Women as “Controlled Robots” in Film: A Comparison Between The Stepford Wives: 75’ & 04’
Throughout history, gender differences between men and women have been highlighted in films. Since then, the revolutions of gender equality values have emerged and are apparent in recent films. The Stepford Wives filmed in 1975, shows audiences the male desire to control his female counterpart and the stereotypical role for women, as housewives. The movie narrows down the relationship between husband and wife and excludes homosexuality and other races. In 2004, filmmakers released a remake of The Stepford Wives, which depicts a modern view of gender equality, homosexual, and racial marriages, but it still shows a stereotypical view on the male figure controlling his partner with a new twist. In this paper, I will compare and contrast the views on gender equality, stereotypes, and certain aspects of lighting and colors used in both films.
The Stepford Wives filmed in 1975 begins with a view of wallpaper in the Ebehart’s New York City home, which is green and yellow. The color green is known to symbolize freedom, fertility sexuality, and renewal (Poague, 1977). Yellow and sunshine are known to represent happiness. There is an awkward image of two tigers on the wallpaper, which represents strength and reveals a possible power struggle in the film. Throughout the film, Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross), the main character, is a housewife “in tune” with nature. She is always seen doing things in her garden and sitting in the grass.
In the 2004 film, there is also lots of green and yellow, but Joanna (Nicole Kidman) isn’t pleased with gardening. She also wears black outfits, which signifies mourning, but she mentions it’s common for city girls. Nicole Kidman’s hair is also short and she has a job in the film industry, while Katherine Ross’ hair is long, which was common in the 70’s era. Kidman’s life is extremely different from Ross’ in the 2004 film because she didn’t spend much time with her children. Ross walked the children to the bus stop and cared for her husband, which typical housewives do, but she dreamed of becoming a professional photographer.
Filmmakers didn’t start placing working class women in film until the 80’s, which explains the 1975 stereotype. Prior to the major transition, women were classified as “perfect” housewives in film (Hill, 2009). Interestingly enough, neither Joanna is an “ideal” housewife in their husbands’ eyes at the beginning of the film. Both of them are somewhat lazy and rebellious. Their best friend, Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss in the 1975 version) and Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler in the 2004 version) are sloppy and don’t attempt to care for their homes. We don’t see much of Prentiss’ home, but we do see Midler’s repulsive home. It’s apparent in the 2004 film, that Bobbie’s last name was changed because movie maker’s wanted to portray her as a Jewish woman. Religion isn’t clarified in the 1975 film. Again, Bobbie’s appearance is diverse in both movies. Markowe has short hair, while Markowitz’s hair is longer and curly. Also, Markowe is tall, beautiful, and slender, while Markowitz is short and pudgy.
When both Joanna’s arrive to their new town, everything appears flawless. Every housewife except Bobbie and Joanna in the 75’ version was part of a “clique.” In the 2004 adaptation, the circle consists of all housewives except Bobbie, Joanna, and a new character, Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), who’s a gay male that moved to Stepford with his partner, which didn’t exist in the 1975 film. The women in the 2004 film were more welcoming of newcomers than the ones in the 1975 version. They wanted Joanna, Bobbie, and Roger to join their group. On the contrary, the women in the 1975 adaptation weren’t accepting or welcoming. They were completely reserved and didn’t discuss their personal relationships.
One of the closest similarities between both films is the setting. They both move from the city to suburban neighborhoods. Suburbia is classified as a “green heaven” in most films, which is ironic because there is usually a scandal beneath its surface (Hill, 2009). The main characters in both films soon realize that there is a major problem in their new neighborhoods and neighbors. They aren’t as utopian as they seem.
Most of the housewives in both films drown themselves in their home life and do everything they can to please their husbands. Housework is depicted as slavery and prevents women from self-discovery (Hill, 2009). It’s extremely troubling to see the women in both adaptations lose themselves to their home. Joanna in the 2004 version begins to bake and clean, while Joanna in the 1975 portrayal is always cooking dinner for her family and entertaining his guests. This is a stereotypical view on the way women satisfy their husbands.
