The French phrase ‘Femme Fatale’ translates to ‘fatal woman,’ and describes an archetype that originates from the classic film noir of the 1940s and 50s. This stock character usually brings about the destruction of the protagonist, usually male, and manages to reject traditional ideals of femininity while she does. There have been many iterations of the femme fatale on screen, but there are several traits that they commonly share. Critics generally concur that the presence of the femme fatale reflects male anxieties about women, be that about their domestic role, or their sexuality.
Early versions of the femme fatale can be seen in figures such as Eve or Salomé. Both show the audience what would happen if women were to gain some sort of independence, with Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge and bringing sin into the world. In Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ after eating from the Tree Eve acquires a dangerous sexuality which seduces and leads Adam astray. Post war films of the 40s and 50s reflected changes in women’s roles, as during the war, they had left the domestic space of the home and entered into work. They earned their own money, and discovered some of the freedom that men had always possessed. This idea of freedom is applied to all aspects of the female in the femme fatale character, and is well reflected in the 1946 film ‘Gilda.’
Rita Hayworth depicts the titular character, and it is her free sexuality that raised the eyebrows of the audience. In the film, Gilda decides to make her ex Johnny jealous by spending her time with other men. Johnny hates Gilda because of this, and does not realise that she is actually married to another man at the time. At the end of the film, she sings ‘Put the Blame on Mame.’ The song talks about a sensual woman who is blamed for all of the world’s problems. Her attire and alluring dance moves force everyone to view her as promiscuous, an idea that Johnny has forced upon her. At the end of the film, when it is revealed that Gilda is married and is not promiscuous at all, Johnny ceases hating her and reconciles with her. The realisation that she does not have a dangerous, free sexuality ultimately resolves the story.
The femme fatale can also appear as the ‘wealthy woman,’ who is obsessed with wealth and material gain. This reflected the money and independence that women earned during the war. Such a woman is depicted in the 1944 film ‘Double Indemnity,’ which starred Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson. Dietrichson murders her husband for his life insurance, and also murdered his previous wife to marry him in the first place. It is her desire for wealth that drives the plot, and makes her dangerous.
Linking to the idea of wealth is the ‘working woman’ who is deemed dangerous because she can provide for herself. In 1945 film ‘Mildred Pierce,’ Joan Crawford’s Mildred is tormented by her spoilt daughter Ida. Ida would not have been so indulgent if her mother did not earn money to treat her with. It is therefore implied that all of Mildred’s problems stem from her desire to provide for her family. Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Suzanne Stone in ‘To Die For,’ 1995, is more explicitly dangerous, as, when her husband requests that she give up her career to start a family, she kills him. Stone’s apparent rejection of motherhood make her a dangerous and divisive female, as she rejects the societal role that women were typically associated with, and encouraged to fulfil.
The ‘ageing woman’ is an interesting one, as she is seen as a threat to society purely because she refuses to fade away and let new talent enter the limelight. This is an obvious reference to Hollywood’s obsession with youth. An example of this is Norma Desmond in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ a film from 1950 that stars Gloria Swanson.
Traditionally, femme fatales were reprimanded for their behaviour, an idea that was mentioned in the Hays Code. This was a colloquial term for the Motion Picture Production Code, which acted as guidelines for filmmakers. It was noted that villainous characters should always receive their comeuppance. Due to this, the femme fatale rarely has a happy ending, and is punished for her actions. She may go to jail, or she may die. However, when journeying out of film noir, even this trope appears to change.
A notable example of a femme fatale, that ties many of these ideas together, is Catherine Tramell from 1992’s ‘Basic Instinct,’ played by Sharon Stone. She is fully aware of her sexuality, and uses it to manipulate those around her. Most notably, Michael Douglas’s Nick. She does not kill him, although it is implied that she will at the end of the film, but destroys him from the inside. She awakens in him a darkness that makes him pliable to her. Although she inspires feelings of lust in others, she herself is cold and psychopathic. Tramell survives ‘Basic Instinct’ and returns for its sequel, meaning that, she does not appear to get any comeuppance as her predecessors do. This means that male anxieties about women, in relation to Catherine Tramell, are not dispelled. They survive. If Tramell had been reprimanded, peace would have been restored.
Megara in Disney’s 1997 film ‘Hercules’ is not reprimanded for her deception of Hercules, and is instead rewarded at the end of the film. She is quite obviously a femme fatale, as she is alluring, and draws Hercules to his doom, by drawing him closer to Hades. She does suffer, and nearly die, but ultimately, she is rewarded and given a romantic relationship with the title character. Critics have noted that Megara is a multi-faceted Disney heroine, and perhaps it is this quality that means that she is able to avoid the fates of her femme fatale predecessors.
More recent depictions seem to invert the traditional femme fatale qualities. Natalie Dormer’s popular portrayal of Anne Boleyn in Showtime series ‘The Tudors’ charts Anne’s rise from seducer, to queen. The first season focuses on her femme fatale features, and continually emphasises her sexual beauty, which is what draws Henry to her. In the second season, she is criticised for this, earning her the titles of ‘the Concubine’ and ‘the whore,’ both of which are historically accurate. She also rivals the king, and audience, with her intelligence, in relation to gender roles and religion. It is this, along with her inability to give Henry a male heir, that ultimately leads to her downfall. It seems that in the show, and in real life, Anne reflected male anxieties about the role of women and femininity.
Blake Lively’s character Emily Nelson in the 2018 film ‘A Simple Favour’ does not lead a man astray, but a woman, in Anna Kendrick’s innocent character Stephanie Smothers. Interestingly, Nelson is a mother, unlike previous femme fatales, but like them is judged for being career driven.
Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister also bucks the trend, as all of her femme fatale-esque actions are driven by her desire to protect her children. Ironically, her love for her children is supposed to be her ‘one redeeming quality,’ and yet it encourages her to kill and manipulate others, including Tyrion and Margaery.
The superhero genre boasts several femme fatales, the most notable probably being Catwoman. Although many actresses have played her over the years, most recently Anne Hathaway, all depictions exhibit femme fatale traits. Hathaway exhibits many, and like her predecessors is mysterious and alluring. Her tight-fitted cat suited highlights her sex appeal, an aspect of her character that is recognised by Bruce Wayne. She also leads Wayne into trouble, by handing him over to Bane. However, she redeems herself, and at the end of the film helps Wayne save Gotham, and in doing so is rewarded with a romantic ending with Wayne.
Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones and Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne from the 2014 film ‘Gone Girl’ are both femme fatales, but also subvert the trope. Both women are allowed to tell their own stories, and although both are not totally vindicated for their dubious actions, they are at least sympathised with. They are the heroes of their own stories, which gives them a slight feminist edge over some of their predecessors. 2020’s ‘Promising Young Woman’ provides the audience with a fully-fledged feminist femme fatale in protagonist Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan. She continually punishes, and reprimands men for taking advantage of her in a club, a situation she traps them in after faking inebriation. Although I have not seen the film, the promotional material depicts her ensnaring men, and although she does so for different reasons compared to classic femme fatales, it is this feature that aligns her with them.
The femme fatale is often the most memorable character in the story, due to her controversiality. It is certainly true that femme fatales are strong, independent female characters throughout their respective films. It is how others react to them, and see them, that make them fail. As they are chastised for their feminist qualities, notably their free sexuality and desire for independence, the characters themselves showcase anxieties about femininity. Retrospectively, femme fatales have at times been recognised as victims of male dominated societies. Many seek financial independence, and freedom from their oppressive husbands. It is this pursuit of freedom however that condemns them, earning them the label of ‘femme fatale.’
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