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.|
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.
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.|
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?