Define Frenzy: Camp as Disappointment in The Stepford Wives

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Define Frenzy: Camp as Disappointment in <i>The Stepford Wives</i>

“Define Frenzy” is a series essays published throughout Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen. You can read previous essays form previous years here.


The Stepford Wives remake in 2004 came at a curious time for gay culture and its place in straight culture. It was in the midst of the gradual integration—or, depending on how you see it, assimilation—of predominantly white cisgender gay and lesbian people into mainstream culture, which is to say after the AIDS epidemic, after the freewheeling ’70s reaction to the initial battle for liberation in the late ’60s, after said majority in minority proliferated in American film and TV. But this was also before the SCOTUS marriage equality ruling, before the gargantuan ascension of Ryan Murphy and before the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The tools of white gay male culture found itself negotiating its own complex relationship to what, I think, many gay men would consider their bedfellow: housewives.

Not those housewives, but the ones in the drag of some postmodernist suburban nightmare, thrashing through both the 1960s and the early 2000s, swaying uncontrollably to Danny Elfman’s sinister lullaby. That Frank Oz’s remake and re-adaptation of The Stepford Wives was subject to rumors of on set tension, bad test screenings, reshoots and a release in 2004 to middling reception felt like it only reified the bizarre liminality of gay masculinity, misogyny, broken promises and self-loathing that the film itself is concerned with unpacking.

The updates to the film—which sends former TV exec Joanna (Nicole Kidman) and her family to the town of Stepford, CT, a town, you know, too good to be true—are not merely cosmetic changes to reiterate Ira Levin’s tale of (internalized and externalized) misogyny, power and marriage, but, if anything, a solidification of the strange, political reality-cum-terror of stasis and illusion. Levin’s imperfect critique of the struggles of Second Wave Feminism, and how easily the things fought for during that time could be taken away, looks back in anger, not to the future in trepidation.

The world that Joanna once inhabited was one where reality TV shows like The Bachelor and competition shows sought to undermine the “happiness” that a supposedly more equitable society was supposed to solve. Happiness and quality (not justice, mind you) could be monetized as a form of spectacle: One of the shows Joanna produced was called “I Can Do Better,” a vicious homewrecking as televised sport. A decade and a half removed, when even gays get their own reality TV dating show and Netflix is putting couples in pods so they can’t see one another before they propose, the pointed jokes in Oz’s The Stepford Wives feel increasingly prophetic.

In direct contrast to the hyper-commodified vision of marriage and the “sexes,” Stepford, CT, as Joanna finds it, reasserts gender norms whose concept of “tradition” goes back to time immemorial, as playwright Yasmina Reza might say. Bright colors, baby voices, ultimate subservience. Women wash and clean and serve, while the men hang out with pipes and videogames in a glorified country club, a man cave with cufflinks. Joanna sees it, and Stepford’s women (including de facto matriarch Claire [Glenn Close]) are all a bit deranged, too glistening to be real, too perfect to be authentic, too retrograde to be acceptable in modern society. She’s the antithesis to a town whose gender code comes out of a Twilight Zone version of the ’50s with an apologia for Reaganomics built in. Her charcoal aesthetic, androgynous bob and, well, ability to think for herself sets her at the other end, an extreme caricature of women in business. In a way, she’s no less uncanny than the wives.

The succulent decadence of artifice, even in a satire as striking and aggressive as The Stepford Wives, gives its queer authorship away. Openly gay screenwriter Paul Rudnick had previously worked with Bette Midler (who plays acerbic writer Bobbie) on a fictional biopic of Valley of the Dolls author Jaqueline Susann, and had also penned In & Out and Jeffrey, based on his play. Thus, in The Stepford Wives, camp becomes an unusual, uncomfortable weapon against misogyny.

