Monday, July 2, 2012

Watching Cruel Intentions as an Adult: Why Did Anyone Let Me Watch This?

Cruel Intentions came out in 1999; I was 14 years old. That next summer, it was one of the movies on the premium channels that played over and over and over again. We had satellite, so we had an HBO-West, HBO-East, HBO-from Mars, HBO-Sexy (I might be misremembering a few of those, but you get the idea). Basically, for that summer, you could turn on the TV at anytime day or night and watch Cruel Intentions. I remember watching it a few times, and I remember it being on in the background far, far too often.

Recently (probably due to my newfound exploration of Buffy), Netflix suggested that I re-watch it. Powerless against the suggestion of Netflix, I consented, remembering vaguely that I once thought this was a decent movie.

Oh, little teenage self, you were wrong.

This is a horrible movie!

In fact, I don't know if I've ever seen such a blatant display of misogyny wrapped up with such a pretty little bow.

Okay, maybe there are a few contenders.

Basic Plot 

Warning: If for some reason you haven't seen a movie that's 13 years old and simultaneously don't want that movie spoiled, you shouldn't read this. Also, if Netflix got to you too and you're up-to-date on your Cruel Intentions knowledge, you can skip this part. Finally, there's some pretty frank discussion of sex coming up. Consider yourself warned. 

The plot of Cruel Intentions appears convoluted, but is really pretty simple. Sebastian (Ryan Phillipe) is a good-looking, smooth-talking high schooler who gets his kicks tricking girls into having sex with him through empty compliments and promises. His step-sister, Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Geller) is an equally conniving teen who has fun psychologically tormenting all of her acquaintances. Together, the two of them are a mix of sexual frustration, a psychopathic lack of empathy, and teenage angst. 

Sebastian reads a magazine article featuring the "Virgin Manifesto" of Annette (Reese Witherspoon) and decides that he needs a real challenge for a change, so he's going to make it his goal to deflower her while she's in town for the summer. Kathryn says he can't do it, and so they make a bet. If he wins, he gets to "put it anywhere" while finally having semi-incestuous sex with Kathryn. If she wins, she gets his expensive fancy car. 

In the meantime, there are some subplots where Kathryn makes it her personal goal to ruin the life of younger high school student and her own mentee, Cecile (Selma Blair), who is both (unknowingly) dating Kathryn's ex and falling in love with her (black) music instructor, Ronald (Sean Patrick Thomas). Kathryn makes her crush with Ronald known to Cecile's mother which (because he's black) causes an uproar as she forbids them from seeing one another. Meanwhile, Kathryn convinces Sebastian to hasten virgin Cecile's "awakening," so that she will sleep with Ronald and ruin Kathryn's ex's reputation. 

Sebastian sleeps with Cecile (more on that in a moment) while simultaneously wooing Annette (to win the bet). She finally gives in (more on that in a moment, too), but he realizes he's actually in love with her, flips out, and confesses his confusion to Kathryn. Then he sleeps with Annette for real, Kathryn convinces him that he can't change his wild ways and he'll just break her heart, so he breaks up with her, leaving her devastated. Then he figures out Kathryn was just messing with him, he writes Annette a love letter. Meanwhile, Kathryn convinces Ronald (who she has also been sleeping with, just for funsies) that Sebastian beat her. Ronald, playing the big protector, goes to confront Sebastian about his abuse just as Sebastian is going to meet Annette to see if she'll forgive him. The three converge in a road (cause who fights on a sidewalk?) and Annette gets thrown in front of a car. Sebastian dives to save her--cause he's in love, clearly, and dies. Cecile and Annette publish and distribute his posthumous journal cataloguing both his and Kathryn's incredibly messed up lives, and Kathryn is ruined (and probably arrested for cocaine use). The end. 

The Problems

Okay, so this is a movie completely predicated on sexual drama and soap opera-like hijinks. But I'm not a prude, and I don't think there's anything wrong with some sexually suggestive plot lines in a good film. The problem with this movie is that the messages it sends are positively abhorrent. Let's take a closer look at a few of those plot points 

Sebastian Commits Sexual Assault, and That's Just Fine

We already known that Sebastian's whole identity is tied up in sexual predation. He coerces teenage girls into having sex with him through lies and peer pressure. 

Then, when it comes to Cecile, he just out-and-out commits sexual assault. 

