Case Study 2: Fatal Attraction (1987)

Fatal Attraction (1987) directed by Adrien Lyne is a post-noir film starring Glenn Close and Michael Douglas. The film follows Dan Gallagher (Douglas) as he has a one-night stand with Alex Forrest (Close) and attempts to hide it from his wife. However, Forrest does not let Gallagher go so easily. Forrest threatens suicide, claims she is pregnant with Gallagher’s child, befriends his wife, stalks him, vandalizes his car, and murders his child’s pet rabbit, all in an attempt to win Gallagher back. In the final scenes of the film, Forrest breaks into Gallagher’s house and attempts to kill his wife. Gallagher murders Forrest in order to protect his wife and himself.

Through this case study I wish to delve into theories about women’s involvement in crime in order to determine whether the femme fatale of this film is an accurate presentation of a real female criminal.  I argue, that in fact, Alex Forrest’s character is not an accurate presentation of female criminality. The film exposes Forrest as insane and irrational in order to present her as an evil, mad woman. Not only is she evil and mad, she also does not fit into the ideals of femininity as she is a single, childless, working woman. This contrasts with the other woman of this film, Dan Gallagher’s wife, who does fit the ideals of femininity as she is married, a mother and is reliant on her husband as the bread winner of the family.

Forrest is not the main character of this film despite all of the action being driven by her. In my dataset, I identify how she committed acts of vandalism as she threw acid on Gallagher’s car; stalked Gallagher by following him, calling him incessantly, threatening him and sending him voice tapes; committed animal cruelty, as she murdered a bunny; and broke into Gallagher’s home and attempted to kill his wife. Forrest consistently lies throughout the film in an attempt to convince Gallagher to leave his wife for her. Most notably, we never find out ifis was truly pregnant with Gallagher’s child. Her insane and obsessive behavior throughout the film implies that she is perhaps lying about her pregnancy. Forrest’s motivations to commit all of these crimes is her obsession with Gallagher, as she did not accept that he wanted to continue his normal life with his family and not with her, as well as her jealousy of his wife and child because of that. Finally, I identify ‘insanity’ as one of her motivations as I would argue that her actions were not rational or ‘normal,’ and she would likely be deemed criminally insane by the courts. As this film conforms to the post-noir genre, and thus follows in the tradition of film noir, Forrest dies at the end of the film as she is murdered by Gallagher. As in film noir, the death of the evil femme fatale restores order and balance to the world of the film.

Forrest’s criminality is driven by her initial sexual relationship with Gallagher. As Forrest is the one to suggest and initiate their affair, she is identified as a sexually promiscuous woman because she seduces a married man. We soon learn that there is more to Forrest, as she seems to have a mental breakdown when Gallagher ends their short sexual relationship. Forrest cuts her wrists and begs Gallagher to stay with her. Things get out of control when Forrest commits the crimes described above. Forrest tries to use her supposed pregnancy to convince Gallagher to stay with her, but this backfires as he suggests she has an abortion and still does not commit to leaving his wife for her.

Arguably, Forrest’s use of an alleged pregnancy as a means to convince Gallagher to stay with her is indicative of how her femininity, and specifically her place in society as a single, childless, working woman, does not conform to the ideals of the maternal wife figure that Gallagher wants. In many ways, Forrest does not conform to society’s expectations of women because she is a single woman who has a full-time job, where she works and interacts with male colleagues, has her own apartment and has no children. This greatly contrasts with Gallagher’s wife. This presentation of Forrest fits into how Jack Boozer identifies the femme fatale characters of 1980s-1990s post-noir films. Women, specifically white women, at this time were gaining higher positions of power in the workforce and were therefore capable of providing for themselves without needing a bread-winning male partner. By claiming she is pregnant with Gallagher’s child, Forrest attempts to claim the ideals of maternal femininity that she believes is what Gallagher wants from her. Her rejection by Gallagher is symbolic of her metaphorical rejection from society because she is single, childless, and works. Gallagher uses her for sex but then rejects her to return to his relationship with his wife who conforms to the ideal of maternal femininity. The moment when Gallagher rejects Forrest after learning she is pregnant is the same moment that her criminal actions escalate, and we see her obsessive, ‘unhinged’ nature.

