The Stepford Wives at 40: Slyly skewering gender roles before it was cool

The Stepford Wives Katharine Ross

Forty years ago, 1975 brought the arrival of a number of sci-fi, horror and fantasy films that made an impact on their genres -- some good, some not so good, but all interesting and all remembered even to this day. This is the first in a series that will step back 40 years and take a look at each of those films on the anniversary of its release and where it stands four decades later ...

Title: The Stepford Wives

Release date: Feb. 12, 1975

Cast: Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Tina Louise, Patrick O'Neal

Director: Bryan Forbes

Plot: Mildly feminist photographer Joanna Eberhart (Ross), her lawyer husband, Walter (Masterson), and their two children move from Manhattan to the sleepy Connecticut suburb of Stepford, where the women are always perfectly coiffed, have no ambition beyond pleasing their husbands and caring for their children, and are obsessed with cleaning their homes. After Walter joins the local "men's club," Joanna and another new resident (Paula Prentiss) discover that the husbands are replacing their wives with android duplicates that are programmed to be completely subservient to their spouses.


  • Screenwriter William Goldman originally envisioned the robot wives as being dressed like sexpots. But when director Bryan Forbes cast his wife (Nanette Newman) as one, that forced the look of all the wives to be changed into something more old-fashioned.
  • Diane Keaton was offered the role of Joanna but turned it down, reportedly because her analyst did not like the script.
  • Stepford resident Charmaine was played by Tina Louise, best known as actress Ginger Grant on Gilligan's Island. Cast in a small role as her maid was Dee Wallace, who later starred in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
  • The movie was nominated by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films for Best Science Fiction Film, although it did not take home the prize. Ross won for Best Actress.

Why it's significant: The Stepford Wives was based on a novel by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby) -- one of three sci-fi-related works that Levin wrote, the others being This Perfect Day and The Boys from Brazil. The movie was misunderstood at the time of its release by feminist groups who thought it was anti-woman. It's actually a sly satire on outdated notions of traditional gender roles, with a creepy commentary on sexism and misogyny thrown in for good measure. The film is an understated yet effective mix of humor and horror -- a balance that's often hard to find -- while the term "Stepford wife" has become a cultural metaphor, for better or worse, for a particular kind of woman who does not have much going on intellectually, socially or politically.

The movie was a moderate hit at the time of its release, although it's grown in stature as a minor cult classic. It spawned three made-for-TV sequels: Revenge of the Stepford Wives, The Stepford Children and The Stepford Husbands, each of which played a different variation on the same theme (as you can tell from the titles). There was also a dreadful remake in 2004, starring Nicole Kidman, that played the story as a straight comedy. The idea of replacing a human being with a soulless duplicate has been around for a while, but The Stepford Wives brought a modern, feminist sensibility to it that holds up rather well.

Coming up next month: Dario Argento's slasher masterwork Deep Red

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