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Deconstructing the Male G

Masochism, Female Spectatorship, and the Femme Fatale in Fatal Attraction, Body of Evidence, and Basic Instinct

Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) meets her lover, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), and his wife, Beth (Anne Archer) in Fatal Attraction.

Abstract: Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Body of Evidence are three films that forge a connection between the cinematic femme fatale genre and an imagistic and narrative focus on masochism. The author argues that the foregrounding of masochistic desire acts to complicate our understanding of the male gaze and female spectatorial pleasure; thus, these films present a serious challenge to inherited theories of spectatorship. Keywords: feminist film theory, femme fatale, the male gaze, masochism


n Fatal Attraction (1987), Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) absentmindedly and repeatedly slashes her own leg before turning the knife on her lover’s

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wife. In Basic Instinct (1992), Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) willingly places himself in the same position as the victim of a sex crime, allowing himself to be tied up and seduced by the woman he believes to be the murderer, and later calls the experience “the fuck of the century.” In Body of Evidence (1993), Frank Dulaney (Willem Dafoe) discovers that he finds it sexually pleasurable to have hot candle wax poured on his genitals. Together, these three films forge a connection between the cinematic femme fatale genre and an imagistic and narrative focus on masochism. The past fifteen years of the twentieth century saw a proliferation of films that, like these, foreground scenarios of masochism. Not coincidentally, film theory, especially as practiced in academia, was invested in a psychoanalytic methodol174

ogy that posited masochism as a central mechanism of spectatorial viewing for women. Female spectatorship was theorized in light of assumptions about the primacy of the male gaze and of a perception of masochism that stressed victimization and passivity. Thanks in large part to queer theory, however, there has been a reevaluation of this model. Revisiting and challenging long-held assumptions about sadomasochistic desire and power dynamics, recent queer theory has proposed a more nuanced model that emphasizes strategy, control, and the mutability of gender roles. Many feminist and film scholars have contested the theory of the male gaze, but it has not yet been examined within the framework of this different way of understanding masochistic psychodynamics.1 Although film theory has in recent years moved

” He breaks into her apartment. depicts women viewers as uncomfortably silent. and finally tries to kill his wife. but he is able to investigate her and “demystify her mystery. there should be no female spectatorial position that is not masochistic. women are the bearers of the bleeding wound of castration. The attraction is. away from this primarily psychoanalytic focus toward a more historicized methodology. In what has become one of the most quoted passages in feminist film theory. What makes this a “male myth. Beth (Anne Archer). In theory. see also Mulvey. Yet. in turn. Fatal Attraction tells the story of Dan Gallagher. the sexually dangerous woman. as one male protagonist is a lawyer and the other a police detective. which. the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organization of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father” (35. accomplished career woman went stark raving mad and boiled a bunny just . pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. In Laura Mulvey’s influential essay. is the principle around which spectatorship can be theorized. Forrest evokes the fear of castration in Gallagher. a closer examination of these films reveals narrative and cinematic strategies that undermine male identification and dislocate the male gaze. Andrews’s review of Fatal Attraction illustrates this point: “Did this movie ever explain what was so great about the Michael Douglas character? Yet a brilliant.e Gaze: By Miranda Sherwin Deconstructing the Male Gaze 175 Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) attacks Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas).” comments Sleepless in Seat- tle producer Lynda Obst (qtd. According to Mulvey. Forrest is the quintessential femme fatale. As filmic representations. although the “investigation” of the woman is situated within a legal discourse. which is styled accordingly” (33). in Andrews H22). “Ultimately. kidnaps his daughter. demystifying her mystery). This film appears to be quintessentially male: it narrates the male psychodrama of the resolution of castration anxiety. she is so sick that there is no possibility of “saving the guilty object”. Mulvey argues. women are forced into either passive masochistic identification with the female protagonist. female spectators must either take a masochistic stance or adopt the male gaze. she is devalued and punished. As spectators. and indeed. Although Forrest assures him that she is discreet. arguing that Fatal Attraction is part of a backlash against women. killed by his long-suffering wife. counterbalanced by the devaluation. “Afterthoughts”). but as the movie progresses. fatal only to Forrest. looks through her medicine chest and her scrapbook. and finally pronounces judgment: she is “sick. who controls events. pours acid on his car. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure. then. the meaning of woman is sexual difference. turns up at his home.” what women represent is sexual difference itself. punishment or saving of the guilty object” (35).” presumably. women on both sides of the screen become elided with absence. voiceless. “The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman. In this formulation. the signification of the lack of penis/phallus. becoming spectatorial transvestites.” In fact. the absence of the penis as visually ascertainable. always depicted as the object of male desire. then. Deconstructing the Male Gaze “I’d love to find a film with a strong premise that isn’t as sexist as Fatal Attraction but that taps into a girl myth as powerfully as that movie tapped into a boy myth. undertakes a closer examination of these theories and their manifestations in these three films. This article. Fatal Attraction perfectly exemplifies the filmic negotiation of castration anxiety that Mulvey asserts as central to organizing spectatorial pleasure around thematically male psychoscenarios. Body of Evidence and Basic Instinct follow the same pattern. she refuses to leave him alone when the weekend is over. instead. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. a happily married man who nevertheless has a brief affair with Forrest. after all. Susan Faludi. it establishes identification with the male protagonist. He tries to erase her from his life. This exploration will complicate notions of the male gaze and passive masochistic female spectatorship as well as open up new possibilities in the theorizing of male and female spectatorial pleasure. Because identification with the objectified and controlled female protagonist must be painful and because the male gaze is active and controlling. it is worth reexamining both the films that take masochism as their subject and the theories about masochistic spectatorship. in Fatal Attraction. cooks his daughter’s pet rabbit. or into masculinized identification with the male protagonist and his controlling look. is the control that the male protagonist can exert over the femme fatale and what she represents. “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance. She contends. and it objectifies and finally punishes the woman who threatens him. while the men around them urge Gallagher to “[p]unch the bitch’s face in” (112). she becomes increasingly intrusive and threatening: she calls him at work.

