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Toby Young
Monday 27th July 2009

Basic Instinct


Having seen ‘Basic Instinct’, it’s difficult to see what all the fuss was about. It’s a lightweight adolescent fantasy, fizzy pop rather than the hard stuff we’d been promised. Like Paul Verhoeven’s previous squibs, ‘RoboCop’ and ‘Total Recall’, its immorality is too skin-deep to give offence. This is nihilism played for laughs, no more disturbing than a modern comic book. Yet ‘Basic Instinct’ has caused almost as much outrage on the American left as the Gulf War.

Ever since a version of the script found its way into the hands of gay and lesbian activists in San Francisco, the film has been dogged by protest groups. The central character—a bisexual nymphomaniac serial killer—has been deemed a “negative” sexual stereotype. Judy Sisneros of Queer Nation says ‘Basic Instinct’ adds to “the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of gays and lesbians in movies, with its psychological profiles of lesbians and bi women as evil, diabolical.”

As if that wasn’t enough, the film has been accused of glamourising voilence against women. Apparently this refers to the scene in which police psychiatrist Beth Gardner (Jeanne Tripplehorn) indulges in a highly-charged bout of sado-masochistic sex with San Francisco detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas). “Date Rape!” screamed the protestors.

For the past decade, American political activists have devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to scrutinising popular culture for “negative” stereotypes of minorities. ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ was criticised for including a “psycho queer” and ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’ was dubbed ‘Natal Attraction’ by feminist for implying that working mothers neglect their children. Indeed, Hollywood studios have even begun to insert politically incorrect scenes in the hope that the resulting controversy will be good for box office.

The problem with this brand of political activism is not, as some critics have claimed, that there is something insidious about a group of campus radicals trying to impose their view of what is politically acceptable on the rest of the country. After all, the majority of Americans probably share their antipathy to racism, sexism and homophobia, even if they are a lot more relaxed about it. The problem is that it vastly underestimates the intelligence and sophistication of contemporary audiences.

The assumption must be that the viewing public has difficulty separating what they see on screen from the reality of everyday life. This may sound far-fetched, but why worry about how a bisexual woman is portrayed in ‘Basic Instinct’ if you don’t think audiences will take her as representative of real gay people? Why does it matter whether Jeanne Tripplehorn enjoys being knocked about by Michael Douglas unless you assume that her behaviour will be seen as typical of women in general?

A similar assumption underlies the efforts of the Broadcasting Standards Council to keep sex, violence and swearing off our television screens. In both cases, audiences are regarded as little more than savages, incapable of distinguishing between fiction and reality and liable at any moment to start copying what they’ve just seen. It is only if audiences are seen in this light that the need arises to protect them from the ominously named “negative” images. In an ideal world, these lumpen-proles would not be allowed to watch anything more unsettling than ‘Sesame Street’.

In reality, of course, audiences are far more sophisticated than this. They know that life isn’t like the movies, that Hollywood distorts and simplifies in order to dramatise. There’s a big difference between suspending disbelief and believing everything you see. They knowingly allow their prejudices and superstitions to govern their reactions, confident that they will return to normal when the lights go up. From the opening scene of ‘Basic Instinct’ you know that it’s a sensationalist joy ride, no more realistic than ‘Hook’ (though a good deal more enjoyable).

The trouble with the effort to make movies more politically correct is that it assumes racial and sexual stereotypes originate in popular culture. The belief is that if only there were more “positive” images of minorities, prejudice and bigotry would fall by the wayside. A generation of political activists have devoted all their energy to improving the condition of blacks, women and gays in the fictional worlds thrown up by mass culture—while neglecting the causes of discrimination in the real world.

No greater proof of this could be offered than the recent riots in Los Angeles. In the past 25 years, American popular culture has been completely transformed by the contribution of blacks. Whether in music, film or television, African-Americans have had a far greater impact than equally numerous white minorities, such as Irish-, German- or Italian-Americans. Yet last week’s riots were every bit as bad as the Watts riots 25 years ago. One has to conclude that the political revolution which has made American mass culture a beacon of racial equality has had no impact on the real causes of racial conflict.

One of the few things Mayor Tom Bradley did last Thursday when the riots were in full swing was to insist that the farewell episode of the ‘Cosby Show’ be broadcast as scheduled. Needless to say, the presence on prime time network television of America’s most popular black entertainer did little to calm the unrest.

The Guardian, May 8m 1992

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