The Only Thing We Have To Fear is 1990’s Views On Sexual Politics: A Look Back at 'Fear'
25 years ago today, a film trailer came along that rocked my fucking socks...
...I was 10 years old, the trailer (probably) ran before Broken Arrow, and the film being advertised was the Mark Wahlberg/Reese Witherspoon film Fear. As a child, the trailer seemed revolutionary in the way that it started out looking like a fun romantic comedy that abruptly became a horror story. I’ve talked this over with friends, relatives, and my therapists and while they all agree that I should consider upping my dosage, they are split on whether or not this has directly impacted my views on romantic relationships.
Now some years later, I decided to watch the film for the first time.
Watching Fear through a modern lens makes the film more interesting and engaging than I imagine it was back in ‘96. For the uninitiated, Fear is about a teenage girl named Nicole (Reese Witherspoon) who falls in love with local bad boy, David (Mark Wahlberg). David is exciting and fun but definitely older than Nicole and it soon becomes clear that he is violently possessive and a threat to Nicole’s safety. While this unfolds, Nicole’s father (played by Manhunter’s William Peterson) grows suspicious of David and defensive of his daughter. In the final act of the film, David and a crew of weirdos break into Nicole’s home with the intention of kidnaping Nicole and killing her father.
It’s easy to imagine Fear succeeding as a mid-budget thriller in the middle of the 90s. This was, after all, around the time of Color Of Night and Jade (both terrible movies that enjoyed financial success off the promise of showing their audience on screen depictions of sex.) When it was released, Fear was moderately enjoyed by critics who mostly celebrated the performances of Witherspoon and Wahlberg and the tight pacing of the film. While it is safe to say that both actors perform admirably (while Amy Brenneman is woefully overlooked as the most believable actor in the film) the film’s representation of sexual politics is horribly outdated. Watching the movie now, it is difficult to enjoy it as a film--it is more of a time capsule of the strange but commonly accepted sexual mores of the mid 90s.
The title of this film really says it all. Who is living in fear throughout the movie? It isn’t really Witherspoon’s Nicole. She’s alarmed at times. She’s occasionally scared. But mostly she’s defensive of her boyfriend until she realizes he isn’t safe to be around. Even after this revelation, she’s mostly compassionate towards her abuser. David is angry and possessive but at no point does his character seem afraid of losing Nicole. The person who is fearful throughout the film is Nicole’s father. Before we even learn that David is dangerous, Nicole’s father is distrusting of the young man that his daughter has fallen for. It becomes clear that Fear is not telling the story of a girl in an abusive relationship, but the story of adult men fighting for possession of a child.
As Wahlberg and Peterson fight for Witherspoon, Wahlberg states that Peterson must relinquish control of his daughter. He claims it is the natural order of things for a daughter to leave her father for a lover. While we are aware that Wahlberg’s David is crazy, the film doesn’t really say he’s wrong in this specific case. It is implied that one day Nicole will leave her father for another man but that day isn’t today and David isn’t the right man. Nicole’s agency is non-existent in this decision. In the world of Fear Nicole is an object to be handed off by her father to another man. The film takes the idea of a father giving away a woman during a wedding pretty literally.
This is all very upsetting but the film does have a surprisingly nuanced view of assault via Alysa Millano’s character. Partway through the film, Nicole watches a party through a window. Nicole’s best friend (Millano) is sitting in the middle of the living room giving a lap dance to one of David’s creep friends. David interrupts and forces Millano to join him upstairs for some implied sex. Some scenes later, Millano’s character tries to tell Nicole that she was raped by David but Nicole does not believe her friend. Nicole seems to believe that her friend’s “risky behavior” put her in a situation where something like this would occur. It’s horrifyingly prescient for the response to violence against women that persists to this very day. Any reconciliation between the friends happens off screen and is not directly addressed but it’s clear to the audience at least that Millano’s character is the victim of violence.
A remake of this film has been threatened for years. As recently as 2019, a version was in the works starring The Hate U Give’s Amadla Stenberg and written by Jonathan Herman. I was not able to find any recent information on this remake and it is possible that it has been lost to the pandemic.
Fear is currently available on HBOMax and I strongly encourage people to watch it and consider it a sort of Document Based Question about accepted views on sexual agency in the 90s.
By Mark Gonzales
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