The Bi Chick Always Rings Twice: Basic Instinct and Female Sexuality

The Bi Chick Always Rings Twice: Basic Instinct and Female Sexuality

Sure, Basic Instinct exploits women, lesbians, bisexuals, casual daters, recreational drug users … wait, where are we going with this?

The Red Metaherring

Seeing any of this on the screen, explicated or not, still makes me feel morally icky, and it doesn’t say anything good about Hollywood’s general treatment of women.

But in criticizing Basic Instinct, it’s a good idea not to lose sight of just whose views are being represented here, and consider whether representation the same as holding the views you represent. On this topic, most critics of the arts respond with a loud and resonant NO: you don’t hear people going around complaining about those bigoted Nazi directors who made Sound of Music because the bad guys are Nazis.

Representation is only part of the picture. And there’s nothing wrong with a movie where everyone’s a bad guy, as long as its narrative works.

So Verhoeven may have a point when he argues it shouldn’t be an issue that his killer(s) happen to be lesbians/promiscuous/bi-curious. In a way it’s insulting, because once we viewers make a big deal about it, we’re essentially buying into the whole screwy mind set of the fictional world and implying that non-majority expressions of sexuality are a catalyst for multiple forms of crazy.

We don’t go on and on about how tons of serial killers depicted in movies have brown hair and, as any research writer will tell you, correlation is not cause.

(Somewhat relevant here is the fact that treating correlation as cause is a major source of bias in scientific research, and often undermines what would be otherwise very sound analyses.)

So maybe, as Verhoeven vehemently argues, it’s us Americans, liberal or not, that are making a thing about it. And maybe – though he doesn’t say this, to my knowledge – what he’s doing is depicting vice and evil not only on the part of his characters, but on the part of Hollywood and the Joe the Plumber consumers of Hollywood’s output.

And the Killer Is . . .

As a feminist, I have no mixed feelings about Basic Instinct whatsoever: it’s awful and promotes awful thoughts about women and sexuality, at least among those already misguided enough to think them. But as an avid moviegoer and consumer of creative work of all brow heights, I’m pretty conflicted.

I rely, with few qualms, on other subcategories within Verhoeven’s oeuvre to scratch that “I need to see faux brain matter up close” itch, and those viewings demonstrated pretty clearly that he has a knack for over-the-top, heavy-handed, and somehow completely self-aware movies where lots of things, and also sometimes people, blow up. Even the sexualized thriller/melodramas that have been the other 40 percent of his work raise some pretty interesting questions about characters’ motivations and the relationship between coherent motivations and motivating narratives.

Starship Troopers, my favorite Verhoeven movie by far and the one with the most vehement of positive reviews (though there are many negative ones, as well), covers both of these categories nicely, in that lots of human brains get sucked out by a “brain bug” that looks almost exactly like a vagina. If you don’t believe/agree with me, consider: in one commentary track on Starship Troopers, a special effects guy remarks that Verhoeven would often muse about whether it should look more like a vagina or a rectum, and the crew thereafter took to referring to the brain bug’s mouth as a “poo-gina”.

For all its schlockiness, Starship Troopers is also a marvelous and nuanced critique of fascism, war, and what it means to be a “survivor” of some colossal awfulness – experiences that Verhoeven knows first-hand as a survivor of WWII. Hardly the work of a ham-fisted, pulp-obsessed jerk, and yet also somehow exactly the work of such a person. The best short explanation of this I’ve come up with after all this meandering is that his are reproductions too accurate to be taken at face value.

[Note – we’ve got some Overthink on Starship Troopers coming up tomorrow!]

Do I think that Verhoeven has some serious issues with ladyparts? Absolutely. Would I let myself be seen with him at a gay pride parade? Absolutely not. But with Basic Instinct and much of his other work, he demonstrates a unique knack both for really entertaining with his entertainment, and also for presenting his audience with caricatures of the more subtle offenses – whether violence, discrimination, human obsession and vice, or all of the above – that Hollywood has been breathlessly (breathily?) serving up for the price of a movie ticket since the silver screen got its name.

[Is this a fair analysis of Basic Instinct? Sound off in the comments!]

8 Comments on “The Bi Chick Always Rings Twice: Basic Instinct and Female Sexuality”

  1. stokes OTI Staff #

    I remember reading somewhere that the outfits Sharon Stone wears in Basic Instinct are the same ones – in order – that Kim Novak wears in Vertigo. There’s probably a halfway decent film studies paper waiting to be written about Vertigo’s sleazy afterlife in films like Basic Instinct and Body Double.

    And hey, that brings up an interesting question. You imply that you would be a lot more critical of Verhoeven’s attitude towards sexuality and violence if he was American. What’s your read on Brian De Palma?


  2. callot #

    Woo feminism! I’m really glad that “Verhoeven Week” has turned out to be “Verhoeven is a Misogynist Week.” Needs to be more feminist philosophy on this site.


  3. Matthew Wrather #

    Needs to be fewer sweeping, unsupported generalities on this site. Especially from our own writers.


  4. Matthew Wrather #

    Also: Really interesting post, Diana. I’m glad you’re back writing guest articles! Keep it up!


  5. Diana #

    Stokes, I would love to see that Kim Novak thing verified, though I’m not sure I have it in me to 1) put myself through Basic Instinct again so soon and 2) do so with a special eye for Sharon Stone’s personal appearance.

    On Brian De Palma I have less to say, mostly because I’m really only familiar with Carrie, Scarface, and the Untouchables — I’ve seen others in pieces or long ago, but my experience is probably too limited to make credible points on the whole of his work. On the issue of being American or not, in many cases where two cultures differ in their approach to sexuality, each culture’s way of doing things can seem pretty nonsensical to the other, sometimes to the point that the other way doesn’t even occur as an alternative. If I had to guess, I’d say that for Verhoeven it probably breaks down to about 1/3 serious issues with women that just kinda creep into his work, 1/3 childlike wonder/total obsession with the very process of making movies to the point that he’s kinda blind to issues that would seem huge to others, and 1/3 intentional satire/criticism that plays straight to most American audiences, including Hollywood decision-makers, but not so much in Europe.


  6. Diana #

    Wrather, thanks, it was a lot of fun to write!


  7. James #

    It was such a stupid film. A simple DNA test would have proven that Catherine was the murderer.


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