Because Forrest’s actions are quite extreme, and serve to present her as insane, her mistreatment by Gallagher, who uses her sexually then dumps her immediately, is not taken seriously because she is presented as the evil force of the film. The viewers may see her as a scorned woman simply because she wanted more from Gallagher, when in fact a deeper reading of her character shows that Gallagher’s mistreatment of her is symbolic of her mistreatment at the hands of a society that values a specific form of white, maternal femininity. Despite not conforming to this mode of femininity, I would argue that Forrest – in her role as the femme fatale – is nevertheless performing a kind of femininity through her deviant and violent actions. As such, we may come to better understand Forrest’s femininity-through-crime persona by appealing to the situated action theory of James Messerschmidt. We can read Forrest’s character, and that of many other femme fatales, as a way of asserting a form of independent, powerful, ‘badass’ femininity through her crime. She uses her independence and resources to fight for what she wants. One could argue that, according to the situated action theory, Forrest does enact this ‘dangerous’ woman femininity. It is also interesting to consider Forrest’s attempt to conform to the idealized figure of the maternal woman, through her alleged pregnancy, as a ploy to trap Gallagher and get him to leave his wife for her. This supports Messerschmidt’s situated action theory as it shows how Forrest uses her cunning and resourcefulness to manipulate Gallagher, thus showing her ‘badass,’ dangerous femininity. Messerschmidt’s situated action theory is thus an interesting way to look at the femme fatale figure in general. This theory positions the femme fatale as performing a sort of gender that does not fit into the conventional idealized femininity of the maternal, nurturing white woman, like Gallagher’s wife. She is female “femme” and dangerous, fatal “fatale” because of the dangers she poses through her unconventional femininity. There is value in using situated action theory to this end as it identifies how women who do not conform to the societal ideals of femininity are dangerous and evil.

Furthermore, analyzing Forrest according to situated action theory helps explore how she is both a woman with agency but also vulnerable at the same time. Throughout the film, it seems as though Forrest has agency. She chooses to commit crime; it is not out of necessity or survival. She seems to be in the position she is in because of her own doing and choices, rooted in her obsession with Gallagher. As a white single, childless working women she has economic and familial freedoms that non-working mothers and women of color do not. Hence, viewers may not have sympathy for her because they see her as the ‘badass,’ unhinged woman who is desperate to split up a perfect family for her own personal gain. However, at the same time she is vulnerable because she does not conform to the ideals of white, maternal femininity. The fact that she commits crime in her attempt to be a ‘happy family’ with Gallagher and her alleged child exposes the fact that she is vulnerable, and a societal ‘outcast.’

In many ways the situated action theory is a far too simplified explanation of what Forrest, and other femme fatales, present to viewers about female criminality. This theory does not truly engage with why women commit crime. As Miller argues, Messerschmidt’s situated action theory overlooks the other contributing factors that affect an individual’s motivation to commit crime. In this film, it is clear that Forrest suffers from some kind of mental illness as she harms herself and threatens suicide. Further, her specific societal position as a single, childless working woman puts her at odds with society’s expectation that women should be maternal and rely on a man to provide for their family. These are just a few of the contributing factors to Forrest’s motivation to commit crime. There may be more, but we are not given much information about her past childhood or familial background. If we were made aware of any previous trauma or abuse that she may have suffered, her reaction to the mistreatment she suffers may make more sense and would allow us to identify her as, perhaps, a ‘harmed and harming’ woman, according to Daly’s gendered pathways approach. However, this information is not devolved to the viewers, so they are led to believe that her criminal behavior has come from nowhere and is simply indicative of an obsessed and insane woman who is intent on breaking up Gallagher’s happy, socially acceptable family relationship. Ultimately, Forrest does not ‘do gender’ through crime, as Messerschmidt’s theory would lead us to believe. To assume that any woman engages in crime to ‘do gender’ is an impoverished view of gender and crime as it completely ignores gendered pathways to crime and individual’s gendered life experiences.

Forrest’s death shows how she is ultimately punished for her sexual and also for her inability to fit into society’s gender and sexuality norms. The surface level presentation of her as the femme fatale does not allow the viewer to understand her pathway to crime in the same way that many criminologists are now starting to understand how real criminal women become involved in crime. Therefore, this presentation of female criminality through this femme fatale is not adequate as it does not show Forrest’s familial or childhood background, or her life experiences that may account for her propensity to commit crime. Furthermore, her comfortable socio-economic position as a self-sufficient woman – although this causes problems for her, as I have explored above – means she does not share the same experiences as the many poor women who are in the US criminal justice system, who often become involved in crime as a means of survival.  Even though Forrest is vulnerable because of her social position as a single, childless working woman, viewers may lack sympathy for her as she is presented as a ‘badass,’ dangerous and cunning woman with agency, who is fully in control of her actions.