Body Double as Body Politic: Psychosocial Myth and Cultural Binary in Fatal Attraction

Article excerpt

When Fatal Attraction appeared in 1987 it was generally dismissed as a formulaic Hollywood horror movie. The narrative is all too predictable (particularly for those familiar with Adrian Lyne's other work): a happily married Manhattan attorney Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) engages in a weekend sexual encounter with a single woman named Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) while his family is out of town. The woman refuses to relinquish the relationship and threatens to destroy his domestic life. Neither Lyne nor screenwriter James Deardon are interested in investigating the dynamics of marital infidelity or the motivations driving the husband's behaviour. Instead the film retreats to the conventions of the horror-film genre precisely because it is unable to resolve cultural conflicts and sexual anxieties that are split off and 'projected' on to the cinema screen.

Just as dreams, fairytales and myths require interpretation to yield their underlying psychosocial significance, so too the monstrous alien forces and violent images of the typical 'slasher' movie contain unconscious and unresolved material that are never commented upon in any conscious way. In its inability to express or wrestle with ambivalence using insight capacities the popular genre film thus exhibits the 'blind spot' that has led to the characterization of the screen itself as 'something of a symptom' by film theorist Mayne (1990, p. 41).

In this context, reading the film as cultural myth, manifesting the contemporary collective psyche and socio-political reality of its time, proves a more productive enterprise. Fatal Attraction belongs to a group of Hollywood films that emerged in the postfeminist period of the nineteen eighties and early nineties which might well be called 'backlash' films, a popular cultural response to changes in women's economic and political status. Such films as Sea of Love (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Black Widow (1987), Disclosure (1994) and Working Girl (1988) depict women who either through sexual seduction or professional power seek to dominate and destroy a male protagonist by their drive to possess, devour or annihilate him. Psychoanalytic interpretations of the cinematic convention of the predatory woman stalking a helpless male (Lurie, 1981-2; Modelski, 1988; Gabbard and Gabbard, 1993) have suggested that Hollywood mainstream cinema, for the most part produced and directed by males (although Fatal Attraction was co-produced by a woman, Sherry Lansing), are projections of male anxiety about their 'castration' and loss of potency--i.e. loss of exclusive dominance and entitlement in the workplace, the bedroom, the military and other institutional domains. As such, these films represent a form of cultural myth-making which seeks to regain a sense of control over the social forces threatening traditional patriarchal order and stability. The myth in these backlash films is embodied in the cinematic image of the female predator, who represents the monstrous or murderous nature of feminine power, and the social message behind the myth is that women who have large appetites for competition, exertion of will and assertion of their own needs must indeed be monsters--unnatural, grotesque and most decidedly 'unfeminine'. Ultimately, they must be destroyed and contained if order--i.e. male-dominated order--is to be restored. Thus Fatal Attraction's use of the horror-genre template goes beyond cinematic convention to serve as an expression of the unconscious need to kill off the invading monster who would destroy not only hearth and home but also the fundamental organization of power and dominance in domestic life, where a man's home is indeed his castle. The female 'monster' in Fatal Attraction becomes, in the most literal and symbolic sense, a man's worst nightmare.

Beyond the psychosocial context, however, which must also include acknowledgment of mounting anxiety in the nineteen eighties about the AIDS epidemic, it is the film's projected subjectivity of husband/lover Dan Gallagher as he relates to the two women in his life that best reflects the gendered binary informing the cultural construction of the feminine. …