Women have been considered the subordinate gender for many centuries in society. Men have always had dominance, strength, power, and control contributed to their gender. Female oppression has been embedded and accepted as normal in a patriarchal community; even “the term ‘female’ is derogatory not because it emphasises woman’s animality, but because it imprisons her in her sex” (Beauvoir Ch.1). Being trapped within strictly constructed gender boundaries has been the reality of many women throughout history. In today’s society a woman can enter the work force, live independently, chose not to have children, vote, and can reject the domestic housewife regime. The 1992 film “Basic Instinct” presented to the viewing audience a powerful and independent woman, who could get away with anything she desired. Catherine Tramell, the leading lady, represents the “monster” female image constructed by feminists Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. This movie is a warning to the dangers of a demise of the patriarchal way of life, by showing the ultimate female villain. In a society where women are on the rise of the social, economic, and power ladder, men want to do anything in their power to keep their dominant control. “Basic Instinct” is an attempt to rile the male community to hold on to their superior status that has been in effect for thousands of years.
The traditional image of an ideal woman is presented in “eighteenth century… conduct books for ladies [which taught]…young girls to submissiveness, modesty, selflessness; reminding all women that they should be angelic” (Gilbert and Gubar 816). Catherine, being an extremely educated woman with two bachelor degrees from UC Berkley, does not adhere to those outdated literary pieces. Receiving degrees in English Literature and Psychology, Catherine is familiar with all the conventional stereotypes and inner workings of individuals. She is a popular published author, but her books deal with murder, blood, and violence. The subject matter of her novels is anything but innocent, angelic, happy, nurturing, full of love, or virtuous. Catherine is intentionally reshaping the definition of what it means to be a woman, and simultaneously taking on the characteristics of the female “monster.” “Men have presumed to create a feminine domain – the kingdom of life, of immanence – only in order to lock up women therein” (Beauvoir “On the Master-Slave Relation”). Gender is socially constructed and since men have the power they create the acceptable behaviors for both sexes. In today’s society females have more choices in developing their personal appropriate behavioral boundaries, and this movie is a warning to the possible detrimental consequences of such freedoms.
The symbols of the female “monster” include “witches, evil eye, menstrual pollution, castrating mothers” (Gilbert and Gubar 814). The villain woman is also incredibly sexually appealing, has strong manipulation skills, and educationally knowledgeable. Catherine uses her body as a sexual weapon to lure men into submissiveness, including the police detective Nick Curran. She is not interested in long term relationships, but openly states her enjoyment in sexual experimentation. Catherine takes her dominant personality to bed and takes control over her sexual partners. She acquires the top position and at times even ties the hands of the men to the bed, rendering them completely powerless. One of the contemporary fears of the average working man is the “"beauty power" that allows women to get certain things based on their physical assets” (Gomez “Women in The Workplace”). The movie shows that the sexual power a woman can have over a man is so dangerous that they become mere puppets in her directed theatrical performance.
“Women are made to feel total failures if they don’t marry and have children” (Anzaldua 1018). Catherine has meaningless relationships with men and women, but is considered successful due to the fact that she has millions in her bank account and has published numerous well selling novels. Financial security is traditionally the male household duty, but Catherine constantly shows how men are good only to be used as characters for a novel. Women equality and further infiltration of the work force, brings up the “question how much further increases in women's participation can be had without more reallocation of household work” (Porter “Stretched to Limit, Women Stall to March to Work”). That implies that men have to help out with chores around the house, which has always been considered feminine and if that happens it completely redefines masculinity. The movie shows that a woman can lead a satisfying and content life without bearing children, which means that gender boundaries are breaking. The reconstruction of acceptable roles would then allow men to participate in feminine activities, including household chores, and the writer of the movie shows how treacherous unconventional gender traits can be.