Gender typing used in previous movie eras view females, as victims, and males, as rulers (Nelson, 2006). This is apparent in both films because females are controlled by the male figures in their lives and are forced to act as “impeccable” beings, but the 2004 film presents a turn of events. The woman, Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), is the mastermind behind the women of Stepford’s odd behavior. Interestingly enough, the film presents the worst of both sides.
The 1975 version of The Stepford Wives is a combination of the mystery, science fiction, and thriller genre, while the 2004 adaptation is a mixture of comedy, science fiction, and thriller. The audience is introduced to a concrete ending with explanation in the 2004 version, but the 1975 adaptation leaves the audience pondering the outcome and drawing their own conclusions. Science fiction films are known to investigate theoretical questions, while mysteries tune into emotional facets (Madison-Davis, 2010). In the 1975 adaptation, there is a mixture of both and it fascinates and engages the audience into Katherine Ross’ sentiments and struggles. She is forced to give up her for the sake of Stepford and her husband’s reputation. It’s sad to see that he doesn’t come forth to save his wife. Unfortunately, she is helpless and alone. In the 2004 film, it’s pleasant to see Kidman and her onscreen husband unite as loved ones, expose the truth about Stepford, and rescue the women.
Robots were key figures in science fiction films of the late 70’s and early 80’s, which created an understanding of present-day life. They complicated movies because humans who were portrayed as robots represented illusions (Cornea, 2003). The women in both films act as robots and move around in unison. In fact, in the 1975 version the women are killed and reappear as robots because of their husbands’ desires of authority. Their “clones” take over their roles in the home and bring gratifications into their husbands’ lives. On the contrary, the 2004 adaptation presents a modernized view where the women aren’t killed, but are sent into a machine, which inserts a mechanical chip into their brains. They are commanded by remote controls that are given to their husbands, which gives them the power to turn them anyway that they please. There is even an on and off switch on the remote. It’s extremely realistic because technology keeps advancing in the modern day world.
In film, male pleasures involve mastery and aspirations of visual pleasure. Female characters in film revive a lost aspect of their sexual identity through wistfulness and repression (Manlove, 2007). In the 1975 version of The Stepford Wives it’s clear from the beginning that men in Stepford value their wives’ physical appearance. By allowing them to die and have a robot that is identical to them, it’s clear that they only care about their feature, which presents a dilemma. This leads the audience to conclude that they have no interest in their wives’ feelings because robots are heartless. Ross’ duplicate has the same exact shape as her, but is missing her eyes, which is interesting because it removes a need to revive past feelings because she doesn’t have one. In the 2004 version, men place the same values on their women, but they are able to “snap out of it.” Joanna willingly “converts” without the community’s knowledge that she isn’t controlled by a microchip. Her character reassures the audience that not all women are the same and change is possible if needed. She pleases her husband by being herself, which reinstates care and respect of women.
Gaze in movies is also introduces a representation of power through application (Manlove, 2007). Authority is usually represented from one person looking down at another in film. In the 2004 version, Kidman is actually looking down at her onscreen husband, Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick), which signifies that the woman is in control of her man. She is also taller than her husband. In the end, she is able to convince him that he shouldn’t alter her persona because it isn’t a realistic aspect of their love. Most of the women who are modified have blonde hair and blue eyes, which is known as “ideal” for the American woman. The only person who doesn’t completely change their persona is the African American woman. In the 1975 adaptation, Walter and the other men in the film are taller than Joanna, which signifies their triumph over her soul. They keep all the women’s images a close as they can to their counterpart to avoid speculation, which is ironic because Joanna still figures out the truth.
In every film, the protagonist must go through some horrific ordeal that corresponds to an “internal” character arc, which results in a continuous or terminable circumstance (Nelson, 2004). In the case of the 1975 version of The Stepford Wives, the central character, Joanna, discovers that her female neighbors are “too perfect” and thinks that the drinking water in Stepford may have caused the bizarre behavior. When she realizes that it isn’t the drinking water, she becomes visibly upset. She discovers that the transformation in the women occurs a few months after a new family moves into town. When her best friend, Bobby, changes Joanna attempts to instigate emotions out of her, but nothing happens. She stabs Bobby with a knife and realizes that she’s not human. She rushes home and attempts to take her children and leave town, but they aren’t home. Her husband sends her to the Stepford men’s association and she hears “mommy,” but it’s only a recording. She eventually meets her robotic “clone" that presumably kills her.
The 2004 adaptation of The Stepford Wives has a similar impediment with a diverse conclusion. Joanna arrives in Stepford and realizes the eccentric behavior, but isn’t attacked by a duplicate being. Instead, she confronts the men’s association and her husband. She sheds a tear and “agrees” to allow the metamorphosis, but it doesn’t happen. Eventually, she reveals herself and works with her husband to deactivate everyone’s chips. The women come back into their bodies and are ready for revenge, which upsets the Stepford husbands. It turns out that the man in charge, Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken), is actually a robot. His wife, Claire is the mastermind behind the “resolutions” of Stepford’s troubles. Again, this clarifies gender equality amongst men and women because Claire claims that she wanted everyone to have supreme lifestyles. Eventually, Joanna, Bobbie, and Roger formulate their own talk show, which also presents the audience a gender balance in the workplace.
Other aspects of consideration in both films include the variations of lighting. In the beginning of the 2004 adaptation, frontal lighting highlights Joanna’s face when she is introduced as the “hardest working person” in television. Her wrinkles are smoothed out because of the direction of light, which is usually preferred for women onscreen (Keating, 2006). It’s ironic that the lighting was used because she was supposed to be “on air” introducing her newest shows.
Whenever women are introduced in the film, their skin appears unwrinkled (unless aging is the main purpose), which also emphasizes the need for “perfection.” Ironically, the men are also illuminated by frontal lighting throughout the film, which conveys their strive for perfection.
In the 1975 version, the women’s faces are also accentuated throughout the film. The supermarket scene in both adaptations where the lighting is most powerful emphasizes the women’s modifications and organization. They all put items in their carts as if they are cued to do so. Since men are not the main concentrations in the 1975 film, they are older and wrinkled. It allows the audience to focus on the women and their transformations. The lighting standardizes the women in both films and brings out the underlying troubles of the main characters. It’s ironic that in both movies all of the women actually have their flaws even with chips in their brains or if they’re robots. It shows the audience that everything in this world is defective.
Another technique used to project an image involves bouncing light and softening the edge of shadows. Soft lights are preferred for women in film because they diminish facial imperfections (Keating). In the 1975 portrayal, this type of lighting is used many times. We see it when Joanna is searching for her dog, when she’s hiding from her husband against the door in her room, when she’s at the men’s association looking up and around for her children, and when she first walks into her new Stepford home. The 2004 version doesn’t use much of the lighting in the film. The only time it was used was when Joanna, Roger, and Bobbie were spying on the men’s association at nighttime, which creates a mysterious feeling.
On the contrary, darker lighting is frequently used in film to highlight serious expressions of male characters (Keating). This aspect is apparent in the 1975 version in the nighttime living room scenes when Joanna is having intense conversations about Stepford with her husband. It’s spooky to see the way he’s represented in these segments. In the 2004 adaptation, this lighting is used when characters are inside the men’s association at night. This type of lighting creates suspense for the audience, especially when it’s accompanied with sounds, such as lightening in the 2004 version. Every lighting technique is usually used to distinguish differences amongst men and women, which is most apparent in the 1975 film because men were in command. There’s more equality in lighting in the 2004 adaptation because men and women are both in control.
Overall, both versions of The Stepford Wives draw out major beliefs in the filming eras, changes over time, typical stereotypes for housewives, and new portrayals of different races and sexuality. Both films are effective in their own ways. The 1975 version creates a mystery about what actually happens to Joanna Eberhart, which makes the audience want more. On the contrary, Joanna is saved in the 2004 version, which portrays the significance of love and positive effects of working out problems in marriages.
Personally, my favorite version was the 2004 adaptation because of the advances in technology and gender balances. Nicole Kidman was a wonderful Joanna Eberhart and she saved the lives of every female character. The ending had a twist, but it was apparent that Claire Wellington was the mastermind behind Stepford’s perfection. Both movies teach the audience that things are never as they seem and deserve further exploration.
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