The Joice Heth/Stepford Wives Connection

image A trailer for Paramount's new movie The Stepford Wives (which is about housewives being transformed into mindless, but beautiful robots) contains some controversial scenes. One shot shows an image of a sexy-looking Condoleeza Rice naked from the waist up (arms covering her chest), and another scene shows Hillary Clinton morphing into a buxom homemaker bearing a tray of cookies. But if you blink you'd miss these scenes because they literally flash across the screen in less than a second. As a result, most people never noticed them when the trailer aired on tv last week. But Rebecca Reynolds, a 'sharp-eyed' resident of Kansas City, Missouri noticed them, and she immediately called up her local tv station to complain about what she felt were the shocking and offensive images. The station aired a story about Rebecca's discovery, and soon word of the trailer's hidden content had spread all across the country.

Media coverage of this story has focused on the scenes from the trailer, but what makes me suspicious is the role played by the outraged midwesterner, Rebecca Reynolds. It seems awfully convenient that she happened to notice what was in the trailer and felt compelled to contact the media about it, thereby generating great free publicity for Paramount. Could she actually be in cahoots with Paramount? After all, Paramount knew exactly what was in the trailer, but they needed someone to complain in order to create a story the media would cover.

I can't prove anything, but I am suspicious since this is one of the oldest publicity tricks in the book: the pseudo-controversy generated by phony complaints made to the media. P.T. Barnum used this strategy again and again throughout his career. For instance, at the beginning of his career he was exhibiting Joice Heth, an elderly black woman who, so he claimed, was 161-years-old (she was probably in her 80s). When public interest in her began to taper off, Barnum wrote an anonymous letter to a local paper alleging that Joice Heth was a fake. But he complained that not only was Heth not as old as advertised, but that she was also not even human, being a "curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, India-rubber, and numberless springs." This letter, and the controversy it created, helped revive public interest in Joice Heth and thereby substantially fattened Barnum's wallet.

Barnum's Joice-Heth publicity stunt occurred about 170 years ago, but it's odd how parallel it is to Paramount's Stepford-Wives stunt, since they both involve the suggestion of women really being robots in disguise. Weird. But probably a coincidence.


Posted on Wed Jun 16, 2004


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