Visi(bi)lity: Biphobia Bingo! A Look at Basic Instinct

Carrie Nelson
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Carrie is a writer and documentary filmmaker living in NYC.

This is the movie poster for Full disclosure: I love Paul Verhoeven’s movies. I’m a fan of RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers…and, yes, even Showgirls. (Stay tuned for more about Showgirls later in this series.) These movies may not be cinematic masterpieces, but they are entertaining, escapist fun. So when I decided to give Basic Instinct a try, I was actually looking forward to it. I expected to enjoy it, even if only in a campy sense.

Oh, how wrong I was.

In Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone plays Catherine Tramell, a bisexual crime novelist and primary suspect in a murder investigation. Michael Douglas plays Nick Curran, the detective in charge of investigating the murder and Catherine’s role in it. Along the way, Nick falls under the spell of Catherine’s charisma and uninhibited sexuality. Will his attraction to her get in the way of his ability to do his job?

Rather than spoil the entire movie for you (though you should know that the ending is exceptionally terrible), I want to discuss Catherine’s characterization. Initially, I liked her. She’s professionally successful, ambitious, strong-willed, and holds her own among men. Her sexual confidence is impressive. Unfortunately, she quickly becomes an embodiment of major bisexual stereotypes.

This is a still from Catherine sleeps with men, but her primary romantic relationships are with women. (When asked about the murder victim, with whom she was involved, Catherine replies, “I wasn’t dating him. I was fucking him.”) Her main lover is Roxy, a beautiful blonde whom viewers are supposed to read as butch because she wears a leather jacket and has an aggressive personality. Catherine and Roxy live together, but we never see them alone at home. They are not permitted real intimacy; their sexuality and lust is exploited for Nick’s gaze, which functions as the stand-in for the heterosexual male spectator. There is only one moment when we see Catherine display any real emotions about Roxy—it’s near the end of the film, and Roxy isn’t in the scene. Otherwise, their relationship is sensual and passionate, but simultaneously cold and calculated, and all too conscious of creating an arousing spectacle for men—a spectacle that Nick is all to pleased to watch.

It isn’t as if Catherine’s relations with men are depicted more sincerely. When Catherine seduces men, she is equally performative. At one point, she mentions that she lets Roxy watch her have sex with men. Catherine also uses her sexuality to maintain control; nowhere is this more clear than in the infamous (and, frankly, laughable) interrogation scene, when she flashes her naked crotch at the detectives when uncrossing her legs. Nothing about Catherine’s sexuality is sincere, which makes it easy to position her as the villain.

But, of course, sexual relations are not one-sided, and Catherine’s lovers are just as guilty of questionable behavior as she is. Specifically, Nick doesn’t seem to do a whole lot of detective work at any point in the film. Instead, he leers at Catherine’s naked body when he spots her changing clothes through an open doorway, tries to make Roxy jealous by dancing with Catherine in front of her, and violates all sorts of ethical boundaries that should dictate behavior between detectives and murder suspects. He also rapes another woman in a particularly disturbing and gratuitous scene. Yet none of these actions are condemned; despite his completely inappropriate behavior, Nick remains the protagonist.

This is a still from This leaves Catherine as the film’s antagonist. By depicting her as a sexually-aware, promiscuous, bisexual women, the film places all blame on Catherine, suggesting that she is “asking” for Nick’s unethical attention. Basic Instinct has the opportunity to frame Catherine’s sexuality in an empowering way. Instead, it is used as a way to make her appear manipulative and untrustworthy. Her behavior is tied to her sexuality in every way, making every indefensible action she makes a direct result of depraved sexuality.

In her groundbreaking essay “New Queer Cinema,” which I recently read in the anthology New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader, film theorist B. Ruby Rich writes that “Basic Instinct was picketed by the self-righteous wing of the queer community (until dykes began to discover how much fun it was).” I admire Rich tremendously, but I disagree with her on this. I see very clearly why Basic Instinct resulted in such an outcry from LGBT community, and I think the response was justified. Much like William Friedkin’s epically homophobic film Cruising, Basic Instinct depicts queerness in the most sinister ways imaginable. These films use queer sexuality as signifiers of depravity and a lack of morality. Basic Instinct relies on biphobic stereotypes to make Catherine a convincing villain. So while I enjoy fun and sexy movies as much as anyone, Basic Instinct did nothing for me. It may be classified as an erotic thriller, but there’s no bigger turn-off to me than biphobia.

Previously: Cynthia Nixon and the Politics of Labels, Bi the Way and the Realities of Bisexuality

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Basic Instinct Spoiler Activism

When this movie debuted in theaters, our small local (Des Moines, IA) chapter of Queer Nation organized a "spoiler" action. We stood outside the theater and as people went in we handed them fliers with bullet points about bi-phobia and stereotypes while simultaneously telling them the ending of the movie. We got on the evening news with that one. :)

I did the same as R1 in

I did the same as R1 in Boston (Cambridge actually). Those of us protesting dressed as the stereotypical queer women in movies: I believe I was the "military lesbian". The woman who dressed as the "vampire lesbian" in the same action went on to make the "Making of Basic Instinct" documentary that is included in the Basic Instinct special edition DVD. Really.

