The Inherent Misogyny of the Femme Fatale

Thursday, January 21

By Ash Haslett Cuff

As Jean-Luc Godard famously said, ‘All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.’ With that logic, what easier way to draw audiences in than with the time honoured stock character of the femme fatale?  While on the surface characters such as Kim Novak’s in Vertigo, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction can be fun and sexy and ultimately harmless, its when one takes a closer look at the traits these characters possess (or don’t) that we begin to potentially see darker undertones to this archetype. Mysterious, seductive and never that talkative, these characters use their ‘feminnine wiles’ to lead male characters in potentially dangerous or compromising situations. 

The main element that jumps out to me is the silence of these characters. ‘Sexy’ women are never loquacious. They speak little and when they do, it’s usually sexual in nature (‘You just put your lips together and blow’ anyone?) as this is really their main contribution to the show or film in question. When women are chatty in films they either fall more into the role of comic relief or insufferably quirky ‘manic pixie dream girl’ types. In other words, some sort of oddity, perhaps something to be laughed with (or at) or endeared, but rarely to be desired. I’m not saying it should be the goal of every female to be desirable obviously, but for those characters who are love interests or objects (note the use of object) of desire, it may be nice to see a little variety. Sex appeal and the inability to be quiet should not be mutually exclusive in women yet cinema is thronged with silent, smirking, ‘sexy’women which inadvertently (or not) perpetuates the idea that women (like children) should be seen and not heard.

Another quality these women possess, or don’t, is complete lack of maternal feelings. In her piece ‘Images of the femme fatale in Two Short Stories by Emilia Pardo Bazán’ Susan Walters discusses how the lack of this feeling works as an antidote to the posturing of their male counterparts and immediately marks them out as a threat. That maternal feeling is such an integral part of popular perception of positive femininity that when you eliminate it completely you’re left with someone who can only denote danger as she must deny the humanity of her rival. A female character is usually seen as cold and unfeeling if she doesn’t want to adopt a maternal role. Must a woman devote a significant part of her life in service to someone else in order to be seen as moral or trustworthy? 

It should also be noted that these characters rarely work for themselves and are usually in cahoots with a male villain. Not only does this suggest another layer of subservience, but also an aspect of victimhood if they are being coerced into their actions. Either way, it does not depict her in a position of true power or agency as she is being overseen by some sort of daddy figure. In the rare occasions a female baddie is working for herself, her motives are often related to her being spurned in some way by a man.

While there is something inherently sexual about these characters, their use of, and attitudes towards sex, work to further strengthen the attitude of misogyny surrounding these characters. Traditional attitudes towards female sexuality are still extremely prevalent, with certain expectations still being placed on women, even if the feelings are not as direct as they might have been. The femme fatale’s often flippant attitude towards sex (giving it away freely, as it were) demarcates them as someone of questionable moral judgement. They are not coy or ‘hard to get’ in their actions, as is the general expectation with women. Instead they either weaponise their sexuality or are more direct about it than other female archetypes. The fact they don’t shy away from it is yet another reason to mistrust them or paint them as morally ambiguous even while it is this precise aspect of their characters that draw audiences in.

While the above points are concerning for feminism on multiple levels, the reason I first started thinking about this was because of the message it sends to impressionable audiences, especially young girls, watching these films. Between screwed up messages about the expectations surrounding their sexuality and the implication that silence=sexy, we are inundating these audiences with a very skewed perception of ‘moral ambiguity’ and what is expected of them: We want you to grow up into independent, strong women who do not need to depend on the emotional (or financial) resources of a man, however be wary of this because god forbid you turn into a she-wolf. On the flipside of that, the message is that if a girl should want to be sexy and desirable, she ought to learn to keep her mouth shut.

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