A couple of days ago, the hive went wild over news that the 1999 cult-favorite film Cruel Intentions would be returning to theaters on March 22 for one week only in honor of its 20th anniversary. Fans who remember Cruel Intentions as that groundbreaking film that openly discussed female sexuality and gave us opportunity to marvel at the beautiful human that is Ryan Phillippe cannot be more excited for this “classic” film to make its twenty-first century debut.

But here’s the thing. Cruel Intentions is problematic. Like, really problematic. And in the age of #MeToo and at a moment when Hollywood is finally giving women the complicated and real roles they deserve, screening Cruel Intentions seems like a hundred steps back.

For those who may not have seen the film, I’ll give you a brief summary. It’s the story of two step-siblings, Sebastian (Phillippe) and Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who lust for each other in a way that is cringeworthy at best. Sebastian is a playboy to the max, even keeping a diary of his “conquests” (his words, not mine) and trying hard to sleep with as many girls as he can. When new girl Annette (Reese Witherspoon) arrives in school flaunting her virginity, Sebastian makes it his mission to de-flower her. He bets his step-sister that he can take her virginity by the end of the year, promising her his Jaguar if he fails and finally getting to sleep with her if he succeeds. Oh, and meanwhile, he and Kathryn also work to ruin the life of Katheryn’s enemy Cecile (Selma Blair), a multiple-step process which includes (you guessed it) pressuring her to sleep with Sebastian.

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At first glance, it’s difficult to understand what made this disturbing plot-line so appealing to audiences, even in 1999. But the charm of Cruel Intentions was just that – it was a sexy, scandalous and subversive film that enthralled its teenage audience. There had never been a film like that before, and the idea that just by watching it you were doing something naughty captured thousands of teenagers across the world. Many would go on to claim that the film was a feminist triumph, largely because of one line uttered by Gellar’s Kathryn bemoaning the way the world downplays female sexuality. “God forbid, I exude confidence and enjoy sex,” she says. “Do you think I relish the fact that I have to act like Mary Sunshine 24/7 so I can be considered a lady?”

Yes, Kathryn, you’re right. A woman should be allowed to exude confidence and enjoy sex. But what she should not be allowed to do is to become an accomplice in a sexual predator’s conquest. Sebastian’s actions (all of which would be considered assault by today’s standards) are never taken to task and he ends up winning the affection of good-girl Annette and reforming his ways. And then the film adds insult to injury by killing Sebastian in one last heroic moment, leaving Kathryn to take the fall for all of the sexual harassment and overall nastiness all by herself.

I’m not saying that Cruel Intentions wasn’t a well-crafted film. Director and writer Roger Kumble gave rise to a new genre of subversive film, and for that I am indeed thankful. It emerged out of the John Hughes era of sappy romance films, and proved that sex could indeed sell. The actors, all of whom went on to become incredibly famous after the success of the film, all gave stellar performances. And of course the film gave us that whirlwind real-life romance of Philippe and Witherspoon which will forever be the cutest Hollywood coupling of all time. But to celebrate its twentieth anniversary in today’s political climate seems wrong.

Earlier this year, a number of radio stations pulled the Christmas classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from their playlists due to backlash that highlighted the sexual harassment implicit in the song. In April, Molly Ringwald questioned the messages in one of her own films (The Breakfast Club) in light of the #MeToo movement. And while debates ensue about whether we should be banning films and songs that are marked by now out-dated forms of courtship (to give it the nicest terminology), it seems not so much to ask that we not celebrate these problematic films by bringing them back into the spotlight.

If anyone can get through a screening of Cruel Intentions without cringing today, then we as a society haven’t done our job. Right now, Hollywood is trying to right its past wrongs by educating its audience about long-standing issues of consent, sexism and sexual misconduct in this country. As such, a film like Cruel Intentions should not be re-released, unless it is with the explicit intention of continuing the conversation about sexual assault. And given that it’s just being released to theaters without any panel discussions, analyses or open forums, it doesn’t seem like that’s the case.

So don’t go see it. Or if you do, please use it as launching pad for discussion, not a moment for irreverent reminiscence. Because nothing will change if we don’t call out these issues when we see them and use our past not merely as a celebration but as a forum for growth.

 

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