He invites her over to talk about her love with Ronald, gives her long island iced teas until she's drunk, then tells her he will call her mother (when she's supposed to be grounded) if she doesn't let him give her a kiss. She very clearly says no, but he picks up the phone and, terrified, she consents to one kiss. 

He then starts taking off her pants and says that he wants to give her a kiss "there." He performs oral sex and the next scene we see is a disheveled-looking Cecile. 

The implication is that she had an orgasm and therefore must have "enjoyed" the interaction. Even so, in the very next scene we see her confiding in Kathryn that she was taken advantage of and doesn't know what to do. Kathryn convinces her that she just needs some more sex, so she then has sex with Sebastian. 

After she loses her virginity, she turns into a stereotypical "slut" who is constantly trying to get Sebastian to let her take a shower with him or have sex with him again, even after he physically throws her to the floor in disinterest. 

So here we have a man who coldly and calmly physically and sexually assaults a young woman and somehow he's supposed to be the hero of the story, not because he recognizes the damage he's done to the women in his life and regrets it, but because he falls in love. 

And while we're at it . . . 

Cecile Is a Stereotype Who Turns into a Stereotype

Cecile's entire existence within the film is as a stereotype. She starts out a stereotype of the doe-eyed virgin who is too naive to function normally within her society. Everything from the inflection of her voice to her clueless discussions about sex suggest that she is at the bottom of the teenage social pecking order. 

The message is clear: virgins are losers. 

That persona continues for much of the film, even while she's trying to deal with her attraction to Ronald (Kathryn secretly mocks her for saying "peace out" to him in a moment of sexual tension) and while kissing Kathryn for "practice." 

However, the moment--and I mean this literally, the very moment--that she loses her virginity, her entire persona shifts. One moment she is laying on the bed asking if she's supposed to feel this sore, and the next she is climbing on Sebastian and saying that she likes it best when she's on top. With one sexual encounter, she instantly transforms from the stereotype of the naive virgin . . . into the stereotype of the annoying "slut." 

Because she's annoying, it's presented as acceptable that Sebastian physically throw her body around as if she is a rag doll. This message is equally clear: women who have sex are sluts, and sluts are completely expendable. 

Kathryn is Evil (A Slut with Power)

There's a few complications to the "sluts don't count" narrative, though. Kathryn's character is definitely portrayed as slutty. She's seen performing oral sex on her drunkenly passed out ex-boyfriend, hiding Ronald under her bed to make a big show out of having sex with him, and constantly trying to seductively tease Sebastian about the sex she might or might not have with him. 

Unlike Cecile, however, she is not shown as an expendable commodity that can be exchanged for any other woman. She has power, and power makes her more than just a slut, she's an evil slut. 

The end of the movie is supposed to be a climatic tale of revenge because Kathryn is finally getting what she deserves. To be sure, she's a terrible person. She makes bets over people's virginity and she has made it her personal hobby to psychologically torment everyone around her--and she's good at it. She's tricked the adults around her into thinking she's wholesome while willingly putting girls like Cecile into harm's way without a second thought. She's not nice. 

But we're supposed to cheer her descent because it allows Sebastian to win from beyond the grave. She's the villain of the film, and he's the hero. She stands for manipulation and greed, and he stands as the poor pawn who didn't know what to do with himself until he met a woman who wouldn't immediately have sex with him. 

Why is it that Sebastian can sexually and physically assault women with little to no reformation and yet it is Kathryn who is supposed to be the "true" villain? Perhaps it's because this film is sexist, sexist, sexist. 

Because Kathryn takes the horrible quality of being a horrible slutty slut slut who has sex while simultaneously being a woman who commands power over her own life, she can be nothing but evil. 

It's almost as if women can't win in this film. But wait . . . 

You're Not a Slut if You're Really, Really, Truly in LOVE

There's one more woman who gets to have sex. Annette. 

After scene after scene of her steadfastly insisting that she is going to remain a virgin, she breaks down after Sebastian tells her she's a hypocrite because she's looking love in the face so there's no need to wait for love. Somehow, this incredibly weak argument breaks through all of her defenses and she locks the door and starts undressing. 

And when you see love, you must immediately undress. Sorry. Rules. 
But wait! She won't become just another pawn in Sebastian's game of sexual exploitation. What will save her? Why, Sebastian of course. He's man enough to walk out of the room, leaving her half-dressed and thinking there's something wrong with her. See? He's a hero.

