Before BLACK MIRROR turned us into masochists hellbent on letting a science-fiction show emotionally gut us with every episode, there was a cultural juggernaut, and iconic slice of Americana, THE TWILIGHT ZONE. One episode in particular, “The Number 12 Looks Just Like You” still serves as my favorite. To give you an idea of the premise, the opening narration is as follows:
Given the chance, what young girl wouldn’t happily exchange a plain face for a lovely one? What girl could refuse the opportunity to be beautiful? For want of a better estimate, let’s call it the year 2000. At any rate, imagine a time in the future when science has developed a means of giving everyone the face and body he dreams of. It may not happen tomorrow — but it happens now, in the Twilight Zone.
People are able to choose the face and body of a “perfect” ideal when one reaches a certain age. There are a variety of looks to choose from. Could you imagine waking up one day to turn in your identity for some cookie cutter woman that looks just like everyone else? “Not ugly, not pretty, but not ugly,” Marilyn (Collin Willcox), shows great displeasure in forfeiting her looks, brains, and personality in order to conform to the rest of the world. As Marilyn does her best to convince those around her that she doesn’t need to be transformed, the peer pressure around her gets the better of her, and she succumbs to the transformation.
Marilyn doesn’t choose the titular model number “12” but rather takes on on the face and body her best friend has also chosen, model number “8”. This episode debuted in 1964, but it’s pretty on par with exactly what’s happening in 2017. One scroll through instagram shows an overwhelming amount of women with, well, the same face. The culture of beauty blogging has put the pressure on women to feel the need to have the same Cara Delevingne eyebrows and Kylie Jenner lips. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with wanting to feel beautiful and confident in one’s skin, but what does it say about us as a culture when we’re all slowly starting to look just like each other?
Less than a decade later, Ira Levin (also the author of Rosemary’s Baby) perfected this horror with his novel-turned-iconic-film, THE STEPFORD WIVES. Much like THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the story of Stepford has cemented a place in pop culture history and is still frequently referenced in present day entertainment. Is it because THE STEPFORD WIVES is truly a masterpiece–or is it because the story remains relevant 45 years later?
The story follows Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross), a progressive-thinking photographer and her husband who have moved to the quaint little town of Stepford, Connecticut–an idyllic suburb that resembles the fictitious #MAGA-esque “utopia” the alt-right is desperately trying to drag us into. Upon her arrival, Joanna finds it difficult to relate to the women of Stepford, as they are all insanely beautiful, obsessed with housework, and have few intellectual passions. Throughout the course of the film, Joanna uncovers the sinister truth, that all of the women in Stepford have been replaced with robots programmed to appease their husbands. The idea of “the perfect woman” has since been replicated and reimagined ten-fold, and the subgenre of “socially conscious horror” has become a favorite amongst fans. For the most part, these Stepford-esque films are largely focused on creating the perfect female counterpart. But as our social consciousness has evolved to include more than just gender analysis, we’ve begun to explore this idea of inhabiting the perfect human form across the lines of race.
Upon the release of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, GET OUT, comparisons to THE STEPFORD WIVES came almost immediately. The story follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black man on a trip to meet his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. The neighborhood is almost entirely inhabited by wealthy “woke” white liberals, and the few black people Chris encounters act very…strange. Much like Joanna’s skepticism towards the women of Stepford, Chris quickly realizes there’s something very off with the black people in this community. Jordan Peele has already talked at length about finding inspiration from films like ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE STEPFORD WIVES (both novels written by Ira Levin), but rather than focus on women, the box-office smashing, record-setting horror flick examined the idea of white people harvesting black bodies to “perfect” their lives at the cost of erasing the identities of black individuals.
Despite 45 years of “progress,” our cinematic endeavors and what we deem popular have shown that we’re still dealing with the exact same issues. It’s hard to tell if it’s because our fears have remained universal, or the mentality that anything “other” is in need of “fixing.” Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. GET OUT also comes 50 years after the classic GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, and highlights that five decades later…racial tensions and the acceptability of interracial relationships are still an issue. However, by using horror as the vehicle to get the message across, GET OUT is an unavoidable look at the harsh realities faced by black people in America every. single. day. Peele perfected the balance between social commentary and paranoid thriller for the new millennium, and it’s safe to assume that what THE STEPFORD WIVES did in reflecting the women’s liberation movement, GET OUT will do for Black Lives Matter.
To bring it full circle, we’d be remiss not to bring up BLACK MIRROR. While TWILIGHT ZONE, THE STEPFORD WIVES, and GET OUT all explored the idea of losing your sense of self without your consent in order to appease others, BLACK MIRROR touches on the idea that we are all responsible for becoming our “Stepford” selves. Season 3, Episode 1 entitled “Nosedive” is set in a not-so-distant future where humans rate people and their interactions as if the world is one giant Yelp review. These five-star ratings are attached to people and can dictate everything from priority on an airplane, to the type of home you’re allowed to buy. Sure, this episode is biting commentary on our obsession with social media, but at the heart, it’s a modern look at the Stepford Wife.
Our main character, Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), is desperate to gain a higher star rating, and transforms everything about her personality, appearance, and lifestyle in order to resemble those perfect lives documented on Instagram. The need for perfection is deep because it directly correlates not just on a superficial level, but also determines the societal privilege one gets to experience. As the title suggests, Lacie never quite reaches that Stepford status due to a series of unfortunate events that docks her rating very, very quickly — and with it, her sanity. The fear experienced in all of the characters previously mentioned is felt in full force by Lacie, but the true terror is that her “demise” isn’t brought on without her consent by malicious and evil people…but rather because she dared to be anything but Stepford, by her own volition.
Here’s hoping that 45 years from now, the “Stepford wife” is nothing more than a retired trope no longer of relevance, but I have a sneaking suspicion we’re only going to be expanding the umbrella she carries.