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.
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 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.