Images of female “monsters” in literature are “emblems of filthy, materiality, committed only to their own private ends, these women are accidents of nature, deformities meant to repel, but in their very freakishness they possess unhealthy energies, powerful and dangerous arts” (Gilbert and Gubar 820). Catherine uses men as subjects for her novels, uses them for sexual satisfaction, and then murders them in cold blood with an ice pick. She has such power and control over a situation, that she kills the men exactly like she writes in her books and is not intimidated by police investigations. Catherine refuses to see legal protection from a lawyer and independently, aggressively defends her own false innocence. She challenges the dominant male ability to take control of the situation, see the truth, and do their job properly under pressure and sexual distraction. Sexual power is blinding and forces grown intellectual men to allow a murder to roam free. In the world today females know the potential power of sexuality and like “the 'cunny' Caribbean woman whether educated or not uses much anancy tactics to succeed, to compete, to equalise the terrain of gender relations. Sexuality is definitely one of those tactics whether or not we wish to acknowledge it for whatever religious or moral standing” (Grant “Give Women Sexual Power”). This realization overturns the power balance and essentially places the men in the inferior position. “Basic Instinct” opens male eyes to the dangerous power women can possess, and instills the idea of the necessity to control sexual urges in their minds.
Catherine demonstrates her masculine personality traits, by driving recklessly and being able to outmaneuver Nick. Her high speeds, running red lights, illegal lane changes, and utter reckless behavior, reveals her fearlessness and confidence in herself. She breaks down heterosexual boundaries by being sexually involved on numerous occasions with women. “The contention of sex, gender, and heterosexuality are historical products which become conjoined and reified as natural over time” (Butler 905). Catherine does not care about historical tradition, it seems she might be retaliating against years of female oppression, by murdering and manipulating men. Catherine is a menace to society and outside of providing entertaining literature to read and many headaches to the detectives, she offers nothing to her fellow community members. She is selfish, vengeful, and sees human beings as a commodity for her fictional, yet truthful in reality, novel characters. Those qualities make her a “monster” and a figure to stand in opposition to the conventional female persona.
The written word has always gotten respect and the author granted prestige. Books are the foreground of the educational system and for many years women were never allowed to publish. Literature is often connected with truth, intelligence, and sophistication, so naturally for a long time it was a strictly male dominated field. Regarding the realm of writing Gilbert and Gubar state that “becoming an author meant sexed female, then it meant becoming a monster or a freak” (Gilbert and Gubar 823). If women did get the opportunity to publish their work it was usually poetic, lyrical, and virtuous. Catherine, on the other hand, writes about killing people and brings an entirely new light to truth coming out of the written word. She challenges the male authoritative writing world by making a profit, and then by making her sick twisted stories come to life. Women coming into the typically male dominant work forces is an occurrence that is being more frequent in today’s society. “Girls get better grades at school than boys, and in most developed countries more women than men go to university. Women will thus be better equipped for the new jobs of the 21st century, in which brains count a lot more than brawn” (“The Importance of Sex”). Women are showing a lot of determination to gain equal job status with the men, and by focusing so strongly on education they could take over many prestigious positions. “It used to be said that women must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily that is not so difficult” (“The Importance of Sex”). Women making a difference in the economical growth of a company and nation as a whole is jeopardizing the power-hold of men that a patriarchal society demands. “Basic Instinct” proves that if a strong-minded woman is determined to achieve a goal, nothing can stand in her way, including socially admired powerful men.
The traditional image of a woman is one of weakness, gentleness, and morally virtuous. Feminist Judith Butler writes about gender constitution and states “discrete genders are part of what “humanizes” individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished” (Butler 903). Catherine lives a luxurious lifestyle with a big mansion and a separate beach house, drives a nice sports car, and dresses in nice high fashion clothes. She is not ostracized from society, on the contrary men are intrigued by her and she has female friends. Catherine breaks down the weak stereotype that usually gets associated with the female gender, by killing men in cold blood. She does not use a gun, a bomb, or anything that can be used from a far off distance, which means she has strength and confidence. Catherine murders her victims with an ice pick with her bare hands, without a moment of hesitation or remorse afterwards. Women are often seen as overly emotion and nurturing, since they are in charge of child rearing, but Catherine does not reproduce and shows no weakness of emotion. She is not intimidated by men, she looks them straight in the eye, and plays mind games with them at their weaknesses. Catherine is an example of how physically dangerous women can be, and in the contemporary world today females are showing a more aggressive nature. “Since 1980 the number of women in prison has increased at nearly double the rate of men, [and] the number of women in state and federal prisons has increased eight-fold from 12,300 in 1980 to 107,500 in 2005” (“Factsheet: Women in Prison”). Even though more men sit in prison for violent crimes than women, the numbers can easily shift as more women are unleashing their aggressive nature. Women now are demanding rights, fighting for equality, and not allowing men to dominate their lives as they did in past centuries. “Basic Instinct” presents an example of a woman who has taken her freedoms and turned them into retaliation on the male community. As a patriarchal society dwindles, women have the potential to become a dangerous powerhouse of a force to be reckoned with.
