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The Dangerous Woman | How We Package Female Sexuality

The Dangerous Woman is the female answer to the Bad Boy. She’s a combination of a few other popular tropes: the femme fatale with a modern tough-girl edge, a cool girl heightened by the so-called ‘crazy’ woman. While she might be physically dangerous, the true power—and threat—of the Dangerous Woman is emotional. She embodies our society’s fear of the woman who doesn’t feel the way we expect women to, or who plays with men’s feelings. Here’s our Take on how the Dangerous Woman exposes our culture’s drive to compartmentalize female emotion and sexuality, and why women are drawn to this fantasy as a means of unlocking their dangerous selves within.

TRANSCRIPT

Like moths to a flame, we’re drawn to the Dangerous Woman — no matter how badly we might get burned. She’s the female answer to the ‘bad boy’: known for taking risks and leaving behind a trail of broken hearts. She’s a sexualized yet sanitized combination of a few other popular tropes: the femme fatale with a modern tough-girl edge, a cool girl heightened by the so-called ‘crazy’ woman. These parts combine to create a kind of supercharged female. So what ingredients make the dangerous woman so addictive? She seems raw and unruly, bound only by her whims. She may be good in a fight, but her greatest weapon is being unpredictable. She’s sexually adventurous and assured, and not necessarily monogamous or heteronormative. But despite that openness, she’s a closed book about her personal life, adding to her cool mystique. While she might be physically dangerous, the true power — and threat — of the Dangerous Woman is emotional. She embodies our society’s fear of the woman who doesn’t feel the way we expect women to or who plays with men’s feelings.

Here’s our Take on how the Dangerous Woman exposes our culture’s drive to compartmentalize female emotion and sexuality, and why women are drawn to this fantasy as a means of unlocking their dangerous selves within.

Ariana Grande: “I feel like dangerous woman is always inside all of us and every now and then she’s just got to come out” - Elvis Duran Show (2016)

The Consumable Maneater

The Dangerous Woman is the counterpart to the Nice Girl — the innocent and passive non-threat to the status quo. The whore to the Nice Girl’s Madonna, this trope is essentially a means of compartmentalizing female sexuality and transgression. In fact, the Dangerous Woman persona is often used by the Nice Girl herself to release that piece of themselves that they usually repress through role-play. Numerous musicians use the ‘dangerous woman’ trope as a cartoonish alter ego through which they can playfully explore their dark sides without consequence. Beyoncé created Sasha Fierce to experiment with a sexier, uninhibited version of herself. Taylor Swift’s career has largely been a trajectory toward embracing the Dangerous Woman persona, first more jokingly and then with more depth. “You Belong With Me” is practically a case study in the Madonna-whore complex, arguing for the comfort of an unnoticed girl-next-door over the secret evils of the hot cheerleader. Starting out as America’s country-girl sweetheart, Taylor was the archetypal innocent, nice girl in marketing and the media — until her love life was deemed too much for that image. The Blank Space’’ music video marked her descent into ‘dangerous woman territory,’ as she leaned into a mischievous satire of the role she’d been given: the crazy, unpredictable man-eater. And when the media continued to paint her as a villain, she embraced the trope so well that a “Reputation era,” named for her sixth album, became slang for entering a darker, edgier phase.

Ginny: “You go through men faster than Taylor Swift.” - Ginny & Georgia, 1x10

The emotionally dangerous woman trope also features prominently in the pop music of Gen-Z stars like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo. But the fact that it’s artificial means an alter ego isn’t really dangerous. If it’s isolated into its own stage identity, we can write off a threat — like sexual or destructive behavior in women — as performance. Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” video may feature her playing a scarily violent dangerous woman, but the whole point of it being so over-the-top is that we’re not meant to take it seriously. The Dangerous Woman is everything women aren’t supposed to be, repackaged as a safely fictional sexual fantasy. We often don’t see the Dangerous Woman through her point of view. TV and movies frequently interpret her through a more “normal” admirer’s perspective. So for all her seeming confidence and agency, the dangerous woman tends to be reduced to an object of desire.

For Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman, she said that she chose the album’s name to empower fans. Yet the title track and its music video are devoid of danger, focusing instead on sex appeal. The lyrics imply every woman carries an alter ego like this — and that once again, it’s an admirer who knows her inner life best. Ultimately, this encourages female listeners to equate their “dangerous” inner self or “bad girl underneath” mainly with being sexual. You can argue this is empowering if it encourages women to focus on their own sexual desires and sexual agency, rather than seeing themselves as the desired object. But even that is a limited form of empowerment or danger. For a dangerous woman to really threaten the status quo, she has to make peace with the possibility that this might scare people off.

The dangerous woman may be attempting to flip the script by putting herself into traditionally male roles: manipulators, objectifiers, and heartbreakers. And she might be making fun of how others label her as the “dangerous woman.” But by packaging her for consumption, these artists still bind the Dangerous women to male fantasies and easy-to-digest consumerist fun.

Taming The Beast

Another part of the dangerous woman fantasy is the allure of taming her — precisely because she’s so resistant to the idea. Research suggests that men seek ‘subordinate’ women as partners. But domesticating the dangerous woman and turning her into the Nice Girl holds so much appeal because it combines the drive to conquer threats with the condescending impulse to protect women from themselves.

Throughout history, we’ve even symbolically projected the Dangerous Woman and Nice Girl divide onto global conflicts and issues of national identity. Academic Kathleen Rowe explains, “The threat of communism and the atom bomb became linked with the threat of women out of control, and taming women was seen as an essential element in taming the dangers of the atomic age.”

