WHY ARE women in the movies so often so stupid? Let's say I'm in a dark movie theatre, any theatre. Say the killer on the screen is stalking the heroine's house with a chain saw, but she just hangs around looking dumb. I know she's in trouble, so why doesn't she just get in the car and get out? Doesn't she ever go to the movies?

The answer is that she has been set up as a victim, a Woman in Jeopardy. This is hot stuff for lots of men, and probably a lot of women. We are talking sex and violence. Probably bondage. A little light rape. The Woman in Jeopardy is frequently victimised by another woman and there will be a fight between a couple of babes. And who's gonna rescue the broad in danger? It's a bird . . . it's a plane . . . no, it's a . . . MAN]

This is the essence of the Woman in Jeopardy film, also known as The Jep Movie. The mother of all Jep Movies is Fatal Attraction ('kill the bitch'); its most recent offspring is Single White Female, which is stirring up controversy like mosquitoes after a hurricane. There is a bad girl, Hedy (as in Lamarr) and a good girl, Allie, who lives in a creepy apartment building in Sin City, aka New York. Having thrown her boyfriend out, Allie advertises for a room-mate ('Single White Female') and gets Hedy, which is like getting bubonic plague. Allie has talent and cheekbones. Hedy is plain and hates men ('Men are pigs, I don't care how nice they seem'). Hedy spends her empty evenings eating Haagen-Dazs.

Single White Female has designer ice-cream, Postmodern fruit plates and interior decor. The Jep Movie works for an up-market audience, as Michael Sragow, the New Yorker critic, notes, because it's usually dressed to kill. The Slasher Movie meets the Demographically Correct and 'property values and moral values get enmeshed'.

Before long, having announced: 'I was supposed to be a twin, but she was stillborn', Hedy is wearing her hair like Allie's and copying her clothes. Still Allie is not alarmed. When Allie takes her boyfriend back, Hedy takes revenge. She kills the dog. Dressed as Allie, she insinuates herself into the boyfriend's bed and sticks him in the eye with a stiletto heel. 'Why did you kill him?' asks Allie. Lies Hedy: 'He came in my mouth and then he beat the shit out of me because I wanted to tell you.' Why doesn't Allie call the cops? Because Allie is a dumb girl.

There follows a mano-a-mano catfight with a nasty screwdriver in an elevator cage, and a rescue by a man, Allie's upstairs neighbour, Graham. With a Nineties twist, Graham is gay. 'I can be butch if I have to. I get it from my mother,' he says.

Directed by Barbet Schroeder, who made the delicious black comedy Reversal of Fortune about Claus Von Bulow, Single White Female could have been a witty fantasy. Instead it's a cynically calculated come-on. Its elements are as predictable as a Lego kit. It shares many of its interchangeable pieces with, say, Fatal Attraction, in which Glenn Close plays a single New York woman who sits home alone eating ice-cream (Haagen-Dazs again) except when she is hitting on Michael Douglas - like many Jep Movie men, the hapless victim of a witchy working woman - or terrifying his good-girl wife by boiling the family bunny rabbit. 'Kill the bitch]' the audience would shriek merrily; Jep Movies often elicit the kind of audience participation usually reserved for female mud-wrestling.

Recently, there has been a mother lode of these pictures: in Final Analysis, Kim Basinger, victimised by her sister, is rescued by Richard Gere as her shrink. In Basic Instinct, the killer, who has Picassos on her walls, is a woman, but so is the victim, who was once her lover. (Lesbian sex rates; men love the idea of two babes in bed, and Basic Instinct II is already in the works.) Whispers in the Dark has a shrink who falls prey to her patient's fantasies and must be cured by a kinder, gentler guy.

One of the top grossing movies in the US this summer is Death Becomes Her, the Jep Movie as farce. Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep play ageing stars obsessed with youth who kill each other over Bruce Willis, a plastic surgeon so drunk he can't hold a scalpel, who works as make-up man to the dead in a Beverly Hills mortuary. A Jep Movie is usually set in New York City or Los Angeles, the Sodom and Gomorrah of America where Family Values go to die. What's going on here?

According to some sociologists, demographics are changing. For the first time in years, there are more young men than young women. Until recently women outnumbered men, who felt desired, secure, and, in those prosperous times, unthreatened. In the Eighties, as Newsweek famously reported, many women had a better chance of getting knocked off by a terrorist then of marrying, so they went to work, as they always have when men were scarce - after the First World War, for instance. Feminism bloomed; women began making tough economic and political demands; they still are.

But times are tough now, there are fewer jobs and fewer marriageable women, and men are nervous. Men want control. Some want to 'protect' women or get them to dress up in bustiers and big skirts. For the hip, bondage is chic. Frustration and anger have increased the incidence of macho posturing, abuse, even rape.

In America, the right exercises control by using the word 'feminist' to provoke fear in exactly the way it once used 'Communist', and by asserting that women who do not require men to sustain and rescue them are godless lesbian freaks. The film-makers play straight into their hands with the Jep Movies; a lot of women already feel they are living the real-life version.