The Lavender Menace: Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992)

She’s evil!! She’s BRILLIANT!!!

The Lavender Menace: Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992)
Who doesn't greet their roommate with a casual boob honk every now and again?

Queerness is, first and foremost, a mystery. In his book Bad Education, queer theorist Lee Edelman defines “queer” as that which is outside the social order, and which therefore structures the social order, the way “zero” is not a number, but gives form and meaning to every number that comes after it. There is no such thing as a queer person, Edelman says, because to the extent that we try to incorporate ourselves into society and become  legible as “gay” or “trans,” we stop being queer. You cannot really say what queer is, only what it isn’t: Queer is not straight, not gender-conforming, not how we think a person should be.

It’s admittedly hard to wrap your head around a concept this abstract, and Edelman’s theatrically academic prose doesn’t make it any easier. (Every time someone mentions Lacan, I black out and wake up wearing a trucker hat at a Nascar rally.) Edelman points to the example of the killers in Funny Games — not only are they two men who threaten the heterosexual nuclear family, they also make us aware of the unspoken rules that govern that family’s existence, by pointing out that they’re in a film and defying its narrative conventions.

 This is the advantage of moviegoing. Saying queerness is the zero that defines the one seems abstract and mystical. Saying queerness is the structuring absence outside the Symbolic (or whatever it is you’re supposed to say when Lacan gets involved) is worse. But if I say “queerness is Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct,” you get me right away. 

As you can see, this one (almost literally) checks all the boxes. It’s raw maximalism, a bombastic Wagnerian saga of tits and ass, the Disintegration and/or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy of erotic thrillers. Other movies came earlier, or were more influential, but this is the most erotic thriller that any erotic thriller can possibly be, a cross between an MGTOW message board and the episode of Law & Order where Dov Charney dies by autoerotic asphyxiation. (Or does he???)

The sexual politics of the film are announced in its opening scene: a faceless blonde writhes on top of a man. His hands are tied to the bed with a scarf (which, in the ‘90s, was considered basically equivalent to a Bob Flanagan performance) and they are both on cocaine (this will be a theme). As the man reaches the crest of his erotic moaning, the blonde whips out an icepick and stabs him seventy-hundred-and-ninety-seven times, continuing to fuck him while she does it, which I imagine would be confusing. 

The dynamics of this scene — helpless man penetrates woman with penis; powerful woman penetrates man with stabbing; cocaine is there  —  lay out the movie’s thesis: All women everywhere are unknowable, powerful, crazy bitches, and trusting even one woman, even one time, will allow her to destroy you, utterly and ruthlessly and probably while you’re distracted by her boobs. 

Once again, the plot centers on a white heterosexual man in crisis — in this case, Michael Douglas, who spent most of the ‘90s being erotically thrilled by one thing or another. He plays a troubled cop, sent to investigate the icepick murder. Michael Douglas immediately tracks down the killer, who, of course, is Sharon Stone, impressively managing to project “femme fatale” while wearing tan lipstick and a selection of neutral-tone casual knits. Sharon Stone convinces Michael Douglas that she can’t possibly be the killer, because it’s too obvious that she’s the killer, being that she’s written a long series of murder mysteries which contain perfectly accurate descriptions of real-life murders that were linked to her, and which have titles like “HERE’S HOW I KILLED THAT GUY” and “I, SHARON STONE, AM THE MURDERER,” and “PLEASE DON’T BELIEVE ME IF I SAY I DIDN’T KILL HIM — I DID, AS THIS BOOK WILL CLEARLY SHOW.”  

Headline reading 'How To Murder Your Husband' writer found guilty of murdering her husband.
She's out there.

Michael Douglas, who is not a very good detective, starts having sex with Sharon Stone right away. Scenes of Michael Douglas having sex with Sharon Stone — all set to horror-movie strings, to subtly alert us that Sharon Stone is dangerous; this is another clue missed by Michael Douglas in his murder investigation — are frequent and vehement. He chomps on her boobs. She chomps on his boobs. (Gender equality!) There are white silk scarves, and ceiling mirrors, and Michael Douglas eating Sharon Stone out for about three seconds, which is a long time in a movie aimed at straight men, and some impressively manic sex choreography for Sharon, who, at one point, performs a full backbend while riding Douglas, then points both arms over her head and does an Olympian forward dive onto his chest to signify that orgasm has been secured. 

