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Bunny Boilers: The myth of the obsessive woman

August 6, 2014

I have never seen a Bunny Boiler I liked. Bunny Boilers, a term taken from a horrendous scene from the most famous of the lot, Fatal Attraction, is a sub-genre of film in which a woman falls deeply, quickly and obsessively for a man (usually), and proceeds to stalk him ever more psychotically until finally she puts his life or the life of someone he loves in danger. Single White Female is much the same thing but with two women.

Was Fatal Attraction really so good that it warranted a veritable avalanche a similar films? All I remember from it is a crazy woman slashing around erratically with a knife, shortly after driving a car like a road-raged grandmother and somehow kidnapping and killing a pet rabbit in someone’s backyard and kitchen without being noticed. And how pale and white everyone’s private parts looked compared to the rest of their bronzed skin. Play Misty For Me had the exact same thing about it, minus the pale private parts and plus an absurdly long montage. Incidentally, they always turn out to have Borderline Personality Disorder, because of all the disorders it’s the hardest to pin down, so convenient for any characters who are obviously meant to be simply “crazy”.

The reason the Bunny Boiler took off certainly wasn’t because it resembles life in any way. Borderline Personality Disorder is rare, to start with. The one obsessive woman I met tried to get my email address and my Facebook at the same time, which was a bit of a faux pas since we only met that night. I didn’t give them to her and I never heard from her again. The three most obsessive men I ever met, on the other hand: upon first meeting, tried to get me to go to his place, then followed me home and begged for my phone number; called me late at night and wouldn’t let me hang up the phone until 5am in the morning; and trailed my friend around a club, refusing to leave despite several direct insistences that she wasn’t (and was incapable of being) interested.

The obsessive woman is a fantasy. It can happen, but it happens infrequently. And I’m just guessing, but I don’t think all the people with Borderline Personality Disorder are women. Rather, the things that some men call obsessive are behaviours that men get away with and are even expected to have, up to a point, in relationships; jealousy and possessiveness. Always wanting to know where someone is and what they’re doing. These thoughts, destructive as they are, are called protectiveness and thus love when displayed on men and clinginess when displayed on women. It is usually men who decide when a woman has crossed the line from affectionate to clingy, just as men decide when women are being irrational, hormonal and crazy.

Thus, only a woman can be a Bunny Boiler. Obsessive men are all over the movies, we simply don’t recognise them as such; these are forceful, enigmatic and charismatic heroes who know what they want and darn well go and get it, including if that “it” is actually someone. Even if their wants are perverse, this just makes them exciting and enticing. Unless the film makers are making a specific point to the contrary, such characters never cause in anyone’s death or near-death simply by their quirky obsessiveness, as the Bunny Boiler or the femme fatal invariably do.

If men in movies were as dangerous as Bunny Boilers, we would be watching a different movie entirely. We would know we were watching domestic abuse. Inverting an expectation, in theory, can help unpack and diffuse long-lived prejudices. If Bunny Boilers succeeded in showing us that men can be victims and women can be aggressors, then my feeling about the sub-genre would be completely different. However, they do not, because Bunny Boilers are designed not to be taken seriously.

The threat they present is similar to a video game villain. She must be vanquished, destroyed beyond repair. The vanquishing is harder than it first appears. Once vanquished, the threat is gone, never to be spoken of again, with no observable ill-effects. There is no humanity to the vanquished foe; every Bunny Boiler thus far has a striking resemblance to Medusa with the look of death in their eyes and hair flying everywhere – a sure sign of madness; good, sane men have short, tamed hair. Underneath all this is justified violence against women. Men can go all out and vanquish the demon, who has relinquished her woman status by being obsessive.

Yet the Bunny Boiler always starts out normal. In itself unrealistic, because most stalkers give you the creeps first time you meet them. When she first turns, she’s more annoying and inconvenient. She’s obsessed because the man slept with her and we’re invited to think he’s brought this on himself, especially if it’s an extramarital affair. We’re moving along the tired old line of “Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Scorned.” If you think about it, this doesn’t put women in a position of power. It puts men in a position of power; they are the ones who acted freely and women are just an embodied form of their just deserts. Women are driven by something beyond their control, something which compels them: the role of the punisher. Or, within the fiction, a fatal attraction. Animal magnetism, one could argue. It would make a fabulous Lynx advert.

When the woman flips into dangerous mode, it’s hard to swallow, mainly because she develops a Rasputin-esque superpower of being able to die repeatedly and pop back up again, riddled with holes and twice as strong for the fact that she nearly drowned or got bashed through the window of an 8-story building. Because anger and desperation give a woman satanic powers, you see. Not that we’re terrified of women or anything. Not at all.

Despite complaints about clinginess in real life, male writers and directors have this perverse fascination with being wanted so much that it’s literally dangerous, which I’m sure says nothing at all about their early sexual endeavours. Moreover, in a man’s world, being determined to Ensnare Your Prey at any cost is good. From these two ideas merged comes a clear message of fear: what if women started doing what we do? The world would be chaos! It’s lucky they can always be beaten down if they get out of hand because, ‘Tis But A Woman.

A woman could never overpower a man, even if she were armed and he were not. This is why a dangerous woman needs superpowers. I’ve see countless Bruce Willis-alikes karate kick a woman with a pistol in the throat, dodging bullets all the way, and down she drops like a wet sock. It happens all the time in Surrey.

Perhaps it’s a problem with guns. In America, you can legally own and easily obtain a gun, so someone showing up with one isn’t as threatening as it should be, because you can just buy a bigger one, the biggest one, just in case. The man will always have a bigger gun than a woman because a woman would look ridiculous with a bigger gun than a man. After all, ‘Tis But A Woman. She would barely be able to lift it, let alone aim! Hoff, hoff, hoff.

So, rather than developing the character into a quietly menacing person who is as dangerous as their minds, they have to turn into a screaming ball of flying hair and sharp edges. Because men can never be vulnerable, women have to be driven by the power of psychosis in order to pose a threat to them. Here is a classic example of how the depiction of women would automatically improve if we improved our depiction of men; if men don’t have to be juggernauts of power all the time, women don’t have to be fallen angels of death in order to intimidate them.

If you wonder what a film would look like with a vulnerable man and a menacing woman who might actually evoke some kind of a fear reaction rather than vaguely amused befuddlement, try Misery.

And while we’re at it, let’s give people with mental illnesses a break, shall we? Last person I met with a serious mental illness merely held up dates by washing their hands quite a lot. They certainly wouldn’t have touched someone else’s kitchen knife, if their life depended on it.

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From → Media Analysis

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