when his wife reads the signs of the affair on his body (he has been cut by glass and burned by wax). and by extension. and heterosexuality . he becomes convinced that Tramell is innocent and that the real murderer is his psychiatrist. cheats on his wife. the “boy myth” that this and other femme fatale films invoke is the myth that men are sexually desirable to women. The assumption is. The movie appears to foreground heterosexuality: Tramell seems to lose interest in her lover. During the trial. for women. By extension. as the stories unfold. here. he is young and healthy. introducing him to masochistic practices. he believes in her innocence and in her love for him. in this new scenario. Gallagher cheats on his wife without qualm. . Andrews implies that what makes this a “man’s film” is that it is a vehicle for stroking the male ego— Douglas’s. Dulaney. the audience members’ who identify with him. Forrest’s obsession with Gallagher is inexplicable in light of what we know of his character.] could be assumed and worn as a mask. Roxy. However. lesbian desire lies at the heart of the murder mystery. what am I supposed to do? You won’t answer my calls. per se: she wants.” In fact. Dan. The case hinges on which of the two women became obsessed with the other after a one-night stand in college: if Garner pursued and harassed Tramell. Dulaney seems to inhabit a privileged space in Carlson’s sex life: whereas her other lovers were all elderly multimillionaires with bad hearts and thus potential victims. against his attempt to erase her from his life. Catherine Tramell (Stone) is. in both Body of Evidence and Basic Instinct. to use a more appropriate metaphor. Carlson’s desire for the others was “staged” to induce them to leave her their money. or. To some extent. This reading is suggested not only through the casting of Douglas but also through these films’ plots. the camera pans down from the bed to reveal an ice pick. the object of Rebecca Carlson’s desire is deceptive. and live happily ever after”. When he berates her for showing up at his apartment. But the film does not end with the words “happily ever after”. “a little respect. the male leads only appear to be the objects of female desire. the titular attraction is facilitated by the casting of Close in Fatal Attraction. too. and the movie does little to suggest that he is otherwise likable. discussing their future: he wants to “fuck like minks. she responds. her heterosexuality is a disguise concealing her lesbianism: Garner was the object of her desire. the male lead only appears to be sexually desirable to the female lead. These films do not deconstruct female desire so much as they deconstruct men as the objects of desire. a rich older man who has left his considerable fortune to her and whom she has allegedly fornicated to death. too. but that her desire for Dulaney is “real. raise rug rats. In Body of Evidence. but Douglas lacks whatever quality it is that makes a star into a sex symbol. as soon as a man—Curran—comes along. after his partner is stabbed to death in Garner’s vicinity. that female desire is an “act” designed to deceive men. then it becomes apparent that Garner was her real victim and that the retired rock star and Curran’s partner were killed to frame Garner. One could even argue that the casting choice of Douglas itself places heterosexual women in a masochistic position. Just as in Fatal Attraction. in that their desire to desire will be thwarted. Carlson’s “real” desire is for zealous legal representation. Curran. Although it appears that Tramell’s bisexuality has been converted into heterosexuality. despite his initial belief that she is guilty. he shoots her. and vice versa. Curran is not the object of Tramell’s desire so much as the tool by which she enacts her real desire: revenge against the woman who rejected her in college. Alex insists that her behavior stems from a rebellion against his treatment of her. then. The film ends with Curran and Tramell in bed. this is a man’s film” (H15). she says. Madonna in Body of Evidence. Carlson (Madonna) is on trial for the murder of her lover. As the affair continues. Dulaney. and closer analysis reveals that it is not him that she desires. with whom both he and Tramell have had a sexual relationship. the cinema is the screen on which the illusion of female heterosexual desire is projected and exposed as both illusion and projection. As Andrews implies. like Carlson. then Garner would be guilty. the women use them to accomplish their own ends posing the question as to whether their desire is “real” or “staged. . If Tramell is the real murderer. in Body of Evidence. both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she were found to possess it” (213). the detective in charge of the case. For men. not Curran or the rock star. her former lover. During the course of the investigation. Douglas has a propensity to star in films that cast him as the object of desire for a beautiful but deadly woman. in this case. and Tramell’s affair with Garner is portrayed by both women as insignificant. Heterosexuality functions in relation to lesbianism in this film much as Joan Riviere argues that femininity functions in relation to masculinity: “Womanliness [. instead. Curran comes to believe Tramell’s version of the story—that Garner staged the murder to frame her—and thus. she throws him out. In Fatal Attraction. with middle-income earnings. “Well. the suspect in a sex crime: a retired rock star. Elizabeth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn). was fatally stabbed with an ice pick during sex. and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. One can only conclude that heterosexual desire is not what the filmmakers are trying to evoke in women. Throughout the film. the cinema is the stage on which female desire is simultaneously constructed and revealed as constructed. I’m not going to be ignored. then. you change your number. Moreover. Moreover.” The object of her desire is not him so much as it is noninvisibility—a particularly appropriate desire for a female filmic subject often defined through absence and lack. Despite the two strong women’s roles. she initiates an affair with her lawyer. the basic instinct when confronted by Douglas’s body of evidence is ambivalence.” Over and over. starts an affair with her.” It is only at the film’s denouement that the audience discovers that even her desire for Dulaney was staged: she was sleeping with him because she believed that his passion for her would positively affect his defense of her.176 JPF&T—Journal of Popular Film and Television because of her passion for him. the narrative structure of these films suggests that female heterosexual desire is always staged. Basic Instinct offers a more radical displacement of female desire.

