From The Stepford Wives’ opening moments, it is made clear that Joanna Eberhart doesn’t want to leave New York. Sitting in an empty apartment with that stripped look that always gives away a person powerless to a situation, she waits for her husband to pick her up and take her to their new home. Before stepping into the car, mother and daughters catch sight of a man holding a female manikin under his arm, presumably from a clothing store. There are plenty of reasons that this man might have given for carrying his female torso across the street. On an ordinary day, this image wouldn’t be suspect. But they all notice at once. And while the two little girls simply laugh, Joanna finds it a little strange. A moment of something takes her out of her own life for a split second, as though she is somehow aware of the strangeness of the film she is in – or as though she can sense something eerie on the horizon.
This image also helps to provide first impressions of Walter, Joanna’s husband. One of the daughters remarks that she’d just seen a man carrying an unclothed woman across the street. His reply is simply, “Well, that’s why we’re moving to Stepford”. With this line, viewers are allowed to recognise this man as a typical New Yorker guy with Jewish roots; Walter is funny, kind and a little bit goofy… This first impression is quite important and adds weight to the manikin image. In the beginning, Walter fits quite nicely as someone you’d expect to see married to Joanna. Joanna is very typical of a Western middle-class woman in the mid-seventies. She wears baggy clothes, is very skinny and has long, straight, flat hair. She takes photographs and likes living in the city. At one point, days after her move to Stepford, she is asked about what she misses the most. Her answer is “noise”.
These little details become more important as the film goes on. Note the casual way in which Walter is dressed when he first arrives in Stepford. And then compare it with his increasingly conservative attire as the film goes on. His change is placed alongside Joanna’s refusal not to change. Only days after joining the Men’s Association in Stepford, Walter starts appearing much older, his suits gets a little greyer with each day, he learns to appreciate the type of person he used to consider boorish and he starts to resent his free-spirited, liberal-minded young wife. At the same time, Joanna’s time in Stepford terrifies her. She observes the women around her; enslaved to domesticity, willingly kissing their husbands’ feet, emotionless smiles glued to their faces – for Joanna, the women of Stepford resemble the manikin in New York more than real people.
The Stepford Wives looks into the home of these two people. Their different attitudes in the way they handle the move are placed in stark contrast with one another. In adapting Ira Levin’s novel, Bryan Forbes has directed a satire/statement which reveals a breed of man that, in his heart of hearts, wants nothing more than to be served by an obedient woman. These men hold meetings together, discuss the town, smoke cigars and generally get excited over one another. Upon being invited into the Eberhart household, one of the prominent figures within the Men’s Association surprises Joanna by remarking, “I love to watch women doing little domestic chores”. That is why these characters love their wives; because their wives do little domestic chores.
While Walter seeks a way in – he speaks of these people with the highest admiration — Joanna finds a way out. The closest she gets to escaping comes when she meets Bobby, the only other woman in Stepford who seems not to be a domestic robot. Together, they start up a feminist organisation that doesn’t get very far for obvious reasons. The other wives choose to “protest” against their own petty wrongdoings in the house and when all seems just about hopeless for Joanna, something happens to Bobby… Joanna becomes aware of a kind of mysterious but very apparent evil streaking through Stepford. She seeks help in a psychiatrist, she begs her husband to consider another move and she takes the town’s water to be tested at a lab, all to no avail. Joanna’s increasing terror over the duration of her stay in Stepford is mostly to do with the fear that she may end up losing herself; not her kids (this comes a close second) or her home or her husband. This is one of the key points to be extracted from The Stepford Wives.