Retrospective

In 2004, an Infamous Sci-Fi Remake Reimagined the Horror of Patriarchy as Camp Satire

Stepford’s men are from Mars. Don’t ask where the women come from.

Paramount Pictures
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Over 50 years since its release, The Stepford Wives remains a sci-fi touchstone thanks to its unnerving portrayal of a small town where women suddenly change from independent free thinkers to compliant housewives. The 1975 adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel felt like the perfect film for the time, as feminist activists pushed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment into law amid staunch conservative opposition. The core message of The Stepford Wives — that patriarchy prefers submissive women over those who desire autonomy — has never stopped being relevant. In 2004, a remake seemed primed to update the story for the George W. Bush era, but audiences didn’t expect a camp satire of a decade in flux.

Directed by Muppets legend Frank Oz and written by Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values), The Stepford Wives remake is a strange beast. It follows Joanna (Nicole Kidman), a workaholic reality TV producer whose latest project ends disastrously when one of the contestants tries to go on a murder spree. Following a breakdown and the loss of her job, Joanna, her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and their kids move to Stepford. Immediately, Joanna knows something is wrong with this picturesque suburb: all the women dress like 1950s housewives, they delight in housework and cooking, and they're submissive to their jerk husbands.

So far, so Stepford. But this isn’t a horror. This version of the town is a parody, so polished and manicured that it swings into uncanny. It’s not the America of the past but the America of a past designed by ad executives to sell kitchenware. The men smoke pipes while the women get excited about cereal. One housewife is equipped with a breast-enlarging device.

Joanna, however, is forever clad in black and has an androgynous short hairdo that could only be described as “ball-busting.” The entire film proves disorienting, but there’s a method to the madness: when you’re shown the grotesque endgame of patriarchy, you realize how broken the system is. Is this ridiculous binary really what men want? If so, then the system sucks for them too.

There are updates to The Stepford Wives that feel extremely 2000s. The show Joanna produces in the opening scenes, an inhumane dating show called I Can Do Better, is an obvious parody of The Bachelor. One of her only allies in Stepford is Roger (Roger Bart), a proudly flamboyant gay man whose Republican lawyer husband thinks is “too much.”

Stepford’s satire remains relevant amid growing nostalgia for a ‘50s that never really were.

Paramount Pictures

He gets the Stepford treatment too, which erases his queerness until he’s a strait-laced all-American guy who doesn’t make the heterosexuals uncomfortable. The town insists it’s welcoming, but will only accept a gay resident after it robs him of his identity. In the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Bush administration’s legislative homophobia, there’s a pointed sadness to this subplot that gives the remake one of its best additions.

A lot of The Stepford Wives doesn’t really work. The twist ending feels like a strained attempt to subvert the original narrative, but only causes the film to lose its satiric bite as it falls into misguided sentimentality. Yet there’s a lot more here that’s effective than contemporary reviews would suggest. Making The Stepford Wives camp might not satisfy everyone, but it’s a move that reveals the intrinsically ridiculous nature of the “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” mentality that was at its peak.

It never stops being scary to know how many men view women as broodmares and clothes horses. Amid a revival of the tradwife movement and the amplification of misogynistic creeps like Andrew Tate, all of The Stepford Wives’ iterations remain endlessly relevant. In riding the fine line between terror and camp, the 2004 version ensures you never forget how stupid the entire system is.

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