Of course, they're going to have real sex. It will be gentle and loving. There will be soft music and romantic lighting. He'll ask "are you okay?" in the middle of it. In fact, did you read Caperton's interesting Feministe piece about ridiculous deflowering scenes in romance novels? This is pretty much exactly like that

And because it was gentle and kind and full of love, we're supposed to forget that he coerced her into it to begin with and that he has left a series of abused women in his wake. 

And what about Annette? Well, like Cecile, her sexual experience took her from naive to worldly, but unlike Cecile, she's supposed to be likable. Plus, she gets the added bonus of having her lover die, so she doesn't have to be a slutty slut anymore. Instead, she can ride off into the sunset with the knowledge that, by God, she did the right thing. Sure, she slept with a man who she thought loved her when he was actually trying to win a bet that would allow him to "put it anywhere" while he had sex with his step-sister, but in the end he came around, and that proves that true love--and the right kind of sex--can fix anything, even felonies. 

Why Does it Matter?

So, I watched this movie a lot as a teenager, and yet I managed to grow up and have a perfectly normal, healthy marriage. No harm, no foul, right?

Well, I certainly didn't take this film as a literal map to how I should think about sex and relationships, but that doesn't mean that some of the subtle messages didn't get to me. 

I definitely got the message that girls who weren't having sex were losers and girls who were having sex were sluts. Sure, this movie wasn't the only place I got that message, but it didn't do anything to dispel it either. 

Perhaps most damagingly, though, I got the message that "bad boys" can be reformed by "true love." Annette is the character to emulate here. She is the catalyst for Sebastian's change and therefore the central point of tension for the film as a whole. Furthermore, she gets to keep her characterization as a kind and level-headed person, even after she has sex. If anything Annette's character represents a path out of the double-standard bind of loser if you don't, slut if you do. She gets to have sex and be a good person. How does she do it? By changing a man from a jerk to a lover. 

The message is that all a woman has to do is stick by a man she thinks she loves no matter what. It doesn't matter how he treats other women. It doesn't matter that he's been lying to you for the entire duration of your relationship. It doesn't matter that he's violent and unpredictable. It only matters that you love him and that you keep loving him until he loves you back. 

And that, my friends, is a dangerous message. 

What Other Movies?

I never would have thought about just how damaging the messages in Cruel Intentions are if I hadn't re-watched it as an adult. 

What movies have you re-watched and found appalling in retrospect?


  1. I think this film was based on Dangerous Liaisons, which I really love. I'm trying to think about what would make DL acceptable to me but CI totally hate-worthy. I think the difference is John Malkovich.

    1. I haven't seen or read Dangerous Liaisons, but I've heard a lot of people say that it's good.

    2. Hi. I came to your blog from the Django article in BlogHer, and I've kept reading. Good stuff. Had to comment on this one.

      I haven't seen CI, but I have seen DL. You must see DL; it's terrific. That said... the story lines in CI and DL are similar. CI sounds crude as compared to DL. I wonder if the superb acting and pleasantries of DL make it more acceptable, even though the story is as demeaning in its treatment of women.

    3. Hi Aimee,
      Thanks for reading! I'm definitely going to have to check out DL. A lot of people have said that even though CI is based off of it, it somehow pulls the same themes together a lot better. I want to see how that plays out.

  2. This is so true. I'm a huge fan of Reese Witherspoon, but I recently watched this movie for the first time in forever and I completely agree. It's such a skewed, disgusting look at the stereotypes. What's the line between entertainment and perpetuating harmful stereotypes?

  3. Thank you for posting this, I recently watched CI with a friend who recommended it for being a 'so-bad-it's-good' chick flick, but I felt uncomfortable watching it the entire time it was on, especially during the scene where Sebastian sexually assaults Cecile. However, the thing that amazed me was that when I came home to see the internet's response to this scene in particular, I found nothing. Maybe I haven't looked hard enough, but your article is the first I have seen that has picked up on the extremely twisted and damaging messages in CI, so thank you.

  4. I didn't find too much bringing up the damaging messages, either. And since it is set in a high school, I think it was particularly popular among teenagers when it came out (I don't know if teens still watch it much today).

  5. The character of Kathryn was the sole reason i loved this film. She's also the perfect embodiment of it.
    She pretends to be what society sees as good, but really does whatever she wants.
    The film is the same, it suggests that Annette is the heroine and Kathryn is the Villain, it suggests everything you have pointed out about the power of true love etc. But when you look past the surface it tells a different story.

