About the Author:
I am in the Cinema and Communications profile of the ALC program. Throughout my time at Dawson, I have focused my studies on feminist theories and topics, particularly on the portrayal of women in media. This essay, which I wrote for my Cinema Styles course, was at the time a culmination of my studies on the male gaze and society’s perpetual idealization of the female body. These are themes that I continue to explore in my creative writing, filmmaking and essay writing— all passions of mine that I will be further pursuing at Concordia this fall.
Emma Beatrix Facchino
Prof. Kim Simard
Cinema/Communications 916: Cinema Styles
Seductive Ideals: An Analysis of the Femme Fatale’s Lasting Image and Effect on Viewers
From her first appearance on screen, she draws our attention. Undeniably sexy, mysterious, and glamorous, we are caught in the femme fatale’s web just as quickly as any male protagonist is. But who can blame us? The femme fatale is mesmerising, and just as her name implies, we can only watch as she spins her male victims – and occasionally even herself – into fatal ruin (“The Femme Fatale”). This essay will focus on the femme fatale archetype and its influence on women’s roles and beauty standards over the years.
The femme fatale was popularised during the 40s and 50s, as the character archetype became a distinctive feature of film noir, a genre that resulted from the influence of German expressionist filmmakers in Hollywood, and that explored gritty themes of nihilism and criminality (Hales 225). Classic noir films like Double Indemnity (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), and Gilda (1946) all depict iconic femme fatales. However, one can make the argument that the femme fatale archetype has existed forever. Tales of attractive, deadly women are prevalent throughout history: one look at the alluring Medusa would turn a man to stone; the Sirens used their charming voices to lure sailors to their deaths; even the biblical character Eve was responsible for Adam’s suffering and doom (Meslow). So what was it about film noir that finally made the femme fatale such an iconic trope?
Firstly, the adoption of the femme fatale archetype after World War II was certainly no coincidence. In fact, it was a perfect example of the changing roles of women at the time. Long gone were the days where women stayed in the kitchen. As men came back from the war, they were met with women who had worked in factories, who had built the very weapons they used in battle. These stronger, more independent women had been shaped by the war effort and had just gotten a taste of autonomy (“The Femme Fatale”). There was no way they were going back to their “normal” domestic roles. Men, of course, regarded this social change with a lot of skepticism. There was great hesitancy, even discouragement, to allow women into the workforce post-war. These ideas eventually made their way onto the big screen, with dramatic films like All About Eve (1950) depicting “negative images of resourceful working women” (Boozer 21). Nonetheless, it was in film noir that male anxieties were expressed most intensely and that their collective message was made clearest. Through the femme fatale, viewers could see how a woman’s ambition and inherent sexuality could so easily destroy otherwise innocent men. The trope was practically used as a cautionary tale, as though a powerful woman should be feared, since her sex appeal only meant trouble, and her growing independence meant she might take a man’s job too. After all, the femme fatale was defined by her social and sexual liberation (she was typically unmarried and without children) just as much as her seductive, dangerous nature. As writer Halley Sutton put it, “She was fun, she was sexy, and she was going to get you killed” (Sutton).
Of course, it is not fair to blame the femme fatale’s downfall in the majority of her films on misogyny alone: the Hays Code was still in effect in Hollywood during the 40s and 50s (Sutton). This meant that immoral activity shown on screen had to be explicitly discouraged or villainized, and that the film had to resolve with the moral characters coming out on top. Therefore, the femme fatale would always have to be punished for her sexuality and other immoral behaviour in the film by dying or going to jail.
As cinema and society evolved through the decades, the femme fatale was revamped, and the archetype has since been explored in much more exciting ways. For starters, female characters in our media today are fully developed, three-dimensional beings. The male gaze has not exactly disappeared, but with more women working in all aspects of filmmaking, as well as a big social shift in Hollywood thanks to the #MeToo movement, our society has become much more sensitive to how women are portrayed on screen. As for the femme fatale, we can find her in a variety of films and TV series, the majority of which are neo-noirs or dramas. Sharon Stone’s infamous Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct (1992), Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (2014), Carrey Mulligan’s Cassie in Promising Young Woman (2020), and even Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona in Hustlers (2019) are all examples of modern day femme fatales. The characters still use their sexuality to get what they want, always at the demise of the people around them. Although characters like the ones mentioned above are still subject to controversy for what they do, the majority of viewers love them. Instead of killing or arresting the femme fatale to make audiences feel secure, films now permit viewers to sympathize with her. Her motivations are made clear, and we often genuinely root for her throughout the film. We do not fear strong female characters anymore; instead, we enjoy watching badass women on screen, and we value the message of strength and empowerment that the femme fatale expresses. It is important to note that some modern femme fatales, like Catherine Tramell, are villains, while others are quite literally superheroes, like Black Widow of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The variety of characters that fit into the archetype is an exciting step forward and promises even more female-led stories that are not based on misogynistic stereotypes.
