Sady Doyle, Stacia Brown, and Amanda Hess

Why Fatal Attraction Is the Horror Movie Version of Lean In

Matter and MSNBC.com are rereading Susan Faludi’s feminist classic, Backlash. Here’s our conversation on Chapter Five.


Hollywood joined the backlash a few years later than the media; movie production has a longer lead time. Consequently, the film industry had a chance to absorb the ‘trends’ the ’80s media flashed at independent women—and reflect them back at American moviegoers at twice their size. ‘I’m thirty-six years old!’ Alex Forrest, the homicidal single career woman of Fatal Attraction, moans. ‘It may be my last chance to have a child!’ As Darlene Chan, a 20th Century Fox vice president, puts it: ‘Fatal Attraction is the psychotic manifestation of the Newsweek marriage study.’”—Susan Faludi, Backlash, “Chapter 5—Fatal and Fetal Visions: The Backlash in Movies”


Sady Doyle (freelancer and staff writer for In These Times Magazine): Faludi hinges most of this chapter on Fatal Attraction, so I would like to kick off this discussion by announcing that, in accordance with my duties as a responsible critic, I did watch Fatal Attraction on Netflix. Also, that I found myself giggling maniacally the whole way through.

Fatal Attraction is one of those movies where, even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve sort of seen it. “Bunny boiler” has its own Urban Dictionary entry, for Christ’s sake. But I was not prepared for how OVERT it would be, as an expression of dudely anxieties: Most of the “horror” in the movie is Glenn Close insisting on her own reproductive autonomy. She refuses to get an abortion when Michael Douglas commands her to, which strangely gives this movie a stronger, more overt pro-abortion stance than either Juno or Knocked Up—not to mention reminding him that he was an equal partner in the decision to cheat on his wife. It takes a REALLY long time for her to start killing pets. But, I suppose, we’re meant to be just as horrified by twisted acts of villainy like “calling a guy the day after you hook up with him” as we are by boiled animals.

I think Faludi’s reason for focusing on Fatal Attraction has a lot to do with that horrifying screening she describes at the beginning of the chapter: A bunch of men in a dark theater, yelling things like “punch the bitch’s face in” and “beat the bitch” at the screen, while women watch in silence. This scene makes it clear, in a way that feminist media critics are always trying to do, that these misogynist tropes resonate, and affect the ways men actually see and treat women. But what do you all think? Why Fatal Attraction? And what would be the Fatal Attraction of today?

Stacia Brown (freelance writer and founder of Beyond Baby Mamas): I don’t know that there is a film today that invokes the level of widespread paranoia/pandemonium that Fatal Attraction did in the ’80s. Part of that has to do with Faludi’s point about the very particular forces the filmmakers strapped (bomblike) to Glenn Close’s character. (Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Fatal Attraction. I was, like, 7 when it dropped, but I remember the conversation and climate around it. I’m hoping to watch it tonight.)

By making the stalker character a career woman of a particular age whose “biological clock is ticking,” the film sent a strong, harmful message about unpartnered women in their late 30s. (Namely that they’re “baby-crazed” and a threat to a philanderer’s home base in ways that “kept women” of earlier generations arguably were not.)

For men, Fatal Attraction seems like a horror-genre inversion of today’s Lean In, having-it-all conversation. As in: This is what could happen if/when women feel entitled to “too much” or set their sights on “having it all.”

It seems like a lot of the panic that film caused had to do with men having to contend with women executives/bosses for the first time. Was it a fear of becoming cuckolds? Or of having to answer to women, period (which I think, even now, men seem hard-pressed to be okay with).

