Part three of five reflections on the Ambiguously Human film series and installation. Earlier reflections were on Wall-E and Ghost in the Shell.

I chose to show The Stepford Wives after Ghost in the Shell because I thought they made a nice pair of perspectives surrounding my central question. Whereas Ghost in the Shell looks at the integration of objects – mechanical bodies, digital minds – into the spectrum of the human, The Stepford Wives shows how human qualities can become quite inhuman. Wall-E, as I discussed, shows this, but The Stepford Wives deals with it more directly and in a particular context. This ambiguous dichotomy flows two ways, object towards human (which I’ve mostly focused on) and human towards object (which is still important to consider in this project).

I’ve become interested in how the body mediates or confers human identity, and that was interesting to look at in The Stepford Wives. Early on in the film, before we know they’ve been replaced by robots, several of the women Joanna and Bobby encounter around Stepford seem extremely devoted to their housework and role as wives and mothers. It’s strange, but not outside the possibilities for human variety. Early on Joanna and Bobby look at these women and their presumably-chosen lives with laughter and a bit of scorn. Their suspicions that something is amiss grow over the course of the film, largely due to abrupt personally changes and the ubiquity of happy housewives in the town.


What confuses things is the body. These women have human bodies and that makes it hard for Bobby and Joanna to see that their minds aren’t human. Since neither body nor personality are completely abnormal, they can’t definitively the housewives’ humanity. Even Bobby’s replacement, signaled by an extreme shift in her values and behaviors, only signals to Joanna that she isn’t human. It prompts some serious reflection, but Joanna still needs to confirm it by testing Bobby’s body. She says she can prove she’s human because she bleeds and cuts herself to show it, and then stabs Bobby. Her suspicions that Bobby won’t bleed are confirmed. It’s only then, when she is certain the personality isn’t Bobby and the body isn’t biological, that she knows for sure that Bobby isn’t human.

The Stepford Wives seems to give the “human” a relatively loose definition in line with Ghost in the Shell’s. The housewives aren’t human because they don’t have a biological body or their own personality and ability to make decisions. While the true humans in the film – Joanna for most of it, her husband and the rest of the men – have both of those things, it doesn’t argue that both are necessary for humans. The prolonged uncertainty over the housewives place as human or object implies you could be human with just one of those features they are ultimately shown to lack. A robot like the housewives who does actually have a personality and individual choice would be human.


The case of someone with a biologically human body and no individuality is harder to figure out. Certainly, the main case of The Stepford Wives is that this individuality is crucial for women’s humanity; patriarchal societies that work to undermine that are denying women’s human status. In that sense, this hypothetical person with a biologically human body and no personality or freedom of choice is inhuman. But I think the presence of a “real” human body complicates it. How is it possible to say someone with their own biological human body isn’t actually human?

Pulling from the world we live in rather than imagined ones, this situation could include people in comas or people who have been brainwashed or had traumatic brain injuries. In the first case, the person has no personality or agency on display, but they’re still human. There seems to be a spectrum, here, in that people who are “brain dead” can be considered more object-like in the sense of a corpse. Their minds, their selves, are not latent and waiting in the incommunicative body, and it’s permissible to remove life support from such bodies. People who have been brainwashed or sustained traumatic brain injuries can abruptly and severely change their personalities, decisions, and motivations. Does that make them inhuman? They are different than they once were, and many need additional support, but I don’t think anyone would really suggest they’re no longer human.

So I think it is possible for someone who has a biological body but not a continuous or visible personality to qualify as human. While that case is definitely the most complicated, I think The Stepford Wives argues that only lacking both of those things makes someone an object.