This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of a film that unleashed a torrent of feminist criticism, scared untold numbers of husbands into avoiding marital infidelity, and became the world’s highest-grossing movie of the year.
Three decades later, Fatal Attraction remains a cultural touchstone. Back in February, for example, Saturday Night Live parodied the 1987 thriller in a skit that portrayed White House adviser Kellyanne Conway (played by Kate McKinnon) as a deranged stalker who appears at CNN anchor Jake Tapper’s apartment to demand time on his show. After Tapper (played by Beck Bennett) rebuffs her attempts at seduction, McKinnon’s Conway threatens him with a knife, before accidentally falling out the window and miraculously surviving (“I am fine, but I do only have three lives left,” she says).
Many viewers found the skit to be, in the words of Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, “creepy and sexist”—the same complaint that feminists lodged against Fatal Attraction itself.
Which prompts an interesting question: In the social and cultural climate of 2017—a climate saturated with identity politics, grievance-mongering, and hair-trigger reactions to perceived offenses—could a film like Fatal Attraction actually get made?
It almost didn’t get made in 1987—not because of feminist objections, but because of concerns that moviegoers wouldn’t feel comfortable “rooting for” a philandering husband. As novelist Lisa Zeidner noted in Slate around the time of the film’s silver anniversary:
The surprise international blockbuster had to claw its way to screen. Every studio passed. Hollywood decreed that a cheating husband could simply not be sympathetic. So screenwriter James Dearden made straying lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) more of a likeable “everyman” and Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), his one-weekend stand, spookier, more manipulative.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of Fatal Attraction (spoiler alert!), the Glenn Close character, Alex Forrest, is a single, mid-30s publishing-company editor who develops an unhealthy, and ultimately homicidal, obsession with Michael Douglas’s Dan Gallagher, a happily married father. Unwilling to let their relationship end after a weekend-long tryst, Alex cuts her wrists when Dan prepares to leave her apartment, and then she begins stalking him at work and at home. In the film’s most iconic moment, she leaves the Gallagher family’s pet rabbit boiling in a pot on the stove (thereby introducing the term “bunny boiler” to the popular vernacular).
Alex later kidnaps Dan’s daughter, Ellen, and takes her on a rollercoaster ride, before returning her home. When Dan confronts Alex, she tries to stab him with a kitchen knife, and subsequently goes to his house, where she tries to stab his wife, Beth, too. In the climactic scene, Dan wrestles the knife-swinging Alex away from Beth and attempts to drown her in the bathtub. Alex appears to be dead, but then—in the hoariest of horror-movie clichés—she pops back up, knife still in hand, only to be shot dead by Beth, who has retrieved her husband’s gun.
The feminist critique of Fatal Attraction centered on the portrayal of Alex—a single, successful, and aggressive professional woman—as a violent lunatic. In her 2009 book, Sexism in America, author Barbara J. Berg put it this way: “Alex presumably is the quintessential woman of the 1980s. Sexually liberated and with an independent career, she’s feminism’s daydream. Except, of course, she’s a nightmare.”
Journalist Susan Faludi showed less restraint in her 1991 book, Backlash. “The point driven home in the final take of Fatal Attraction,” she wrote, is that “the best single woman is a dead one.”
The movie’s director, Adrian Lyne, responded to Faludi’s attack in a 1992 interview with Entertainment Weekly. “The implication is that you should never make a movie that shows a career woman in a bad light,” Lyne said. “What can happen is a kind of pre-censorship, which says, I better not embark on that because I’m going to upset the feminists.”
We’ll never know how much “pre-censorship” goes on in Hollywood, television, and the publishing industry. But there’s no question that some movies, TV shows, and books are sanitized or reimagined—or never made at all—out of deference to the social-justice warriors (SJWs).
Legendary comedian Mel Brooks took note of this just last week. “We have become stupidly politically correct, which is the death of comedy,” Brooks told BBC Radio. “Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. Comedy is the lecherous little elf whispering into the king’s ear, always telling the truth about human behavior.”
Brooks also said that his 1974 Western spoof, Blazing Saddles, which features a generous amount of racially and sexually provocative humor, could “never” get made today, because of PC sensitivities.
All of this highlights the inherent tension between identity politics and art. When artists pre-censor to avoid running afoul of the SJW crowd, they’re sacrificing a measure of their creative freedom. Over time, as more and more artists acquiesce, the boundaries of “acceptable” art—which is to say, acceptable speech—gradually shrink.
We saw an example of this over the summer, when the (since-closed) Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 tried to replace a black actor, Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, with a white actor, Mandy Patinkin. The announcement sparked so much outrage that Patinkin quickly withdrew from the part, telling the New York Times, “I hear what members of the community have said and I agree with them.”
To be sure, it’s possible to blend art with activism. Indeed, many of our most celebrated films, shows, musicals, plays, and books carry some type of social or political message. The danger is when artists feel compelled to meet the ever-evolving standards of “wokeness.”
We have to remember that sometimes a movie is… just a movie. Making the villain of Fatal Attraction a psychotic and dangerous career woman does not imply that all career women are psychotic and dangerous.
Likewise, The Sopranos does not imply that all Italian Americans are mobsters; The Wire does not imply that all young black men in Baltimore are drug dealers; and Breaking Bad does not imply that all frustrated Albuquerque high-school chemistry teachers are secretly meth cooks.
When a filmmaker or showrunner wants to depict a certain world, or tell a certain story, he or she has to draw the characters accordingly. Otherwise, the final product will lack realism and authenticity.
Once upon a time, everyone seemed to understand that. Today, unfortunately, the intellectual and moral rot of identity politics, “trigger warnings,” and “safe spaces” has spread far and wide. The consequences for artistic expression should not be underestimated.