‘Single White Female’ at Thirty: The Legacy of the Women Stalkers of the 1990s  (2024)

Single White Female, released thirty years ago this August, is one of the most iconic entries into the erotic thriller genre that boomed in the late 1980s and 1990s. Bolstered by similar films like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Basic Instinct (the sixth highest grossing movie of 1992) as well as the classic of the genre, Fatal Attraction (1987) only a few years before, it became a cultural touchstone for films about women stalkers. Compared often to Basic Instinct, it succeeded at the box office but received lukewarm reviews, many of which claimed the film was a product of a formula that “[hadn’t] failed yet but inevitably [would],” making its inarguably potent legacy in thrillers more noteworthy. Single White Female, unlike other films in the stalker subgenre of the time, was unique for its choice to focus on a woman stalking another woman as opposed to stalking a man. In so doing, it tapped into a fraught cultural history of cinematic sexism and bi/lesbophobia dating as far back as gothic “women’s pictures” like Alfred Hitchco*ck’s Rebecca (1940) and dramas like Ingmar Bergman’s classic Persona (1960). While the hom*ophobia of the 80s/90s erotic thriller, and even of SWF itself is well-documented, looking back on the film that still defines many of the tropes and themes of the woman-stalking-woman film as it exists today in more detail highlights the ways in which tacit lesbophobia and cultural anxieties about gender nonconformity undergird all woman stalker thrillers–– even the ostensibly heterosexual ones.

Single White Female opens with images and discussions of children. Allie (Bridget Fonda), a small fashion business owner, is new to New York City and is preparing her engagement with her boyfriend, Sam (Steven Weber). When he asks her how many kids she wants, she replies she wants one more than the national average and that she wants them “all to look just like you!” This places her in a deliberately traditional, feminine role as wife and mother, even as her status as a working woman is emphasized. When Allie discovers Sam is cheating on her that same night, she throws him out and begins searching for a roommate. Each woman who applies is depicted as a different lesbian stereotype, presumably as foreshadowing and as a means to categorize women living without men as aberrant: a leather-clad butch who asks her if she’s “good with tools,” a sultry silent femme who gives her the eye, and a neurotic, glasses-clad woman who talks incessantly about her therapists and her hatred for housework (“I hate kitchens: cooking cleaning, anything feminine. I think it’s probably my mothers fault”). Heddy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a demure small-town girl herself, arrives at a moment of vulnerability when Allie is crying by the phone holding a picture of Sam. She quickly moves to help her and the two bond enough for Allie to offer her the apartment right away.

Heddy’s romanticization of their friendship is implied during their first afternoon together when she asks whether Allie and Sam will get back together–– “I don’t want to catch you on the rebound and have things change,” she says, biting her lip. Once Heddy moves in, the women’s lives quickly become entangled in a deliberate simulacrum of romantic domesticity: they shop together, adopt a dog together, watch movies and fall asleep together in the same bed. Often, the two women are paired in shots of mirrors, their faces close together. When Sam apologizes and the couple restarts their engagement, Heddy’s behavior becomes troublingly possessive and disturbing things happen around the house: Buddy, their puppy, falls out the window to his death, Allie finds that Heddy has purchased all the same clothes she has, her mail goes missing, and Heddy won’t leave the happy couple alone. Eventually, Heddy changes her hair to match Allie’s, and Allie grows disturbed, leading her to discover that Heddy’s been in and out of psych wards for years. Heddy passes herself off as Allie and has sex with a half-asleep Sam, then stabs him to death with a high heeled shoe that belongs to Allie. Heddy then kidnaps Allie and holds her hostage; Allie kisses her as a manipulation tactic and entreats her to not “make me leave you,” but when Allie escapes, a morbid game of hide and seek ensues. The mirror is a recurring image: at one point, Heddy, when confronted with her own face in a mirror inside a closet where she thought Allie was hiding, screams and shatters the mirror. The pursuit culminates in Allie stabbing Heddy to death. The film ends with a photo of Allie and Heddy’s faces split down the middle to make one visage.

Heddy embodies a classic archetype of the entire stalker sub-genre, as well as fears of queer femininity. The pathology the film outlines for her is more complex than the simple fact that she’s a tragic lesbian of the kind ripped straight from the pages of early lesbian novels like The Well of Loneliness, though winks and nods to a traumatic childhood abound. Rather than depicting her as simply a violent lesbian hell-bent on gaining Allie’s affection, her complicated relationship to her own sexuality, identity, and sense of self are presented in no uncertain terms as sexually and socially dangerous to men as well. As such, she encapsulates a persistent, multifaceted anxiety around queer femininity that’s much more nuanced that simple disgust, based in misogynistic fears of male replacement and obsolescence and heterosexual fears of non-reproductive sexuality writ large.

