Emerging at a time of intense anti-feminist backlash, Fatal Attraction is one of the most misogynistic films ever made. But as Paramount releases a TV reboot, we ask whether the vengeful, scorned woman at its heart deserves a reappraisal
You could summarise the plot of Fatal Attraction as “bitches be crazy”. The film, released in 1987, follows a torrid love affair between family man Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) and unmarried career woman Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) – when Dan attempts to call things off, the relationship descends into obsession, stalking and animal cruelty (giving rise to the expression “bunny-boiler”, which is still used today). It is a suspenseful, well-paced and entertaining erotic thriller, and Close's performance is captivating. As a story about the nightmarish spectre of the single career woman, it is also of the most misogynistic films ever made – the vanguard of a wider cultural backlash against feminism which took hold in the late 1980s.
This week, Paramount has launched a TV reboot of the film, which attempts to right some of its wrongs, shedding light on Alex’s perspective and fleshing out her backstory with a litany of explanatory traumas. I’ll be honest, I tried watching it last night and found it so boring I couldn’t make it past the first episode. And the reviews have not been kind: The Guardian’s Chitra Ramaswamy, for example, dismissed it as “not as sexy as the original, and, on its own terms, just as sexist”. It seems like the screenwriters gave it their best shot, but maybe it’s just not possible to write a progressive, post-MeToo version of a story that is effectively about a deranged single woman trying her utmost to destroy the nuclear family. Instead, we should look back to the original. Even if it is irredeemably tainted by misogyny, I still think it’s possible to defend the character of Alex, a woman who is fucked around by a feckless man who assaults her on multiple occasions and attempts to coerce her into having an abortion. Because she is a fictional character, we can do this without condoning her more outrageous actions (boiling a bunny rabbit is never OK, even if Michael Douglas had it coming).
Let’s start by considering the context in which Alex was created. During the late 1980s, there was a widespread preoccupation with the idea that feminism, which had made significant gains in the previous decade, was making women miserable, lonely and unfulfilled. Those who prioritised their careers, in particular, were said to be facing an epidemic of depression, burnout and even infertility, and this shaped the way that such women were portrayed in the media. As Susan Faludi writes in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, “Hollywood restated and reinforced the backlash thesis: American women were unhappy because they were too free; their liberation had denied them marriage and motherhood.” One 1986 study, which was published in Newsweek and went on to become a cultural phenomenon, found that an unwed, college-educated woman of 30 had a 20 per cent chance of getting married: by the time she reached 40, that figure was said to plummet to 1.3 per cent. It became a popular cliche to suggest that single women over the age of 40 were more likely to experience a terrorist attack than find a husband.
These findings were based on extremely flawed, speculative methodology and were conclusively debunked. Far from there being a ‘man drought’, as was commonly reported, men vastly outnumbered women in dating services, matchmaking clubs and personal columns, while research showed that single men were faring more poorly than their female counterparts across almost every single metric. But despite being nonsensical, the study helped to create a cultural anxiety around lonely, desperate and embittered single women. This archetype made its way into countless films and TV shows, but Fatal Attraction remains the most notorious example: upon discovering she is pregnant with Dan’s child, Alex wails that she is 36 years old and facing her last chance at becoming a mother. One executive of 20th Century Fox even described it as “the psychotic manifestation of the Newsweek marriage study”.
Fatal Attraction is, above all, a cautionary tale about the emptiness of life as a professional woman – despite her glittering career in publishing, seductive wardrobe and chic (if bleakly austere) downtown apartment, Alex is miserable to the point of being driven to madness. After she breaks into the family home, she is eventually killed by her mirror image: Dan’s saintly, virtuous stay-at-home wife. The Mother triumphs against The Whore and the nuclear family is restored to its position of rightful dominance. The film’s wild success (it was the second highest-grossing film of 1987 and nominated for six Oscars) can’t separated from the era’s prevailing anti-feminist zeitgeist – as a contemporary New Yorker review put it, “The film is about men seeing feminists as witches, and the way the facts are presented here, the woman is a witch.” As such, the reaction to Alex’s death bordered on ecstatic: cinema employees reported that men would scream things like “kill the bitch”, “punch the bitch’s face in”, and “kick her ass”, while the women in the audience sat there in silence. The scene I find most heartbreaking comes after Alex buys Dan tickets to the opera and he ghosts her to go bowling with his oafish friends: she’s sitting on the floor in the dark, listening to Madame Butterfly with a crestfallen expression and switching a light on and off (we’ve all been there). Close’s performance imbues this moment with a sense of real pathos – but upon its release, men in the audience often just laughed. The small scraps of humanity afforded to Alex were met with ridicule.
It’s precisely because the studio pandered to and anticipated these impulses that the film ended up the way it did. The script was adapted from a short film, Diversion, by English screenwriter James Dearder, and its earlier iterations were far more subtle: it was not about a ‘crazy’ woman but, in Dearden’s words, “a moral tale about a man who transgresses and pays the penalty”. Prior to filming, Close consulted with psychologists in order to give the character a sense of veracity; she saw Alex as being flawed but worthy of empathy. But studio executives were concerned that audiences would struggle to sympathise with a man who cheats on his wife, and Michael Douglas refused to play a "weak, unheroic character”. So, with each successive rewrite, Dan became more likeable and Alex became more poisonous. It didn’t help matters that both Douglas and the film’s director, Adrian Lyne, were fond of publicly railing against feminism (Douglas announced he was “sick” of feminists and their “unreasonable demands”; Lyne suggested that women could never be fulfilled without getting married and having children).
The film originally ended with Alex killing herself and Dan being wrongfully arrested for her murder, but test audiences found this unsatisfying – suicide wasn’t a severe enough punishment. Close said in a recent interview with People magazine, “The audience wanted to believe that that family might be able to survive, so they got their catharsis by shedding my blood.” When the studio decided to change the ending and turn Alex into a murderous psychopath, Close was so unhappy that she almost refused to reshoot the final scenes. Years later, Dearden said that persuading her to do this was one of his most “shame-inducing recollections”.
So it’s clear that a more nuanced version of the film could have existed, and that the process of Alex becoming a monster was a calculated one, driven by two apparently sexist men. Close has said she would love to see the story told again from Alex’s point of view, which is what the new season is trying to do. If it had been done well, maybe Alex could have earned her place in the ironically-valorised, ‘she had a point’ canon of anti-heroines. But in the wake of the Amber Heard trial, when women are still being smeared as ‘crazy’ to undermine their credibility in the face of abuse, a reboot of Fatal Attraction feels like the last thing the culture needs. Would a gender-swapped version have been better? Maybe, but men stalking women who reject them is in reality so commonplace that it would be an unremarkable, even banal premise for a film. The vast majority of stalking victims are women, one in five of whom experience it at some point in their lives. Fatal Attraction is a projection of male violence – what if feminism made women so crazy and twisted that they started behaving like us? Instead of trying to redress its failings, we should accept it for what it is: an entertaining but flawed film which emerged at a particularly ugly time.