Amanda Hess (staff writer at Slate): I submit that the Fatal Attraction of today is The Other Woman, the 2014 romantic comedy that brings an ostensibly feminist twist to the old adultery tale. In the film, Leslie Mann teams up with her husband’s lover (Cameron Diaz) and his new girl-on-the-side (Kate Upton) to bring the man down. They emasculate him: they spike his smoothies with estrogen and his shampoo with hair-removal cream. They expose him as both a cheater and a corporate embezzler, then depose him from his own company and install Mann as the new CEO. Mann’s character is an obvious subversion of the Glenn Close archetype—unlike Close’s murderous single career woman, Mann goes nuts because she’s been pinned into the housewife role; she uses her stalking skills to seduce Diaz into friendship, and then to take down her man both at home and at the workplace.

But beneath the top-level plot summary, The Other Woman is really, as Wesley Morris put it at Grantland, a “negative-sisterhood movie” seasoned with “contempt for womankind.” When Kate Upton appears on-screen as Other Woman Number 2, Diaz “explodes” because Upton “is hotter and younger than she is,” Morris writes. The film’s real gender politics are revealed in a “slow-motion sequence of a bikinied Diaz chasing a bikinied Upton,” an odd choice for a comedy ostensibly by and for women (the film is screenwriter Melissa Stack’s debut feature). In the end, Diaz ends up married to another guy, and pissed again at Upton (who marries Diaz’s father); Mann flips from housewife to corporate leader, but she cannot actually “have it all.” And so The Other Woman is tethered to a host shell of female empowerment, selling a sheen of female friendship and female revenge to female audiences — so far, to the tune of $194 million dollars worldwide.

This is what Faludi, in her 2006 preface to Backlash’s 15th-anniversary printing, describes as “worse than backlash”: The commercialization of feminism that pretends to sell empowerment but is really just hawking more shit. “We have stopped to gather glittering trinkets from an apparent admirer,” Faludi writes. “The admirer is the marketplace, and the trinkets are the bounty of a commercial culture, which has deployed the language of liberation as a new and powerful tool of subjugation.”

Faludi smartly notes that cultural and political trends take longer to project onto the big screen, and so even as Faludi was writing of this trend in 2006, Hollywood was still producing movies in the backlash vein.

SD: Right. And once you’ve tapped that backlash vein, it just keeps on giving. Fatal Attraction, for example, was so wildly successful that it basically inspired its own genre of film, in which the basic plot—happily taken man falls afoul of a needy murderess—gets repeated with a new cast of characters. I submit to you 2002's Swimfan, in which a young man’s promising swim-team career is nearly crushed by a nubile yet deadly Erika Christensen, or 2009's Obsessed, in which the marriage of Beyoncé Knowles and Idris Elba is imperiled by the attentions of Ali Larter. (From the film’s IMDB quotes page: “[Brutal catfight continues.]”) There may be more; these are just the two that I, personally, happened to see in theaters.

Part of this is probably about the financial success that accompanied all the uproar Stacia spoke to. But it also speaks to the fact that Fatal Attraction crystallized anxieties so well that it transmuted those anxieties into an archetype. The backlash was all about the idea that feminism had ruined women’s lives—causing them to end up alone and loveless—or just plain ruined women. (One of my favorite bits of this chapter were the interview quotes from Michael Douglas and director Adrian Lyne on “career women”: Lyne tells a stirring tale of how he saw a woman studio executive who “railroaded, walked all over” a male subordinate “because her position was more powerful than his. And it was much more disconcerting because it was a woman doing it. It was unfeminine, you know?” And from that feeling, a blockbuster was born.) Alex, Glenn Close’s character, is so desperately unhappy about being single that it makes her predatory. She doesn’t just lack a man or a baby, she wants them so bad she’ll KILL for them.

Which then gets re-written, as you say, Amanda, into “empowering” rom-com tropes with wacky comedic man-harassment. (Which Faludi noted, too: Half of the movies she calls out, like Working Girl and Crossing Delancey, are actually lighthearted comedies.) The need to have a guy — and the need to go to extreme lengths to get him — is still presumed to be the primary motivating factor in female characters’ lives.