against the phallus. the subject of the movie. she explains that her new book is about a detective who “falls for the wrong woman. Her sexual autonomy is too threatening to his masculinity: he wrestles her into handcuffs and forcibly penetrates her. and live happily ever after. Sexual plurality. then.) Basic Instinct captures this dynamic most clearly. however. and revenge for heterosexuality provides the psychosexual backdrop from which masochism will emerge as a featured desire. It enacts their desexualization. Dulaney is utterly deceived by Carlson. innocent of all charges against her (although it pretends to do so by piling up “evidence” against Garner). they are notoriously sexually liberated. the men of the family. Gus interprets Roxy’s killing as motivated by jealousy of her male siblings. First. in essence. thus protecting the male spectator from homosexual identification. Dulaney begins to lose faith in Carlson’s innocence and tries to end their affair. Although female sexual experimentation provides obvious pleasure to the men. It is no wonder. Tramell is not the only murderess in this film. (Interestingly. achieved through that identification. he has killed an innocent woman. rooted to the spot.” In the three cases.” This explanation is interesting on several counts. the movie’s premise is that whatever she writes comes true: as the movie unfolds. “This young farmgirl got tired of all that attention going to her little brothers. The femmes fatales in these films are fatal because they do not really need men. emphasis in original). while woman is autoerotic and therefore needs no one. Gus. suggests that men and heterosexual intercourse are not necessary to fulfill female desire.” which is. male sexuality has traditionally been defined monolithically. Curran never wavers from his faith in his own abilities as an investigator. unable to leave. Like Gallagher. she has befriend- ed two women. reinstating genital intercourse as the primary and ultimate function of sexuality. explains. power. she is shot and then drowned. in that they also are not desired by their own object choice. nor punishes her for her guilt. Finally. except young Roxy here didn’t use a wedding present: she used Daddy’s razor. raise rug rats. he appears to control the courtroom drama. However. The mere fact that the spectator knows more at the film’s end than does the protagonist with whom he or she has supposedly been identifying breaks that identification and undermines the male gaze. in addition to castration anxiety. she dies exactly as Alex does in Fatal Attraction: sadistically. sexual independence. who have killed their entire families. invoking a patriarchal family structure that favors boys over girls. Mulvey asserts that scopophilia derives first from identification with the male protagonist and second from vicarious control over the film’s events. it is also immensely threatening. about the murderby-ice-pick of a rock star that predates the murder. Just like old Hazel Dobkins fixed her whole family. like the polysexuality depicted in femme fatale films. As Luce Irigaray notes. Gallagher is rendered passive and helpless in the face of Forrest’s terrorism for much of the movie. She lies down on the floor and starts masturbating. another spurned lover shoots her. he is unable to control her even after her deception is exposed: instead. however. Thus. These films. Roxy and Hazel. goes further: it is plural” (28. thus connecting her rage to her marriage. is what woman represents for man: autoeroticism. In Basic Instinct. The fact that the male protagonists in these films do not act as true erotic object choices for the female protagonists serves a dual function. emphasizing other non-genital forms of pleasure such as bondage and sadomasochism. money. “always at least double. but female sexuality. a script inscribed literally in the film as a plot device: Tramell wrote a book. killed with a knife she had received as a wedding present. these films work on another level to undermine the male protagonists’ place as subject. When Curran discovers Roxy’s bloody history. In Fatal Attraction. and at the film’s close. as the person around whom the narrative is organized and controlled. symbolically. Tramell’s script can be understood on a metaphorical level as well. Here. although Curran cannot prove it. he asks what her motive had been and his partner. For these autoerogenous. in addition to narrativizing female polysexuality. he reveals that Hazel. women kill in acts of rage directed specifically against men and the family. That Curran only appears to control the action or to hold her desire suggests that male control of the look or of the action has always been illusory and something that patriarchy must fight to maintain. Tramell’s other murderous friend. men are expendable—a point hammered home literally by the plot device of murder. so she fixed them. the femme fatale. and is sleeping with the real murderer. in Dulaney’s first sexual encounter with Carlson. that when Curran proposes that they “fuck like minks. problematize the extent to which the male protagonists actually control events. man is dependent on an other for sexual satisfaction. however. female violence is enacted within and directed against the family—specifically.Deconstructing the Male Gaze 177 is merely a mask that at once conceals and enacts her true desire. In truth. Moreover. In these films. In Body of Evidence. Basic Instinct deviates from the traditional femme-fatale film. In fact. he constitutes her anger as directed against men. Indeed. Second. lesbianism.” Tramell’s only response is “I don’t like rug rats. the language that he uses—”so she fixed them”—positions the crime as. Even if they engage in intercourse with men. their affair is initiated on her terms. the moment of climax comes when she pours molten wax on his penis. Even Tramell has killed her parents. a castration enacted by appropriating “Daddy’s razor”. in that it neither establishes Tramell as the “right” woman. in that she is writing what we . again. Body of Evidence makes this symbolic representation explicit. the substitution of values such as visibility. he is secure in his belief that he has solved the crime. Not only has he been utterly deceived but also has acted as a character in her script. in addition to challenging their status as sexual objects. but she is manipulating the evidence and the testimony from behind the scenes. and she does not require vaginal penetration. in relation to the penis. polysexual women. Love Hurts. he is riveted. This. it also dislocates them from a heterosexual context. According to Irigaray. and ultimately it is his wife who succeeds in killing her where he could not. unknowingly acting as Tramell’s agent. Toward the end of the film.

