Create a picture in your mind of a perfect world – without all these squabbles about intersectionality and the portrayal of women in the media and in society. Imagine a world where people had consensual sex and if they regretted it, as people often do, they moved on with life. Envision a time and a place where girl that acted in a conniving and spiteful manner could be called a “bitch” without anyone jumping to shouts of sexism. Can you perceive a time and place where we didn’t have such hatred between genders, there weren’t hashtags like #YesAllMen, and there was true equality in the field of sexual aggression. Imagine… it’s not hard if you try… Imagine 1999; and no other film captured that spirit of perfect gender equality than Cruel Intentions.
Wait… Gender Equality?
Yes… True gender equality. Cruel Intentions, more than being a tale about the hedonism of the bourgeoisie, is a film about sexual manipulation across genders (and even sexualities). Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillipe) and his step-sister Kathryn (Sarah Michelle-Gellar) are teenage socialites in New York whose favorite hobby is sexually exploiting their classmates. Sebasitain, who claims, “I’m sick of sleeping with these insipid Manhattan debutantes. Nothing shocks them anymore,” decides to set himself up a challenge: deflowering the new headmaster’s proudly virginal daughter Annette (Reese Witherspoon). Absent are recent ideas of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity. There is no concept of “rape culture” or of sexual exploitation being a specifically masculine practice. In Cruel Intentions, everybody uses everybody – everyone enjoys sex and men and women alike use deceitful means to achieve orgasm.
The storyline, by today’s progressive standards, may seem horrid. Our hero is a man who manipulates women for the sole purpose of bedding them? Not only that, Kathryn bribes Sebastian with sex in order for him to corrupt girls so she can shame them. They are disreputable, cruel people – and they are the main characters. True, Sebastian does see the error of his ways through a romance that unexpectedly develops between him and Annette, and Kathryn does get her comeuppance in the end, but there aren’t that many good characters, of either gender, in this film. Annette, the model of virginity, is condescending, rude and goes through most of the movie with such an insufferable holier-than-thou attitude that leads the audience to wonder how anyone could have fallen for her in the first place. With Cruel Intentions it’s not that women are painted evil – all the men are just as bad. Ne gender is exempt from being painted in an absolutely wretched light. Well, an accurate light to say the least because, let’s face it, we are all horrible people.
Misogyny and Misandry
There is misogyny in Cruel Intentions, a good deal of it. For the most part, Sebastian uses women like a sociopath – robbing innocent girls of their maidenhood with all the enthusiasm of a tired factory worker on an assembly line. More than the characters, there is an essence of misogyny at work. For instance, when naïve Cecile (Selma Blair), surrenders her virginity to Sebastian, she is seen eating a bowl of cherries. While such a shot may be problematic and make light of a young girl’s plight, demeaning her virtue, and some might even say it “promotes rape culture” (though how, I don’t know but people seem to believe that everything, everywhere, promotes rape culture), I choose to laud director Roger Kumble for using such an efficient shot to show what happened – she lost her cherry. It’s an appropriate visual metaphor… or would you have rather wasted time watching the sex? This moment is shortly followed by Cecile asking for more sex as Sebastian mindlessly shoves her off the bed.
Yes, women are used as sexual objects. Consistently, the camera objectifies its female case. In fact, Sebastian’s realization that the proudly virginal Annette is not an object but a human being he would like to share experiences with causes an upheaval in his life. This objectification of women is, admittedly, not a nice thing to do – but the characters doing so are not nice characters. I hate to say #NotAllMen, but it’s true.
Cruel Intentions presents an ideal of gender conflict – before the political correctness of gender conflict today. There is no talk of a gender pay gap, no platforming for social reform, no widely varying rape statistics used to show that #YesAllMen are evil. 1999, when Cruel Intentions was made, was a good time – second wave feminists had done their job and done it well. Men and women were both equal to be as cruel or saintly as they wanted to be, as shown by the equality of vileness in the film. Then came this “new” feminism… this toxic feminism. Cruel Intentions may make a debate for why we needed second-wave feminism; but it also shows why we don’t need this modern overly reactive and controlling feminism.
