The second wives club

The new Stepford Wives - Kidman, Midler, Close - aren't just meekly perfect; they're fierce rivals

It's easy to be cynical about the remake of The Stepford Wives. Hollywood, with its weakness for retreads that lapse into lazy pastiche, is more than usually busy these days mining tried and tested material from the past. (This summer, we also have the Coen brothers' reworking of The Ladykillers and Jonathan Demme's updated Manchurian Candidate.)

And The Stepford Wives is a film that seems unmovably rooted in its period. Both the 1975 movie and the 1972 Ira Levin novella spoke to the angst stirred up by first flowering of the feminist movement. The story's nightmare vision of robotically subservient suburban women, fashioned according to the repressive fantasies of their power-threatened menfolk, posed slyly subversive questions about the shifting gender balance. Were women crazy to try to overturn centuries of male oppression? Were men crazy to try to stop them?

These were real questions 30 years ago, which is why the story struck a chord and the term "Stepford wife" entered the lexicon. But to ask the same questions now seems silly. Nobody - certainly nobody in upper-class Connecticut, where the story is set - doubts women's ability to go head-to-head with men in the workplace, or anywhere. To question a woman's sanity because she has a mind of her own is to invite not admiration from male peers, but rather a sharp kick in the testicles.

Yet one can also argue that there is no better time for a smartly executed remake of The Stepford Wives. An unmistakable robotisation can again be seen in the country's exclusive residential neighbourhoods. The women no longer wear flower-print maxi-dresses (or hot pants, as Levin envisioned); they no longer slave over a hot stove. Rather, they can be seen in expensive sweatsuits and gold jewellery, flitting from yoga classes to manicures to consultations with their plastic surgeon. These women are cut, botoxed and dyed blonde to conform to an ideal of feminine perfection not that far from the Stepford standard.

Something strange has happened in the cycle from feminism to post-feminism and after. For a certain moneyed class of American woman, peer pressure no longer dictates that she maintain a career alongside her relationship with her husband and children. Rather, the pressure is to stay home - even though home-making and much of the drudgery of child-rearing have now been outsourced to Third World labour.

To fill the vacuum, this new breed of woman engages instead in competitive rivalry with her girlfriends, vying for the latest designer handbag or shiny new four-wheel-drive. Together, they talk about their obsessive micromanagement of their children's pre-school careers, swap beauty tips and discuss luxury resorts in Mexico. Intellectual pursuits, even reading books, are not generally encouraged.

Many of these women are trophy wives and know it; they used their physical wiles to ensnare men much older and richer than they, and now their job is to keep up the appearance that their perfect little lives are still blissful. They are not forced into submission by their husbands; they have wished the submission upon themselves.

Such women are in great abundance on the fringes of Hollywood, in the well-appointed westside communities of Los Angeles. One begins to see why some of the top actors in the business (many of them neighbours of these new plastic women) were queuing up to appear in The Stepford Wives. Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken - casts don't come much dreamier. One also sees the attraction of recasting the material as a comedy.

The finished film, just out in the US, certainly touches on some of the new themes, particularly the notion that the warped Stepford aesthetic might be appealing to some people. Unfortunately, the film is also a mess, expending its energies on sending up the original version as campy farce instead of offering any coherent social commentary.

It can't decide whether its Stepford denizens are modern women, or anachronisms from an earlier era. And it offers no plausible reasons why they have moved to the suburbs in the first place. Instead of casting them as trophy wives or career women sidelined by the pressures of child-rearing, it depicts them, ludicrously, as hard-charging corporate chief execs and high-court judges who one day just decide to pack it all in and bake cupcakes.

Quite how the project ended up this way is a matter of some speculation. By all accounts the director, Frank Oz, fought with several cast members, extended an already long three-month shoot into an excruciating eight months, tried out three endings and called actors back for reshoots. As the film reaches its absurd, "happy" ending, one senses that its makers are making it up as they go along.

And that's a pity, because the opportunity for something terrific was there. When it comes to gender politics, Hollywood is often its own worst enemy, however. In the 1975 original, Katharine Ross's character asks the chief villain why he turns the women into robots and he answers, chillingly: "Because we can." Were one to ask the executives at Paramount and Dreamworks why they made such a hash of the remake, they might well offer the very same excuse.

'The Stepford Wives' opens in the UK on 30 July

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015