Women’s Studies courses brought together many passions for me, and eventually led to my now being in an M.Ed. program in order to teach women’s history at the college level.
Women’s Studies courses brought together many passions for me, and eventually led to my now being in an M.Ed. program in order to teach women’s history at the college level.
“The meaning of the word ‘feminist’ has not really changed since it first appeared in a book review in the Athenaeum of April 27, 1895, describing a woman who has in her the capacity of fighting her way back to independence,” wrote Susan Faludi in her award winning book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. From the beginning of the woman’s movement, which may have first gained strength when the first term to “feminism” was defined, there was, and still is, fear installed in the “F” word. As Daphne Patai explains in an essay titled Rhetoric and Reality in Women’s Studies, so many women are afraid of this word because of the assumptions given to it. Patai uses Glenn Close’s feelings toward feminism to state her point. Close, who played Alex in the popular 1987 film Fatal Attraction, said she wanted “no part in the clichéd image of what a feminist would be. “They don’t like men you know,” they are “kind of, um, butch” (22). From this fear of the “F” word, the birth of something fiercer grew along side the women’s movement. It is something that grew in silence, it reappears and disappears many times and again leaving no traces behind it, and it installed fear in the feminists who fought trying to win rights for all women. This fear can be identified as a counter assault on women’s rights, or better know as the Feminist Backlash.
At the beginning of the 1970’s, America went through some major social changes in terms of women’s rights. Women were given the right to choose after the Roe V. Wade decision in 1973 and jobs became increasingly both hard to find and hard to keep. Women, who were in the work force, as described by Kathleen Berkley in her book The Women’s Liberation Movement in America, worked “not because they wanted to by because they had to in order to make ends meet” (104). Between these two changes alone, the antifeminist backlash of the 1980’s was set into affect. Betty Friedan, one of America’s most famous feminists, commented in a 1995 interview that jobs were being downsized “downsizing means that jobs are disappearing and more and more workers are being laid off. The main victims of this are men, the so called ‘angry white males.’ Their frustration is funneled and manipulated into a backlash against women and racial minorities.” Friedan continues “the backlash is also taking the form of attempts by fundamentalist religious groups to undo the right to abortion, the right of women to control their own bodies, in short, to push women back into the home again” (Bizot, 48).
During this period, the antifeminist backlash extended from the independent voices of American citizens and into the presentation of all forms of media. In television, advertisements, movies, and even in magazine articles women were forced to believe lies such as the man shortage (a shortage of men to marry and start a family with), difficulty conceiving children if they waited too long to have children (because they chose career over family), and above all deep depression if they didn’t act quickly to achieve the perfect nuclear family structure. But the lies didn’t stop here; American women were forcefully kept away from feminism with the way the media blamed it for every problem and concern the United States faced as a country, and succeeded. Susan Faludi comments that “The backlash has succeeded in framing virtually the whole issue of women’s rights in its own language so the backlash convinced the public that women’s “liberation” was the true contemporary American scourge-the source of an endless laundry list of personal, social, and economic problems” (xviii).
The main goal of this antifeminist backlash was to push women back into their acceptable roles as wife and mother. The feminist movement itself threatened the nuclear family, and according to Faludi was “set off not by women’s achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it” (xx). With the feminist movement gaining so much success, the fears of many Americans would come true; family would be put on the back burner while women became successful in their jobs and careers. But while this antifeminist backlash did succeed, and while it may sound lit this agenda is a conspiracy against American women, it isn’t. Faludi reveals that “these phenomena are all related, but it does not mean they are somehow coordinated. The backlash is not a conspiracy, with a council dispatching agents from some central control room, nor are the people who ser its ends often aware of their role; some even consider themselves feminists.” Faludi continues, “It is generated by a culture machine that is always scrounging for a “fresh” angle” (xxii). It is important to recognize it because it is a part of the popular culture we consume everyday of our lives and it shapes us as individuals and as a society.
In the pages that follow, this research paper will focus on a very small portion of the antifeminist backlash as it was presented in motion pictures of the 1980’s and that which expanded into the early 1990’s. By “small portion” I do not mean it is any less important than the other types of media involved. In fact, Faludi describes that “the film industry had a chance to absorb the ‘trends’ the 80’s media flashed at independent women-and reflect them back at American moviegoers at twice their size” (112). What I do mean by this statement is that it is only a small part of all the media that were already reflecting the backlash upon American society.
