Cruel Intentions is a 1999 film starring Sarah Michelle Geller, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon and Selma Blair. It’s the movie where you get to see Phillippe and Witherspoon’s chemistry prior to getting married (think Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but less forbidden). It’s also a modern retelling of Dangerous Liaisons.
In the movie, Sebastian (Phillippe) and his step-sister, Kathryn (Geller), make a bet. If Sebastian can bed Annette (Witherspoon), who has declared that she will wait until marriage to have sex on Seventeen Magazine, he’ll not only get to sleep with his step-sister, but he’ll get to “put it anywhere.” If he fails, his step-sister gets his expensive, antique car.
Because that’s the equivalent?
Following a long list of reboots, Cruel Intentions will now be revived as a television show on NBC. It will follow the life of Sebastian and Annette’s sixteen-year-old son. Geller has already signed up to revive her role as Kathryn. This got me thinking about how sex in this 1999 film was handled and what will be expected in the late 2010s.
Drugs, Sex and What Else Do You Do?
Cruel Intentions was my favorite film growing up. Rich kids. Evil schemes. Sex. And of course, Kathryn’s monologue.
“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 wanna kill myself.”
As a teenager, I overlooked a lot of problematic elements in the movie just because I finally found a character that admitted to loving sex and how that fact complicated the way the world saw her. And as a teenager who had something of a bad reputation around school for being oversexed, this was important to me.
But the ’90s are long gone and if we’re going to reboot everything we loved about the past, then we also need to turn all those things inside out and address the problems.
Sex vs. Sexual Assault
The movie glosses over the fact that Sebastian, a character we’re meant to sympathize with at the end of the movie, sexually assaults a teenage girl. Sure, he’s a playboy with a sensitive soul. He keeps a journal. He falls in love. He even dies at the end. This doesn’t change the fact that he gets Cecile, a character often ridiculed for her unbelievable level of innocence, drunk without her knowledge and proceeds to pressure her into oral.
Cecile goes to Kathryn the next day and tells her that Sebastian took advantage of her, but Kathryn convinces Cecile that it couldn’t possibly be sexual assault because she orgasmed.
The assault is never addressed as such. It’s just a thing that happens. Sebastian later has sex with Cecile and he’s punched out for the sex by her new boyfriend, Ronald, but the fact that he got her drunk that first time? Nah.
Shoving People Out of the Closet
The film was probably meant to be progressive because it showed both a kiss between two (straight) girls and a sexual relationship between two guys, but the context around the gay guys is problematic. One of them is a football player and very much in the closet. Sebastian is led to believe by the football player’s sometimes-lover that the football player is bad-mouthing him to his virgin conquest. Sebastian arranges to catch him in the act, photographs him, and threatens to blackmail him with his sexual orientation. Even when Sebastian figures out that he’s not actually talking to Annette about him, he still blackmails him into convincing Annette that Sebastian is a good guy.
It’s Not Slutty If You’re In Love
The movie is a study in degrees of slut-shaming. Kathryn was dumped for Cecile because Cecile wasn’t a slut. She was innocent. She didn’t get around. She didn’t know the first thing about guys. And Kathryn’s way of getting revenge on her ex-boyfriend was by turning Cecile into a slut. After Cecile has sex with Sebastian, she immediately wants more and asks to give him a blow job and jump in the shower with him. It’s like sex uncapped the slut bottle and it was running rampant like a bad smell. This makes Cecile disposable, which is obvious when he literally throws her off the bed for being so annoying.
Kathryn is considered a slut because she enjoys sex. She’s okay with setting up fellow females, such as Cecile and Annette. This makes her an Evil Slut. At the end of the movie, we find out that her end game wasn’t to win Sebastian’s car, but to toy with him, making Sebastian the victim. The message is clear. Sluts are either stupid, like Cecile, or evil, like Kathryn.
And then there’s Annette. No one could get her to change her mind about premarital sex…except Sebastian. She refuses his advances until she realizes that she’s in love with him. Now sex is okay. In fact, Annette is the real winner. She exposes Kathryn for her plot and coke problem, she keeps Sebastian’s car and drives off to a great soundtrack.
I’d like to think that the way we talk about sex and sexual assault in our culture has evolved since the ’90s. A television reboot of Cruel Intentions is an opportunity to bring a modern perspective to a very old conversation. And while it’s understandable that “evil” characters will do “evil” things, we need to be honest about why certain characters are portrayed as villains and make sure all villainous acts are addressed as such.
Gem Blackthorn is QMT's Sex Columnist, and the author/curator of Lust Thrust Thursdays. Send her your submissions and questions at sexsexsex [at] queenmobs.com