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The Stepford Wives started life as a 1972 novel by Ira Levin. In it, Joanna Eberhart, her husband Walter, and their two young children move from New York City to the eponymous Connecticut commuter-town. Joanna becomes friends with fellow new arrival Bobbie Markowe, as the two of them also become more and more concerned with the behavior of the other housewives in Stepford, who are all impossibly beautiful, housework-obsessed and totally submissive towards their husbands, who in turn are all members of the "Men's Association." The novel was successful enough to be made into a movie in 1975; William Goldman's script was fairly faithful to the original, with the major difference being a far more explicit finale showing what was happening to the wives. In both versions, the wives were robot duplicates that replaced the original women after their husbands had them murdered. Both versions of the story had Downer Endings.
While just a modest hit in theaters, the film quickly sprouted a meme in the 1970s, with the term "Stepford Wife" becoming a catchphrase used to describe female homemakers who were sexually repressed and only concerned with domestic chores.
No theatrical sequels were made, but the movie spawned, over the course of two decades, three made-for-TV "sequels": The Revenge of the Stepford Wives, The Stepford Children, and The Stepford Husbands. The lack of Levin and/or Goldman's involvement was painfully obvious, and all three films were also victims of bowdlerization: in Revenge and Husbands, the victims were not killed and replaced but instead merely brainwashed, while Children had the replaced teenager left alive for no readily-apparent reason, allowing in all three cases for a rescue and happy ending.
In 2004, Frank Oz directed a more overtly comedic remake of the original film. The production suffered from severe behind-the-scenes turmoil, including actors walking off the project and some last-minute reshoots. Many viewers found the revelations of the resulting finale to come completely out of left field and contradict the rest of the movie, but as always, Your Mileage May Vary.
The orginal film/novel, and its sequels, provide examples of:
- The Beautiful Elite
- Black Eyes of Evil: When Joanna meets her robot double in the film, it hasn't quite been finished yet and is sporting a pair of these. (This is a minor Special Effects Failure, as they're supposed to be empty sockets-- the black contact lenses reflected ambient lighting.) It's also sporting a new large bustline.
- Brainwashed: Some of the sequels had this as the method of creating the Wives/Husbands, instead of out-and-out replacement.
- Broken Record: In addition to the example under Foreshadowing below, there's also the robot Bobbie after Joanna stabs her with a knife.
- ~Chekhov's Gun~: The word "archaic."
- Foreshadowing: "I'll just die if I don't get that recipe!" .... "I'll just die if I don't get that recipe!" ... "I'll just die if I don't get that recipe!"
- Motor Mouth: Julie Kavner's character in Revenge.
- Paranoia Fuel: Joanna experiences in-universe this when she realizes that either her husband is going to have her replaced with a robot that no one will be able to tell isn't her, or she's going crazy and this is all in her head. She isn't sure which of these two scenarios is worse.
- Phlebotinum Breakdown: One of the Wives malfunctions while attending a garden party.
- Pyrrhic Villainy: One of the few high points in Revenge of the Stepford Wives was an older Men's Association member revisiting the painful realization of what he had given up by having his wife remade.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: The original vision of the first movie had the Wives all dressed like "Playboy Bunnies sans ears and tail". Then director Bryan Forbes cast his actress wife Nanette Newman as one of the Wives, and whatever talents as a thespian she possessed, her physique wasn't remotely up to it, and so all the Wives ended up in long flowing dresses that made them look like '50s housewives. This may have been for the better, as one of the book's key themes was how the women were unwillingly pressed into domestic servitude and forced to give up their ambitions, and the housewife outfits highlight that much better than the skimpier outfits originally planned would have.
- Recycled in Space HIGH SCHOOL!: Disturbing Behavior.
- Ridiculously-Human Robots
- Robotic Reveal: Again, only explicitly done in the movie(s).
- Robotic Spouse
- Sex Bot
- Stepford Smiler: The Trope Namer, with the remake providing the page image.
- Stepford Suburbia: Ditto. The empty sterility of American suburbia is a major theme in the original film.
- Take That: Or else a Shout-Out. The mastermind behind the whole Men's Association conspiracy used to build animatronic robots at Disneyland.
- Town with a Dark Secret: One of the archetypal examples.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: The town pharmacist. Justified, since he's married to a Stepford Wife.
- Uncanny Village
The 2004 version provides examples of:
- Alas, Poor Yorick
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: Yes, there actually was a reality show about putting a married couple's relationship to the test by separating them on an island full of sexy people. And yes it was on Fox.
- Armor-Piercing Question:
Joanna: Let me ask you something. These machines. These Stepford Wives. Can they say "I love you"?
Mike: Of course. In 58 languages.
Joanna: But do they mean it?
- Aw, Look -- They Really Do Love Each Other
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Joanna. In the beginning, her pet project at the network she works at is a Reality TV show similar to Temptation Island. At a press conference, while hyping up her show, she is confronted and shot at by a man whose marriage was ruined by the show, and who shot his cheating wife and her lovers in rage. Afterwords, Joanna is already planning out the reunion show to exploit the carnage she has accidentally inflicted, only to not only be fired from the network, but also blacklisted from television due to her utterly irresponsible decisions in programming.
- What does it say that that is probably the most unbelievable thing in the movie?
- Downer Ending: Subverted. Walter destroys the computer controlling the wives, freeing them of their brainwashing.
- And then either reinstated or double subverted kind of awesomely when the end, without showing the wives, implies that the WIVES are now in complete control and keep their husbands as docile servants.
- It was said they were under "house arrest", so it's safe to assume the wives considered this was a fitting punishment in lieu of jail time.
- Gay Conservative: The gay couple in the 2004 remake includes one Straight Gay who is a Gay Conservative. His partner is a Camp Gay.
- Heroic BSOD: Joanna.
- Married to the Job
- Not His Sled: The 2004 remake had its own shocking surprise ending, where it's revealed the wives weren't replaced by robots.
- Old Shame: Several members of the production crew, including Oz, have been quoted as taking this view.
- Phlebotinum Breakdown: One of the Wives malfunctions while attending a square dance.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Hank, the disgruntled reality show contestant, at the very beginning.
- Scream Discretion Shot
- Stepford Smiler: In addition to the obvious, Walter is also one of these, until he cracks.
- Take That:
- Towards reality TV; see Corrupt Corporate Executive above.
- "So I wondered, where in the world would nobody notice a town full of mindless, lifeless automatons? And then I thought, of course! Connecticut!"
- The original's Disney reference is updated to a dig at America Online ("Is that why the women are so slow?"). Most of Disney's pioneering work with animatronics was done in the '60s and '70s, making the reference somewhat dated by 2004.
- The Man Behind the Man: The viewer is lead to believe that Mike is behind the operation, but really he's just a Stepford Husband created by his "wife" Claire, the real Big Bad of Stepford.
- Troubled Production
- Utopia Justifies the Means: What appears to be the villain's main motive for turning the women into robots.
- With or Without You
Joanna Eberhart: It's... It's not our world. It's not us. And I'm picking up our kids from camp right now, and we're getting out of here. With or without you.