Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Cherchez la Femme"

There's a popular phrase in the French mystery genre that goes a little something like; "[if you want to find the source of the trouble,] look for the woman". I know, seems pretty sexist, and it is on a big-scale picture: either the woman is deliberately causing the trouble through manipulative machinations, or she's not doing anything deliberately but people (probably men, since the use of the word "woman" is singular) are causing trouble because of her. Either way, the woman's the cause of something bad, and I don't think any female archetype is more exemplary of this concept than the femme fatale.

As is no doubt evident from the title of this blog, this is one of my favorite archetype, not only because film noir is one of my favorite film genres, but because of the interesting and contradictory nature of the role itself. Is it feminist? Is it anti-feminist? When is a femme fatale not really a femme fatale and where is the line dividing the two? I love contemplating stuff like this.

So, I decided that, in honor of my finally getting this blog going, I'd make a list of my favorite fatal femmes. But first off, I feel I need to define this role specifically, to understand where I'm coming from and why certain women are or are not included on my list. And also because I love talking about stuff in specifics because it makes me feel smart.

According to, "femme fatale" is defined as:
1. A woman of great seductive charm who leads men into compromising or dangerous situations
2. An alluring, mysterious woman
Most specifically for film noir, the role of the femme fatale is summed up beautifully by John Blaser in his article No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir, "She refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women. She finds marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless, and dull, and she uses all of her cunning and sexual attractiveness to gain her independence. As Janey Place points out, "She is not often won over and pacified by love for the hero, as is the strong heroine of the forties who is significantly less sexual than the film noir woman." She remains fiercely independent even when faced with her own destruction. And in spite of her inevitable death, she leaves behind the image of a strong, exciting, and unrepentant woman who defies the control of men and rejects the institution of the family."

While that's just about pitch-perfect,
I do need to qualify that with a sub-categorization of the archetype: the woman who is dangerous not because of anything she herself specifically does, but because of how the men around her see and react to her. They do get lumped into the femme fatale category instead of the good girl category, though, because they're presented in the film for the audience to see as dangerous, even if their actions and motivations aren't. (Think of Jessica Rabbit in the first part of the film, before she's specifically revealed to be a good girl drawn 'bad'.)

So, now that we're hopefully all on the same page I have to admit something kind of embarrassing. Despite it being one of my favorite film genres, and having taken a class devoted entirely to it, I haven't actually seen that much films noir. So I've probably left someone's favorite noir lady off the list, not out of spite, but simply ignorance. And so I won't have a really short list, I've also added female characters from other mediums whom I consider to be femmes fatales in part because they're cool and in part because a lot of the time, they tend to be forgotten when people talk about those classic 'dangerous dames'.

(Oh yeah, and there might be some spoilery stuff in here for people sensitive to that but I promise that if there's something really cool that needs to be a surprise, I won't mention it.)

So, finally, in no particular order, are my favorite femmes fatales.

Laura Hunt, in Laura. Gene Tierney's one of those actresses who, despite considerable popularity at the time, is known pretty much only to film buffs today. Which is too bad, because not only is she gorgeous (as she is primarily remembered for being), but she's actually a pretty good actress. Most people remember her for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Dragonwyk, or Leave Her to Heaven, which are all pretty good movies but Laura is my personal favorite. Laura herself is one of those faux-femmes, where she doesn't actually do anything wrong, but the film still sets her up to seem dangerous and tempting. While there are a lot of those types on my list Laura is very unique in several respects: she was a woman who had her own career in the '40s who wasn't a secretary or a schoolteacher-- she was an ad executive who got the job because of her intelligence, talent, and creativity, not her looks. She had her own apartment, which she didn't share with her sister, extended family, or kooky best friend, and which she paid for and decorated herself with her own money. She also had a love life that was not limited to one character, and an implied sex life to go with it. Oh yeah, and she's dead at the beginning of the movie and the male protagonist is the police officer charged with solving her murder. While the movie does deviate from the novel it's based on in a number of areas, it's not Laura whose character was significantly changed, but the male lead, Mark. Laura retains her career and independent personality, and Mark went from a more sensitive, intelligent, well-read guy to a more one-note, hard-boiled, man of few words. But both versions of Mark develop a fixation on the dead but still fascinating Laura, and through him, the audience does, too.