I have chosen three films to examine for this study which reflect the antifeminist backlash: Fatal Attraction, released in 1987; The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, released in 1992; and Poison Ivy, also released in 1992. I chose these films based on their very similar story lines. They all involve a type of love triangle between two women and a man, and they all involve a very obsessive and predatory female character, who is always overcome at the end. To bring this study a step further, I will look at two recently released films to determine if another backlash is being presented to us within motion pictures. These two films are, Swimfan and Unfaithful, which were both released in 2002. Swimfan, just as the other three films I have chosen for this study, also features an obsessive and predatory female character. Unfaithful, on the other hand, shares a very close relationship with Fatal Attraction, and uses the same director Adrian Lyne, who is know for having a “history of directing movies depiction the degradation of women” (19) as quoted by Susan Bromley and Pamela Hewitt in an essay presented in the Journal of Popular Culture.
There is no specific way in which these films, that all represent the antifeminist backlash, are presented. Any media offering viewed by an audience leaves with their own interpretation of what they have just viewed, so the thoughts and perceptions received vary among those who view it. But the antifeminist aspect of Fatal Attraction (which is presented more securely and by which I am about to speak), and the other films I have chosen, usually work around three characters: the man who takes on the role of the husband; the housewife who has no career but takes care of her husband and her family; and the feminist who works hard at her career and has no husband and no children. This feminist character badly wants a family for herself, but because she chose her career over family she cannot have it. In order for her to receive it for herself, she must conquer the wife and replace her. The most important thing about the storyline is presented in these motion pictures is how the feminist character herself is conquered at the end of the film. She is usually killed off by those who fear her most, and suffers the most awful consequence of her actions; death. She is punished not for her awful ways of trying to replace the housewife and mother, but for being a feminist and choosing career over family. Many of these films of the feminist backlash in the 1980’s and early 90’s follow this similar story line, including the films I have chosen to examine in this essay.
Fatal Attraction, released in 1987, is the most commonly talked about movie among scholars for its role in the antifeminist backlash. It was a big hit at the box office at the time of its release that according to Faludi it “continued to attract record crowds and grossed more than $100 million in four months” (113). Male viewers in the audience screamed obscene remarks at the movie screens while the women who attended sat in silence (Faludi 112). If the moviegoers did not know the meaning of the text presented with in the film, they were doing no wrong; they were acting out the films intentions.
Alex (played by Glenn Close) meets Dan (Michael Douglas) at their workplace, and the two have a heated affair while Dan’s wife Beth is out of tow visiting her parents for the weekend. Dan and his mistress spend the weekend walking Dan’s family dog, eating fancy dinners together, and of course having hot and steamy sex at all hours of the day. When the weekend is over, Dan goes back to his family as things were before him and Alex began their brief relationship, but Alex won’t let it happen; she fels emptiness when he leaves her, and she must fill the void in her life where she wants her own family, Dan as her husband and a child for the two to share. In actuality, she envies Beth, and this is what drives her to get what she wants. In one particular scene, mentioned by Liahna Baberner in her essay Patriarchal Politics in Fatal Attraction, the camera shows Alex spying on Dan and his perfect family cuddling around the fireplace. Alex “vomits- not from the contrived sweetness of the scene, which might be appropriate-but from jealousy” (33).
In order to receive what she wants, Alex torments Dan’s family by threatening Dan to tell his wife about their affair, kidnapping Dan’s daughter, and even going to great extents to boiling his daughter’s pet bunny that he gave her. But because Alex chose her career over family, she cannot have both and is forced to choose one or the other. The only problem is, she wants Dan, and only Dan, to be her husband even though she cannot have him. In her efforts to get Dan back, Beth kills her for her evil ways of trying to destroy her and for choosing her career and not creating a family for herself.
In Sandra R. Joshel’s essay titled Fatal Liaisons and Dangerous Attraction: the Destruction of Feminist Voices, Joshel argues that Fatal Attraction “sells a notion of feminism.” By this, Joshel means that Alex’s “words of self determination, empowerment, and desire actually distort feminist language and gesture at what can be popularly associated with feminism” (59). The film also betrays feminism by showing that it’s a threat against men, and that Alex is “a controlling bitch who’s freedom depends on depriving men of theirs” (Joshel 61).
