The Stepford Wives Film and Novel Comparison and Contrast

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The Stepford Wives Film and Novel Comparison and Contrast

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The Stepford Wives is a thriller story where photographer Joanna Eberhart suspects the Men’s Association in her new Connecticut neighbourhood to be responsible for the perfect robotic like wives. Joanna teams up with Bobbie, also new to Connecticut, to investigate the reasoning behind the submissive wives. Is it because they are being poisoned or brainwashed by their controlling husbands? The audience follows Joanna as she fights to maintain her identity and individuality. This Horatian satirical story portrays a society in which women are defamiliarized with their true selves due to the pressure to conform into women with stereotypical feminine traits. This had led the creation of women with reduced personalities and greater drive towards perfection and housekeeping. Anna Silver proclaims that “the theme of the Stepford Wifes dovetails so closely with those of second wave feminism that the film can be viewed as a popularization of some of the most persistent concerns of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and early 1970s" (60). The novel and film both examine the high price of feminism for a woman. It is seen that although the 1975 adaptive film directed by Byran Forbes is a retelling of Ira Levin’s 1972 novel The Stepford Wifes, the novel and film are delivered differently to their audiences due to the different techniques used within the film versus the novel. The film and novel make a similar satirical argument about damaging impact of archaic gender roles while developing the tone and characters differently. While the film develops the tone and characters through sound, imagery and various cinematographic techniques, the novel does the same through literary devices like amplification and inner monologue.

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Tone is important to develop the mood. Mood then evokes certain emotions within the audience to influence their attitude towards the Stepford wifes. Tone is developed differently in the novel and the film, both of which emphasize the absurd nature of the Stepford wives.

In the novel, satirical tone is primarily developed through the inner monologue of the protagonist, Joanna. Levin uses Joanna’s thoughts to reveal her upsetting emotions and questioning attitude towards the passive Stepford wives. During Joanna’s first encounter with Carol, Joanna wondered “What was so top-priority-urgent in that fluorescent-lighted copper-pot-hanging kitchen” (Levin 8) when Carol refused to have coffee with her that night because she much rather the wax floors. Comedy lies in the tremendous obedience to which these women follow their roles as a housewife. Like Joanna, readers also believe that the nature of the wives is unusual as well. This cautionary tone sets the mood for readers to feel uneasy and question the legitimacy of these women in Stepford. The mood is very mysterious and makes readers believe that something is not right.

In the film, this similar cautionary tone is created through non-diegetic audio and various cinematographic techniques. To develop an atmosphere that fits the thriller genre, non-diegetic audio is effectively used to develop suspense and tension. Non-diegetic audio are the sound effects that does not have a source on screen. It is not heard by the characters, but it creates a dramatic effect for the audience. Cinematographic techniques, the way in which scenes are shot including camera angles and zooming, conveys certain emotions in conjunction with the visuals. There was a scene in the film where Carol walks around the parameters of the backyard repeating “I’ll just die if I don’t get the recipe” (Forbes, 1975). While she does so, there is a high pitched distorted non-diegetic sound that makes Carol’s actions seem abnormal and mechanical. Also, a wide-angle panning shot showing Carols actions as she moves transitioned to a close-up shot of Joanna and Bobbies expression who were starting at Carol confused. The audio and cinematography of the scene emphasizes Carol’s overly mechanical and repetitive behaviour which seem out of the norm according to Joanna’s and Bobbie’s facial expression. In the absence of inner monologue, audio and visuals influences the audience to develop similar fears as Joanna and Bobbie.

Tone is very important in accentuating the audience’s fearful emotions towards the extreme ways in which Stepford women are overworked as housewives to the point where they are malfunctioning. Levin uses the inner monologue of Joanna to allow readers to share her struggles against conforming to stereotypical gender roles. The film uses audio and cinematic techniques to develop a similar emotional state within viewers that mimics the emotions of the protagonist.

Characterization is important in developing fictional characters in literature and film. Characterization is especially important in The Stepford Wives to differentiate the Stepford wives from the newcomers like Joanna and Bobbie. The obvious differences between the two types of women allow the audience to ridicule the severity to which Stepford women are objectified. The women are characterized in different ways in the novel and film.

