The Unicorn Scale: Basic Instinct

11/27/2018

Welcome back, readers! This review will be a doozy, since the film in question is so polarizing for the community. It’s notorious, it’s indelible, and depending on your perspective, you either love it or hate it. That’s right – we are finally covering one of the big baddies of bi representation in film – Basic Instinct.

This choice came about because my editor and I were talking about the whole spectrum (as it were) of queer representation over the years in film, and in this column in particular. I know that in the past few months I’ve mostly examined more positive, multi-dimensional portrayals of queer characters that cropped up in movies and TV in the past five to ten years. And that’s fantastic. But I also think it’s important to show some of the less savory tales that also made an impression on our general zeitgeist. If nothing else, it can show how far we’ve come as a culture. So one of the first ones that bubbled up in my brain was Paul Verhoeven’s infamous film.

Basic Instinct focuses on a rather seedy San Francisco detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) assigned to the lurid and brutal murder of a former rock star, stabbed to death mid-coitus with an ice pick. Signs point to one of his lovers, the bi crime novelist Catherine Trammel (Sharon Stone), who just so happened to write a crime novel where one character died in the exact same manner as her paramour.

I have to admit at least a decade has passed since I first watched the film. I’ve seen the infamous interrogation clip (and its parodies) multiple times throughout the years, but I only remembered snatches of the plot. But as I became more comfortable with my bi identity and moving within queer circles, the film got many sneering references for how it portrayed bi characters. Was it really as bad as everyone said? Or have we collectively condemned a perfectly acceptable neo-noir erotic thriller? I decided to investigate to see if the characters could be redeemed – or if I wanted to remove my memory of re-watching the film with an ice pick.

Before I continue, I should throw in a few pointers. First and foremost, this review should include a trigger warning: depictions of sexual assault are on display in this film. Also, this review will contain spoilers in case readers have not yet seen the flick. Finally, if you are unfamiliar with the Unicorn Scale metric, you may want to look at the original article.

What I Liked:

Ho, boy. So. Basic Instinct is a much harder watch than I remembered. It is even more to figure out what I liked about it, if anything – especially about its bi component. Catherine seems to be bi but homo-romantic. It is nice to see outward physical displays of affection on screen with confidence and without shame for same-sex attractions – a rarity now, and pretty much unheard of in 1992 mainstream cinema. (Though I have to note that while all of these gestures seem to stem from passion, none emerge from any sense of warmth.) Still, it’s hard to take this film seriously when that same-sex attraction is introduced by Catherine grabbing Roxy’s breast in front of Nick when they are first in a scene together. Subtle this film ain’t.

Oh, there is one thing I will begrudgingly give credit for – in one of its sex scenes, we witness Nick giving Catherine cunnilingus – considered soft porn in some corners, but it was nice to see that sex act displayed in a mainstream film, at least prioritizing a woman’s pleasure for about seven seconds of film.

What I Didn’t Like:

Where. Do. I. Start.

I wanted to find some enjoyment in this movie. I really did. I love viewing movies with a campy lens, and considering the setup of the premise, Basic Instinct seemed ripe for that. But there was so much I found grating or downright stomach-churning it was truly difficult to finish the viewing.

Every character that is bi or queer or anything remotely non-straight perpetuates the bis-as-evil/manipulative/cheaters trope. All of Catherine’s bi exploits are viewed through Nick’s male gaze or an exploitative angle. Not only that, but the straight characters don’t fare much better. There is a revolting scene where (at least in the cut I saw) Nick rapes another character – ignoring her multiple pleas to stop (I was surprised at this turn and felt physically sick watching the scene play out.)

Rough sex is done without consent or checking in. BDSM tendencies are also, in turn, not practiced with safety or even basic concern. There are maybe two people of color in the whole film – both of whom get ignored or get doors slammed in their face. (San Francisco was not that white in 1992 – trust.) And honestly, the plot is so convoluted, overcooked, and ludicrous, it’s obvious the screenwriter wrote it in 13 days.

Perhaps the saddest part of this whole enterprise is how indelible Instinct’s impression was of bi+ folx on the cultural stage. The film unleashed a whole enterprise of sordid tripe, and its stereotypes are still a touchstone for biphobes both within and without the queer community. The fetishization of Catherine’s sexuality (and that of other bis in the movie) does no one any favors – least of all the bi+ community. Now that I’ve seen the whole movie again, I get why it got picketed even before its initial film release.

The Rating:

Despite all of its sordid scenes of sexuality, no one uses the term “bisexual” in the movie for any of the characters. We only see their sexuality exploited – poorly – for its use in the plot. And honestly, it’s not even that fun of a film – even when I’m not being a queer warrioress. Basic Instinct is still a thorn in the side of decent bi representation, and I wanted to take a shower as soon as the credits rolled. The only good thing that came out of my viewing was a renewed gratefulness for the better bi representation now easily available to modern audiences.

I’m gonna go watch Rosa Diaz GIFs from Brooklyn Nine-Nine for a palate cleanser. 

Jennie Roberson
Jennie Roberson is a comedic actress and screenwriter currently living in Los Angeles. She just finished her first novel (a bi coming-of-age tale, naturally) and hopes to share it with the world soon. When she's not busy binging on Star Trek or dreaming of her future cat army, you can find her occasional thoughts between mountains of re-tweets at her Twitter handle, @JennieRoberson.