Many of the details of Heddy’s character are stereotypical representations of lesbianism as deranged, perverse, and auto-erotically narcissistic. Visually paralleling two women in mirrors is a common way to represent lesbianism as a jealous desire to supersede the queer woman’s identity in favor of the other woman she loves, who represents an ideal or a goal to be attained. In Hitchco*ck’s Rebecca, this is accomplished through portraiture of the dead artisocrat and title character, Rebecca, whose identity the heroine is simultaneously forced to take on and whose sexual hold over her husband, class status, and beauty she desperately wants to make her own –– for example, by wearing her clothing and using her stationery. In Bergman’s Persona, two women — an older actress and a young nurse who is attracted to her beauty, status, and fame — are paired in a classic and oft-imitated shot in a mirror where their faces are placed intimately close together. In the mirror, their faces form halves of a new, single face, and they are eventually superimposed onto each other as a representation of the nurses’ conflation of her identity with her patient. In psychoanalytic terms, this represents the Lacanian “mirror stage” of childhood development wherein a child first recognizes their own reflection and, in so doing, is able to form a sense of self or an idealized “I.” This trope is employed most obviously in SWF by its very premise and by the photo at the end –– Heddy literally adopting Allie’s identity by adopting her clothing, hairstyle, and even her lover. However, the repeated use of mirrors, for example when she changes her hair to look like Allie’s and seductively murmurs to herself “I love myself like this” in the mirror, and particularly the moment when Heddy is so distressed by her own reflection that she shatters the glass, is classically pathologizing.

Most of the other defining actions that make Heddy “horrific” are symbolic rejections of traditional reproductive femininity as defined by heterosexuality. She kills a puppy, an act not only classically taboo in American cinema but indicative of a sociopathic lack of empathy for pets, those iconic symbols of innocence and the American family. She uses tools of femininity, like high heels, as tools of violence in a perversion of normative femininity defined by passivity and nurturing. She uses sex with men as a tool of manipulation rather than pleasure or intimacy, seducing men to get closer to women. She also lies about sexual violence, saying Sam assaulted her when she assaulted him –– then stabbed him to death in a second, symbolic rape.

All of these tropes appear repeatedly across films about women stalking women over decades, proving that the hom*ophobia on display in SWF touches on a broad and enduring cultural fear. The Roommate (2011) is a prime example. Released to generally unfavorable and occasionally scathing reviews, parallels to SWF weren’t left unmentioned: The Rolling Stone review‘s final word on the matter was that “The Roommate, the umpteenth uncredited remake of 1992’s Single White Female — sucks bad, real bad.” In it, another innocent working girl very much like Allie finds herself in the big city, with a seemingly sweet roommate whose possessiveness and hatred for her boyfriend devolve into violence. This time, the stalker, Rebecca (while by no means an intentional reference to Rebecca, an interesting parallel) kills the kitten the heroine, Sara, adopts early in the film instead of the dog. She also rips out another girl’s belly button ring to threaten her away from Sara. Most explicitly, she seduces Sara’s lesbian best friend and murders her after. In the more recent black comedy entry into the genre, Ingrid Goes West (2018), Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) is an Instagram addict with a couple of screws loose who stalks the female influencers she follows and leaves a string of restraining orders in her wake. The debt to SWF here is explicit: when the younger brother of her latest obsession, Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), finds her phone is full of pictures of his sister asleep and pictures of the inside of her medicine cabinets, he confronts Ingrid, brandishing the phone and telling her “for f*ck’s sake, that’s like Single White Female!” Here, the tropes play out less violently but nevertheless gesture to the same long history of pathologization and bi/lesbophobia. Ingrid lies to the man she has seduced as part of her plot to get closer to Taylor and tells him Taylor’s brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen) assaulted her, leading to his brutal beating at Nicky’s hands and hospitalization when he tries to help her. She also kidnaps Taylor’s dog, and, though she doesn’t harm him, she’s not very nice to him either, telling him to “shut the f*ck up”in a moment that parallels Allie’s dog’s final moments in SWF when Heddy screams at it to stop barking and sit with her.

Fascinatingly and significantly, these tropes also appear in films about ostensibly heterosexual women stalkers like Fatal Attraction and Disclosure, emphasizing the fact that the anxiety explored in this genre can be read as tacitly queer rather than simply cis-misogynist. Fatal Attraction is the most successful film in the stalker canon of the 80s/90s erotic thriller boom. It was the second highest grossing film of 1987 and garnered six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director. Its cultural impact can’t be understated, taking on a quasi-midnight movie relationship to its male viewership wherein crowds of men hurled misogynist epithets at the film’s woman stalker. In Fatal Attraction, Alex (Glenn Close, with a notably masculinized character name) is a working woman stalking Dan (Michael Douglas), a married man she has a two-day affair with. When he breaks it off, she tells him she’s pregnant and becomes enraged and progressively more psychotic, calling his house, slitting her wrists, throwing acid on his car, etc. She also murders Dan’s daughter’s white rabbit and leaves it boiling in his kitchen to be found by his wife in a gruesome parody of a woman cooking dinner for her family, and ia climactic scene, Alex is also paired with Dan’s wife (Ann Archer) in a bathroom mirror as she tries to kill her. In this case the “misidentification” of this mirror shot is less associated with a desire to possess the other woman and more a literal desire to become her by taking her place in the family unit, yet the choice to represent her in this way is notable when paired with the other tropes at play. Alex as a reproductive, would-be-maternal figure is rendered perverse through her lack of maternal instincts, violent nature, and the fact that her goal is the disruption of a nuclear family. The fact that her desire for sex with Dan feels secondary to her need to manipulate and control him puts her in conversation with her lesbian counterparts.