A Masculine Tragedy
I’m not sure where the phrase “toxic masculinity,” originated, but I’ve seen it tossed about recklessly over the internet. “Toxic” masculinity is an exaggerated (and not wholly accurate) interpretation of hegemonic masculinity. What is hegemonic masculinity? I will let this character from Cruel Intentions describe it:
“So I pull out my dick, and I shove it right in her face. And I’m like, the hell is this? Grandma with a birthday present? Suck it ya dumb bitch!”
That line is spoken by a minor character, Greg, who is a football player telling a story to some friends of his. Greg is also a closeted homosexual – that story is a way of proving just how much of a straight male he is. That ideal that he’s pretending to fulfill is hegemonic masculinity, a social idea of how big and tough all men are supposed to be. It’s a goal no man can conceivably fulfill, but the historic struggle of men to achieve it has led them to do some pretty stupid things. Things like, I don’t know, actually doing what Greg describes. The idea of hegemonic masculinity is toxic, but not in the way that these new feminists mean when they say “toxic masculinity.”
Conversely, there is emphasized femininity, the ideal woman that every girl is supposed to be. The conflict of hegemonic masculinity against emphasized femininity is best described in Cruel Intentions by Kathryn:
“It’s okay for guys like you and Cort to fuck everyone. But when I do it, I get dumped for innocent little twits like Cecile. God forbid, I exude confidence and enjoy sex. Do you think I relish the fact that I have to act like Mary Sunshine 24/7 so I can be considered a lady? I’m the Marcia fucking Brady of the Upper East Side, and sometimes I want to kill myself. So there’s your psychoanalysis, Dr. Freud. Now tell me, are you in… or are you out?”
What does gender have to do with Cruel Intentions
Why bring any of this up? Because, Cruel Intentions is a film about gender conflict.. REAL gender conflict; not that overhyped stuff today and #Gamergate. The characters in Cruel Intentions are all in struggle against these gender roles – hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity. Sebastian is, at the film’s start, filling the shoes of this ideal of masculinity and dominating women for sport. He’s fulfilling that ideal and he hates it, the film is his struggle to abandon his rampant sexual domination and settle into a healthy relationship with Annette; quitting that hegemonic masculinity is the primary conflict in Cruel Intentions. Greg is so desperate to uphold that ideal of hegemonic masculinity that his failure to do so is used to blackmail him. Reputation, in the eyes of the characters in Cruel Intentions, is completely built around these ideas of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity – Sebastian and Kahtryn destroy ones reputation by publicly forcing people away from those ideals. Hence, Cruel Intentions acts as a parable about the dangers of idealized gender roles; it shows that one can, and must, be masculine or feminine without the need to fit an ideal, that reputation should not be defined on how one fulfills the societal definitions of gender roles.
This is what makes the misogyny of Cruel Intentions a far better message about gender equality than these third-wave radical feminists. You may be familiar with a current declaration of “Why I need feminism…” Disregard the modern ones (“I need feminism because women should be allowed into STEM fields.” No, ma’am, you can simply change to a STEM major instead of women’s studies). Cruel Intentions shows why we need feminism – because the impossible gender ideals society has created cause serious problems as people strive futilely to achieve them or opt out of them. This was the nature of second-wave feminism, who fought for actual gender equality. Second-wave feminists didn’t win the fight to criminalize marital rape just for the sake of women, they fought against the ideas of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity which led to such crimes in the first place. These radical third-wave feminists fight against men – rape happens because #YesAllMen are bad. Cruel Intentions shows perfectly how men don’t objectify women because they are bad, nor do all women act like conniving bitches because they are evil. In short, Cruel Intentions shows why we needed feminism, why we still need that second-wave feminism that worked for everyone.
Everyone’s an asshole, but once upon a time, as Cruel Intentions shows, that could be fixed. Today, modern warriors for social justice try to fix people by being overreactionary assholes. Can’t we just go back to 1999 and capture the good work of second-wave feminism?