Case Study 3: Basic Instinct (1992)

Basic Instinct (1992) directed by Paul Verhoeven is a post-noir film starring Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas. The film follows police detective Nick Curran (Douglas) as he investigates the murder of a wealthy rock star. Through this investigation he meets the prime suspect Catherine Tramell (Stone), with whom he begins an intense affair. Tramell denies her involvement in the murder but seems to enjoy being investigated by the police. Tramell is presented as the murderer throughout the whole film until the final few scenes when we learn she is not to blame. However, the very final scene, which shows Tramell in possession of the original murder weapon, causes viewers to doubt whether she is completely innocent.

Through this case study I will explore how Tramell is presented as a criminal, despite being supposedly innocent, and also how she is presented as a wealthy and extremely sexual woman. Her supposed criminality seems to be interwoven with her sexual promiscuity and homosexuality, as well as her fearless independence as she manipulates and plays with the men investigating her. I argue that Tramell, in many ways, is a classic femme fatale as her whole character is built upon her sexuality but, at the same time, she is also not a classic femme fatale in that we do not see her commit a crime, and her guilt is never truly confirmed.

Throughout most of the film, Tramell’s guilt is assumed and she enjoys being investigated by the police, especially Detective Curran. When she is questioned by police, she explicitly exposes her sexuality. She reveals that she had a purely sexual relationship with the murder victim and tells the police that she ‘enjoyed fucking him.’ She defines herself as a sexually promiscuous woman by telling the police about her sexual activity and the type of sexual activity she enjoys. This is culminated in one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history, where Tramell opens and crosses her legs to reveal her naked body to the male investigators. Tramell therefore operates outside of the norms of idealized femininity as she is open and expressive about her sexual desire. Society expects women to be sexually available for the men who desire them but not to have or admit to any of their own sexual desires. As well as this, Tramell is bisexual as we see many scenes where she kisses her girlfriend Roxie and tells Curran about her sexual relationship with her.

According to Messerschmidt’s situated action theory, Tramell does not directly enact gender through her crime, because we never see her commit crime and her guilt is never truly revealed. However, we assume her to be guilty because she conforms to the sexual and manipulative ways of the traditional femme fatale. We believe that she is asserting her independent, resourceful, sexual, manipulative ‘badass’ femininity through crime because we assume her to be guilty. We assume her to be guilty because she exists outside the idealized norms of demure, sexually restrained (but still sexually attractive), heterosexual femininity. Therefore, Messerschmidt’s situated action theory provides us with an interesting framework to understand that criminal women are women who exist outside of their gender and sexuality norms. Of course, as previously discussed, this is a far too simplified way of exploring gender and crime, because it essentially argues that only women who do not conform to idealized gender and sexuality norms are criminals.

We know from the work explored in this project, particularly Daly’s gendered pathways approach, that there are many contributing factors to a woman’s motivation to commit crime and that these are often societal, e.g. a poor socio-economic status. Tramell, like many tradition femme fatales, is extremely wealthy. The police officers investigating her reveal that she has inherited a family fortune worth over $100 million, and we see that she lives in two exuberant homes in San Francisco. This wealth rules out a need for money to ensure survival as her motive to commit crime. It is not clear whether Tramell has a background of abuse or neglect. We only learn that her parents died in a boating accident when she was young; this means we cannot knowingly label her as a ‘harmed and harming woman’ or a ‘battered woman.’ Drug use is referenced a few times throughout the film, and Tramell indicates that she used cocaine with the murder victim, her boyfriend. It is not identified, however, that she committed any crime because of her drug use.

The only possible motive Tramell has to supposedly commit murder is her interest, and border-line obsession, with writing her crime novels. The way in which the wealthy rock star is murdered directly copies the crime story featured in the book Tramell write a few years prior. Further, Tramell surrounds herself with people she knows to be murderers as she claims they are inspiration for her writing. In particular, she tells Detective Curran that she is only having an affair with him because he is giving her inspiration for her new book about a detective. As such, I identified in my dataset that Tramell’s motivation to commit the crime she is suspected of was her sociopathy as she plays mind games with those around her and seems to have no remorse or feeling for the murder victim.

Tramell’s supposed criminality fits Messerschmidt’s situated action theory more than it does Daly’s gendered pathways to crime. Therefore, this is not an accurate presentation of real female criminality because we know Messerschmidt’s theory oversimplifies the connection between gender and crime.