It also gets re-written into sexy times: We just saw the 50 Shades of Grey trailer, where an awkward working woman is plucked out of her lonely, mousy-outfit-wearing life and made submissive to a high-powered corporate executive. It’s not just that we keep repeating the story — we keep repeating it in different genres. Which is what really stood out: the way Faludi portrays the omnipresence of these tropes, and uses them to take the temperature of the culture. If we’re still telling the same story, are we still stuck in the same moment, or are things improving?

SB: Maybe the box office grosses would be the best way of gauging whether things are changing. Are people still turning out to theaters en masse for this? Certainly men aren’t. 50 Shades of Grey will undoubtedly gross well, but how many of those viewers will be unironically into it? (How many of the book’s readers were?)

I think waning interest in women-stalker films as anything more than camp (Obsessed was pretty great camp for me, beginning to end) indicates a shift in our generation’s willingness to buy into the idea of pathologizing career women’s singleness. That said, I still don’t think portrayals of women have improved much, given the number of years (decades!) since Fatal Attraction debuted.

I haven’t seen Obvious Child but do we want to bring that into the mix as a progressive counternarrative to women prioritizing career-building/remaining childless and still “getting the guy”? It seems these kinds of films are the ones that see the most critical (and, arguably, commercial) acclaim these days.

SB: This is a digression, but Adrian Lyne’s last film before a decade-plus directorial disappearance in 2002 was Unfaithful. He has two films in development and both are relatively benign adaptations of novels (one is a Grisham). Could this long break and departure from his ’80s-00s oeuvre — which portrayed women as scheming/deviant — have anything to do with a changing landscape in Hollywood?

I also thought it was interesting when Faludi noted that Lyne once had a really odd film in the works at one point about a “mute black prostitute who falls for a white doctor.” It was called Silence. MAJOR SIDE-EYE. The black women wouldn’t have gotten to be in a position of relative professional corporate power? And she literally would’ve had no voice at all.

AH: A little has changed on the indie side since Patti Rocks, the 1988 film Faludi holds up as the antidote to the Fatal Attractions and Three Men and a Babys of the 1980s — but not much. Patti Rocks narrowly escaped an X rating — it showed a single mom having sex, liking it, and saying so! — and failed to woo major distributors. Obvious Child got a big boost from crowdsourced Kickstarter funds, but its story is similar: It narrowly escaped an NBC marketing ban; only after pressure from Planned Parenthood did the network agree that it could air a digital ad where the word “abortion” is uttered. And it reached a meager 202 theaters at its widest release. So far, it’s brought in less than $3 million. Compare that to The Other Woman, released just a couple of months before: It was showing in 3,306 theaters at its widest, and as I said, has since collected $194 million worldwide.

Obvious Child

So: Did The Other Woman trounce Obvious Child because audiences would rather see women depicted as blank, writhing bodies than as real people? I bet some Hollywood producers would privately agree to that statement as they count their money. But one of the most powerful aspects of Backlash is how Faludi carefully demonstrates how the success — and failures — of films are a product of manipulation by the Hollywood system, not an honest reflection of what most people (you know, a group that includes women) really want to see. Targeting the vocal 18-to-34-year-old male demographic (and the silent women who accompany them to the theater) proved to be a lucrative strategy for movie producers, and so Hollywood keeps returning to the well.

Faludi notes that in the early ’90s, film roles for women dropped precipitously, to the point where male characters made up two-thirds of people on-screen. Fast-forward to 2013, and that number hasn’t budged an inch. And yet: The MPAA found that women bought half of all movie tickets that year. It doesn’t have to be this way: The Other Woman only brought in $7,727 per theater on its opening weekend, compared to Obvious Child’s $25,772. If Hollywood studios had invested in Obvious Child in the way it did The Other Woman (which benefitted from a $40 million budget), who knows what returns they would see. But why change what’s working?

