Sunday, August 30, 2009

Guest Post: "American Values" in the movie Basic Instinct

This guest post was written by Ashley who is currently studying abroad in Argentina. Her main interests include feminism, history and women's spirituality.

Trigger warning for a brief description of a rape scene in the movie Basic Instinct.

I'm currently studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and for better or worse, there are many channels that air American movies and television shows. Well, lo and behold, just after I learned about the Bechdel test, I saw Michael Douglas give a speech about how he's proud of American movies, and how they're more than entertainment, they're ambassadors that convey our values. Well, not more than five minutes later, I turn the channel to find this actor in the movie Basic Instinct. So, I thought I'd watch it and see how well our "American values" were portrayed.

The main female character, Catherine Tremill, is a successful writer and an assertive woman who has no hesitation to admit that she has sex for pleasure. (What a revolutionary concept, right? Women having sex just for pleasure?) However, in a typical patriarchal troupe, she is portrayed as the "Black Widow," or the powerfully seductive woman who no man, or woman, can resist, even if it means death. (Clearly, a powerful woman must inherently be too aggressive because she's not being the "normal" passive girl.) Too smart for her own good, the detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), decides that she must be guilty of murder after her lover turns up dead. She is "bad enough" to go to jail, but she's "good enough" to later get his sexual fill out of her. They eventually become lovers, in one of the oldest themes of American movies: the young, attractive woman falls in love with the old, unattractive man. (You may say that looks shouldn't matter, but in reality, they do, especially in Hollywood, and I think this disproportion should be pointed out more often. One question is: where are the older women? Why can't they be suitable lovers?) Catherine later admits that she is interested in women as well, but her sexuality seems to fall flat as the only scenes she is seen being affectionate with other women is in front of men, seemingly seeking to attract their attention and entertain them. At one point, Nick calls her lover "a man," because obviously you can't have a relationship without one.

The detective's first "lover," Beth Garner, is someone who Nick treats callously and cruelly the entire movie. When she tries to understand his growing frustration with the murder case, offering her sympathies, he shouts at her to go away. However, when he needs her body, he doesn't hesitate to anally rape her. In the scene, she actually screams "No!" and struggles against him, but he continues to forcibly rip off her clothes (or at least the ones that are necessary for the act), and thrusts himself into her against her will, and then she seems to go limp. This, my friends, is defined as rape. (For those of you who would say that she could perhaps merely be playing, please watch the scene.) Of course, she then seemingly accepts the ordeal, a detail I'm sure the male screenwriter had no hesitation to put in, and who had no idea what constitutes rape. When Nick later confronts her with a different issue, it seems that she is being raped again, psychologically or not. He shouts at her and backs her into a door, where she proceeds to cower. Even after all of this, Beth still cares for Nick, saying, "I'm a big girl. I can handle myself." (At what age can you handle rape?) Her behavior almost seems motherly (I can hear the subconscious talking: "Well, he's a boy and he's just having a temper tantrum, he'll learn." Or, "He's my son, of course I love him no matter what.") Nick eventually ends up killing her, somewhat because he thinks she's a killer, and somewhat because he's not fucking her anymore. At one point, he actually calls both of the women in his life "manipulative."

The police, after her lover's murder, interrogate Catherine, emphasizing the fact that she is not "officially" with her lover, even calling her a "broad." With six or so male officers in the room with her, they rather look like a shooting squad, and their only target is the woman who crossed the line by being too powerful. In fact, there is only one police woman throughout the entire movie, making the ratio of female:male about 1:10. This setup was probably subconscious; in our patriarchal society we learn that it's completely acceptable for males to dominate females in all situations. After all, as we have seen through literature, history, and even religion, there is nothing more sinister than a sexually-liberated woman.

The movie "Basic Instinct" is an older one (1996), but it's clearly still modern enough to show on Argentine television. This is definitely not the most sexist movie ever made; in fact, when I started watching the movie, it could have turned out that there were few sexist troupes. However, as I thought, our "cultural ambassadors" convey sexism more often than not, and they're streamed throughout the entire world, where our neighbors see that in the great, glorious US, our morals inherently include sexism. In many peoples' minds, if you want to get ahead in the world, you have to be like the most powerful, which, fortunately or unfortunately, means that you have to be like the white, male, straight, Christian men. In conclusion, our "values," if we take Michael Douglas's words to heart, seem to emphasize male dominance, rape, coersion through force instead of diplomacy, and complete disregard of women's opinions and feelings. So much for conveying any feminist, or even decent values.

***After some research, it appears that even at the time of its release, the movie was criticized as both sexist and homophobic.


Amanda said...

It's surprising how many movies, TV shows, even books we consume in our youth that upon revisiting opens us up to its latent (or blatant, as the case may be) misogyny and examples of rape that we just brushed aside as a "plot element." The big one I noticed recently was the rape scene in Gone With the Wind, and I couldn't believe that I had to explain to my parents that, yes, a husband CAN rape his wife, and that's exactly what that scene was about.

Saranga said...

I've never seen the movie basic Instinct but I know a low of folks who have, and I remember the publicity it got when it was released. i don't remember anyone ever saying a rape scene was in it. I would say that omission is bizzare but sadly it's not unusual.