None of these developments are at all pleasing to Michael Douglas’ ex-girlfriend, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who (despite having been dumped by Michael Douglas, and despite continuing to get dumped by Michael Douglas in every conversation they have) still carries a torch for the guy. She’s jealous… but of whom????

Here is where the movie slips the surly bonds of earth and touches the face of basic cable. It turns out that women are not just bitches and crazy and clingy and murderers. All women are also secretly lesbians who kill men and destroy the nuclear family as part of their lesbian bonding activities — or, at least, they are after they meet Sharon Stone, which tracks. Jeanne Kirkpatrick was turned into a husband-slaughtering murder lesbian by Sharon Stone. So was a woman named “Hazel Dobkins,” a mild-mannered housewife who snapped and killed her husband and children not long after meeting her. So was Roxy, a woman who murdered her brothers and father for Sharon, and who is now Sharon Stone’s live-in girlfriend, and the centerpiece of the movie’s most spectacular tribute to cocaine: 

Roxy’s nightclub dance is one of the most fearless things I’ve ever seen a person do to music. She punches the air over her head in opposing diagonals. She hides behind a shirtless gentleman and juts her head side to side playing peek-a-boo. She does a sort of Warrior One pose with her arms while she aggressively points her boobs in different directions. She rolls her head around on her neck, snaps her fingers, and goes BWEH! to indicate disdain. There’s a whole Bluth family chicken dance going on inside this one woman. It’s hypnotic. 

We do not get nearly enough of Roxy. Herein lies my real problem with Basic Instinct: Its backstory is exponentially more interesting than anything that happens on screen. You could make a whole movie out of that backstory — which is, again, about a roving gang of hot misandrist lesbian sleeper agents wiping out the patriarchy one horny man at a time — and I would watch it. I would love that movie. It would be my Ocean’s Eleven.

We don’t get that. In fact, we never get any scenes of women interacting when men aren’t present. We are tied to the heterosexual man’s perspective by the white silk scarf of genre conventions — it’s a detective story, and he’s the detective, so we can never know more than he knows. The result is that nearly all of the women’s most consequential actions occur off-screen, and we learn about them only afterward, in vague hints and half-true recollections. The structure mirrors the coked-up heterosexual panic that drives the story: Because Michael Douglas sees women as sinister and mysterious and untrustworthy, we are never allowed to be totally sure what they’re up to. We have to piece it all together as he does, one ridiculously misogynistic suspicion at a time. It’s woman as zero, queer as zero — the thing forever outside the limits of known, which makes us aware that knowing has limits. Whose knowing, is the question. 

Here, we arrive at the question of how intentional any of this was. Scanning the Letterboxd reviews of Basic Instinct, you will see a lot of people referring to the movie as a “satire.” I recommend that you take this with a grain of salt. It’s common for any sexist or racist or homophobic movie to accumulate defenders who insist that it’s ironic, a commentary, a satire of [insert your bigotry here]. It's such a common problem that Society eventually had to invent a tank top guy for it: 

On the other hand, this is Paul Verhoeven — director of Robocop and Starship Troopers — so reading Basic Instinct as a satire does make more sense than most of those other cases. Robocop and Starship Troopers are both very good (and more or less left-wing) satires of militarism and the police state. It stands to reason that Basic Instinct might be mocking its woman-hating hero.

It could be, but I don’t think it is. It’s not uncommon for men to have good politics around war and bad politics around sexuality. The seething misogyny and homophobia of Basic Instinct — wherein every single woman is both a carnivorous, sex-crazed slut and a clingy, weepy girlfriend who is also a man-hating lesbian desperate to stab you with her phallic icepick — is undeniably over the top. It’s often very funny. But your read of the movie will depend on who you see as the butt of the joke: Are we laughing at Michael Douglas because he sees women this way, or are we laughing at women because we see them this way?

I think it’s the second one. Even if that’s not the intent, it seems to me that it’s hard to parody an attitude you more or less share. 