Catherine makes a mockery of the entire police investigative force with not only getting away with multiple murders, but successfully putting the blame on an innocent victim. A woman’s mind is dangerous, even the image of “the angel-woman manipulates her domestic/mystical sphere in order to ensure the well-being of those entrusted to her care reveals that she can manipulate; she can scheme; she can plot- stories as well as strategies” (Gilbert and Gubar 818). If the ideal woman is known to have those qualities, the “monster” character will surely use those abilities for her own good and satisfaction. Catherine uses her dynamic plots to sell books, while more importantly setting up the psychiatrist Dr. Beth Garner. Her manipulative and cold emotionless interior allow her to flawlessly pass the polygraph, which is an incredibly difficult task. Catherine demonstrates that she can think logically and outwit an entire staff of professional men, who are on the payroll to protect the citizens of their community. She illuminates their incapability to fulfill their job requirements with her mental abilities, implying that women can do a better job, since males are so easily fooled. Housewives, secretaries, teachers, and child-care faculty members have been appropriate gender careers for women, because they are deemed feminine, subordinate, or nurturing. In today’s society there are more career opportunities for women, and “approximately 25% of doctors and lawyers are female while many more are on the way, with 43% of all medical students being female and women making up half of the law school student body” (Gomez “Women in the Workplace”). Doctors and lawyers are not only prestigious careers, but also very influential within the larger community. Doctors have their patients lives in their hands and lawyers deal with the legal system and also hold their clients lives in their hands. The fact that more women are becoming doctors and lawyers, means that they hold justice, health, and a mastery of manipulation within their hands. Women are finding more power within the work force, which means that the balance might shift that men become the underrepresented in high influential professions.
Catherine’s ability to always place herself as the party in control of a situation, clearly represents her strong leadership abilities. She has people believing her alibis, publishing her books, and she beats them mentally on an intellectual level. Catherine’s states once to Nick, that she only allows information to slip out that she intends for him to know, which means she is always in control of her emotional state and thoughts. Traditionally “the category of woman is socially constructed in such a way that to be a woman is, by definition, to be in an oppressed situation” (Butler 904). Catherine turns the tables around and makes the men around her feel oppressed, because she keeps them at a distance, plays at their weaknesses, only demands information, and uses her sexuality as a weapon against them. In correlation to contemporary society, women today are proving that they are not afraid of major responsibilities and power positions in the community. This past presidential election a woman candidate was on the ballot to become the Democratic representative for the presidency. A woman has never come this close to the most influential political position of the entire nation, and now the floor has opened for more women to attempt this previously unachievable goal. In society today there are thoughts circulating that “more women in government could also boost economic growth: studies show that women are more likely to spend money on improving health, education, infrastructure and poverty and less likely to waste it on tanks and bombs” (“The Importance of Sex”). Politics has been dominated by men since the notion of government has been invented, so the infiltration of women undermines the presence of a patriarchal society. “Basic Instinct” shows that too much power can corrupt a woman to the extent where it brings moral and physical harm to her male counterparts.
In the final scene of “Basic Instinct” Catherine is once again portrayed having sexual intercourse, but more importantly the last image is the ice pick lying under the bed waiting to murder its next victim, Nick. Catherine does not have an emotional breakthrough in the movie and continues being manipulative, cold, heartless, and dominant until the credits cover the screen. Her actions show that once a woman tastes power, control, and dominance there is no turning back. The movie is a warning to the male community that women are beginning to infiltrate the power structure and break down the traditional patriarchal society. This change can be ruthless, dangerous, and disastrous, because a woman on a mission is a powerful force to be reckoned with.
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