These femmes fatales loved sex, put their desires first, and embodied men’s worst fears.
Like a moth to a flame, detective Nick Curran, played by Michael Douglas, weaves through a San Francisco nightclub in the 1992 film Basic Instinct; he’s in pursuit of his most recent murder suspect, crime novelist and blonde knockout Catherine Tramell, played by Sharon Stone. He discovers her in a glittering bronze minidress, snorting cocaine on a toilet, her girlfriend draped across her lap. Just as he reaches the stall, she smiles roguishly, then extends one endless limb and slams the door with her foot.
In the 1980s and ’90s, erotic thrillers enticed panting movie audiences across the country. In 1987, Fatal Attraction — in which a woman terrorizes a married man after a one-night stand — grossed more than $320 million worldwide and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Actress, Best Picture, and Best Director. A few years later, Basic Instinct — the story of a homicide detective who begins a lurid affair with a homicide suspect — pulled in more than $352 million, as well as two Oscar nominations. (For context, the drama Scent of a Woman, the chronicle of a scholarship prep school student and his blind and crotchety retired Army officer charge, earned only $134 million.)
The genre skirts easy classification: Its influences range from film noir, mystery, and melodrama to horror and pornography. Linda Ruth Williams, a film professor at the University of Exeter, describes most erotic thrillers as “the flimsy framework for on-screen softcore sex.” The overall narrative strength of these films might fluctuate — some I would argue are really excellent — but as Williams suggests, sex is always the priority. There is no Indecent Proposal without Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson writhing on a waterbed coated with cash, no Wild Things without the iconic threesome in a seedy Florida motel.
The erotic thriller seems pinned to a bygone era. Critics before me have contemplated its near-evaporation, noting that efforts to recuperate the genre — Unforgettable (2017), Red Sparrow (2019), the Netflix series What/If (2019) — have, with rare exceptions, floundered. The consensus — that these recent endeavors were neither erotic nor thrilling — underlines how limiting these films seem in today’s proliferating film landscape, especially for female characters.
Some months ago, I dived headlong into a ’90s erotic thriller binge. I was new to the genre: Born in the mid-’80s, I was too young to be introduced to carnal tour de forces like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct in their heyday, and I typically avoid watching physical violence. But suddenly, I could hardly be convinced to watch anything else. Though well aware that this male-conceived genre served as a vehicle to tell horror stories of female independence, I was nonetheless entranced by these women who seemed so unburdened by emotion; it was the sort of disposition to which I could never relate, and never will.
I watched Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell smirk and smoke from behind the folds of her sandy cashmere as she thwarts Nick and his even more hapless partner. I watched The Last Seduction’s Bridget Gregory — a glamorously bitchy Linda Fiorentino — purr to her lover, “You’re my designated fuck,” before tepidly slapping him on the cheek. I watched Bound’s Violet, played by Jennifer Tilly, and Corky, Gina Gershon, eyeing one another in the elevator like wild cats. Like the exploitable men who were little more than marks for these women, I was lured in by the femme fatale who perceived the world as either a vehicle for personal opportunity or nothing at all.
It’s clear to me now that I was looking for a different kind of woman — different, that is, from me. I was nearly finished with my first book on the long literary and cultural legacy of women stigmatized for feeling too much, for sobbing in movie theaters and for chattering too loudly and for expressing excitement when it’s considered uncool to do so.
And all the while, I was grieving, am still grieving, my mother, who had died in November 2017. Although my emotional life has always been characterized by surging highs and lows, after feeling so keenly for so long, I had finally reached my saturation point. This is what drew me to erotic thrillers: the unselfconscious, debauched frigidity of the femme fatale. Her primary object is to dupe men with outsized notions of their own intelligence. Meanwhile, I’m too often paralyzed by a fear of my own ineffectiveness, and, moreover, my sense of moral conviction. Trying to live honestly precludes so many indulgences. I might be unnerved by the femme fatale’s savagery, but I marvel at her ego, at her certainty that she deserves everything she wants. I yearn for what I imagine she feels in the thick of her exploits: ferocious, sharp, powerful.
I love these movies, but ambivalently. The femmes fatales of the late 20th century flagrantly embody male anxieties over women’s burgeoning financial and professional independence. They are, without question, stereotypes of power-mad, murderous women that simultaneously gratify male viewers’ yearning for smut. But still, I found myself exulting in the unfettered independence and dominance that made these women, in their creators’ estimations, so wretched.
As both the erotic thriller and its parent, 1940s film noir, argue, even the femme fatale’s more mundane preferences should be interpreted as unwomanly. She does not procreate — “I hate rugrats,” Catherine Tramell remarks. Her body is a tool of manipulation. To Die For’s Susanne Stone, played by Nicole Kidman, is repulsed by the notion of pregnancy and by any suggestion that she should prioritize motherhood over beauty and fame. In accordance with long misogynist tradition, the film frames this refusal to submit to pregnancy as a five-alarm signifier of wickedness. After all, these women don’t forge ties with their bodies or their hearts; on the contrary, they sever them through selfishness and, at last, through murder.