The film’s camp nature was written off by contemporary critics, but negative reviews of this nature refused to contextualize camp not only as aesthetic sensibility, but as artistic and political tool. Camp—and by that I mean the unhinged but knowing way the women speak, the “washing machine” aerobics set to Thomas J. Valentino’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” the crackled smiles during dehumanization, the hundreds of cupcakes Joanna bakes in an evening, the slobberingly grotesque way Dave (Jon Lovitz) uses the Uncle Sam on his belly to wish wife Bobbie a Happy 4th of July—is a feature, not a bug. Camp disorients and problematizes progress, representation and the politics of gender itself, an arbiter of a fun house mirror through which to look at gaze and gays. Camp makes the conceit not so much a man’s idea of post-second wave feminism, and not even a man’s idea of a man’s idea of those illusions, but an alteration of the gaze itself. Camp alters the configuration of gazes, beyond a gay man’s conception of a straight man’s conception of a straight man’s conception of a woman’s theory of subjugation under patriarchy, making everyone playing the game a little more than complicit.

When one is complicit, even admitting to compliance, everything is prophetic. What’s the point of capitalist and social gains if the cycle of injustice and hierarchical corruption continues, just with a more diverse cast of the culpable? Stepford gleefully adds a gay couple, while the town’s patriarch (and Claire’s husband), Mike (Christopher Walken), self-righteuosly proclaims how accepting Stepford is. The fissure in Roger (Roger Bart) and Jerry’s (David Marshall Grant) relationship comes from how gay Roger is, how effete and flamboyant (he’s got frosted tips and likes Viggo Mortensen a lot), while Jerry might be a gay Republican. When the Stepford husbands get a hold of Roger, he transforms into a straight-laced, clean cut, All-American man running for state senate. Now with the knowledge that “being gay doesn’t mean a guy has to be effeminate or flamboyant or sensitive,” he becomes heternormative America’s best boy, whispering in a cheeky baritone, “I’m no sissy.” Red, white and blue balloons fall from the skies and a band plays patriotic muzak, the state senator, his husband and the rest of the audience chanting, “You can’t stop Stepford! You can’t stop Stepford!” Ring a bell? Even in 2004, The Stepford Wives knew that a gay running for political office was not an unequivocal win, but instead a call to reasses the needs and priorities of the queer liberation movement, to reflect on what you must have done to yourself and your politics to think that that would be enough.

Beneath the venomous jokes (“She was sparking, Walter!”), there’s an undercurrent of melancholy that runs throughout the film. The humor is pained, as if from the perspective of someone deeply disappointed. Claire’s grand finale of a monologue recounts her time working as a brain surgeon, the endless hours, and the affair Mike would eventually have. Her eyes glisten, tears dotting the sides, her voice riding the unpredictable wave of unchecked emotion, at once infantilized and yet controlled like a publicist costumed as raconteur. After the murder of her husband and his mistress, Claire dreams up a perfect town with robots, in Connecticut, where no one would ever notice. What did the system do for her? What did the fight ever do for her? Contained in The Stepford Wives is such regret and frustration that the liberation feminism promised only led to everyone continually getting chewed up and spit out by the same oppressive capitalist system, a fate so dehumanizing that returning to, or cosplaying in, an era before supposed equity is more honest than the rigged, contaminated “freedom” that still leaves many marginalized people under the thumb of oppression. (Lars von Trier’s sequel to Dogville, released a year later and titled Manderlay, also somewhat ironically contains a similar ending of regression as protection, in this case the safety of Black people. Also amusing: Kidman turned down returning to work with von Trier after Dogville to go to Stepford instead.) The deliriousness of Claire’s speech turns to tragedy, as she is torn between her betrayal by politics and her desire to clasp onto the illusion of happiness that is itself wrought with ideological tension.

Camp’s limit can sometimes be the flattening of women’s experiences, becoming an access point for gay and queer men at the expense of trying to understand the fullness and complexity of womanhood. Sometimes, though, when the culture threatens to be so reactionary it sends people decades back—and when the culture not only refuses to let go of the same sexist tropes that have contributed to decades of misogyny, but capitalizes on them and turns them into event TV—maybe camp, and its ability to contort and mock and claw, isn’t such a bad weapon after all. It might be perfect, but not too perfect.

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