In 1991, Susan Faludi published her landmark text, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, which argued that the 1980s saw the media perpetuate a series of myths and falsehoods in order to scare women against the strides they’d made during the feminist revolution of the 1970s. A large section of the book criticized movies of the late 1980s, written and directed by men, which told stories of miserable women whose lives were “ruined” by feminism.
With those films now turning 30 years old, the question is: Do they still show lives of frazzled desperation? Can the ‘80s backlash against second-wave feminism still be found in these films, or is there a new way of reclaiming them for the women of 2017?
The late ‘80s weren’t exactly the best time to be female, especially if you watched anything released in theaters. Eddie Murphy’s second stand-up comedy film, Raw, devotes nearly half of its runtime to criticizing newly empowered women, simultaneously talking up their presumed manipulativeness and stupidity. But this isn’t an example in isolation — mainstream Hollywood in 1987 especially felt the need to remind women of their place.
Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction is the film Faludi devotes most of her time to, and it has become synonymous with the critique of ‘80s feminism. Touted as the movie that “scared the pants on men,” Fatal Attraction sees Michael Douglas’ family man, Dan, threatened by the scheming working woman he had a one-night stand with, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). Faludi argues that Fatal Attraction holds up Forrest as an example of the barren career woman, so desperate for love, marriage and a child — the things she’s rejected for years — that she’s willing to kill for it.
Looking at Lyne’s filmography as a whole, past and present, it’s hard not to keep that image of Fatal Attraction going in 2017. Forrest starts out as a progressive woman, smart and competent in her career who’s seemingly driven mad by little more than Michael Douglas’ penis. But there’s a desire to reclaim Alex Forrest for 2017. Her craziness notwithstanding, Forrest is an example of the constantly shifting ground women are forced to stand on.
In the 1970s, women were told to shun domesticity, to seek their own careers and identities, only to spend the next decade being punished for that independence. It’s a similar path they tread now. They’re told to take care of themselves, yet deal with a government that daily tells them they can’t take care of themselves and need men to make decisions for them. Women are told to have children, yet condemned for the manner in which they have them, raise them, or decide not to have them. It’s enough to make any woman turn into an Alex Forrest.
In 2017 Fatal Attraction is a cautionary tale for women more than for men, reminding them of their inability to have it all. As much as Alex Forrest has accomplished in her personal life and career, the narrative reminds her that by society’s standards she’s unfulfilled without the white picket fence and house in the country that Dan and his family have. It’s a fact Alex herself isn’t even aware of until Dan callously cuts off contact with her after their passionate weekend. Dan wants to move on and pretend it never happened, and as a man he’s allowed to, even encouraged by the audience to kill her. The film’s intent in 1987 may have been to make Dan the hero, but with 30 years to mull it over, it’s hard to believe he didn’t have it coming.
Other films attempted to move away from denying women stability and offering them an “alternative” lifestyle, blending domesticity, career, and personal identity. Charles Shyer’s Baby Boom follows driven executive J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton) as she struggles to deal with her high-pressure job and the child she’s inherited from a deceased relative. Unlike Alex Forrest, J.C. has the job and the baby — the man in her life, played by Harold Ramis is equally driven and uninterested in children — but comes to the realization that “having it all” is a fantasy. Instead of becoming a murderous she-devil, J.C. adapts, moving to the country and starting a baby food conglomerate. The implications here, for Faludi, are that women are only able to succeed by conforming to their motherhood and working within that domain; there is no room for outside careers separate from their mothering.
Baby Boom is one of the backlash-era films that’s aged the best. Though J.C. does give up her career, it’s one built on mansplaining and sexism. J.C.’s boss tells her the facts of life, that as a man he can succeed in business and have his family on the side, whereas everyone knows she can’t. Later, when J.C. is acclimating to her new child, she’s stabbed in the back and replaced by a young male upstart — proof that in the business world being male is what’s important, not experience. Instead of backing down, J.C. takes time out for herself, learns new skills and becomes a one-woman entrepreneur, her own boss free of any male influence. J.C. is able to have it all with a fair bit of compromise, but she’s able to be a good mother and strong businesswoman, and she doesn’t have to get married to achieve it. (Her relationship with the kind-hearted vet, played by Sam Shepard, doesn’t end with them making any domestic promises.)
These two films are just the tip of the iceberg from the backlash era. Other films that have aged like Baby Boom include The Witches of Eastwick and Dirty Dancing. The point is that while Faludi’s criticisms are still valid in 2017, it is possible to reinvestigate her examples and recalibrate them for a more enlightened audience. Movie characters, particularly of the female persuasion, don’t have to be pitted against each other, but should be allowed to exist with their problems, past and present, intact.
Kristen Lopez enjoys rabbit stew in Sacramento.