Gilda Mundson, from Gilda. Rita Hayworth's breakout performance as the fun-loving, sexy, and misunderstood party girl Gilda is one of those roles that absolutely outshines the rest of the film (especially the incredibly unsatisfying ending). Everything else fades away every time she's on screen and I find myself hard-pressed to remember what the actual plot of the movie is; all I really remember is something about a former Nazi, how incredibly unlikeable I found Glenn Ford's petty, vindictive, and patently uninteresting Johnny. Perhaps on the page, Gilda came across as some wild maenad of a woman, in desperate need of someone to tie her down until the frenzy leaves her system, but on film, she's a woman clearly enjoying her own sexuality and completely at home in her own body. This is the classic example of a screen presence being so compelling and memorable that it completely obliterates the film's moral about a woman's proper attitude and role, and overshadows everything else about the film altogether. It's also a shining example of a femme who is fatale only in the eyes of the men around her.

Norma Desmond, from Sunset Boulevard. With every film of his I see, I become a bigger and bigger fan of Billy Wilder. Of the four I've seen so far, this movie is my favorite in large part because of Norma Desmond. Here's a film that simultaneously writes a love letter to and gives a big middle finger to Hollywood, and no other character in the film captures that dichotomy like she does. She's egocentric, insecure, haughty, needy, talented, laughable, delusional, likable, hateful, pitiable, comical, and about a dozen more adjectives. Her role as femme fatale is probably debatable (for my money, Hollywood itself fits that role in the film), but while it may be pity that leads the protagonist to his doom instead of sex appeal, there's no denying that Norma is captivating. Gloria Swanson's career was revived because of this role, but unfortunately she was never able to break free from it afterward. Norma Desmond is simply too unforgettable to ever truly be upstaged. It really was the pictures that got too small to contain her.

Kathy Moffat, in Out of the Past. Probably one of the most quintessential noir films has one of the most quintessential noir ladies. Jane Greer is primarily remembered for this part, and it's well-deserved. Kathy isn't one of the faux-fatales like a lot of other women on this list, though she does a really good job of seeming that way at first. It isn't until the last half of the movie that we really see what she's made of, and it's definitely a testament to Greer's acting chops that she pulls off both the decent girl in over her head role and the stone-cold, calculating puppet master role seamlessly. In a movie filled with interesting characters, for me she tops the list. It's a lot of fun to watch her be so very, very bad and very nearly get away with it.

Megara, from Disney's Hercules. Yeah, yeah, I know it isn't cool to admit you like Disney stuff, but I'm an inveterate animation hound and in terms of out-and-out animation quality, it's hard to find better than Disney. Meg is one of those rare Disney heroines who dared to break the Princess mold, and she's also clearly an homage to the dangerous women of the silver screen. While she isn't a true femme fatale in the way that Kathy Moffat is, she certainly has elements of the archetype. She's one of the few brazenly sexual Disney heroines, actively attempting to seduce the protagonist at one point, and with a romantic life that pre-dated the meeting of the protagonist. While she isn't married to Hades, she's still in a stifling and unhappy relationship to him (as his minion) from which she is attempting to escape and her seduction and manipulation of the lead character are a direct means to that end. Of course, Disney couldn't go full-on noir with her, and she is ultimately a faux-fatale, she does still stand out as being sexually charged and dangerous. She's the Lois Lane to Hercules's Clark Kent, the brassy, street-smart big city gal with a heart of gold and her own set of ambitions.

Himemiya Anthy, from Revolutionary Girl Utena. To call her complex and mysterious is not to do her justice. Anthy is probably one of the more controversial characters from the long list of the show, along with her brother Akio, who is the epitome of the rare homme fatale. She is both victimized by her sexuality and able to manipulate others with it, the very image of passive-aggressive behavior, and epitomizes the qualities that result from oppression. She is spiteful, vindictive, and two-faced, but conceals it under a veneer of quiet, happy passivity. In terms of the fairy tale tropes the show uses as metaphors, she is the Witch because her brother is the Prince and since her role is defined by his, she cannot be the Princess, and there is no other role available to her. She uses her sexuality and femininity to take revenge on a world she despises, and seeks to escape from her eternally perpetuating role as the Bride. A lot of fans hate her, but their reasons for doing so are the reasons I love her. She is simply and endlessly fascinating.

