With its portrayal of the stalking career woman that victimizes a hapless man and his innocent wife, Fatal Attraction contains many elements that reflect a “backlash” against the feminist movement, as well as dark male fears over the proliferation of career-minded women. Fatal Attraction, released in 1987, written by James Dearden and directed by Adrian Lyne, was conceived as a film about the consequences of infidelity. The film’s main character, Dan Gallagher, played by Michael Douglas, is a New York lawyer with a seemingly happy family that includes a beautiful wife Beth, played by Anne Archer, and daughter.
When Dan’s wife and daughter go away for the weekend, Dan meets the independent and sultry Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close, at his law firm. The two soon engage in what Dan believes to be a casual and temporary affair. When Dan attempts to end the affair, Alex’s refusal to accept it turns dramatically negative. Alex begins to stalk Dan, showing up where he does, calling him until he refuses to take her calls. Eventually, realizing that Dan truly wants nothing to do with her, she tells him that she is pregnant with his baby.
The growing obsessive madness of Alex peaks after she spies on Dan and his family from the bushes in his yard, and later breaks into the house when the family is out and boils the pet rabbit of Dan’s daughter. Because he can no longer hide his transgressions, Dan tells Beth about the affair, and she eventually forgives him. Alex crosses the final line with Dan and his family when she kidnaps his daughter only to return her unharmed later. It becomes apparent to all involved that something must be done, and for Alex, that means killing Dan’s wife so she can take her place.
In a final climatic scene, Alex, Beth, and Dan physically fight as Alex attempts to kill Beth with a butcher knife. Dan is forced to drown Alex in the bathtub, but she only appears dead and attacks him again, when Beth, using a gun Dan purchased for protection, promptly guns her down. While many of the plot points in the movie can be seen as simple movie suspense, the deeper one digs the easier it is to find subtle allusions to the place of women in society. The role of the female characters in Fatal Attraction show diverging archetypes for the ideal woman, as viewed by traditionalists and progressive feminists.
On the one hand is Alex, the calculating career woman; on the other hand is Beth, the faithful wife and mother. The main female characters show the dichotomy between the traditional social roles of women and the ultramodern. According to Gerrig, “A social role is a socially defined pattern of behavior that is expected of a person when functioning in a given setting or group” (Gerrig and Zimbardo 574). The portrayal of each can be seen as a representation of a provincial masculine view of femininity, in essence a backlash against feminism. Feminism has long been a misunderstood concept, by women and men alike.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century with the rise of “the New Woman,” the First International Women’s Conference in Paris in 1892 coined the word after the French term feministe, to represent a belief in and advocacy of equal rights for women based on the idea of the equality of the sexes (Haslanger and Tuana). At the time, it was a call for suffrage and equal justice for women and represented the beginning of the “First Wave” of feminism, which in America culminated in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.
By the time Fatal Attraction was released, feminism was in the midst of a strong new wave of feminism, which began in the late 1960s. In the “Second Wave” of feminism, feminists pushed far beyond the first wave by asking for more than just equal political rights but also greater universal equality in the workplace, education, at home, and with their own bodies (Haslanger and Tuana). The proliferation of birth control added to this wave and the growing independence of women reached a zenith in the 1980s, with women achieving equality in almost every sense of the word, with prominent women politicians, artists, and world figures.
The character of Alex Forrest seemed to suggest a dark side to this rise of feminism, that the irrational female psyche will eventually overrule the mindset of even the most successful women, granted that they failed to have the things traditionally considered the most feminine: a family. The stability of the idealized traditional wife and mother, Beth, provides a stark contrast to the nightmarish descent into madness of the progressive single woman, Alex. While this could be nothing more than a dramatic coincidence, some see it as a deliberate expression of masculine fear of female empowerment.
Fatal Attraction seems to suggest an almost misogynistic fear of the independent career woman that she seeks to destroy families and will stop at nothing to do so: “In its representation of a crazy career woman out to destroy the nuclear family, the film is a perfect example of the era’s conservative backlash against independent women” (Benshoff and Griffin 281). Alex participates in stalking, which is traditionally associated with men, and she possesses many of the same dominant tendencies of men.