Alex, in no doubt is presented as the feminist character and is being punished for her ways of choosing her career over family. The message being delivered in the film is “that women who opt for the career track are to be viewed not merely as unfeminine, but also as destructive who must be themselves destroyed” (Bromley 17). She is presented by the film to be a “psychotic monster,” who we feel no sympathy for, and is constructed in a way to which we learn to hate her for her evil ways of trying to destroy the “ideal” nuclear family structure that has “re-emerged as the popular ideal of the 1980’s, and the message in Fatal Attraction affirms the necessity of protecting the family structure from the dangerous professional women” (Bromley 18).
Ironically, at the early stages of when this film was being written, it did a complete 180 degree turn. The film actually started out as the husband being the “most hated” character in the film, but when Paramount Pictures refused to do the film because the man was too “unsympathetic,” according to Faludi, the writer of the screenplay James Dearden was forced by Paramount to rewrite both the husband’s character and his mistress. By the end of the rewrite, the husband ended up being the victim of an obsessive monster, his mistress. Even when the film was screened to a test audience before its release, the audience wasn’t satisfied with its original ending of Alex slitting her throat to Madam Butterfly; it wasn’t good enough suffering for Alex and her evil ways of destruction. Paramount spent an additional “1.3 million” dollars, according to Faludi, to rewrite the ending to satisfy the audience. In replacement, they created the last scene for Beth to kill Alex, which became the ending that we see now. Bromley comments with this new ending, “Alex’s destruction and wife Beth’s survival point out the way Fatal Attraction opts for a traditional message, presenting the positions of professional women and wife and the mother as two distinct, disconnected options. The film presents this division as an either/or dichotomy through the characters of Alex and Beth and translates the out come into a fight to the death between a bad woman and a good women” (19).
The film itself in terms of camera angles, settings, and the props used also add impact to Alex being the “evil woman” and Beth being the “good woman.” Beth is pictured as living in a very secure and warm home, while Alex lives at the outskirts of the city above a meat shop. The alleys to her apartment are dark, as so is her ways of seducing Dan. From their first encounter, we get a sense of how bad this woman really is, just by what is being presented to us in the scenes during Alex and Dan’s affair. Bromley suggests that “when the camera closes in on Alex and Dan approaching her building for their first sexual encounter, one get a feeling of the entry into hell with crooked, dark figures poised over seething cauldrons amid dark streets veiled in smoky mist, all images designed to reinforce her dangerous nature” (20).
It’s a common saying that it takes two to tango when looking at the affair between Alex and Dan. But its interesting how this film depict Dan not being at fault for his actions, and actually is said by Baberner that the “responsibility of the catastrophe is shifted from male wrongdoing to female predation; what begins as a tale of a man’s violation of the trust of his loved ones turns into a misogynistic rant against the social posture and sexual autonomy of the independent woman.” Ellen Willis, quoted by Baberner, says that men are aloud “a sexual fling as long as it doesn’t mean anything, and he can shower off its after-effects before he’s caught” (31), which is actually what Dan did. The affair between Alex and Dan was only a brief fling, and he returned to the comfort of his nuclear family.
I didn’t see the film until years after it was first released, but the affects of the film on its audience haven’t changed. Upon viewing this film for the first time, I found it surprising that male viewers felt no different than those who attended the film in the theaters. In fact, I believe this film helped many men reach untruthful conclusions, not only about feminists, but all women alike. While there is a difficult relationship present between men and women in terms of understanding each other, Fatal Attraction doesn’t help by making all women seem as if they are obsessive and “psychotic” like Alex, or by suggesting that her character qualities represent that of a “bitch” by showing Alex’s strength, determination, and knowledge of what she wants from life, and women who express these same qualities are “bitches” themselves.
A few years after Fatal Attraction’s big impact on moviegoers, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle hit the movie screens in 1992 with a similar story line. The film contains three main characters like those of Fatal Attraction: Claire, the wife and mother; Payton, the nanny she hires to care for her daughter (because she wants to build a greenhouse); and Claire’s husband. The nanny, Payton, tries to destroy this family not solely based on that she loathes for a family of her own, but rather because hers was taken from her when Claire accused her husband (a gynecologist) of rape. Elayne Rapping wrote in her review of the film that it “passes itself off as a feminist basher. It thinks its Fatal Attraction for the nineties.” And Suzanna Walters commented in her book that it “presents us with the newest killer woman: the killer nanny as the logical backlash extension of Fatal Attraction” (Walters 131).