The modern film industry offers the most obvious retort to the assumption that feminism’s work is done, and that conditions for women in the U.S. just keep getting better and better and better. The status of women in film has, in fact, gotten worse since the 1980s. I think one of the reasons for that is that as media gets increasingly fragmented, we’ve seen more diverse and realistic representations of women show up on television and on Internet-only shows; meanwhile, the film industry, which needs to reach large audiences, has taken the opposite tack — it’s just gotten more homogenous and stooped lower.

SD: Amanda, I tend to agree with you that we are seeing more interesting and diverse female characters, but that it’s happening mostly on the small screen. Women in movies are still largely white, straight, dude-oriented in their concerns, miserable if they put their careers first, and — with the exception of Obvious Child — flat-out incapable of getting an abortion.

I do see some signs of light, though: Gravity made around $500 million last year. And the only major role in that movie was a woman: a single mother in her 40s who was a scientist, didn’t date, and was smart and strong enough to rescue herself from some fairly extreme peril. It turns out, if you just hand in a scary special-effects extravaganza that’s fun to see in IMAX, people don’t really care whether your character fits traditional gender norms.

I also see some promising stuff going on in comedy, whether that’s in Obvious Child or Bridesmaids. You could argue that Kristen Wiig’s character, like TV’s Liz Lemon before her, is a more loving and accepting take on the “single woman falling apart at the seams” archetype, but I think the affection that movie had for her and for other female misfits was pretty heartwarming. And one of Bridesmaids’ big plots was whether Annie (Wiig) would gather up the willpower to try to pursue her career ambitions again.

But mostly, I agree that the film industry is slow to change, and reflects a version of reality that’s light years behind what the reality is for women right now: It’s more mainstream than ever before to identify as a feminist, and easier to find entertainment that suits your feminist inclinations. Backlash movies might continue to sell, but I suspect younger women are turning away from them: It’s not like they don’t have options in terms of pro-feminist books, magazines, television, online comedy, etc.

So yes, Stacia, maybe Lyne is disappearing because “horror” movies about the breakdown of the sacred nuclear family just aren’t that horrifying any more. I mean, I hope so. Otherwise, he might be secretly working on Silence, which, I agree, sounds like the most upsetting concept ever imagined for a film.

SB: Before we go, I’d like to add that Silence, in some alternately titled, slightly tweaked format is probably still floating around right now. I could easily see Lee Daniels, Tyler Perry, or maybe even Spike Lee directing it. There are more independent black women directors than ever before, all of whom seem committed to diversifying the types of stories about women of color that are being told, and Perry’s films seem to be experiencing some widespread backlash of their own, but the opportunity to present hypersexualized black women embroiled in situations where power is grossly imbalanced still feels omnipresent—and too tempting for some filmmakers to ignore.

Protective paranoia regarding the black nuclear family (or the idea of black woman as wife and mother being pitted against the idea of black woman as breadwinner/career-climber) hasn’t really been represented onscreen enough to reflect a trend. Black women characters usually seem expected to both work full-time and to take care of the home full-time (and are still occasionally cheated on/abandoned for their efforts). Obsessed is something of an anomaly in that way, as Beyoncé quits her job to marry Idris. (She’s still also pursuing a degree/taking night classes, though — and the paranoia that film aimed to trigger was directed more at stay-at-home moms and/or black women in general, not men.) But in films from Waiting to Exhale to How Stella Got Her Groove Back to This Christmas to Crooklyn, black women characters are pulling double duty and their husbands are expecting that they do it, even as they’re threatened by it.

Lots of ways to read along and join in: Post your own Backlash response on Medium, tweet at @readmatter with #BacklashBookClub, or comment on MSNBC.com. We’ll be featuring some of your posts and tweets as we go.

Read more of the Backlash Book Club, featuring Lena Dunham, Anna Holmes, Aminatou Sow, Roxane Gay, and others.

Illustrations by Hannah K. Lee


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