Passion, a remake of the dark, sensual, noir-scented French thriller Love Crime, will be released nationwide in the United States tomorrow. The film stars a smoldering Rachel McAdams as Christine, a corrupt, Berlin-based businesswoman who takes credit for the work of her assistant, Isabelle James, who's played by Noomi Rapace of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame. When Isabelle has finally had enough of Christine’s manipulative tactics, she engages in an affair with Christine’s husband, and seduces Christine as well, with dangerous consequences. Isabelle and Christine are both brilliant, aggressive, and strive to be the best — and they might be a little murderous, too. But, despite the film's dominant female characters and lesbian undertones, Passion is not a feminist or queer-friendly film. It’s another movie riddled with overused and tired tropes.
Too often in major motion pictures, seemingly strong female characters — the competitive businesswoman, the aspiring and desperate artist, the trapped society woman — are associated with negative character traits such as vanity and selfishness. These powerful characters are conniving, and use their bodies to control and seduce others. They are amoral at best, and villainous under most circumstances, and as wrongdoers, they must be brought to their knees. These strong women are dangerous to others, especially their innocent foil, and they reside on the brink of insanity. Think Kathryn Merteuil from Cruel Intentions, who uses and manipulates everyone around her for her own selfish gain, or, seemingly, for no other reason than to get satisfaction from their suffering. Kathryn is a villain in the truest sense, as she uses her intellectual prowess and beauty to destroy those that she dislikes. As Michelle Parrinello-Cason of Balancing Jane points out, the character's blatant sexuality makes her "wicked," contrasts her with the virginal Annette Hargrove (played by Reese Witherspoon), and paints Kathryn's stepbrother Sebastian as a hero: “Why is it that Sebastian can sexually and physically assault women with little to no reformation and yet it is Kathryn who is supposed to be the "true" villain? ... Because Kathryn takes the horrible quality of being a horrible slutty slut slut who has sex, while simultaneously being a woman who commands power over her own life, she can be nothing but evil.”
The trope of the dangerous, empowered, and sexual woman isn't reserved for adult audiences. Rather, we’re exposed to the character early on in our youth. The antagonists in a number of Disney movies, including Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty and Ursula from The Little Mermaid, are powerful outsiders who are rejected because of their desire to be one of the "boys." For example, Ursula wants her power to be recognized, but she is rejected because her desire to have control and authority is unacceptable in a world of pretty and petite mermaids that is led by merman. If Ursula had been a man (it should be noted she is not given typically feminine traits, and is associated with the much more phallic octopus, perhaps as a result of her "male" desires?), she may have been embraced, rather than being expelled from the kingdom. As Chloe Angyal wrote at Feministing, The Little Mermaid is, in part, a story about, "the triumph of 'good' women — young, slender, silent, and lovesick — over 'bad' women — old, voluptuous, outspoken, and sexual.”
When films portray empowered, independent female characters as rogues who exists to threaten virginal, innocent, rosy-cheeked daughters, we are sending a message to young women that successful females are not acceptable in decent society. The women who take the reins in their lives, who embrace their sexuality and aim for power of their own, are portrayed as unwanted, and, well, cruel. When films depict powerful women as ball-busting, cutthroat, scary bitches, they are also idealizing a far more traditional notion of womanhood, like that embodied by the heroine in The Little Mermaid, Ariel, who marries her prince and is lauded as a self-sacrificing hero, an ideal woman, and a woman to aspire to be. Meanwhile the villain, the outcast and power hungry Ursula, dies a less than glamorous death. The good woman pursues love and nothing more, moving onto a life of happy matrimony and motherhood, while the evil empowered woman dies hated and alone. When it comes to movies like Passion, the message still seems to be that if women strive for more than what society assigns to their gender role, they will surely fail — and, worse, succumb to corruption and villainy.