In her book, High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood, Sharon Willis critiques Fatal Attraction, taking the position that films like it suggest that “feminine force seems to arise at the direct expense of masculine power and bodily integrity” and that femininity becomes inextricably linked to masculinity, a position widely shared by feminist film critics. Willis claims that films like Fatal Attraction focus “on an urgent effort to reinscribe the border of sexual difference at exactly the divide between domestic interior and public space” (Regester 52).
Alex engages in behavior that, even in the 1980s, was deemed uniquely masculine. Women have long suffered the double standard of adhering to strict sexual mores, and her promiscuity exemplifies the lack of maternal qualities that most men look for in a mate. However, men like Dan use biological precedent to rationalize their constant desire to spread their seed. Dan is equally responsible for what occurred, but it is almost as if he is forgiven for his gender’s predilection for sexual promiscuity, however erroneous.
The most obvious feminist critique of Fatal Attraction is how it portrays Alex, the professional, single woman in her thirties as domineering, man-obsessed, and driven to insanity by her quest to achieve a long lasting relationship with Dan. The movie vilifies her and on the opposite end of the spectrum, sanctifies Beth, the devoted wife and mother. As with all the strong popular icons before her, Alex “becomes the screen upon which an audience of thousands projects their fears and fantasies” (Nguyen “The Legend of Billie Jean”).
Through all of this, Dan is portrayed as almost more of a hapless victim that succumbs to the wiles of a siren than what he really is: a cheating spouse. The author of the story, James Dearden contends that he meant no deliberate anti-feminist overtones in his work, which began as a 1979 short film, “Diversion. ” According to Dearden, he merely borrowed from life to create a minimalist story about the perils of adultery: “My wife was out of town for the weekend, and I thought what would happen if a man who has just dropped his wife at the railroad station rings this girl who he’s met at a party and says, ‘Would you like to have dinner?
’ But, then it all gets ugly” (Forsberg). According to the man who created the story, it was nothing more than a simple suspense story, and the criticisms that label it as anti-feminist and woman fearing are unfounded: “I don’t see that Alex symbolizes the New Woman and is therefore made to appear ghastly to sabotage the New Woman’s cause. She has a career because she lives in New York, where it’s difficult to survive without one. For me, it was a fable about the irrational creeping into the everyday” (Forsberg).
He also examines the possibility of his own fears towards women and the prevalence of men that fear women in his script: “I don’t think I fear women, but there’s a certain archetype - the temptress who undoes heroes of Homeric legend who is as predatory sexually as the man - which men find hard to deal with because they’re used to being in the dominant role. Women certainly have an equal right to be dominant, but I don't like very dominant males or females period” (Forsberg).
While it can be said that Fatal Attraction sought to express the male anxieties about the emerging female, as well as a rejection of feminism as a social force, to the movie aficionado it remains merely a suspense movie filled with gimmicks and plotlines as old as cinema itself. The immense success of Fatal Attraction may have entered it into the feminism conversation, but it realistically remains nothing more than a dramatic examination of adultery and obsession.
The idea of the femme fatale is nothing new, and the movie simply showed that, man or woman, there is no such thing as sex without consequences. Looking at Alex Forrest as a backlash against feminism is a fair criticism, however it is unfair to believe that a fictional suspense movie like Fatal Attraction could influence anybody that saw it free of any preexisting agendas. The movie may be simply a reflection of the ambitions that drive everyone mad, whether male or female, career or sexual, decent or indecent.
Works Cited: Benshoff, Harry M. and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. London: Blackwell Publishers, 2003. Forsberg, Myra. “James Dearden: Life After ‘Fatal Attraction’. ” The New York Times. 24 Jul 1988. 16 Dec 2008.
Haslanger, Sally & Tuana, Nancy. “Topics in Feminism. ” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 15 Mar 2004. 16 Dec 2008.