While the film might not have been as big as Fatal Attraction, it is not surprising that the two are very similar. First, they both feature the same perfect family structure, the bad women depicted in both these movies are blonde while the wives are brunettes, and while in this film one is the nanny, in Fatal Attraction Alex actually did attend an interview to be Beth’s nanny. Rapping helps support this comparison by commenting in her review “On the most superficial level, of course, this film does invite immediate comparisons with Fatal Attraction. There’s the perfect thirty something family; handsome, successful dad; pretty, doting wife; commercial cute kids; suburban home of palatial proportions with impeccably ‘homey’ décor and a variety of carefully tasteful clothing and housewife ‘touches’ out of L.L. Bean and Bloomingdales. And then, from ‘out there’-where the crazies are malcontents lurk who inevitably mess things up for the stylistically and politically correct of this world-comes the Evil Blonde, seemingly offering gifts, but harboring murder in her twisted heart.” But the comparisons between the two movies don’t stop here. Rapping also suggests that these two films share the same kind of bad woman. She writes “both feature the same kind of protagonists-rich, privileged, liberal, stylish yuppies-who live in fear that all will soon be taken from them by the random violence of those on the outside who have been driven crazy by rage and envy.” And, to add to a long line of comparisons between the films, both of the “evil blondes” depicted in both films are pictured to be “home wreckers.”
The antagonists in both films are very different though, Rapping comments extensively on this in her review of the film, in which she seems to argue later that this film is not part of the backlash, by saying that in Fatal Attraction the evil blonde is “a zipper less fuck,” and in the Hand that Rocks the Cradle “a perfect mommy’s helper.” While Rapping discontinues her comparisons and contrasting of both films, there are many more present between them. For instance, Alex desperately wants a family of her own, and she will do anything in order to get it. While Payton in a way does want a family, she once had one until Claire accused her husband of rape. Solely, Payton’s own purpose of trying to replace Claire is to try and steal from her what she stole from Payton. Another aspect that is different between these two films is the two women in Fatal Attraction don’t share any type of relationship besides them both having slept with Dan. But in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, the two women do share a relationship. Payton actually became Claire’s nanny based on one thing: to steal back what is rightfully hers because Claire accused her husband of rape and took all that was important to her away.
Because there are many aspects of these two films that make them very different. Some might argue that The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is not a film that creates a backlash against feminism. The reasons many would argue it isn’t is based on one detail of the film, that Payton is not a career woman and is actually trying to take back what is hers, therefore it would only be a film about revenge. For instance, while Rapping might comment on the film being one that “thinks its Fatal Attraction of the nineties,” she seems to argue in her review that this film is not part of the feminist backlash. She first says “Fatal Attraction actually pitted a sexy, successful career woman against an equally sexy but traditional housewife and mother, thus setting up a true political contest between the classic good and bad woman, in which ‘bad’ was encoded ‘feminist’ in neon letters. This film does nothing of the kind.” She then continues arguing this later in her review by commenting “Neither of these women is a career woman, much less a feminist.” While comments of the film could mean two different things, one meaning that this film is not part of the feminist backlash, or secondly that it is and it’s imbedded deeper with the meaning of the text, but she seems to make it sound as if she is saying it isn’t.
If her argument is that The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is not an antifeminist film, I disagree and there are many things to support my opinions. First, with Payton actually being a nanny, one might say that is her career even though she still acts as an at home mom and her only intention is to be a “home wrecker.” Secondly, as Rapping describes Alex as being a “bad woman, in which bad is encoded ‘feminist’ in neon letters,” I very much believe Payton is lit up the same way. Also, an interesting quote in the film, that even Rapping points out in her review, that Payton says to Claire when she is having an asthma attack “You can’t even breathe by yourself” also suggests that Payton is indeed the feminist in this film. This quote alone suggests that Payton is on her own, taking care of herself without any family and is a very independent woman, even though she was forced to be. It’s easy to say that Payton actually is suffering to have a child because of “the symbol of both her menace and her suffering is her need to nurse a child” when Payton’s “wetness at the nipples” are shown in one scene, as noted by Stuart Klawans in his review of the film. And lastly, compared to Fatal Attraction, as Alex is pictured to be a “monster,” Payton isn’t any different. Payton comes into the family to be the nanny but tries to destroy the perfect family; as does Alex also try to destroy the perfect family. Walters supports my argument by stating in her book that this film is an antifeminist film because it “pits one woman against another” (Walters 139).
