Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The 1975 thriller riffed on the anxieties of suburban life.
This month, CityLab will be rounding up essential scary movies about cities—films that speak to the anxieties of urban life, showcase urban settings to terrifying effect, or forever change the way you see the cities they depict.
“What do you suppose the people are like?” Joanna Eberhart asks her husband, Walter, in the 1975 version of The Stepford Wives, as the family’s wood-paneled station wagon—heavy with two kids and a dog, plus bikes strapped to the roof—trundles through their new Connecticut neighborhood.
Interactions with her neighbors turn out to raise more questions than they answer. When the women act strangely—and they often do, parroting phrases or repeating jerky movements—their husbands whisk them away.
Walter doesn’t seem to mind. “Nice bunch of guys, huh?” he asks Joanna after a party.
“You serious?” she asks. “You wouldn’t have given the bores the time of day in Manhattan.”
This irritates Walter. “This is Stepford. This isn’t New York. These are the people we have to live with.”
The film, based on a 1972 bestseller from Rosemary’s Baby author Ira Levin, asks what neighbors have in common, and how ideas spread and grab hold in close quarters. It came from an era that was beginning to question the great American migration to the suburbs; as Amanda Kolson Hurley has noted for Curbed, the domestic and existential crises attending the move to leafier pastures spawned a whole genre of mildly dystopian mid-century literature that dug into how suburban ennui declared itself. In the 1957 novel The Crack in the Picture Window, for instance, Mary Drone is sure that the “house she inhabited had helped spoil her day; that it was harming her marriage and corroding her life.” The author, John Keats, noted that the family’s experience cast an ominous tinge on Winston Churchill’s famous phrase: “We shape our dwellings, and then our dwellings shape us.”
That’s especially true in Stepford. The longer women live there, the less they feel like themselves—they get woozy and disoriented, swooning beneath trees heavy with pink blossoms. And then, mysteriously, they transform.
Early on, Joanna has an ally in Bobbie, another newcomer who stomps through the yard hollering and waving the local gazette, which includes a blurb welcoming the Eberharts to the neighborhood. Together, they scoff at the army of Ajax-wielding automatons whose glassy eyes seem both fixed and extinguished. Bobbie thinks dangerous ideas are creeping from one house to another. “There’s something in the water that turns us into housefraus, drones, whatever you want to call it,” she tells Joanna. Bobbie’s eyes widen. She draws quick, shallow breaths. She’s heard of a chemical tranquilizer seeping into the Texas well water, and she’s sure something similar is festering in Stepford.
Joanna’s therapist explains that Stepford has a reputation for being unfriendly. Certain towns, she says, draw certain kinds of people. She rattles off names of towns in Massachusetts that attract artists, and one that’s full of therapists. One family tells another; word spreads deliberately, via invitations passed between like-minded people. When a family chooses to move to Stepford, they aren’t just putting a down payment on tidy lawns, crisp siding, and old trees. They are subscribing to a mentality.
Geography and identity do indeed intersect, as Richard Florida described in a recent post: Our political polarization is increasingly reflected in our housing choices. But in Stepford, shared ideology is an admission requirement—their “big sort” involves getting men on board with the idea of swapping their human wives for fembots, which are assembled in the local Men’s Association manse.
Writing in The New York Times in 1975, Vincent Canby lamented that the film took itself too seriously, painting in broad and solemn strokes and missing opportunities for satire. “Good grief!” he wrote. “Domestic bliss suddenly becomes as pernicious as anemia.”
But focusing on the trope of the unhappy housewife defangs some of the film’s bite—then and now. Its true power rests in the depiction of how place can bend an individual. Maybe you adopt a new town’s linguistic quirks, or pick up its recipes. Meeting neighbors may be easy, or terrifying. But nowhere other than Stepford does a new zip code so thoroughly and irreparably transform the contours of one’s life and personality. When a jackhammer tears up one fembot’s formerly beloved tennis court, the camera zooms in close and low. As a bulldozer shoves the upended turf, the viewer can imagine being buried alive, dirt falling in their eyes.
Joanna wants to get out. “It’s about survival,” she tells Walter, begging him to pack his bags. Needless to say, she doesn’t escape. Lightning and thunder splinter and crack as she enters the Men’s Association and comes face-to-face with her robot doppelganger. When a new place requires you to abdicate your old self, the film suggests, you’re doomed.