Lisa Nuss

(WOMENSENEWS)–Most striking about the re-make of “The Stepford Wives” movie–other than the irony that women now willingly dress much like the original Stepford wives–is the difference in the central character Joanna.

The movie has changed from thriller to farce, making for plenty of audience laughs but also sacrificing the heart of the original movie and book.

“Rosemary’s Baby” author Ira Levin wrote the book as a thriller. The appeal of a good thriller, of course, is that the protagonist is an everyday person, such as Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window” or Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” As in a good Hitchcock movie, Joanna is our everywoman in a small, safe town. We sympathize with her because it could happen to us.

In the 1975 movie, Katharine Ross’ Joanna was a very likable everywoman who wanted to resume her career in photography now that her children have started school. Seeing none of the other women in town shares her desire to pursue interests outside the home, Joanna thinks she’s going crazy and eventually fears for her life.

Inherently Unhappy

Nicole Kidman’s updated Joanna is a negative stereotype of an overly ambitious, non-maternal career woman. Her best friend Bobbie, who was quirky and fun in the original, is played by Bette Midler as hilarious but also dark and bitter. The re-make adds a new gay character who is predictably neurotic and sarcastic. All three newcomers to Stepford are taking anti-anxiety or anti-depressant pills implying there is something inherently unhappy in their career-obsessed lives.

These over-the-top stereotypes assure the audience that this could not happen to us. Instead, it gives us the distance to criticize them. We think that all three could stand to lighten up a little. The viewer almost agrees when a Stepford woman tells Joanna, “You’re too driven. You’re selfish. I can fix you.”

In the original movie, Joanna and Bobbie weren’t too ambitious or ‘too’ anything. They were just trying to be themselves when everyone was telling them to be something else.

The book was written at a time when Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” challenged a prevailing belief that housework and family alone were a woman’s natural calling. Thirty years later women are entering the corporate world in ever increasing numbers but there is still a lingering myth that, deep down, all women are naturally happiest while taking care of the home.

New Arguments for Domesticity

In “What our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman,” one of many recent books to make this claim, Danielle Crittenden contends that the “distinctly and uniquely female” traits are “the pleasure of being a wife, raising children, [and] making a home.” This idea was supported in The Wall Street Journal’s review of Crittenden’s book and in his Washington Post rave George Will recommended the book as a gift for all newlyweds.

Today’s “Stepford Wives” movie dredges up many of the insults flung at ambitious women who challenge this myth and choose to follow their career dreams; that they are “trying to become men” and that that Kidman’s high-energy CEO character is a “castrating career bitch,” to quote the movie’s town leader, played by Christopher Walken.

Not that the movie ever seriously advances the Stepford-female as a viable alternative, but why does it seem a woman must always navigate between the two extremes? The essential conflict I see in career women today is the unwinnable battle to be ambitious without appearing so; to be strong while proving you’re still vulnerable.

You can’t sit through three years of law school and honestly believe that ambitious women are any less competitive or aggressive than ambitious men. But, for many of my female classmates, their desire to succeed as attorneys was surpassed by their fear of being seen as unfeminine.

In fairness, the re-make does make one progressive statement by adding a new character who attempts to resolve this conflict by submerging her ambitions. Thankfully, by the movie’s end this denial is exposed as no real solution. But again, the farcical approach leaves us laughing instead of understanding how the constant criticism of a woman’s ambitions and innate strengths challenges her very identity.

In the haunting final scenes of the original movie, the psychiatrist tells Joanna to come back in a few days to talk more.

“But I won’t be here in a few days,” Joanna pleads with her. “There’ll be somebody with my name and she’ll cook and clean like crazy. But she won’t take pictures and she won’t be me.”

Lisa Nuss is a political attorney and writer currently living in Mill Valley, Calif. Her commentaries on the topic of women and power have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.