How Femme Fatales Are Exploited to Prop Up Patriarchy
From Lilith to Rebecca de Winter, women who embrace sexuality have served as warning signs throughout history and pop culture.
The French phrase meaning “fatal woman” has become a stock character in Hollywood, reaching peak popularity in film noirs of the 1940’s and 50’s. Characterized by their sensuality, promiscuity, and elusive motivations, femme fatales are often villainous, serving themselves rather than the protagonist. Their fate is often tragic. But this archetype isn’t new; it was around long before the 20th century, and embodies some of our oldest, most deeply rooted prejudices and fears surrounding women.
In her book Femme Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, Mary Ann Doane says one of the most common traits of a fatal woman is her “rejection of motherhood.” Her goals are usually aligned with her own desires as opposed to someone else’s. Women are socialized to be the caregivers: they are not the protagonists of their own stories, but instead prop up someone else’s, usually a man’s. These tropes are still true today, but are especially true of the film noir era, when the femme fatale was most popular. But how does this tie into motherhood? By working for herself, the femme fatale rejects the supporting narrative of “the good girl.” More importantly, she is defined by her lascivious nature, having sexual relations with whomever she pleases. By not tying herself down to a specific man, she is rejecting the traditional family structure. She is a sexual being, but not a maternal one.
This isn’t a new idea. The femme fatale may have popularized it, but these conflicting archetypes of “womanhood” have been at odds for thousands of years. The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy describes it best. In Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, it is defined as “ polarized perceptions of women in general as either ‘good,’ chaste, and pure Madonnas or as ‘bad,’ promiscuous, and seductive whores.” It goes on to say that “whereas prior theories focused on unresolved sexual complexes or evolved psychological tendencies, feminist theory suggests the MWD stems from a desire to reinforce patriarchy.” While MWD restricts a woman’s autonomy and works to objectify her, it also impairs men’s abilities to have functional relationships with women by creating these stigmatizing standards. You’re either a saint or a prostitute, with no in-between. On one end of the spectrum, you have the Whore: villainous and sinful, willful and disobedient. The idea of powerful women has always been a threat to the patriarchy, so these women have always been labeled as “dangerous.” Think Lilith, the libertine sexual demon who stole babies in Jewish mythology, or the Visha Kanya, young women used as assassins whose bodily fluids were believed to be poisonous as described in Arthashastra. Eve was pure as snow before seeking knowledge and “tempting” Adam (nothing subtle there). By eating the apple, she tainted herself by simply trying to learn. These are the foundations of some of our oldest ideas, and they live on today in movie tropes like the femme fatale.
In complete opposition to the former, we have the Madonna, named after the mother of Jesus Christ in Christian mythology. Mother Mary never even had sex to conceive; she was impregnated by God. This is how warped our perception of female sexuality is: the mother of the most important character in the Christian mythos can’t even have sex. To have sex, even the kind that leads to motherhood, even the kind with God, is too close to those dangerous women. So these are your options: be a lust-crazed agent of chaos, both desirable and vilified, or be a chaste mother-figure whose only personality stems from the rearing of your children.
This has been mostly unchanged for thousands of years. Morgan le Fay from Arthurian Legend is another ancient femme fatale, as is The Lady of the Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The “whore” of the MWD became especially popular in the Romantic period. John Keats, Edgar Allen Poe, the Marquis de Sade, Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, and countless other men of the 19th century were obsessed with “fatal women.” From literature to works of art, her influence could be found everywhere. The femme fatale of film noir continued the age-old tradition of love-hating autonomous women. So, why are men so obsessed? As much as women are seen to be tainted through sex, knowledge, and desire, they are also far more compelling than their “Madonna” counterparts. They are also more realistic; the femme fatale is complicated. She is a thinking, flawed person with her own desires and her own beliefs. The Madonna is a vessel for chastity and purity. So, as much as the patriarchy wants to punish women for being free-thinking, sexual beings, it also fetishizes them.
In the 20th century, the idea of the sexual vampire arouse in literature and film. The predecessor to the more famous femme fatale, the sexual vampire leeched men of their vigor and virility through love-making. Based on a poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling, the 1913 film The Vampire is cited as the first “vamp” flick, and its star, Alice Hollister, as the silver screen’s first vampire.
The first appearance of the more famous “fatal woman” came in the form of detective literature. Dashiell Hammett’s novels of the 1920’s epitomized the femme fatale, and became truly iconic when his books were turned into films, The Maltese Falcon being the most famous. Here is where we see the classic femme fatale scenario: Sam Spade, a private detective, is approached by the beautiful and mysterious Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Portrayed by Mary Astor, O’Shaughnessy lies, manipulates, and murders to get what she wants. In the end, despite his sexual feelings for her, Spade (Humphrey Bogart) turns her in to the police. This is the most important feature of any story containing a femme fatale trope. More important than sexuality, autonomy, rejection of motherhood, or anything else, is that the woman be punished. Often violently. This is most clearly illustrated in Daphne du Maurier’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Rebecca. The femme fatale isn’t even in the book/movie except as a memory. The titular character is the first wife of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). When he meets “the second Mrs. de Winter” (Joan Fontaine) and brings her home to his eerie estate, she is haunted by the visage of Rebecca, who appears to have been the perfect wife. Maxim eventually reveals that Rebecca was in fact unfaithful and only pretended to be “the good wife” to keep up appearances. When she becomes pregnant by another man, they have a fight where the former Mrs. de Winter “falls and hits her head.” Maxim covers it all up to save face.
Maxim is not the villain of the story, however, despite the fact that he clearly killed his wife, whether by accident or not. It is Rebecca, the dead, cheating wife, who is the antagonist. In the end, Maxim lives happily ever after with his second wife, who embodies the characteristics of what a “good wife” is: loyal, submissive, and innocent. Even child-like at times. In Hitchcock’s film, the doorknobs were all deliberately placed high on the doors so Fontaine would have to reach for them. Like a child was trying to open them as opposed to a grown woman. In fact, almost everything in the mansion towers over Fontaine, shrinking her down and making her more girl than wife.
According to Maxim, Rebecca was manipulative, cruel, and delighted in his misfortune. According to the narrative of the film and the novel, Rebecca deserved to die for her actions. But what did Rebecca do that was so deserving of death? She cuckolded her husband. That is the extent of her crimes. But in a patriarchal society that confines women into docile, maternal roles and punishes the rest, is this so surprising? In such a society, the “fatal” of femme fatal often applies to the femme. The real danger of a dangerous woman is how men will react to her, not what she can do to men. This is how it has been for centuries: Eve was cast out of the garden, Jezebel was thrown from a window, and Rebecca de Winter suffered a similar, fatal fate. As much as femme fatals are eroticized, they also serve as warnings: women who misbehave are punished.