Psychobitch

CARYL RIVERS

March 11, 1993|By CARYL RIVERS

BOSTON — Boston. -- She's beautiful, she's bad -- and she's boffo. The Psychobitch is everywhere you turn, in the movies, on television, on the covers of trendy magazines. Is it an accident that in the Year of the Woman, when females are making historic inroads into the political power structure, the women we see in the media are not lawmakers but Lethal Weapons?

You can hardly go to your local cinema without running into a deadly female. Madonna doesn't have to use a weapon, she is one in ''Body of Evidence,'' dripping hot wax on the bare chest (and other strategic parts) of Willem DaFoe. Norman Mailer once wrote of Marilyn Monroe that she made sex seem like ice cream, easy, smooth, friendly. Madonna's no hot-fudge sundae, unless you like ground-glass toppings.

The newest entry into the Deadly Dames category is Lara Flynn Boyle, as a murderous secretary in ''The Temp.'' In ''Damage,'' Juliette Binoche destroys all the males in sight, with some kinky sex along the way. Amy Fisher, the Long Island Lolita who shot her boyfriend's wife, was on all three television networks in the same week, an honor usually reserved for inaugurations or national disasters.

Sharon Stone played a knife murderess in ''Basic Instinct,'' Rebecca de Mornay, a murderous nanny in ''The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,'' Jennifer Jason Leigh a crazed roommate from hell in ''Single White Female,'' and of course we all remember Glenn Close as the murderous career woman in ''Fatal Attraction.''

But perhaps the image that best links female power and primal fear is the cover of Spy magazine, which features Hillary Clinton's head pasted onto the zaftig body of a leather-clad dominatrix holding a whip, with the cover line ''What Hillary Problem?''

The message is not exactly a new one; that power in the hands of women is a thing of dread. Whether it's Medusa and her coiffure of snakes turning men to stone with a glance, the Sirens luring sailors to death on the rocks or Delilah seducing Samson -- powerful women are seen as icons of malevolence.

The contemporary vogue for the Psychobitch comes at a time when stories about real women are getting harder to find on the screen. In fact, there is such a paucity of candidates for the best-actress Oscar this year that there was talk of nominating Michelle Pfeiffer for her star turn as Catwoman -- another psychobitch, albeit a comic one.

Ms. Pfeiffer's costume, S-and-M couture, is similar to the one on Spy's Hillary. The announcement that the First Lady will have an office in the West Wing of the White House caused what can only be called a hysterical reaction in the media. From the commotion, you'd have thought Rasputin was moving his stuff in. There have been some scary guys who have had the president's ear, but did anyone ever picture Henry Kissinger or Haldeman and Erlichman or John Sununu in black leather?

Throughout history, it's been powerful men who have been the architects of slaughter, genocide and mayhem. But there is no aura of dread associated with men and power. Perhaps this is because we tend to see men as individuals, but women as members of a group. Charles Manson and Adolf Hitler do not represent all men. But Hillary Clinton seems to represent not herself, but some fearful aspect of female power. Would the press be in such an uproar if a male corporate attorney was the president's closest adviser? Hardly.

But it's the powerful guys we really have to worry about. Warren Harding's pals created the Teapot Dome scandal. Harry Truman's ''five-percenters,'' Ike's Sherman Adams and LBJ's Bobby Baker brought charges of corruption to the door of the White House. The President's Men led Nixon to disgrace and near-impeachment, and Ollie North and crew dreamed up a neat idea of selling arms to Iran and giving the proceeds to the contras.

But it's Hillary -- she wants to help kids and reform health care -- who gets cast as the Psychobitch.

Where does this sense of alarm come from? Some argue that male fear of women is rooted in early memories of the powerful mother. Others say that men see women's sexual power as so compelling that they wonder, if women get political power as well, will men have anything left? Susan Faludi argues fear of change and a worry on the part of white males of losing power is what creates ''Backlash.'' Whatever its roots, the Psychobitch phenomenon makes women the Evil Other and sends out warning signals about women and power.

The irony is that at the other end of the spectrum, some women ran for political office on the notion that women are better than men -- fairer, more caring, more honest.

Either extreme casts Woman as the Other. Whether Psychobitch or saint, the main point is that she's a symbol, an icon, not a flesh-and-blood human being. She's a member of a group, to be either feared or exalted, not an individual to be taken on her own merit.

And if it's the Psychobitch image that looms largest, real women will have an even harder time getting their hands on the levers of power.

Caryl Rivers is a novelist and faculty member at Boston University.

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