Of course, these female characters I revere were crafted by white men, the demographic overwhelmingly responsible for the erotic thriller. And by the hand of these white male auteurs, the films became canvases for their panic, vehicles for men’s waxing sense of social victimization (the white man is, all too often, the femme fatale’s primary mark). Paul Verhoeven directed Basic Instinct, and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas supplied the script. (Eszterhas, through his contributions, ossified many of the erotic thriller’s conventions.)
Adrian Lyne, perhaps the filmmaker most associated with the erotic thriller, glutted the genre in the late ’80s and ’90s with, among others, 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal. Bound, the 1996 film written and directed by Lilly and Lana Wachowski, is the outlier, and its gender politics are noticeably more sophisticated. Through the character Violet, the Wachowskis manipulate the femme fatale by suggesting she’s motivated to kill not by naked bloodlust but to find salvation.
Bound sticks an optimistic landing, which is peculiar for an erotic thriller, and all the more so because its primary characters are queer women. Basic Instinct, for instance, has long been denounced not only for contributing to the vast morgue of queer characters unceremoniously offed, but also for insinuating that Catherine’s psychosis is driven by bisexuality.
We ought to find pleasure in male-privileging cautionary tales where we can, but we must also see them clearly. Erotic thrillers are explicitly indebted to noirs like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944) — reimagined by Lawrence Kasdan in 1981 as Body Heat — and The Lady From Shanghai (1947). In these films, the trope of the female fatale was rendered as the embodiment of man’s undoing: By using her vulnerable affect and tortured sensuality to lure men into fantasies of heroism, she steers them, gracefully, toward danger.
The femmes fatales of the ’80s and ’90s, meanwhile, were women’s liberation era nightmares: They were ambitious, they desired wealth, wanted sex, and rejected family and, in particular, men. When we first see Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction, she’s at work, managing a room of male telemarketers; her chosen career, of course, is one grounded in mercenary hustling. She stalks around the office calling her employees “maggots” and “eunuchs.” Later, she heats a tray of store-bought cookies in the oven and presents them as homemade to the small-town private investigator hired by her husband to follow her. Wearing an apron and a winning smile, she thrives on men’s stale expectations. When Bridget ultimately commits murder by spraying mace down a man’s throat, her weapon of choice is no coincidence: The femme fatale prevails by turning lethal the tools of feminine susceptibility.
Despite myself, scenes like this render me a fangirl (for what it’s worth, the person Bridget kills is as abominable as she is). I savor the moment when Bound’s Violet aims a gun, stony-faced, and declares, “Caesar, you don’t know shit.” I’m probably too entranced by Catherine Tramell (although I reserve my right to covet her sensational wardrobe).
I wish these portrayals of strong women were not accompanied by such virulent sexism, racism, and homo- and transphobia. Certainly that need not be the case: 2016’s The Handmaiden, an adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, is one recent triumph of the genre, pairing the exhilaration of plot-driven intrigue with incandescent, queer female desire stunningly rendered by actresses Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim.
Otherwise, 21st-century efforts to revive the erotic thriller have been paltry at best. As Soraya Roberts observes, What/If — in which an opulently wealthy woman offers two newlyweds a hefty sum for a night with the husband — positions itself as a sex-reversed Indecent Proposal reboot, but “its refusal to fully embrace the genre it’s attempting to be, either sexually or thrillingly, is the latest example of the erotic thriller’s latter-day impotence.” An erotic thriller should be as unwavering in its hyperbolic depiction of sexuality as its femme fatale is in her own salacious objectives.
These days, erotic thrillers are rarely made. Hollywood is still gorged with white men, but I wager that most know that they must pay lip service to female empowerment — for the sake of their paychecks if for no other reason. They can no longer devise softcore playgrounds for sultry, power-suit-sporting monsters like they could in the ’80s and ’90s. Women already know why men fear us; we need not pay money for them to elaborate. And while I relish the notion of directors like Ava DuVernay, Jane Campion, and Desiree Akhavan interpreting the erotic thriller, I wonder if they, like so many of us, are simply too preoccupied with our era of devastation to imagine circumstances where a woman is so unencumbered.
So I continue to dwell, for a little while, in the coherence of Catherine Tramell’s and Bridget Gregory’s egotism. Lately, my habits have become predictable. I retreat when I am too aware of myself — of my grief, my anxiety, the memory of my mother, the thump of my bulky, weeping heart. Then I return to the heartbreaking world and I continue to care.
Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer living in Takoma Park, Maryland. She has contributed to Longreads, the New Republic, Literary Hub, Pitchfork, and many other venues. Her first book, Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, is available for preorder. You can find her on Twitter.
Author: Rachel Vorona Cote