One thing that has not completely changed, however, is what the femme fatale looks like. As much as we have improved in terms of diversity in our media, the femme fatale has not yet gotten her turn. I challenge you to think of one femme fatale played by a woman of colour (that is not Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers). It is actually pretty difficult, and that is because there is not a lot of examples in popular film culture at all. Maybe you thought of someone like Anna May Wong and her film characters. Unfortunately, you would be mistaken because an Asian woman that is mysterious, seductive, and strong– just like a femme fatale– is called a “Dragon Lady” (Caputi and Sagle 101) Yes, it is totally not fair and extremely racist that Asian women have their own separate archetype despite doing the same things as a femme fatale.
Not only are femme fatales mainly Caucasian, but their body type has consistently stuck to the ideal shape of the time. In post-war America, a busty, hourglass figure was emphasised, with actresses like Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, and Marilyn Monroe being the major sex symbols of their decades (Matelski 2). Similarly, the hourglass figure has made a resurgence in the late 2010s, though many of our modern femme fatales simply meet the 90s supermodel criteria: a tall, slender body, Eurocentric facial features, and a tiny waist.
Ultimately, femme fatales on screen help push beauty ideals onto female viewers. By the standards set by film noir, the femme fatale needs to be desirable so that she may seduce and lead the male protagonist to his death. Therefore, her prevailing influence on women makes sense; the femme fatale is the ultimate (male-dictated) representation of what a sexy woman of the time looks like. Unfortunately, the role that femme fatales have in dictating the unreasonable body standards that women are subjected to is not likely going away any time soon. With greater and easier access to film and TV these days, as well as the use of social media, young girls and women have so many harmful examples of sexy and ‘ideal’ body types. Although female characters are better represented in terms of their autonomy and humanity, we still have not shaken the ideals film noir placed on their physical representation. At the end of the day, it is up to Hollywood to continue diversifying their casting, and to finally cast women of colour and of various body types in femme fatale roles. After all, the femme fatale is mysterious, sexy, and dangerous. Who says she has to be skinny and white?
Boozer, Jack. “The Lethal Femme Fatale In The Noir Tradition.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 51, no. 3/4, 1999, pp. 20–35. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20688218 . Accessed 8 May 2021.
Caputi, Jane, and Lauri Sagle. “Femme Noire: Dangerous Women of Color in Popular Film and Television.” Race, Gender & Class, vol. 11, no. 2, 2004, pp. 90–111. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41675126. Accessed 12 May 2021.
“The Femme Fatale Trope, Explained.” YouTube, uploaded by The Take, 7 Apr. 2020, https://youtu.be/XjAKd-Lfmt0. Accessed 8 May 2021.
Hales, Barbara. “Projecting Trauma: The Femme Fatale in Weimar and Hollywood Film Noir.” Women in German Yearbook, vol. 23, 2007, pp. 224–243. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20688286. Accessed 8 May 2021.
Matelski, Elizabeth M., “The Color(s) of Perfection: The Feminine Body, Beauty Ideals, and Identity in Postwar America, 1945-1970.” 158. Loyola eCommons Dissertations, 2011. https://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/158. Accessed 9 May 2021.
Meslow, Scott. “The Sexist, Empowering History of the Femme Fatale.” The Week, 4 Mar. 2016, https://theweek.com/articles/609836/sexist-empowering-history-femme-fatale. Accessed 8 May 2021.
Sutton, Halley. “The Evolution of the Femme Fatale in Film Noir.” CrimeReads, 4 Dec. 2019, https://crimereads.com/the-evolution-of-the-femme-fatale-in-film-noir. Accessed 9 May 2021.