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…