"Basically it stinks!" activism

Queer Nation actually had an entire action pack filled with the history relating to the film, the ongoing efforts by the broader Queer community to deal with it while it was still in production, action ideas, graphics and sticker templates, the film dialog from the rape scene, educational resources, and (Queer as a...) three dollar bills to be used in attempts to "buy" tickets, thus tangling up the movie lines causing people to miss start times and hopefully chose other films- preferably while being treated to spoiler chants along the lines of "Basic Instinct? Basic bullshit. Catherine did it!"

Various QN chapters across the country along with ACT-UP members (many of whom overlaped) worked with the action pack and built tactics and responses to the film in their own forms each in their own towns then shared ideas. I was with Queer Nation and ACT-UP Columbus (Ohio) at the time, and much of our activism around the film focused on both:

1. the biphobia and treatment of Bis as somehow inherently murderous, duplicitous, and crazy
2. the rape 'for her own good/see, she really likes it' scene.

Both as part of the broader history of how Hollywood writes Queer characters and( Bi womyn in particular. As if somehow all we need is some 'big strong man' to force us to have sex with him... .)

I wrote a brief bit about the tactics of the time here <a>href=" my blog</a> a few years back.

<i>Take the example of Queer Nation. As some of you might remember, when the Bisexual Bashing and rape glamorizing film “Basic Instinct” came out in the early 90’s, Queer Nation launched its nationwide “Basically, It Stinks!” campaign, complete with plot spoiling “Catherine Did It!” materials.

The Queer Nation focus on Basic Instinct (BI) was always about far more than just a single movie, it was a teaching example that QN focused upon as part of its broader agenda of exposing Hollywood’s ongoing pattern of homophobia.

Queer Nationals out in California got a hold of the script and production schedule and repeatedly disrupted.

Among the more creative actions was showing up with American Flags and “honk if you support our troops” or “honk for the 49ers!” as the film crew attempted to work in San Francisco.

From the start, a media campaign was launched criticizing Hollywood’s portrayals of Queers.

When the movie was finally released, QN members descended on theaters with flyers doing educational campaigns, using lines from the movie’s script to pull the rape scene out into the light of day, allowing people to evaluate it outside experience of the film.

There were attempts to gum up theater ticketing lines at single screen theaters running the film by attempting to buy movie tickets with (Queer as a) three dollar bills featuring famous Queers. While no tickets could be purchased with such, the amount of time wasted on dealing with activists ensured patrons missed start times, and cut into theater profits.

Theater goers often had to pass through picket lines and chants of “Catherine did it,” “Basically, it stinks!” or “We’re here, we’re groovy, we wanna see our REAL Queer lives in the movies.”

Domestic Violence and anti-rape materials or even a booth were set up, using the film as an educational activity. Cars in theater parking lots were flyered, stickers were made. At least one theater was treated to dead fish in its heating and cooling system, making the “Basically it stinks!” quite viceral.

Come the Oscars, Queer Nationals enacted a massive plan on many fronts and managed to get inside and disrupt, creating a rare unscripted few moments of national television.

All of which is to say, if you’re going to take on Hollywood, go big or go home. Don’t whine on webpages and attempt to fill column inches in the remaining dead tree print media.</i>

It's important to note that from the moment Queers understood what was set to be filmed, <a href=""> they worked to get the film rewritten, when those negotiation efforts failed, they worked to undermine it through direct action, and education</a> from production to revenues, to crashing the Oscars on live tv.

Sadly most of that history has (in some cases all too literally) died out, and what remains are both the sad impression of it as some kind of titillating film for certain hets, some notion of it being in the pantheon of 'queers on film' for Queers, and generations coming up beind us not knowing the history and left to reinvent the wheel.

All of the actions pertaining to the film must be understood in the context of the times, from the brutal street violence Queers were enduring to the way the AIDS pandemic had evicerated our communities. Just as we were being bashed in the streets we were being bashed by Hollywood, yet again.

We still are.

Now that would have made the

Now that would have made the film interesting! I'd have joined you!

until people started

until people started complaining I didn't even know the Sharon Stone's character was supposed to be bisexual, I just thought all of the characters were supposed to be sleazy crazy LA police crime story "types", it was all such a stupid and untrue picture of bisexual and lesbian people that I, a bisexual women, couldn't figure out that was what they were hinting around at

It's possible that Stone's

It's possible that Stone's character isn't <i>supposed</i> to be bisexual, necessarily. To my knowledge, Verhoeven never explicitly labeled her as such. That said, the fact that her sexual relations with people of different genders connects so directly with her characterization as a promiscuous, amoral villain tells me that the depiction relies on biphobia to be "successful." But I agree, the depiction is extremely inaccurate.

I tried to watch this movie

I tried to watch this movie for the first time last year. Having heard about it for such a long time and of course seen all the pop culture references to it throughout the years. I, like you, like the other Paul Verhoeven films. But I just couldn't get through this entire film. Mostly due to the terrible acting and the choices the writer(s?) made the characters make. Such bad bad writing. I didn't even look at it on a how bad it was for the queer community , especially being bisexual myself. Reading this review just makes me despise this movie even more, now on so many more levels.

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