A male absence-in-presence is particularly problematic for theories of spectatorship presumed.178 JPF&T—Journal of Popular Film and Television might think of as a new cultural script. it is clear that the films assume a complicity between the female protagonist and the female spectator. . positions and roles. working. For example. marginalized. the threat of castration. in turn. who falsely assume their own centrality and control.” but he is forced to concur “with her basic premise that the spectatorial look in mainstream cinema is implicitly male: it is one of the fundamental reasons why the erotic elements involved in the relations between the spectator and the male image have constantly to be repressed and disavowed” (286). But if women are identifying masochistically with the female protagonist (a formulation already problematized by the extent to which the female figures actively control the narrative action). . it does not transform the gaze from male to female so much as displace the terms on which the gaze is constructed. whereas those identifying with the female protagonist will find that they have been controlling the action all along—which. how are men identifying in films in which the male protagonist is. many analysts have equated masochism and femininity. Interestingly. Struggling with the issue of female spectatorship. . but on the representation of the family. “Cinema draws on and involves many desires. Their desirability is delusion. the woman who identifies with a female character must adopt a passive or masochistic position. This is particularly ironic when considered in relation to the role women have been theorized as inhabiting—an absence-in-presence. Gallagher and Beth leave the room after Beth has killed Forrest and the camera zooms in on a photograph of the Gallaghers. Those identifying with the male protagonist will find in the end that they have been deceived. In these films. Sandra Lee Bartky distinguishes between the “perverse” masochism propounded by Samois. both as spectators and as characters. it follows that if the protagonist’s control over events. Doane is quoting herself). they will have suspected anyway. a complicity that stages the male protagonist as the butt of the joke. literally. Thus. their control is illusion. “in their masochistic phantasies [. coded for the female gaze. see also. a lesbian feminist organization of sadomasochistic women. Doane articulates the dilemma of the female spectator: “Given the structures of cinematic narrative. however.] so characteristic of women that it has been regarded by all psychoanalysts and many feminists as one of the typical marks of femininity in this culture” (150). Following the narrative displacement of the male protagonist as both subject and object of the story. men do not inhabit the space that they seem to inhabit. According to Steve Neale.” Freud hypothesizes that men. the photograph insures a complicity between the man and the presumably male spectator. is unstable. in the much-analyzed final scene in Fatal Attraction. bisexual woman represents to man. fluid. self-referentially evokes the nature of cinematic representation and doubly inscribes the effect of absence-in-presence. at points even contradictory” (278). a masochist? As masochism has always been assumed to be a female stance. . Doane discusses a photograph taken by Robert Doisneau in 1948 as a metaphor for the mechanisms by which the female spectatorial gaze is problematized. Bartky goes on. as well as the fragility of the control that man can exert over her. the joke is against the men. operating to exclude the woman and that ‘Doisneau’s photograph is not readable by the female spectator—it can give her pleasure only in masochism’” (40. like femininity in general. their masochistic attitude coincides with a feminine one” (126. the film’s final emphasis is not on the family. Neale argues that “the elements [Mulvey] considers in relation to images of women can and should also be considered in relation to images of men. and even his own central positioning within the narrative. primarily because of the assumed passivity of both roles. In these films. the protagonists are repositioned in relation to the films’ narrative structure: they are decentered. to be male identified. What these films really inscribe is thus an absence in the space the male protagonist is supposed to inhabit at the films’ center. being forced to assume a female subject position? Are men being feminized through identification with a masochistic subject? And what of the already masculinized female spectator? Theorizing Masochism In his influential study “A Child is Being Beaten. The absence-in-presence of the male protagonist at the film’s center does not so much prohibit identification with him as render such identification more difficult. And desire itself is mobile. Mulvey placed “the power of the male protagonist [to] control events” as the cornerstone on which spectatorial identification and the male gaze is constructed. the thematic insistence in these femme-fatale films on masoch- istic practices serves to foreground the very “erotic elements” that Neale claims must be repressed. fluid. are men. for the signs are there. then the dynamics of identification and the production of the gaze must be similarly unstable. stating that the two have in common the sexualization of domination and submission. She argues that “in line with Freud’s analysis of the dirty joke. Indeed.2 and what she calls “ordinary feminine masochism [.] invariably transfer themselves into the part of a woman. to collapse the difference between “perverse” and “ordinary” masochism. Both through the displacement of men as the objects of female desire and through the subversion of their agency as subjects. Feminine masochism. Freud. emphasis in original. is an . Significantly. a feminist script that reveals the threat that an independent. many forms of desire. “Economic”). this absence-in-presence that establishes a link between male and female occurs not at the beginning of the films but at the end. in that they embody the lack of penis. It is even argued that masochism is an intrinsic element of femininity. that is to say. however. This. lingering over an image of a filmic space shared by the two sexes. while identification with the active hero necessarily entails an acceptance of what Laura Mulvey refers to as a certain ‘masculinization’ of spectatorship” (24). Identifications are multiple. if they are good readers. following Mulvey. albeit to different degrees. constantly transgressing identities. both spectator and protagonist.