    Kathryn is the heroine: She's the girl you want to be. Her clothing, bedroom, reputation and power are what is cool and what is desirable within this movie. She not only charms and manipulates the characters but also the audience. She tells you what to think of the other characters, what the storyline is, what the cruel intentions universe is like.

    I watched this film as a teen and it taught me that I didn't want that sappy true love (like that between Annette and Sebastian) but that I wanted to be like Kathryn. Specifically that i wanted to have her wardrobe, her hair, her intellect, her control/authority, and her ability to seduce. I wanted her power, to decide for myself. Did i want a coke problem, bulimia and the satisfaction of destroying idiotic child-like virgins? No. But her relationship with Sebastian (before he falls for Annette), their obvious chemistry, care, understanding and respect is what I wanted.

    This is of course from a teenage girls perspective, but at that age to have power or any control was exceptionally desirable. Therefore so was Kathryn, she was the one to emulate. It isn't that i wanted to make the same choices as her, I didn't want to be a drug addict or bulimic. But I wanted her power. A power that only comes from knowing what you want, getting what you want, and not letting anyone tell you who you are or what you should do.

    Again this is my female perspective. The notions of manhood within this film are also extremely interesting!

  6. DL and CI are both demeaning in their treatment to women, mostly because society IS demeaning to them.

  7. The author of this blog, Ms. Michelle Parrinello-Cason is missing a
    key element of discussion relating to the Cruel Intentions (CI) movie.
    This may blow your minds, so consider yourselves warned and please stick
    with me.

    The movie is a story about addiction. Plain and
    simple. The fact that the main characters come from wealthy and
    powerful East Coast families, doesn't really matter. The fact that the
    main characters are young adults, and socialites also doesn't matter.
    The setting, and social class is interchangeable, but in my opinion made
    the movie a little more interesting. Let me explain why.

    matters is Kathryn is a drug addict, and Sebastian is a sex addict. We
    clearly see Kathryn enjoying cocaine in her opening scene, and in excess
    at various points throughout the movie. We also see that Sebastian's
    sexual urges, behaviors, and thoughts appear to be extreme in frequency,
    and are out of his control. The nature of addiction has lulled both
    Kathryn and Sebastian into thinking they are in control of their
    behaviors, but just the opposite is true. Addiction drives their every

    Because addiction not only impacts the
    addict, it also affects the behavior of those around them. So, we don't
    need to get into Cecile, Ronald, the parents, or their "friends"

    The movie focuses on a bet between
    Sebastian and Kathryn, which relates to sex and perceived reputation.
    Addiction causes addicts to lie, cheat, manipulate, and deceive those
    around them. Sebastian wants to boast his reputation by sleeping with
    the new headmaster's daughter, and Kathryn somehow wants to boast hers
    by having everyone think the new headmaster's daughter is a slut. Here
    is were addiction comes in. Sebastian's sex addiction is causing him to
    agree to the bet, so that he will feed sexual perversion to it.
    Kathryn's drug addiction made her propose the bet, so that she would
    preserve her wholesome reputation, so that no one would ever suspect her
    unbridled abuse of cocaine.

    With this in mind, every
    character's behavior relates to Sebastian's and Kathryn's addictions. I
    know this is shocking, but I do not have time to write up specific
    examples, so re-watch the movie with this in mind. Thank you.

  8. Pretty sure the constant fear that something somewhere might pose a threat somehow is a key factor in both feminism... and schizophrenia. As is the delusional perception of grand conspiracies like Patriarchy. There never was a movie made not profiling a male (white, specifically) as an evil predator that did not offend the sensabilities of the vigilant feminist. They share an utter lack of concern for the impact their actions have on society and other people, much like a sociopath, as well. Feminism is a mental disease.

  9. Feminism is nothing more and nothing less than a belief that women should have the same rights and representations as men. As with any group, be it racial, religious, political, there will always be an extremist example but this can't account for the vast group of women, and men, who label themselves feminists. The film showed the victory of the virginal and naive women rather than the female lead who exhibited traditional male traits such as use of power, desire for sexual satisfaction and social power. Their actions can only bring a richer society, more equal and just than those in which misogynists like you exist. And I do say misogyny as there isn't a single woman who doesn't want or deserve the same respect, at the most basic level, than her male counterpart.