Even though I believe that Payton is actually the “feminist” character in this film, which must be killed off in order for everything to return to its normal state, Suzanna Walter’s brings a completely different point of view on this film. She believes Payton isn’t the feminist character, that Claire is, and she is the one that is and needs to be punished. Walters writes in her book “the bad woman here is not the typical working woman, and she is not even in any explicit sense ‘bad.’ Rather, the bad woman is the woman who does not take care of her children full time” (Walters 131). What Walters means by this is, Claire wanted to build a greenhouse and couldn’t find enough time to do so because she was taking care of her daughter and her husband. So in order to have more free time to finish her greenhouse, she hired Payton to be her nanny. As Walters continues her argument in her book, she uses a bit of symbolism to prove her point. “The mother’s fecundity must be channeled toward her family,” Walters writes, “not toward the external world (the greenhouse)” (Walters 132).
Poison Ivy, also released in 1992, structures its antifeminist message a little differently than those I have discussed before. Drew Barrymore plays the “home wrecking” teenage blond bombshell that is the envy for a young girl who she befriends and as “eye candy” for her father. She is the predatory female that tries to overcome the dysfunctional daughter that seems to be the misfit of the family, only to replace her. All Barrymore’s character wants, which makes the film very different from The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Fatal Attraction, is to be part of this family and have it as her own. For example, to achieve what she wants, she seduces the father, attempts to kill the daughter, and tries to kill the mother who suffers from a deadly illness. In a way, the film is different because Barrymore’s character seems to want to replace both the daughter and the mother alike. The film is described by Walters to be “a young girl’s desire for preying on a weak father and desirous daughter alike until her own death saves the remnants of the nuclear family” (133).
Stanley Kauffmann suggests that the film is “the picture itself is a mechanism similar in structure to the recent The Hand that Rocks the Cradle,” and Stuart Klawans suggests that Payton “has become a killer Magdalene because of sufferings imposed by a melodramatic plot. Barrymore becomes a killer Magdalene simply because she is poor.” Klawans then comments that Drew Barrymore’s character is a “vicious innocent who talks her way into the home of her pray, where she spends the rest of the movie taking possession of whatever she can and destroying what she can’t.”
This film features the predatory female as the other two films have; whose main goal is to have a family. Barrymore’s character is made to look evil even though the father in this film is partly at fault for having a brief fling with the teenager and putting his nuclear family at risk of destruction. And lastly, the evil young woman is destroyed at the end when she is killed by the daughter in order to save the nuclear family structure.
Just because this young teenage girl doesn’t have a career, let alone she isn’t old enough to even work, this film still expresses its antifeminist message very clearly. The film does “pit one woman against another,” as Walters has explained, and, as Susan Faludi suggests, in all movies of the antifeminist backlash “women’s lives were framed as morality takes in which the “good mother” [the daughter and the mother], “wins and the independent woman gets punished [Barrymore] (113).
The long lists of films continue from those I have chosen to examine in this essay. Others include: Pretty Woman, Baby Boom, Basic Instinct, and even Stephen King’s Misery. Many films released during this same decade share many similarities in terms of their antifeminist messages.
I decided to take my study a step forward, because my suspicions were sparked from a number of different resources that I have noticed in the media and in the current events taking place that another backlash might be resurfacing. My suspicions lead me to believe this, because the abortion right is being questioned, the economy isn’t doing well, and because commercials, television shows, and movies seem to be sending antifeminist messages. It is very likely that the women’s movement will not be able to get rid of backlash, it will resurface and disappear, time and time again, like a common cold. With prediction from Ruth Rosen, from her book The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, she argues the backlash is far from over by saying “like small brushfires, these cultural wars many circle the globe, igniting a wild and frightening firestorm. Inevitable, some women will feel defeated as they encounter wave after wave of backlash” (343). With Rosen’s prediction, and my own suspicions of another backlash being in the early stages of its occurrence, I will look at two films that I think might have an antifeminist message behind them.
Swimfan, released in 2002, was commented in a review by Rolling Stone Magazine that “Fox has spent millions hyping this high school Fatal Attraction.” Erika Christensen plays “a teen goddess who goes psycho when swim hunk Jesse Bradford takes a dip between her legs and then paddles away” (Rolling Stone). The film begins with its opening scene of Ben and Amy, high school sweet hearts, having sex in Ben’s care on a road out in the middle of nowhere. While we only get a brief look at the two love birds, the camera switches to a care driving by, and follows it to set the mood of the evil that is about to come in the film. The dusk of the night, acts as if suggesting a dark cloud is being set over the whole town and over Ben’s life.