Here’s what I mean: One of the ugliest parts of Basic Instinct is a scene in which Michael Douglas rapes Jeanne Tripplehorn. I call it a “rape,” because Jeanne Tripplehorn is shown struggling and saying “no” and “stop,” but the movie doesn’t seem to recognize that a rape occurs. The lead-up is heavily eroticized — both people are panting and moaning and doing heavy kissing, there are close-ups of Jeanne Tripplehorn’s bare breasts and elaborate lingerie — and when it’s over, the two leads are shown cuddling. The only complaint Tripplehorn makes is that he didn’t seem focused on her, and that the sex was too rough to feel like “making love.” 

Sure, fine, people normalize their rapes — but then you have the single most famous part of the movie, in which Sharon Stone flashes her vagina at Wayne Knight during a police interrogation. This scene:

As you will no doubt recall, if you are of a certain age, Sharon Stone’s vagina was ubiquitous when this movie came out. The scene was endlessly memed and discussed and parodied. If you heard the words “Sharon Stone,” in conversation, you’d hear some synonym for “vagina” within the next 15 seconds. I knew about Sharon Stone’s vagina, and I hadn’t gone through puberty yet. 

Absolutely none of that was at all consensual. As per Sharon Stone, Paul Verhoeven got her to remove her underwear on false pretenses, and guaranteed her vagina would not be visible in the finished scene: “I’d been told, ‘We can’t see anything — I just need you to remove your panties, as the white is reflecting the light, so we know you have panties on,’” she wrote, in her memoir. She only realized that he had lied to her when she saw the finished film, at which point she walked up to Verhoeven and slapped him in the face. 

It didn't matter. It still defined her. She was still the one who paid. Sharon Stone got divorced in 2004, and she believes she ultimately lost custody of her son because of that scene. She remembers that "the judge asked my child — my tiny little tiny boy — 'Do you know your mother makes sex movies?'"

On-screen and off-screen, in the story and out, there are sexual assaults in Basic Instinct that Verhoeven doesn’t seem to recognize as such. I just don’t think someone with that problem understands misogyny well enough to parody it. You can’t make an objective comment on rape culture or the objectification of women while objectifying and sexually assaulting the women who work for you. 

So, even if the movie wants us to be critical of Michael Douglas (and it’s hard not to be; he’s a coked-up rapist killer cop who hates women and gay people) it shares his perspective. Trying to reclaim Basic Instinct as some subversive feminist masterpiece strikes me as disrespectful to the actual women involved: “Yes, there have been many points of view on this topic, but since I’m the one with the vagina in question, let me say: The other points of view are bullshit,” to quote Ms. Sharon Stone. “It was me and my parts up there.” 

This is not to say that Basic Instinct isn’t fun. It’s a riot, under the right circumstances, most of which involve being very high. Michael Douglas is still alive when the credits roll, leaving open the tantalizing possibility that he, too, will become a lesbian after sleeping with Sharon Stone. There’s redemption for us all, I suppose. 

But we close with the icepick under the bed, the threat of the Other. Abusive men are not safe when women have power. Heteronormativity is endangered by queerness. Straight men can never fully exercise sexual domination over women in a world with queer women in it. Michael Douglas kills multiple women, in this movie, and he believes he is acting in self-defense every time. That’s the thing: Men like him always do. 

That’s it! Now, it’s time to rack up this movie on the potently arousing Spreadsheet of Sin. 

Sharon Stone: Yes.

Michael Douglas: Yes. 

Terrifying Female Sexuality: Women: They’re everywhere! Watching… waiting… sexing

Stalking: Michael Douglas is stalking Sharon Stone who is either stalking or being stalked by Jeanne Tripplehorn, and all of them are being stalked by… 

Gay People: She’s Roxy. She’s Catherine’s friend. 

Boobs: Early and often. 

Boats: Sharon Stone’s parents died on one. (Or did they???)


Dong: True justice would have seen Michael Douglas flop it out during his interrogation scene. Alas, we were denied. 

Cocaine: The phrase “traces on his lips and penis” marks one of the more sober and toned-down moments of the film.

Basic Instinct is streaming on Paramount +. Yes, I know the women are actually bisexuals – I think the movie wants us to believe that they've been recruited into the murderlesbian lifestyle and are now seducing men only in order to kill them, so that's what I went with. Representation matters.

If you or a bisexual of your acquaintance would like to subscribe to this newsletter, you get 25% off your first 12 months if you subscribe in June. Click through to take a peek at my shockingly huge discount: