This December, the Cruel Intentions musical returned for a second off-Broadway run, and queer critics are not happy. While the show is hyperbolic, entertaining, and packed with nostalgic feels, Tim Teeman of The Daily Beast called its treatment of gay characters “horrible.” The show is brimming with homophobic slurs and dangerous tropes, which is disappointing given the film’s queer storylines.
The original film was chock-full of homophobia. The now-infamous girl-on-girl kiss between Kathryn and Cecile (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair) reflected a negative, old-school ideology: Kathryn suggests that Cecile “practice” kissing with a girl in order to prepare herself for the real thinga boy. While the kiss was voyeuristic and such insinuations were derogatory toward queer women, the scene was considered bold at the time. Not to mention, it served as an eye-popping sexual awakening for hoards of queer ‘90s girls. (It went on to win Best Kiss at the 2000 VMAs.)
And in 2015, Gellar and Blair recreated the iconic kiss while attending the first iteration of the musical in Los Angelesa definite publicity grab, but an homage to their queer female fans, too.
The musical remains pretty faithful to the seminal film; the music is killer, including ‘90s favorites like “Kiss Me,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and “Bye Bye Bye.” The characters, too, fall in line with their predecessors. The story follows the mischievous, perverse and incestuous brother-sister duo of Kathryn and Sebastian as Kathryn manipulates and subjugates everyone around her. The Lindsey Robin-directed play features Lauren Zarkin as Kathryn and Constantine Rousouli as the conflicted Sebastian. Unfortunately for Cruel Intentions, sticking to your roots also includes maintaining problematic humor that was admissible in the ‘90s.
The Daily Beast writer notes, “In 1999, it may have been deemed acceptable to fling ‘fag,’ ‘queer,’ and ‘lesbian’ around as an insult (it wasn’t OK, but it was prevalent), but not today. And in Cruel Intentions, they are used as insults.” The musical’s homophobia isn’t even commented on or satirized; it’s just left as is. “The people saying them are not admonished,” Teeman writes. “The insults are simply thrown and an audience in 2017 is encouraged to laugh at the people being made fun of or dismissed.”
The word “fag” is lobbed at the closeted football jock, Greg McConnell. Slurs aside, today, the “shocking” reveal of a gay jock is a tired tropeas are jabs about virgin women being lesbians. The musical suggests that male homosexuality is something to be ashamed of, while lesbian sexuality is “a plaything,” not the real thing.
But today, we should be able to do better. These jokes shouldn’t have flown in 1999, let alone 2017. It’s disillusioning that the musical wasn’t updated to reflect modern credos about LGBTQ peopleespecially considering that queer people make up a large part of the Cruel Intentions fanbase, myself included. And from the sound of it, the musical takes cheap, ugly jabs at gay people in ways that aren’t causticit’s just outright mean.
As a fan of the movie, I was shocked to hear that these jokes and storylines weren’t updated. Though patently skewed and problematic, the movie plays with sexuality in so many forms, for both men and women. It would’ve been super interesting and refreshing to watch a modern version, maybe where Cecile and Kathryn further explore their sexualities; or maybe Greg McConnell and Blaine Tuttle could be out and proud. The possibilities were endless, and they really dropped the ball.
Cruel Intentions: The Completely Unauthorized Musical is currently in its second iterationthe play originated at a cabaret venue in Los Angeles earlier this year and starred Katie Stevens (The Bold Type, Faking It) as Kathryn. If you can stomach it, the play is at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York City through January 28, 2018. If anything, you’ll get to enjoy a Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC mashup performed as part of the queer romance between Greg McConnell and Blaine Tuttle.
This year, film critic Emily Nussbaum tweeted about the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm with a sentiment I now share about Cruel Intentions: “I can’t tell what changed: the show, the world or me.”