The Horrors of Conformity: Movie Review of The Stepford Wives, Disturbing Behavior and School Ties

Andrew Greene
6 min readJun 3, 2024

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I’ve been noodling over the dangers of conformity, the narrowing path of what is allowed and the culture of silence we adhere to. Because I’m me, I sought out three films that explore this theme: Stepford Wives (1975), School Ties (1992) and Disturbing Behavior (1998).

Stepford Wives examines conformity through the inequality between sexes and how supposedly antiquated gender roles live on in American suburbia.

As is usually the case with small town America propaganda, when Joanna (Katharine Ross) and her family move from the city to the village of Stepford, it’s described as the kind of town where you don’t have to lock your doors.

When Joanna and her lone neighbor with a personality, Bobby (Paula Prentiss), start to question why every woman’s home in Stepford is spotless, their lives completely devoted to cooking and cleaning and parenting, they are gaslit constantly. Stepford is “the most liberal town,” one lady proclaims. They had the first Chinese restaurant in the area! There’s even a black family moving in!

If you’re being told how safe, how diverse an area is — it’s not.

But with everyone repeating the same company line, and their husbands spineless or absent (after all, they benefit from this world order), Joanna and Bobby start to doubt themselves. “Maybe we’re the crazy ones,” Bobby wonders.

I’ve been feeling crazy constantly. For seeing what’s happening, for being terrified and vocal about it and STILL, even now, even after all we’ve been through, the gaslighting from every corner, from friends, families or foes, remains as fierce as if we truly have been replaced by robots.

This is America, you see. You don’t have to lock your doors. My parents left the front door unlocked for years, even after multiple break-ins. Even after multiple breaks revealing as clear-as-fucking-day the patriarchal, white supremacist society we’re all still suffering under, we’d prefer not to talk about it, because then we might have to take some modicum of responsibility.

“Do the things they tell us to do and then they give us the good life,” a privileged Matt Damon says in School Ties.

Robert Mandel’s film is set in the 1950s at the snobbiest of New England preparatory schools, where its insidious antisemitism forces new student David Greene (Brendan Fraser) to hide his Judaism.

Bigotry doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Bigotry reflects a suffocating atmosphere of conformity. And everyone feels it, not just the oppressed. Here, one kid has a mental breakdown over a domineering teacher’s French test. Another student breaks the honor code by cheating on a final exam, desperate to live up to his family name and expectations.

What is the use of an honor code at a school with no honor? What is a country that expends so much oxygen on the idea of democracy, but doesn’t allow for it?

Our ties to schools and their scholarships, to our parents’ approval and their money, to the prevailing status quo, are hurting our kids here and abroad.

It takes a scandal and a 12 Angry Men-like morality play to finally expose the rampant hypocrisy on this Massachusetts campus. It takes Brendan Fraser being PERFECT — star quarterback, dreamy dude, top of the class, genuinely kind — for his peers to recognize his humanity.

Unfortunately, things don’t get much better in the 90s.

In Disturbing Behavior, Steve (James Marsden) and his family are moving to a new town — Cradle Bay, a quiet hamlet in the Pacific Northwest only accessible via ferry.

There, Marsden discovers the frightening, familiar hierarchy of high school, where the “Blue Ribbons,” a group of jocks, cheerleaders and pretty white teens, rule. James Marsden would fit right in, but thankfully, Nick Stahl’s outsider Gavin befriends him first. And no amount of belonging will ever be preferable than getting to hang out with a grungy Katie Holmes at the peak of her Joey Potter powers.

As even the misfits start to get absorbed into the Blue Ribbon cult, we discover that the kids’ parents are willing participants in this sinister plot. They want their kids to be changed, to be replaced by a dutiful, letter jacket wearing version of themselves.

We learn Marsden’s brother committed suicide, necessitating their move to a new town. His parents don’t just want a fresh start. His parents want to forget everything that happened before Cradle Bay. Just like how we don’t want to talk about the fact that fascism is here, now, his parents don’t want to talk about Steve’s dead brother because it’s too darn difficult.

Our society prefers robots over sad kids with mental health problems. But our mental health problems derive from an ill society. Having difficulties with one’s mental health is a healthy and natural reaction to what we are subjected to on a daily basis, to how we must contort ourselves to fit in.

The conversations we refuse to have, the truths we refuse to admit are killing people.

Back in Stepford, one of the wives goes on the fritz at a dinner party, repeating “I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe” before being taken away.

Even though we know it’s bullshit, we are so desperate for the perfect recipe to life, for how and who to Be, for the exactly right ingredients — the career, the partner, the house, the kids, the white picket fence, etc. — that will deliver us the good life. A “normal” life. One where we won’t be bothered or judged or have to think beyond our backyard.

Underneath is all fear. The fear of not belonging. The fear of being rejected. The fear of being hated for being different. We see it constantly in our history and in our present and many of us, consciously or not, gravitate to wanting more of the same, to be one of the Blue Ribbons, rather than something off the beaten path.

Aside from the truly brainwashed and corrupt, I don’t think anyone is OK with genocide or the litany of awful things happening around the world. But everyone is afraid of being hurt, of being killed, which is underneath our fear of nonconformity, the fear of resistance. We’re afraid of being bombed too.

That isn’t freedom.

Society and its rules only have the power we give it, yet we continue to favor the comfortable status quo of the few over the liberation of all.

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Andrew Greene

Writer, director. Creator of The Naked Man Podcast. Human sampler tray following breadcrumbs, forever hungry. @WanderingGreene on IG, Letterboxd & Twitter