Ben is presented to the audience as the popular guy in school, and as a good guy all around that everyone loves. He is a dedicated swimmer, and a good student, with a very pretty girlfriend. He shares a very close relationship with his mother, and even works part-time at a hospital in the area, in which he befriends an older man that he takes care of. From the representation of his character, he can’t do anything wrong, not even if he did cheat on his girlfriend with the “evil” Madison. Madison on the other hand is seen as evil from the very beginning of the film. We know she is the “evil woman” of the film by the way she looks at you with her evil eyes, her evil voice, and even the way she makes her anti-social-nerdy brother Christopher petrified of her existence.
Madison most defiantly expresses feminist qualities. As was described by Joshel about Alex’s “words of self determination, empowerment, and desire” the same can be said about Madison. Madison knows what she wants, when she wants it, and will go to all lengths to get it, no matter what stands in her way. She is seen as a threat to Ben because she wants to destroy his perfect relationship with Amy, and she is a threat to Amy not only because she wants to replace her by killing her, but because she wants Ben. In any effort she has given to get what she wants, the feminist must be killed, because she is a threat to those who fear feminist the most, the nuclear family, in which Ben and Amy were going to create.
The representation of how “evil” Madison really is suggested in many scenes of the film. For instance, Madison leaves her music notebook in Ben’s car, when he offers to take her home and what seems like she did purposely, so Ben decides to go back to her house to return it. Upon reaching the front door of her house, a dark and gloomy place with its discolored cement walls and dead plants like that out of a horror movie, Madison’s nerdy brother answers the door. He has a short conversation with Ben suggesting that Madison told him the two were “involved,” but was quickly interrupted and “shut up” by Madison herself saying “Christopher, you didn’t tell me we had company,” in her evil voice and the look pictured on her face. Another scene is that of Madison and Ben eating dinner together and her suggesting that “she didn’t want to be anywhere but with him.” She is also a person with a deadly past. She had “someone waiting for her back in New York” as she told Ben, but the only detail she left out was that he was on life support in a hospital because she tried to kill him. Madison also goes to great lengths to try and kill Amy by hitting her with Ben’s truck, in which she stole, to make it look like it was Ben who did it.
As I stated earlier, Ben is the perfect man and can’t do anything wrong. Like it was represented in Fatal Attraction, the quick sexual encounter between Ben and Madison was flipped to being, in whole, Madison’s fault. She technically did come onto him, but it would be thought that it was Ben’s fault also, for giving into temptation. While the two adulteresses spent a brief time together, it seems as if he isn’t even thinking about Amy, as if he forgot about her existence. But we, as the audience, can forgive Ben for his lying and cheating ways and the blame is set upon Madison who won’t let Ben get away, she is after all, the “evil” woman.
Amy herself represents a very delicate and patient woman. She represents more of the commonly know characteristics of a nice girl and wife material, in opposition to what Dearden, the writer of Fatal Attraction said about Alex’s evil ways, “in reality, you don’t want to spend your life with a woman like that” (Bromley 49).
Surprisingly, this film shares a lot of similarities with Fatal Attraction and the other films that I have examined in this study. The first, and most obvious, is the predatory female character that tries to conquer and replace Amy, Ben’s girlfriend. Madison is a blonde “hottie,” who is considered evil from the beginning of the film. And Amy, is a delicate brunet who is very sophisticated, both of these similarities are also seen in other films. But what makes this film more interesting is how closely related it is to Fatal Attraction, more than The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Poison Ivy. For instance, Alex loved Madam Butterfly, the music was basically the film’s theme song, as here in Swimfan, Madison is a very musically inclined person, and the music she plays seems to play into the “evil woman” profile the film has created for Madison. She plays her instrument, usually a very sad tune, “to escape” she tells Ben; and in Fatal Attraction, Alex listens to Madam Butterfly in many scenes where it is “driving her mad.”
A couple of scenes in particular within the film are also very similar to Fatal Attraction. For instance, Madison surprises Ben when he is in the locker room changing for work. She asks him why he isn’t returning her phone calls or even talking to her, Ben tells her “remember I’m with Amy.” This is exactly how Dan had to tell Alex, to remember that he is with Beth and has a family with her. Another striking similarity is after Ben was expelled from a swim competition, because they found drugs in his urine. From his rage, he goes looking for Madison, finds her, and disrupts her playing her cello, to wrap his hands around her neck like he was going to choke her but only threatens her. This scene is very similar to the scene when Dan chokes Alex and threatens her to stay away from his family. This film is full of similar scenes and situations like that in Fatal Attraction.
