Here Comes Trouble
Mysterious and charming women have occupied a template position in the visual media and are lauded for their unrestrained sexuality. They are smart and sexy, sometimes too much for the society's liking and must therefore be contained. The ethos on which the characterization of destructive females is based is a bundle of paradoxes that puts forth an image of women that is both progressive and regressive, at the same time. This article is an attempt to analyze the "femme fatale" trope.
The 'femme fatale', literally translated, the fatal woman is a stereotypical female figure responsible for bringing ruination upon the man she decides to dig her claws in. Her charms traps and ensnares the male protagonist in compromising, deadly situations causing their ultimate destruction.
The stock character of a mysterious, sensuous woman who is responsible for the fall of the naive and gullible man isn't necessarily a creation of the media. Legends and mythology are replete with accounts of dangerously sensuous women like Circle, Pandora and Hecate who use their promiscuity as leverage to acquire control. Let us also not forget about the original 'sinner' Eve who is single-handedly held responsible for bringing ruination mankind by tempting Adam to taste the forbidden fruit.
We shall attempt to explore how this particular template of 'femme fatales' is a trope based on paradoxes. The multiple inversions function simultaneously to render the social presence of these fatal women as ambiguously suspended. The archetype of female empowerment through unabashed sexuality and ambition is also a social rejection of it.
Though they have existed from long before, the trope gained momentum after the second world war with the influx of these fatal women in Film 'noir', a genre of films characterized by fatalism, cynical attitudes and motivations of crime dramas. The historical context to their origin also proposes an anomaly. It was a whiff of fresh air to have a female representation in visual media that not knows what they want but will work to achieve it, no matter what it takes. They presented a strong case for female ambition. However, the template character of femme fatales was coined as a response to male skepticism and hesitancy regarding continued female monetary independence in post-war America. Film noir were cautionary tales about ambitious working women who could easily knock down men. The male anxieties were adapted onto screens to discourage work (and therefore financial) autonomy to women and persuade them to revert to general domesticity.
She manipulates the encounters of entrapment and the outcomes of their interactions (with the tragic interest) that sets the intended crime in motion. Even though she is supposed to be the representative of overt female carnality, recognisable instantly with her conventionally attractive physique and her mystifying aura, her own interest isn't sexual, it is simply monetary. On the inside, she is superficially erotic. 'Femme fatale' is a carefully constructed trope to simultaneoulsy control and (mis) represent feminine pleasure in media and myths. While they may be portrayed as sensuous women , they and more importantly, the audience knows that their passion is a ruse. It projects that female heterosexual desire is staged, and therefore, not real against the heavily reinstaes discourse on romantic (consequently sexual) advances between heterosexual couples involving pliant female passivity.
A prominent feature of the film noir was that the sexually uninhibited woman had to either be killed or arrested to neutralise and regulate audience response. There are overtones of modernist versus puritan narratives in the trope. Against the backdrop of Hays Code guarding exhibit of visual media, immoral activity on screens was explicitly discouraged and villainized and it gave women the revolutionary opportunity to present themselves as the anti-hero, in charge of their carnality and sex being the defining factor of their being; utterly divorced from the popular notions of gentle womanhood and childbirth.
"No, I never loved you nor anybody else. I'm rotten to the heart", says Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity, 1944.
Even then there is an undeniable moralism involved in the display of excess eroticism and equations of non-marital sex. The desire for evil is as puritanical as it gets. The trope allows the audience to have it both ways. Enjoy vicarious sexuality knowing that in the end she will be punished for it - one way or the other.
Interestingly the punishment levied upon these evil-inclined women, is meted out their antithesis- the domesticated woman or is at least a conscious effort to restore order before the web of the fatal mayhem spun. In Fatal Attraction 1987 the psychologically challenged Alex (Glenn Close) is killed by the ''victim's'' faithful wife, Beth (Anne Archer). Even in classic noir films like Gilda, 1946 the ostensibly promiscuous femme Gilda (Rita Hayworth) turns out to be faithful all along, her flirtatious potrayal was but a ruse to gauge her lover's interest. Re-establishment of faithful female interest was a price Gilda pays to not end up dead or in prison.
It is also worth a notice that the smart and sexy femmes are considered as such because men find them so. Even though there has been a change of heart regarding their moral motivations, the media's allegiance to physical features has remained untethered. White, slender and (preferably) blonde. The sexism and misogyny behind the filtering of what is attractive (in a particular era) through the male gaze subverts any promise of 'owned sexuality' that femme fatales have to offer. In Fatal Attraction Dan (Miachel Douglas) gets to decide when he finds Alex sexually compelling. His attraction towards her nullifies after discovering that she needs medical assistance.
In its many representations — feminine evil, source of male anxiety or a tragic figure ultimately meeting its end, she exists because of external factors. She is created as a 'phantasmic emanation' of others who are acted upon and when necessary extinguished (Bronfen 114). Femme fatales fail to be a separate subject who has individual agency and is responsible for her decisions. Modern screenwriters have adapted the archetype with increased sympathy. They're now given back stories and complex psychological motivations that inspire action like Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl , 2014 that psychologically plays with a disintegrating marriage and manipulating her husband Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) in summer-crime Hustlers, 2019 who along with Constance Wu make a team of talented female scammers and Dani (Florence Pugh) in Ari Aster's Midsommar, who sets her abusive husband on fire, quite literally, with a chilling, blood-cold smile at the denouement. The difference is that the audience is on their side. They root for these characters, even if they're morally grey. But these are only a handful of names in a sea of misrepresented independent and ambitious femmes. One can only hope that their screen portrayal will become more human with increased sensitivity towards their stimulations that exist independent of men.
References and Citations
Sutton, H. (2019, December 5).The Evolution of the Femme Fatale in Film Noir. CrimeReads; crimereads.com. https: //crimereads.com/the-evolution-of-the-femme-fatale-in-film-noir/
Facchino, E. B. (2020,).Seductive Ideals: An Analysis of the Femme Fatale’s Lasting Image and Effect on Viewers, by Emma Beatrix Facchino – Dawson English Journal. www.dawsonenglishjournal.ca. https://www.dawsonenglishjournal.ca/article/seductive-ideals-an-analysis-of-the-femme-fatales-lasting-image-and-effect-on-viewers-by-emma-beatrix-facchino/
Bronfen, E. (2004). Femme Fatale: Negotiations of Tragic Desire. New Literary History, 35(1), 103–116. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20057823
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