Catwoman, from DC Comics. Even though she's been referred to "the Feline Fatale" for most of her long existence, the moniker never really stuck with me until Ed Brubaker's short but fantastic stint as her writer. He took her into noir not only as a femme fatale, but as a protagonist of her own story at the same time, which is a pretty neat trick. Of course, she qualifies more as a faux-fatale anyway, what with her never really being evil, or even all that bad, save for a lack of respect for other people's property. But she is most definitely a sexual being and a serious temptation for Batman, the usual protagonist of the stories where she appears. Whether or not you accept the idea that she was once a prostitute, a dominatrix, a child orphan turned street urchin, an abused housewife, a bored socialite, or a flight attendant with amnesia (seriously), she has nearly always been a woman escaping a bad situation and seeking independence. While her costumed identity started out as a play off of someone else's, she has finally begun to define herself apart from it, and with Brubaker finally found a distinct, unique voice that sets her as hard-boiled detective, seductive fatal woman, and ultimately someone too complex to be fully defined by an archetype. Probably the only thing she will never be is the "good girl", and that's fine by me.

Nami, from One Piece. Not so much now, but during the first "act" of the manga One Piece, Nami was set up as a very femme fatale-like character. She was mysterious and secretive, manipulative, independent, money-hungry, and in a very bad situation from which she was trying to escape. Of course, underneath all the lies, betrayals, manipulations, and dirty dealings, she was a good person at heart, and all her under-handedness was for the sake of the people she cared about more than anything. However, even after the resolution of this bad situation she still remained a conniving, manipulative, money-hungry, underhanded woman and I couldn't have been more delighted. She's smart, independent (one of the few fictional females who doesn't exist as a serious romantic interest to anyone), very comfortable with her own body and sexuality, even though sex is almost a non-issue in the book, and has her own ambitions which she is willing to use nearly any means to achieve, no matter what most people might think of her for it. Though she's unfortunately being drawn more and more as a sexualized titillation for male readers, her personality is always intact and remains at the core of her portrayal.

Nico Robin, from One Piece. Like Nami, Robin began as a classic femme fatale, but going a step further by being an actual villain. When she joined the main cast, nobody saw it coming, and for quite some time afterward, her past and motivations remained a mystery. Given her past role as an assassin, she is clearly lethal, and her calm, unflappable personality, immense intellect, and experienced and sophisticated air create a different sexuality from Nami's young, confident, more "in your face" style. But like Nami, she also does not exist as a romantic interest for anyone, and is her own fully-formed character with her own agendas and ambitions. Also like Nami, she does betray the main cast of characters for reasons that are not revealed until later, but her betrayal comes after several years of camaraderie and is more of a surprise. She too has been prisoner to a bad situation from which she has been trying to escape, as well as probably the most overtly abusive relationship in the series up until then. While she has also become more sexualized of late, her personality also remains intact and at the core of her portrayal, and so remains a character of interest and, if the hints being dropped are true, one of great importance on a very large scope, as well.

Also worth mentioning:
Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity. I know it's probably blasphemy to leave her off my main list, and she is very much a femme fatale, but the sexual chemistry between her and Walter was practically non-existent for me which detracted from the "evil seductress" routine. Still, a great performance by Barbara Stanwyck.

Lady Kaede, from Ran. Akira Kurosawa's epic retelling of King Lear is an absolute masterpiece in so many ways but one of my favorite elements is this lady. She's ambitious, vindictive, manipulative, seductive, dangerous, cunning, and possibly a little bit crazy. Better still, she sort of wins at the end.


  1. After reading this yesterday, I found myself watching Animaniacs. And I had to wonder if Minerva Mink would somehow fit into your definition of a femme fatale.

  2. Hmmm, that's a good question. I think she'd probably fall into more of the "bombshell" category like Jayne Mansfield or Marilyn Monroe. Of course, categorization can fluctuate a bit, but there's usually something sinister, or implicitly sinister about the femme fatale, whereas the bombshell tends to be kind of ditzy and innocent-but-not-really. That's just my take on it, though. ^^

  3. I don't think Minerva would be a femme fatale; she's just sexy. If she was trying to screw then kill Yakko, that would be a different story. ;)

  4. Well yeah, if the sex served as a means to some other end, like political power, or getting some guy to bump off her husband for insurance money, then maybe. But seduction for the sake of sex isn't part of the femme fatale's M.O. ^^

  5. There's a million things I could say on this one (especially w/ each character) but I'll go for broad strokes with one over-arging statment: when they're female, they're Femme Fatales. When they're men? They're just anti-heroes.