The film also expresses, not just at the beginning of the film, but throughout the whole scene, the eeriness in terms of lighting that Fatal Attraction did around the place of sexual intercourse. In Fatal Attraction, it was Alex’s apartment that was lit with a dark, black steam. In Swimfan, it becomes the pool that has a blue lighting to it. The pool eventually becomes the place where Madison suffers for her destructive ways, which is different from Fatal Attraction because in Swimfan Ben kills her in the pool, Beth actually kills Alex in her own home, but both “evil women” are killed by drowning. There are an endless amount of similarities associated between this film and Fatal Attraction, and these similarities seem to out way the differences.
In terms of the character organization, the film is different from both Fatal Attraction and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle because Madison is not a career woman. She is similar to Barrymore’s character in terms of being a young woman, in Poison Ivy, but this film is different from Poison Ivy as well. While Poison Ivy features Barrymore trying to ruin the nuclear family structure, Madison tries to break up the perfect “dating” relationship between Amy and Ben. The two aren’t married, but because they are high school sweethearts, she is still trying to ruin a family structure that might occur later on.
This film most definitely has an antifeminist message. Like Walters and Faludi both agree on, films of the 1980’s backlash “pit on woman against another” and “women’s lives were framed as morality tales in which the “good mother” wins and the independent woman gets punished,” this film does the same, but offers it in a different perspective.
In the same year as the release of Swimfan, Unfaithful was released into theaters as well. Unfaithful, directed by the same director of Fatal Attraction Adrian Lyne, is a film about a wife’s secret love affair and the pain it caused her husband. Constance, (played by Diane Land) the wife of Edward (Richard Gere), meets a man in the city while she is out running the family errands, and has many sexual encounters with him, while her husband knows nothing about it. that is, until he notices how ‘different’ she has been acting through all her lying, and ends up killing Paul (her lover played by Oliver Martinez) and covering up the crime. It becomes a very personal film with many shots of the back of Connie’s neck, the hands of her husband and her lover, and the flashbacks that are embedded within the film.
The film begins with a dark, gloomy, and windy scene in the middle of the fall. It’s cold, the water outside Connie and Edwards’ house is still, and a sad instrumental music plays. All the aspects of the opening scenes suggest what is going to happen in the upcoming events of the film. The wind eventually becomes the main reason that Paul and Connie meet in the streets of the city when she bumps into him. The wind is so strong it knocks her on her knees scraping them up and causing her to bleed.
This wind, shown in the beginning scenes, could be something to suggest that what might be in their normal setting will be changed, and that the nuclear family will suffer from destruction. This strong wind also is strong enough to blow up Connie’s skirt that in the first scene in the city, to not only show off her perfect legs, but to suggest the sins she is about to create. The still water outside the family home is suggested that everything is still; putting more emphasis on the affair that will destroy Connie’s family. And the scraped up knees that Connie suffers from, could suggest that Connie has spent too much time on her knees.
Connie is an at home mother and wife. At the beginning of the film, Edward comes down from their bedroom to Connie and their eight year old son, where Connie is cleaning up the kitchen, getting her son ready for school and making sure Edward’s appearance is all in place. She signals to him, by pulling on the back of her pajama shirt, that his sweater is inside out. From this scene in the film, we know that Connie’s only career and responsibilities are taking care of her family, and that she has adapted to the gender role that is expected of her as wife and mother. Their home seems like it’s a place of comfort for the family. They have very nice things all provided by Edward, really giving no reason for Connie to have to look for anything else in her life.
Since the family lives in the country, the wife goes into the city to run errands all the time, and the city becomes the place of “hell” as it did in Fatal Attraction as well. The similarities the film shares are surprisingly not limited to this one. As Philip Kerr suggested, “the film lacks in the as Lyne’s previous film Fatal Attraction had, but it does borrow some of the clothes of the horror genre.” The film shares the same elevator, the same sexual encounters, the same Edward and Connie working out in the garden when the police show up to question their involvement in the murder of Paul, and when a sexual encounter is about to take place between Connie and Edward their son disrupt it with cries about not being able to sleep.
The two men in the film are very different from each other. Edward is a providing husband in terms of materialistic things. But Paul on the other hand can provide Connie with, not really love, but attention and great sex. Connie’s affair was exciting to her and she was being treated by Paul very different than how her husband treated her, these aspects of their affair is what drove her short lived happiness and eventually into the emotional strains that it left upon her family.