We can see the modern drive to tame the dangerous woman in Promising Young Woman. Ryan’s completely charmed by Cassie’s alternativeness until she’s not just a wounded tiger for him to rescue. When she becomes a real danger to his reputation, Ryan lets slip that his persona as the “nice guy” who respects her individuality was just a superficial act.

The dangerous woman is usually kept in check by making her feel there’s something wrong with her, and that the man who wants to “fix” her must really be doing her a favor. But if the Dangerous Woman truly doesn’t want to be tamed — or is actually dangerous, not in a cute, sexy way — this usually leads to her being unredeemed. This is perhaps best exemplified by the plot of Fatal Attraction, where independent woman Alex is appealing to married man Dan because at first she seems excitingly transgressive, but once she’s not willing to just be the safe, easily forgotten diversion, she’s transformed into a monster that audiences famously detested.

Kitty: “I’m poison, sweet to myself and everybody around me.” The Killers

If the Dangerous Woman won’t be declawed, a nice girl is usually there to step in. And the dangerous woman’s rejection of relationship norms brings with it public punishment. The only endings for the old-school noir femme fatales were death, jail, or redemption — all endings in which she ceases to be the bad girl. And disappointingly, we can still see this convention to a degree today. Even in real life, the media frames certain celebrities as Dangerous Women, sometimes for as mundane reasons as them being in a relationship that doesn’t work out. However much we pretend to like wild danger in fiction, these damaging high-profile examples prove that famous women still face puritanical moralizing when they act at all outside of rigid behavioral norms.

Fear of Feelings

What’s really dangerous about this woman revolves around the f word: feelings. From the outside, she’s seen as the heartbreaker — a callous vixen who doesn’t care about your feelings and will run away with your heart. On the inside, what scares the dangerous woman most is her own emotions, and letting the world see her inner messiness laid bare.

Chloe: “I think that genuine emotion just sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable. Bartender, kamikaze shots!” Don’t Trust the B——In Apartment 23, 1x1

In The Flight Attendant, the tough girl character Miranda fits the cartoon of the Dangerous Woman, but the true dangerous woman is the protagonist of the show, Cassie Bowden. She’s a bombshell unreliable narrator with a drinking problem whose life seems cool and exciting at first, yet is pretty quickly revealed to be a mess. For one thing, Cassie’s gotten herself mixed up in the investigation for a murder that (due to her blacking out) she can’t be 100% sure she didn’t commit. And on a deeper, more intimate level, Cassie is scared that she is the danger in her life, in the sense that she fears she can’t be reliable for herself or her loved ones.

The dangerous woman finds opening up hard for a few reasons. For one, she’s intimidating or charismatic enough that most people don’t usually make her do it. She’s also cautious because she’s been burned before. It’s a common part of the trope that she’s haunted by past trauma and tragic backstories that have left her guarded. Her persona as a risk-taking, thrill-seeking badass allows her to avoid being vulnerable and to see her fear confirmed that people won’t be able to handle it if she gets too real.

Since she doesn’t want to get hurt, the dangerous woman keeps everyone at arm’s length and is hard-pressed to find anyone she really trusts. Her prickly exterior is pretty effective at keeping people out — which hurts her more. Even her signature risk-seeking can be thinly veiled self-harm or a destructive cry for help. Eventually, the dangerous woman has to let someone in — not to soften her edge or make her more palatable, but for support.

When the Dangerous Woman’s inner life is, for once, centered and demystified — and the spotlight’s shifted from how she dazzles or causes trouble for others — we can concentrate on how baggage makes her life harder. Whereas the “dangerous woman” in pop music and culture is superhumanly free of any consequences, in reality living dangerously (especially for a woman) means drastically increasing your risk of ending up in jail, hurt, dead or angry over a life that didn’t go as planned. Orange Is The New Black is filled with women who’ve been convicted of all manners of dangerous crimes, now living with the fallout of those choices. We watch as they’re beaten down by a system designed to tag them as irredeemably “bad” and then break them.

Piper: Even after you serve your time, they still find ways to punish you.” Orange Is the New Black, 7x5

Recently, the onscreen dangerous woman is getting some better endings. She can soften her edge when she starts to move on from her hurt, while still retaining independence; or she can play at settling down without really leaving her risky ways behind. She might even use her danger to protect other women and challenge the status quo.

CONCLUSION

The dangerous woman’s long been typecast as a sexy, semi-villainous diversion in someone else’s less exciting life. But it takes a rare person who can accept the reality of a woman that dangerous. To grow, this character needs to stop being defined by the unhealthy, excessively risky, lonely parts of her persona, but her danger’s always going to be a part of her, and embracing that can be empowering for us all.

Sources Cited

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Chen, Adrian. “Study Suggests Men Prefer Subordinate Women.” The Michigan Daily, 24 Jan. 2005, https://www.michigandaily.com/uncategorized/study-suggests-men-prefer-subordinate-women/.

Freame, Jessica. “Female Film Stars and the Dominant Ideologies of 1950s America.” Monash University, June 2002, https://www.monash.edu/arts/philosophical-historical-international-studies/eras/past-editions/edition-three-2002-june/female-film-stars-and-the-dominant-ideologies-of-1950s-america.

Gemmill, Allie. “Ariana Grande Has An Alter Ego.” Bustle, 19 May 2016, https://www.bustle.com/articles/161960-ariana-grandes-dangerous-woman-alter-ego-super-bunny-sounds-totally-badass.

Knibbs, Kate. “Ten Years of Taylor Swift: How the Pop Star Went From Sweetheart to Snake (and Back Again?).” The Ringer, 21 Aug. 2019, https://www.theringer.com/music/2019/8/21/20826837/ten-years-of-taylor-swift.

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