl club to talk about boys and, like, important woman stuff. Just nothing about cleaning supplies: kiboshed. Levin prefaces his novel with a whetting from Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex, for chrissake. There is intellectual giddiness for Betty Friedan. Even in its scant number of page, the book is better at building realistic and relatable women, so their zombification feels woundful. Like when you watch Animal Planet and get really attached to those desert foxes, and then one of the little ones is stalked by some brute snake and then the next thing you know, you're talking yourself down from a low plotzing. Hypothetically.
And because she is written as more than a narrative gesture, Joanna is also hardly the hobby photographer of the film; she constructs her own darkroom, builds a portfolio, plans shoots, has an agency, gets checks and royalties. It seems, then, more awful when Joanna becomes another mindless woman walking her boobs around a kitchen. The film goes for this a little--Joanna saying, "she'll have my name and my face [...] but she won't take pictures, and she won't be me!"--but otherwise in the film it seems like she is any other art school student snapping art school photos, "on to something" when she takes pictures of her and a friend's children like nobody had ever mined the subject to the marrow before. The symbolism gets lost, because who isn't a photographer these days?
Today she'd just get the Hipstamatic app and avert the crisis, but then: in this wave of feminism, in this era, what is the Stepford Wife? I wonder. I've seen the shrieking harpies on The Real Housewives of Wheretofore and I cringe. If the Stepford Wife is a reflection on men and their ideal women, then botulism, bolt-on's and autotuned radio singles are shoving us right into the Uncanny Valley. It's Louboutin-clad reekness, wrinkle free, plastic, pre-paid sex and sexiness, red soles advertising and glassy, dead eyes promising to put it wherever. It's just inhuman enough for one look to chill the spine.
I am glad to say that the book also doesn't involve itself with the film's display of overt robotic malfunctions like "I'll just die if I don't get this recipe!" other than emphasis on repetitive motions that seem only a little mechanical. The film wants to just make it clear and easy and, having seen the Nicole Kidman remake meshugas, I can be grateful for the comparitively subtle way the original film orchestrates its unsubtleness. Sci fi is for nerds, man, just explain the deal with the broads!
By the way, don't even bother with that version. I know it has Bette Midler (bless), but it is a trap. If much of the feministic touches of the book are squandered in the original, the remake is a potch in the Steinem face.
Also, there definitely is no "do you bleed?" scene that makes it dumbly aware that hey! she's not real! This scene is worth a mention, as I do concede that it is visually effective for other reasons: Joanna stabs Bobbie neatly in the reproductive organs after the lines, "When I cut myself, I bleed. Look. Do you bleed?" Sine qua non, indeed. That ain't a woman; it's a man's woman.
Ultimately, it is the end of the novel versus the end of the film that seals the deal for me, readers, and those separate endings sufficiently describe their respective experiences. EXPLICIT SPOILERS FOLLOW: abandon hope, all ye. In the film, Joanna is lured into the men's association by recordings of her children (a facsimile of them, if you'll allow the film so obvious an analogy) calling for her. Once there, the jig is up and she is introduced to her Stepford self, the curvacious, bodacious, soullessly black-eyed Joanna. It is suggested that she chokes out echt Joanna with a pair of pantyhose; the next time we see her, she is languidly moving up and down the aisles of the supermarket in the fashion of Stepford, the camera allowing itself to fall out of focus before a close-up shot of her eyes reveals that they are finished. Fait accompli. The most iconic of images from this film--the one where all the women are lined up just-so in the aisle, gussied up and be-hatted and staring, at once blank and ominous--is not even in the actual film, but from production.
The book ending, however, has Joanna at Bobbie's house, slowly realizing--or not--that the men have planned for the thing walking around as her best friend to kill her. They set a trap and she gladly walked in, just for some reassurance that she wasn't totally insane. The plan is that Bobbie will cut herself, just a little, so that Joanna can see that she bleeds like people and will stop all this histrionic shrieking about robots. Her last narration is that Bobbie "couldn't be a robot, she simply couldn't be, and that was all there was to it" and this makes it all the more terrible, as her doubting is her legacy for the reader.
In the few pages left, which are narrated by Ruthanne of the "black family that is moving into town, it's so nice," Joanna affectatiously glides about the market, telling Ruthanne that she wasn't "especially talented" in photography and has given it, and any other interests, up in favor of non-stop housework. This is terrible, and it is horrific because the reader has grown to care for Joanna as a character, and her loss of identity and personality is poignant. And though it looks swell and creepy to be set upon by your dead-eyed double, I think it's a little more awful to be murdered by your one friend, especially since it is a golem of that friend, while Walter, that bubkes loser, JUDAS! doesn't even have the decency to be outside Bobbie's house with the rest of the guys, wondering what is taking so long.
Also, imagining Joanna with film Walter is frankly disgusting, and Katherine Ross was a terrible casting choice. It's all a little too unbelievable, non?
So: BOOK. While the film is largely enjoyable, it is also largely simple. While some try to push it as a feminist film, the film itself only aspires to feminism-lite...though I applaud the attempt to put such a seemingly bete noire to celluloid. It favors an ambiguity that is not really ambiguous, and it relies on its imagistic medium instead of its characters. It comes across as just lifeless. Ira Levin is a fine writer, a master of dread, and there is little more dreadful than the original The Stepford Wives. No substitutes, nudge.