But to step away from the typical adulteress film, there are many aspects of the film that really interested me. For one, the book that Paul gave Connie, it became the object of their love affair. This was the one materialistic thing that the two lovers shared. In many scenes of the film, Connie is shown cherishing the book, reading its pages over and over, and became the one connection to how Connie could reach Paul when his phone number that was written on a piece of paper hidden inside the book fell out. Another aspect was the first sexual encounter that took place between Paul and Connie. The sex scene is first show to the audience when Connie is on the subway train home, and she has flashbacks about the encounter between them. From the moment they met, Connie had no idea what she was doing, and felt waves of guilt but waves of pleasure. So, during the scene, it seemed like she didn’t want to have sexual intercourse with Paul but he pressured her by commenting that “they weren’t making a mistake.” She cried in her flashback, but she laughed with delight at the same time. Even though she was unsure of her actions, she still did it, and continued to do so for much of the film. In this same scene, Connie is pictured going to the bathroom on the subway train to wash herself and get rid of her panties, by throwing them in the trash, suggesting that she was showering herself of the affair, but it wasn’t that easy for her, as it was for Dan in Fatal Attraction. While it might be okay for a man to have a brief fling as long as it doesn’t mean anything, it’s not okay for a woman. The scars of the affair cannot be washed away and is forever with her. This same trashing of the clothes is seen again after Edward kills Paul and throws his cloths away before attending his son’s school play. Connie even goes to great lengths to give Paul a gift, one that her husband gave her, a snow globe that had two lovers expressing their love for each other in the city. The snow globe ultimately becomes the object that Edward uses to kill Paul.
We get a sense that Edward is a workaholic husband, and assumed that Connie was a wife that wasn’t shown very much affection from him, so at the beginning we don’t really blame Connie for her cheating ways. But, by the middle of the film, the fault between the characters shifted, Edwards was no longer the one at fault because he was suffering emotionally from his wife’s cheating ways, and the guilt is ultimately put on Connie. Stanley Kauffman agrees that “the focus of the story moves from Connie to her husband Edward.” In the end, her husband finds out, and ultimately destroys the one thing that was going to destroy his nuclear family. The film as a whole, seemed like it took the same situation out of Fatal Attraction, but replaced the two women with two men and the one man with one woman, in what Kauffman would describe in his essay as “Unfaithful might be viewed as a his and hers set.” The only aspect of the film that really sets it apart from Fatal Attraction is the predatory female, but a pressuring male was put in her place.
The film overall sends this message: even though “feminist” isn’t lit in “neon letters” (as Rapping describes in her essay), Connie kind of does represent a feminist in her own way. She attempts to stray from her family in an effort to leave the comfort of her home and family to do what she wants. She is standing on her own two feet, without the help of her husband and the film acts as the backlash against the independent women who chooses to lie, cheat, and offer a source of destruction to her nuclear family. The film ultimately says this: women who look for love in all the wrong places will ultimately suffer at the end and return to their appropriate roles as a mother and wife. It acts as a sort of melodrama for the wife that chooses to commit adultery and says there is no way, a wife can stray from the home, and if she does, she will end up with nothing in the end.
These films, in all, represent as Susan Faludi spoke in an interview quoted by Susan Bromley, to “reflect what’s going on rather than making new trends” (18). Indeed, Fatal Attraction, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Poison Ivy are supported by scholars to be sending antifeminist messages to the audience who loved these films so much. They are very much part of the antifeminist backlash that occurred in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. But the films I have chosen as my own original research, as well, do reflect a backlash as well. Women are currently facing the issue that the right to choose is in jeopardy yet again, and the economy isn’t offering enough jobs for anyone and they are becoming harder to keep. These two problems, are the same two problems that set the 1980’s backlash into affect, so is another backlash resting at our feet? It’s too early to tell, but for me, the arrow points to yes. Through commercials, television, and even movies (which I have discussed here) seem to represent that another backlash is upon us. Pop stars such as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears seem to raise the question to our society, what has become of women today; they have become sexually promiscuous baring it all, rather than using their body for the one purpose it was intended for, to have children.
While some scholars argue the feminist backlash is “just a myth,” there could be no other explanation why films, all part of the same decade, focused so much on the same story line and featured the same types of characters. Christina Hoff Sommers is one of these commenting on this in her book Who Stole Feminism. She states that Faludi’s research, taken from many different sources, “overlooked evidence that did not fit her puzzle” (234).
The feminist backlash is far from over, and we will witness its disappearance and reappearance over and over again as long as the women’s movement still exists. The feminist movement is far from over, and after each backlash that it witnesses, the young feminists of the next generation will pick up where the last ones left off.