Basic Instinct, though not narratively identical to its contemporary stalker erotic thrillers, provides the most explicit example of the bi/lesbophobia at the heart of the stalker genre. Directed by Paul Verhoeven –– whose oeuvre also includes the cult classic showbiz epic Showgirls, which actually follows a similar structure of women-on-women obsession, jealousy, lust, and replacement–– the film was an instant commercial success that was swiftly condemned by the queer community and feminist activists for its depiction of bisexuals, lesbians, and women in general. The film’s neo-noir stylings and winding plot unspool a tangled web of psychosexual mirroring across genders and sexualities, at the center of which is the “Evil! …Brilliant!” bisexual femme fatale Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone). Catherine attracts the attention of SFPD Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) after her latest boyfriend is found naked in his bed stabbed to death with an ice pick. When Nick goes to her home to ask her some questions, he’s met by Catherine’s girlfriend, the bizarrely named “Roxy Hardy” (like the character, the name’s reference to Chicago is a red herring) who looks just like Catherine. The two are constantly touching. It’s later revealed that Roxy, who is a lesbian, murdered her younger twin brothers with “daddy’s straight razor” when she was sixteen in an act of childhood trauma and nuclear family dissolution that fits the pattern established in the rest of the films in the genre. As detective and suspect grow closer, their behavior begins to blend: from smoking in places where it’s not allowed (both: “what are you gonna do, charge me with smoking?”) to drinking Jack Daniels on the rocks cut up with an ice pick, to engaging in violent sexual behavior. References to Vertigo abound as Catherine shapes Nick into a character she’s writing — and who he may have really been all along.

Beyond the visual similarity between Roxy and Catherine, the central relationship that makes this a women stalker film is actually between Catherine and Nick’s police therapist and casual girlfriend, Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who knew each other at Berkeley and both have a way of getting under Nick’s skin. Midway through, Catherine confesses that in college she slept with a girl once only to have her start stalking her: “She dyed her hair like mine and copied my clothes… it scared me. It was awful.” The stalker turns out to be none other than Beth, who claims Catherine was actually stalking her, not the other way around. At the film’s climax, Nick shoots Beth who he believes to be the murderer of Catherine’s boyfriend, too, a theory apparently confirmed by police when they find a blonde wig, an icepick, and a dark SFPD coat at the scene. In the film’s final moments, as Catherine and Nick are in bed together, Nick suggest they should “f*ck like minks, raise rugrats, and live happily ever after” to which Catherine responds, “I hate rugrats.” She then leans under the bed, apparently to stab Nick like she may have done her boyfriend. When she pulls up empty handed the two embrace and the camera pans down to reveal she did have an icepick under the bed after all, suggesting she was the real murderer and stalker. If Catherine did commit murder and frame Beth as part of a convoluted revenge plot for her college scorn, she is another classic evil bisexual stalker using men to get to women (Nick loses interest in Beth when he starts seeing Catherine), copying them, trying to steal their lives, and destroying happy heterosexual families (she may have killed her parents as a child and hates kids). Roxy’s abrupt and unnecessary death is a grim example of the hom*ophobic “kill your gays” trope, and Catherine’s seeming recuperation at the hands of compulsory heterosexuality adds insult to the injury of the fact that she’s gone from femme fatale to the film’s Heddy over the course of a single pan.

While critics in 1992 were correct that the stalker erotic thriller was on its way out, they were wrong to assume it would stay gone for long. From commercial films like Chloe (2009) to arthouse pieces like Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) to independent camp/cult objects like the highly successful Greta (2017), to the forthcoming remake of Fatal Attraction, these tropes keep coming back. The fact that Greta‘s writer director, Neil Jordan, also directed The Crying Game (1992), a film widely panned for its flagrant transphobia, underlines the fact that many of the same people who created the hom*ophobic content Hollywood purports to no longer support are still working, and portraying queer characters to mixed success. These characters –– working women who ultimately are capable at their jobs, financially independent, and don’t need men, sexually, financially or otherwise –– are bogeymen for a masculine fear of feminism in general, but also for the fear that queer women represent more broadly as Second Wave feminism helped women to leave their homes and seek greater independence from their husbands and fathers. The idea that women can be alone or, god forbid, rely on each other is subversive to a system of misogynist oppression that relies on compulsory heterosexuality as one of its primary tools of enforcement. Single White Female remains pertinent today for giving this anxiety a language and weaponizing pre-existing stereotypes about queer women for a mass audience of women as well as men. More than the films themselves ever did, their cultural implications still hold the power to frighten.

‘Single White Female’ at Thirty: The Legacy of the Women Stalkers of the 1990s  (2024)

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