In literature, characterization is mostly direct as the author states exactly what the character is like through the imagery of physical descriptions and through the inner thoughts and reactions of characters. When Joanna met Bobbie for the first time, Joanna approvingly describes Bobbie as “short and heavy-bottomed, in a blue Snoopy sweatshirt and jeans and sandals. Her mouth was big, with unusually white teeth and she had blue take-in-everything eyes and short dark tuffy hair. And small hands and dirty shoes” (Levin 18). Joanna’s direct description of Bobbie indicates that Bobbie is easy going as she is not to concerned with her appearance being perfect. From the context of this quote readers can assume that Joanna finds Bobbie’s imperfections comforting. Levin’s informative description of Bobbie’s character elaborates readers understanding of nature which is normal according to the protagonist. In comparison, Joanna feels that the all the Stepford wives are “actress in commercial, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleaners, shampoos and deodorants. Pretty actresses, big in bosom but small in talent, planning suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real” (Levin 43). Joanna’s perspective indicates that she despises the Stepford women for their extreme obsession with housework. Stepford wives through Joanna’s eyes seem to be submissive, mindless zombie-like individuals. Their perfection in their appearance and worth ethics seems to be out of the ordinary and fictional. By comparing Stepford wives to commercial actresses, it indicates that women are being objectified as ideal sex icons. These objectifications are really disturbing as it shows that this is what society really accepts even though many women, like Joanna, do not fit into this brace. Imagry provided by the author allows readers to visualize the characters. Readers realize that Stepford wives are hyperfeminine as they have all traditional qualities associated with archaic women.

In the film, along with direct characterization through dialogue, there is an extra dimension of characterization which is the characters actions, behaviours, physical appearances, manners and interactions seen by viewers. Costumes and makeup are essential to differentiate Joanna and Bobbie from the Stepford wives. The Stepford wives dressed formal daily even when doing housework. They wore big floral dresses, heels and always had their hair in a glamorous bouffant. Joanna and Bobbie act in rebellion against dressing modest as they chose to dress for comfort rather and show no effort towards their physical appearence. “The film thus suggests not the failure and perversion of feminist rhetoric, but its success and popular appeal” (Silver 60). The attire of women shown ridicules the idea that women should be limited to wear clothing that make them appear ladylike. Furthermore, Stepford wives exhibit feminine behaviour to a high degree. They always maintain a calm tone, have small subtle movement and perfect manners. It is seen that Joanna is initially very ambitious towards her career in photography and she is assertive. Her facial expressions show that she tends to get forceful against certain topics such as when Walter choose to join the Men’s Association (Forbes, 1975). Joanna’s opposition to behave feminine mocks gender-specific behaviours and manners that confines individuals and eliminates unique personalities. Moreover, cinematic techniques are used to emphasizes on the specific characterises that makes Stepford women seem lifeless because they follow such ridged gender roles. In the very last scene when the Stepford wifes are at the supermarket, the camera slowly and smoothly zooms into a extreme close-up shot of Joanna’s blank eyes. This shot effectively puts the audience on edge as they anticipate seeing if Joanna has been transformed into a docile housewife or if she has managed to escape. Extreme close-up shots are significant in film to emphasize an important defining detail of the character. Joanna’s lifeless eyes show a non-assertive version that viewers are unfamiliar with.

This stepford wives have been hyperfeminized to a point where the audience questions the authenticity of these women. These satirized characters ridicule the concept femininity which has been socially constructed. Females are forced to dress and behavior feminine which are considered acceptable. Forcing gender roles is dangerous as it does not allow individuals to fully express themselves and develop an identity of their own.

Dubcombe and Marsden suggest that:

‘doing gender’ will involve displaying the emotional skills, capacities and propensities to do emotional work in a manner appropriate to the chosen gender ideology. In this process individuals may experience the strain of emotional working… individuals may develop a sense that they are not behaving authentically. (213)

If women continually act on behalf of other based on what is required of them, they act away from their true selves and thus their behaviour is essentially inauthentic

Novels and films are two different mediums in which stories can be told. While the novel tells readers the story though inner monologue and amplification of details, the film effectively shows viewers the story though imagry, sound and cinematic techniques to enhance the story line. The Stepford Wives novel and film both do a great job at criticize the dangers of conforming to domestic gender roles that have been influenced by the patriarchal world. The terror of falling to socially accepted gender roles is masked by comedy through satirized characters whose behaviour and appearances have been exaggerate so that their zombification evidently feels absurd to the audience. A cautionary tone is developed to question the legitimacy of the robotic life wifes. The term Stepford has come to refer to one who is “robotically conformist or obedient,” according to Collins English Dictionary.

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