When it comes to classic stalker movies, Fatal Attraction is way up there on my “creepy” list. In the film, as everyone undoubtedly knows, Dan (Michael Douglas), a happily married family man, has a weekend affair with Alex (Glenn Close). Dan thinks of it as a quick, meaningless fling, but he’s got another thing coming. Alex wants more — much more — and will kill innocent bunny rabbits to get it. As per the standard morally correct Hollywood formula, he pays for his sin — through anguish, guilt, possible loss of his marriage, recriminations, and the machinations of a psycho woman who just won’t go away. But in the end he lives, and Alex dies.
This started me thinking about real-life stalkers and some of the personal feelings I had while watching this movie.
First off, stalking is a serious problem in this country, with celeb-stalking in a horrific league all its own. But perhaps no miscreant is considered more reprehensible and downright terrifying than the female stalker. Thus, seeing Alex in any sort of sympathetic light or identifying with her in any way is just not deemed acceptable.
Women, after all, are just not supposed to chase men. If they do, it is at their own peril — especially if they are looking for a long-term relationship. It’s still considered cheap, slutty, and gauche in many circles — and I, for one, would prefer not to engage in it. However, it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to be a passive mental stalker, viz:
Obsessing over a guy. Waiting by the phone for his calls. Taking all sorts of ridiculous crap from him and making oneself too readily available to his whims instead of having a life. Endlessly deconstructing every move “Mr. Right” makes so you and your girlfriends can analyze his demeanor and motives to determine if he does/doesn’t care about you. In other words, all the usual women’s nonsense. Browse through the pages of Cosmopolitan sometime — or better yet, go to their message boards — and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Prematurely pushing for an exclusive relationship is often a deal-breaker. But in any case, no matter how smitten a woman may be, it’s considered particularly bad form to have a quickie one-nighter and then demand a “commitment” the next morning. Not cool. No clinging, no whining, no blackmailing, no wrist slashing, no bunny boiling.
But let’s face it: statistically speaking, most dangerous stalkers are overwhelmingly male. How many real-life female psycho-stalkers — meaning those with the potential for real violence — have you heard of or encountered?
I suppose there are women out there who might resort to more passive aggressive schemes such as calling a lover’s wife or even trying to blackmail someone to get their way. Although these are creepy — even seriously sick and damaging — behaviors, they usually do not result in bodily harm or death.
In his excellent best selling book, The Gift of Fear, the renowned Gavin de Becker, who works with media figures, corporations, law enforcement agencies, regular citizens, and prosecutors on predicting and preventing violence, notes how a certain measure of stalking behavior is considered acceptable, even admirable, in our culture — as long as it is the man doing the pursuing, that is. He writes:
Men pursuing unlikely or inappropriate relationships with women and getting them is a common theme promoted in our culture. Just recall Flashdance, Tootsie, The Heartbreak Kid, 10, Blame it on Rio, Honeymoon in Vegas, Indecent Proposal.
This Hollywood formula could be called Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn’t Want Boy, Boy Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girl. Many movies teach that if you just stay with it, even if you offend her, even if she says she wants nothing to do with you, even if you’ve treated her like trash (and sometimes because you’ve treated her like trash), you’ll get the girl.
If a man in the movies wants a sexual encounter or applies persistence, he’s a regular, everyday guy, but if a woman does the same thing, she’s a maniac or a killer. Just recall Fatal Attraction, the King of Comedy, Single White Female, Play Misty for Me, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, and Basic Instinct. When the men pursue, they usually get the girl. When the women pursue, they usually get killed.
The context of this cultural observation is the focus of de Becker’s book — namely the ubiquitousness of dangerous, often violent MALE stalkers — as well as abusive spouses and boyfriends — in our midst, and how women can protect themselves from unwanted male attention and harassment, including injury or even death.
He writes further:
Giving talks around the country, I sometimes ask the audience, ‘How many of the men here ever found out where a girl lived or worked by means other than asking her? How many have driven by a girl’s house to see what cars were there, or called just to see who answered the phone and then hung up?’
By the overwhelming show of hands, I’ve learned that the acceptability of these behaviors is a matter of degree.
Let me just say for the record: to me, stalking, by men or women, isn’t cool. Nevertheless, to a certain degree, I can relate a bit to the diabolical Alex.
Alex is obviously a lonely and disturbed woman. The implication is that this is far from the only man she’s pursued. Although she insists she’s not a slut, she mentions that she’s recently had an abortion. Meanwhile, she’s just met this guy, but is eager to have a child with him. Moreover, she lives alone in a scary, creepy loft, where every square inch and piece of furniture is white, like a padded cell in a mental hospital.
But one scene in particular touched me in an uncomfortably familiar way.
There is a sequence that cuts rapidly back and forth. First, a vignette from Dan’s get-together with his close friends at home. They laugh, they joke over dinner, and they have tons of warm-hearted fun. Dan has apparently just made partner in his law firm, and he, his lovely wife, and adorable daughter are about to move out of the city to a new country home. Life is good, and Dan figures he can forget all about the troubled woman he schtupped and left behind with her wrists bandaged — not to mention the fact that he betrayed his wife.
Cut to Alex — sitting in the dark, the strains of Madame Butterfly soaring in the background, compulsively switching her lamp on and off, rocking back and forth. Totally alone, unbearably lonely.
Anyone who’s had a mental illness — and many who have not — may be able to identify with this scenario. If you’ve ever been in a crowded bar alone, in the midst of strangers who are all in couples and groups having a merry old time, you may have felt something like this too — a feeling of being cut off from what our culture tells us we are entitled to — a close knit circle of friends, and ideally a long term partner, home, and family.
When I was in a deep, near catatonic depression, it was quite obvious to me and everyone else that I was not capable of interacting normally — and I was in essence completely cut off from my fellow human beings. Conversely, the first few times I became hypomanic, I could be inappropriately forward, belligerent, and accusatory — a tad like Alex in her vengeful state.
Still and all, I don’t think Alex is the kind of character one would want to emulate.
Nevertheless, if there be any amongst you who have not been infatuated and even obsessed over another, let s/he cast the first stone. And if you have ever been on the giving or receiving end of unwanted advances, I’d love to hear about that too.