(50–51) Accordingly. the fantasy is now “of an unmistakably masochistic character” (113). but he is dead and cannot be the protagonist with whom we are to identify. our real association is with Dulaney. both Curran and Dulaney place themselves in the same situation as the men who were just beaten/killed. Whereas the previous phase engaged mechanisms of sadistic voyeurism. is a false one and is shattered shortly thereafter. In the first. The film’s first scene is of a couple having sex.” Freud delineates three stages of the masochistic fantasy. this man is not the protagonist. looks at the videotape. Our first exposure to a male subject is to his image on a television screen. In the second stage. emphasis in original). thus. although the fantasy is once again sadistic. we. for the first of many times. identification with the male subject is constituted as masochistic. but our gaze is literally fragmented through a camera effect that makes it difficult to determine what we are actually seeing. the child now imagines that “I am being beaten by my father”. but rather at their reflection in a ceiling mirror. The image becomes clearer. may go through the most complicated alterations and elaborations. however. to show state prosecutor Robert Garrett (Joe Mantegna) and the police arriving at the house. the “beating. a defense attorney. Unlike in Body of Evidence. the camera pans down. In fact. too. and punishments and humiliations of another kind may be substituted for the beating itself” (114). Our spectatorial gaze has. Curran allows Tramell to tie him to the bed with a white silk scarf. the woman is on top and the man is tied up. and we realize that we had been looking not at the “real” couple. as a subject position created by the prevailing patriarchal power structures and by the discourses that produce sexual difference. masochism can be understood as a cultural construction. he is under investigation by Internal Affairs for shooting some tourists. Dulaney allows Carlson to tie him up and pour hot wax on his chest and genitals. The watching child feels jealous of the beaten child. we assume that he is the protagonist. which shows a man and a woman having sex. Our next exposure reveals him to be dead: he is not our protagonist. the woman takes an ice pick from under the covers and stabs (beats) him repeatedly. But this identification. only Freud’s beating is here conflated by the sex-death opposition. It is startling how structurally similar this scenario is to both Basic Instinct and Body of Evidence. In this phase.Deconstructing the Male Gaze 179 economical way of embedding women in patriarchy through the mechanism of desire. this phase calls for active masochistic participation. he is an image. The film then cuts again. because he arrives on the crime scene with the police and an attendant air of authority. it is no longer entirely clear who is beating whom. This scenario is twice repeated in the film. As in Body of Evidence. and neither time does she kill him. It is also interesting to note the many ways in which the film insists on the male absence-in-presence discussed earlier. the film immediately starts to channel our seeing through him as he controls the investigation. Theories on the development of masochistic behavior have traditionally been linked to spectatorship. As the person doing the beating is always a father figure. as he. we are not to identify with him.” For the male subjects in Basic Instinct and Body of Evidence. as the couple reaches climax. their masochism . dislocated: we thought we were to align our gaze with the man’s.” as represented by Garrett. Freud summarizes. The film then cuts to show a man watching the video. the child-spectator has experienced jealousy over the attention shown to the beaten child and desires him or herself to be beaten. too. when we next see the man. we are clearly watching a sex video. who is the “real” protagonist. but at the moment when we identify what is happening. Carlson. Identification with the male figure is rendered problematic from the onset and not just through the deconstructed gaze. whereas we assumed an association with “the law. in turn. which was originally simple and monotonous. already been constructed and deconstructed three times. Appropriately enough. which Freud characterizes as sadistic rather than masochistic. the moment of “beating” is not elided. and our gaze is thus aligned with his: we are seeing what he is seeing. it surely perpetuates it. even in the first moments of the film. have been punished. he is dead. The latter film opens with a staging of the primal scene. In “A Child Is Being Beaten. This scene replicates Freud’s first stage of the masochistic personality. arrives. the initial phase of the fantasy can be represented by the phrase “My father is beating the child whom I hate” (113. but he experiences great sexual satisfaction because of his fear and calls it “the fuck of the century. The fantasy is instead produced by an observer to the beating—in other words.” configured as a possible murder. like Dulaney. and while the eroticization of relations of domination may not lie at the heart of the system of male supremacy. through our initial identification with him. Our own spectatorial gaze is. also as in Body of Evidence. defender of the alleged criminal. Basic Instinct’s opening sequence is remarkably similar to that of Body of Evidence. just minutes into the film. and. when Dulaney. In the final stage. Tramell’s victim/lover died when she tied him to the bed with a white silk scarf and then stabbed him with an ice pick during orgasm. and in the two films. Our next exposure to a male subject presents Garrett. Carlson’s victim/lover supposedly died from a heart attack induced during or immediately following sadomasochistic sex. exists in the cut and is reconstituted in the juxtaposition of sex with death. which corresponds to the second phase of Freud’s beating scenario. by a spectator. because he or she has captured the father’s attention. “The situation of being beaten. he too is associated with criminality. The camera roams through the darkened hallway of a house and finally alights on a video camera and then a television screen. not a reality. “the child being beaten is never the one producing the phantasy” (113). exactly replicating the conditions of the murder with himself positioned as the next victim. other unknown children are being beaten by someone who is not the father of the original fantasy. and he is shortly to die. Curran’s and Dulaney’s criminal investigations coincide with an investigation into their own sexuality. A final similarity is worth noting: although the protagonist is a homicide detective who appears to be aligned with the law.

That she insisted on increasingly strenuous sex knowing he had a severe heart condition. Nick. CURRAN. She “insisted” on “increasingly strenuous sex. explanatory. and their personal investigation of masochism coincides with their criminal investigation into their suspects’ sexuality. Would you tell us the nature of your relationship with Mr. The film enacts a strange kind of reversal. Garrett asks him questions about his sex life with Carlson: . another older man with a bad heart. I’d have to have myself indicted. despite her dual role as suspect of their investigation and object of their desire. As in the opening sequence. . Jeffrey Roston (Frank Langella). and you die. Boz? TRAMELL. But you said you like men to use their hands. had no choice but to participate. their mouths become so dry that they each must fetch water from the cooler. however. the “material evidence” of castration is figured literally in Tramell’s exposure of her vagina and is furthermore figured as “evidence” in a criminal investigation that itself renders literal Mulvey’s metaphorical reference to the “law” of the father. Did you ever tie him up? TRAMELL. The camera pans from face to face. according to his secretary (Anne Archer) he felt that his sexual activities were too strenuous but placed the responsibility for this solely on Carlson: “[He said] that he was worried.] He said that if she kept it up. CURRAN. ready to be wielded again. and although there is no evidence of coercion on her part. She “manipulated” him into changing his will. is called to the witness stand. and the worst kind: a killer who disguised herself as a loving partner. As the questioning continues. for a woman. you will see that she is not only the defendant. [. TRAMELL. This last exchange. This scene enacts Mulvey’s formulation of the symbolic role of woman. although flippant. as is evidenced by the title. She’s a killer. They’re good for all occasions. But can I be called a weapon? The answer is yes. Moreover. WALKER. one of Carlson’s former lovers. You describe a silk scarf in your book. the detectives’ gaze combines “enjoyment” and “anxiety” precisely because the sight of her vagina “always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. In this scene. Johnny liked to use his hands too much. His heart couldn’t take the combination. Well. Indeed. she was going to kill him. leaving her 8 million dollars. the spectator’s gaze is aligned with theirs through the mechanism of the video camera recording the proceedings. Rebecca Carlson. He wasn’t afraid of experimenting. No. Tramell uncrosses her legs and reveals that she is wearing no underwear. Basic Instinct makes this explicit in the notorious scene where the police interview Tramell: CORELLI. I am the cause of your death. she seems to be completely in control. DULANEY. Corelli? CORELLI. He gave me a lot of pleasure. (35) Here. the investigations in both films revolve around the sexual beliefs and practices of the women under suspicion. the active controllers of the look. men who give me pleasure. Did you ever engage in any sadomasochistic activity? TRAMELL. the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organization of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father. I don’t make any rules. for. and Tramell is positioned as the subject of that gaze.” One of the funniest scenes in the movie plays on the ludicrousness of such assumptions about the lack of male control when confronted with female sexuality. sexual prowess is something to brag about. What are you going to do. betrays a distinction made by the film between male and female sexuality—for Implicit in this statement is the idea that Marsh had no control over his own sexuality or choices. But when this trial is over.” in which he. she is arrested after Garrett asks her whether she considers herself a dominatrix. If I hit you. The method’s self- a man. I like hands and fingers. the absence of the penis as visually ascertainable. she is the murder weapon itself. I go with the flow. Garrett spells out the conflation of “body” and “weapon” in his opening statement at the trial: Andrew Marsh made what turned out to be a fatal mistake: he fell in love. Exactly what did you have in mind. but as this trial proceeds. a sadomasochist. You never tied him up? TRAMELL. As in Basic Instinct. Thus the woman as icon. apparently. The state will prove that she seduced Andrew Marsh and manipulated his affections until he rewrote his will. the detectives start to stutter and lose the thread of the conversation. I’ve always had a fondness for silk scarves. only it renders that role literal: Ultimately. bag the body as a murder weapon? Exhibit A? It’s not a crime to be a good lay. No. Body of Evidence takes the threat posed by woman’s body even more literally. and she got what she wanted. always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified.” just as Tramell herself at the movie’s conclusion will always threaten to kill again. CORELLI. that his heart couldn’t take it.180 JPF&T—Journal of Popular Film and Television engenders an exploration of a feminine stance. didn’t you? TRAMELL. the investigation focuses on Carlson’s sex life. I said I liked Johnny to use his hands. her body itself is theorized as the weapon: DULANEY. . You all can see the defendant. however. And what a deadly weapon Rebecca Carlson made of it. you will see her no differently than a gun or a knife or any other instrument used as a weapon. she secretly doped him with cocaine. During this interrogation. I liked having sex with him. GARRETT. You don’t know it was homicide. She is a beautiful woman. GARRETT. for the ice pick will still be under the bed. it is a crime. sure. in that her spectators’ arousal reads as discomfiture and lack of control. Here. I had sex with him for about a year and a half. the meaning of woman is sexual difference. I like men like that. Mr. He fell in love with a ruthless. the detectives become aroused. and when that didn’t work fast enough for her. what is being investigated is not so much murder as female sexuality and sexual difference. he is still not held accountable for his bad decision. calculating woman who went after an elderly man with a bad heart and a big bank account. Marsh apparently characterized himself in such passive terms. displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men. showing the men perspiring and licking their lips.

although the rape occurs metaphorically. ROSTON. she does not struggle. both are panting. in other words. . I know this is very personal. it is a fantasy he imposes on her. these films emphasize the psychosexual similarity between the male and female protagonists. Please. Victor Smirnoff points out. By invoking sadomasochism. in what way? ROSTON. Garner. and he reasserts control and dominance by wrestling her into handcuffs and then entering her from behind. .[. it becomes clear that the goal of the relationship. In Basic Instinct. The scene is staged so that even the camera angle replicates the earlier sex scene. it is no longer clear who is beating whom. is to render the man’s masculinity more oppressive to him. the male protagonists have played the masochist to the female’s sadist. She was always trying to get me more and more worked up. Nevertheless. theorists have noted that the masochist manipulates the sadist into doing what he or she wants. she is furious and hurt. therefore. And what did she say? Mr. For the most part. Smirnoff claims that “the real meaning of the masochistic contract” is to “render the executioner’s task more oppressive”. but neither does she derive pleasure from the experience. There is never any suggestion that the men are forced or coerced into participating in the fantasy. these films narrativize a constantly fluctuating system by which gender identity is signified. Curran too erupts into violence. and he reacts by raping his ex-lover. it is not a fantasy that Garner chooses in the same way that Curran chooses to allow Tramell to tie him up with her silk scarf. Again. A few nights before my bypass I woke up and she tied me to the bed. Sex was a game to her. 181 At this point. The odd thing about this testimony is that it is considered extremely damaging to Carlson. regardless of the biological sex of the subjects. For Dulaney. However. and when he finally stops. She is depicted as a stimulating lover. he does so at the same sink. Forrest and Gallagher alternate as victim and victimizer: Forrest slashes her wrists. tell the court. Can you give the court an example? ROSTON. She always used to tell me it had to be her way. The femme-fatale films invoke this tyranny through the repeated use of scenarios of rape. Although female sadism and male masochism are thus shown to be erotic and consensual. GARRETT. How would you describe your sex life with her? ROSTON. Fatal Attraction stages a similar moment. GARRETT. The issue of control cuts to the heart of the theorizing of masochism. she seems to wind up enjoying herself. as if they have just had intercourse again. the final effect is not to reestablish fixed gender roles but instead to collapse them. Forrest hounds and harasses Gallagher. the spectator is left with the impression that whereas female sadism is erotic. When he tries to kill her. too. it was as if she were trying to push me as far as she could. Masochism is thus a kind of performance of the tyranny of gender.] GARRETT. from the woman’s perspective. In these films. Gallagher tries to kill Forrest. It was very intense. In the third and final phase. Even if the rape were positioned as a female fantasy. Consider the fact that the masochistic position is female and that the sadistic position is male. Given the conflation that takes place in the sadomasochistic relationship between female-masochist and male-sadist. As Lenzer asserts. her sexual control over her lover is viewed as evidence of her guilt. [. like many cinematic rape victims. Tramell has been teasing him but has not yet initiated sexual contact. When you say your sexual relations with Miss Carlson were intense. “what is affirmed [in the beating fantasy] is the power of the protagonist over the one maltreating him. it is quite clear that Tramell and Carlson play the sadist as part of a fantasy shared by both of the sexual partners. The creator of the phantasy is the one who controls reality in phantasy. the moment comes when he begins to question Carlson’s innocence. In his testimony. the corollary is that the masochistic woman is trying to render the man’s sadism more oppressive to him. Discussions of the film have focused on the extent to which it is possible to identify with Forrest. Roston describes a sexual scenario almost exactly like the one Carlson had enacted with him nights before. Smirnoff concludes. which tries to render the executioner’s task more oppressive. but it is important. the masochist wants to render the sadist uncomfortable with his own sadism. Whereas the sadist is expected to be in control. . nevertheless. instead. female masochism and male sadism are depicted in a context of rape and violation. but this is seen only in negative terms. that “there is no complementary agreement between the sadistic and the masochistic desire”. She got off on the control. from which they both derive pleasure. which is at once implied and problematized. although he simultaneously allows the phantasy to express his weakness” (320). Although she struggles at first. male sadism is dangerous. “This is the real meaning of the masochistic contract. She said she was going to fuck me like I had never been fucked before. In Fatal Attraction. although the fantasy is once again sadistic.” The implications of this argument are startling when viewed in light of the gendering of masochism. male sexual aggression is shown to be sadistic and nonconsensual. . Dulaney clearly feels that he has been deceived and is unimportant to her. gasping for breath. Applying the gendered model of masochism to Smirnoff’s equation. . Pain and humiliation can thus be understood to be the means rather than the end: by enacting in a greatly exaggerated form the pain and humiliation inherent in gendered relationships. This inversion of roles invokes Freud’s formulation of the beating fantasy. and only one achieves fulfillment. she is perched on the kitchen sink. ROSTON. he attempts to strangle her. Unlike Carlson. as does Deleuze. the courtroom erupts and has to be cleared before the questioning can continue. but I’m going to ask you to be more specific. Forrest tries to kill Gallagher. Rather than inscribing difference. the masochist hopes to force the man to recognize and renounce the sadistic nature of masculinity. only one of the partners is in control.] GARRETT.Deconstructing the Male Gaze GARRETT. Roston. I know this is difficult for you. The first time Gallagher and Forrest have sex. Well. rather. there is a moment in these films when the men become threatened by the passivity of their roles and respond with rape.

it dislocates identification with the male gaze. and a lawyer. Moreover. Instead. only this time. Psychoanalysis and Female Sexuality. Jane Gaines and Charlotte Heroq. 1991. 1919. Gertrud. Curran is slowly revealed to be as much of a killer as Tramell is: he has killed tourists. Indeed. she controls the film’s action until the end. Masquerade. Gaylyn. New York: Anchor. . Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke. Joan Riviere. although not destroying the binaries per se. like her. where she specializes in Women’s Studies. Patricia Erens. it is an active.” 1929. Jean McNeil. Smirnoff. “Masochism and Male Subjectivity. Psychoanalysis. as if to suggest that he is the object of a gaze constructed as at least partially female. Although this scene almost exactly duplicates the scene of Tramell as suspect. Sigmund. In Basic Instinct. Such a stance does not liberate women from gendered spectatorship. 1991. as the film progresses he is more and more elided with her.15–17 (1981): 12–15. Silverman. New York: Routledge. “Womanliness as a Masquerade. Samois. New Haven: College and UP. Gilles. Laura. He even is subjected to the same kind of inquiry she underwent in the interrogation scene. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Instead. 1989. ———. London: Routledge. New York: Zone. Riviere. This Sex Which Is Not One. Between the two protagonists. 2. rather. Silverman “Male” 31–66. and the Erotic Metamorphosis of Marlene Dietrich.” Framework 6. Studlar 229–49. these films depict these binaries as constantly shifting and fluid rather than rigidly predetermined and fixed.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1. Mulvey. and finally. predatory. stable identification is rendered difficult through constantly shifting gender positions that go beyond mere inversion of roles to deconstruct sexual difference and establish trans-sex identification. Femmes Fatales: Feminism. he resumes smoking and drinking. but at the very least. Coldness and Cruelty. For women viewing these films. 277–90. “Subjectivity” 2. repeating her lines and mirroring her experiences: like her. Confessional Writing and the Twentieth-Century Literary Imagination. “Masochism and Subjectivity. violent. I am indebted to Laura Frost and to her work on masochism for the inspiration for this essay. 1963. Rpt. She generously shared her insights. Bartky. 22. The narrativization of masochism disrupts easy identifications along gender lines. too. he has used cocaine and beaten a lie-detector test. 1990. Her book. see especially Silverman. there is no comfortable identification to be made. Ed. identification is constantly shifting as each in turn takes on sadistic or masochistic stances. Rpt. all of which have had a material impact on the formulation of my ideas. these films expose gender as constructed and performative while simultaneously deconstructing heterosexual desire and the controlling male gaze. as Roxy asserts. On the other hand. CUNY. Ed. is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan. “she likes me to watch. Miranda Sherwin is an assistant professor in the English department at the College of Staten Island. is inhabiting a female subject position? Or with a female protagonist like Carlson or Tramell who takes on the male-sadistic position and who controls the action and the male protagonist both? Are we to identify with figures who duplicate our biological sex or with figures who embody our experience of gender? These films render easy identifications along sex-gender lines problematic.” The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality. through his participation in masochism. by highlighting masochistic psychodynamics. She has apparently watched them have sex. Ed. 1985. Deleuze. As in Fatal Attraction.” Camera Obscura 17 (1988): 31–66. heterosexual sex functions as a front for lesbian desire: Tramell has been performing for her lover’s gaze. “A Child Is Being Beaten. Bloomington: Indiana UP. Doane. Trans. “Masculinity as Spectacle. Sandra Lee. Ithaca: Cornell UP. Tramell’s lesbian. is the extent to which identification with Gallagher is rendered problematic: he is an adulterer. and her time. 2. Vol. “Masochism. Is a male spectator more likely to identify with a male protagonist like Dulaney or Curran. Bloomington: Indiana UP. Joan. 97–122. 1992.3 (1975): 6–18. Trans. NOTES 1. Mary Ann. “On Masochism: A Contribution to the History of a Phantasy and Its Theory. 1990.” Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. 8. These films thus present a serious challenge to inherited theories of spectator- ship. he is the suspect. Ed. Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women. 229–49. in Masochism. “The Masochistic Contract. “The Great Divide: The Sexes at the Box Office. he is violent and attempts murder. Kaja.” Again. leather-clad lover. Film Theory. is included in the proceedings.” Framework 12 (1980): 2–9. in Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Trans. 1990. engaged stance taken in opposition to a male position associated with domination and sadism. ———. here a lone woman. See Samois for a feminist defense of sadomasochism for women. London: Routledge. he is exposed to the female gaze when Roxy. though. Ed. just as Tramell was literally exposed to the male gaze in the interrogation scene.” Screen 16. and she is given some powerful lines. Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. 1924. “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by Duel in the Sun. Freud. Philip Reiff. she enacts a revenge fantasy that anyone who has ever been rejected can enjoy.” Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. differences between the male and female protagonist are collapsed. Victor.182 JPF&T—Journal of Popular Film and Television On the one hand. he is played by Douglas. who. Irigaray. 209–20. Faludi. masochistic spectatorial identification with a female protagonist is not experienced as a passive and victimized stance. New York: Routledge. in Visual and Other Pleasures. “The Economic Problem in Masochism. the object of the gaze. 1969. Moreover. Ruitenbeek. when another woman gains control. For other noteworthy exceptions. Garner. in that they assign and reassign masculine and feminine values and positions regardless of biology. confronts him as he stands naked in the bathroom. Lenzer. New York: Collier.” New York Times 23 May 1993: H15. Equally interesting. 1966. dead. Boston: Alyson. therefore. Rpt. Studlar. her bibliography. ———. Luce. Ernest Jones. 7–140. Suzanna. 1981.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 50 (1969): 665–71. Trans. 1959. and Tramell’s theory that he was “sucked into” it and “like[d] it too much” has a ring of truth. a liar. 1991.2 (1975): 277–344. Alix and James Strachey. Hendrik M. she is insane. New York: Basic. Susan. masochistic spectatorship becomes an active position taken in response to and dialogue with images representing gender binaries. Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M.” Collected Papers. WORKS CITED Andrews. Steve. Neale.