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The Femme Fatale Trope, Explained

Bold, bad, and beautiful. The Femme Fatale has been an alluring staple of cinema since the 40s. These dark and complicated characters may not have the best intentions, but always seem to steal the audience’s attention. From Double Indemnity and Gilda to Basic Instinct and Orange Is the New Black, why have Femme Fatales continued to grace the screen for so many decades? Watch this video for a deep dive into the meaning behind these dangerous women.

TRANSCRIPT

The Femme Fatale is bold, beautiful, and bad to the bone. Most associated with classic film noir of the 1940s and ‘50s, She earns her name—French for “fatal woman”— because she traditionally brings about the destruction of the man (or men) in her story.

Comparing the many mesmerizing iterations of the onscreen femme fatale, we can identify some patterns that define her: She’s magnetic, seductive, even irresistible. She often makes a sensational first impression immediately hooking the protagonist’s (and audience’s) attention. She’s a sexual being and wields her sexuality as a tool (or a weapon) to get what she wants. She has a cynical view of the world; she wants money and likes material things. A master manipulator, she’s hiding her true self and despite the passion she inspires, she’s emotionally very cold and distant. Traditionally, she’s not interested in being a mother or leading a conventional domestic life. At its core, the “villainy” of the Femme Fatale often exposes our culture’s anxieties about females. Here’s our Take on the Femme Fatale through the ages, how she exposes which qualities in women make society uncomfortable, and what she looks like today.

Reflecting Anxieties about Women

Throughout her history, the femme fatale has been a reflection of her era’s anxieties about femininity. Early versions of this trope—like Eve or Salome—are cautionary tales of the risks of unchecked female sexuality. Myth and literature are also filled with examples of the faithless woman whose betrayal undoes her man — like the Biblical Delilah, who weakens Samson by having his hair cut off; or Greek mythology’s Clytemnestra, who plots with her lover to kill her husband Agamemnon in the bathtub when he returns from the Trojan war. The most influential early screen femme fatale was Theda Bara’s “Vamp” character in 1915’s A Fool There Was, who helped solidify the popular conception of the seductress as an almost supernatural bloodsucker.

The heyday of the femme fatale onscreen came in the film noir of the 1940s and ‘50s. During World War II, many women had been called away from traditional domestic roles to work to aid the war effort, and in the post-war era, the femme fatale was deeply linked to male fears that women had gained too much power and independence outside the home. As Richard Lingeman writes in The Noir Forties, “The rise of the femme fatale in films noir reflected male ambivalence and anxiety about…those Amazons unleashed by the war who worked at men’s jobs, had sex with whomever they wanted, and rejected home and motherhood.” Certain noir movies specifically reflected worries about women’s fidelity, as returning soldiers wondered what their sweethearts had been up to while they were fighting overseas. This paranoid obsession with female faithlessness is central to 1946’s Gilda which stars Rita Hayworth as a sex bomb who decides to make her ex Johnny jealous by parading around with various men. Johnny expresses intense hatred for Gilda which centers on his belief that she’s been sleeping around (even though she’s actually married to another man at the time). The plot culminates in Hayworth performing a striptease to “Put the Blame on Mame,” whose lyrics tell of a sensual woman being blamed for all of the world’s major problems and her dance confronts Johnny with the image of harlotry he’s forced on her It’s only when Johnny is finally satisfied that Gilda isn’t promiscuous after all that he finally stops punishing her and admits his love. Thus fears of the unfaithful, loose woman were eased.

Obregon: “Gilda didn’t do any of those things you’ve been losing sleep over. Not any of them.” - Gilda

Other examples of the femme fatale express a fear of the materialistic woman who lusts for wealth—likely a manifestation of anxieties about women getting a taste for earning their own money during the war. This character likes money and, more often than not, is revealed to be driven by a plot to enrich herself. One of the most iconic femme fatales ever, Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, is not only taking out her husband for life insurance money, but it’s also implied she murdered his first wife to land the guy back when he did have some wealth. In 1945’s Mildred Pierce (a rare early example where the trope is causing the ruin of a female protagonist), Joan Crawford’s Mildred is tortured by her femme fatale daughter, Veda—a young woman who’s been spoiled rotten. Veda becomes a cautionary tale of what happens when you overindulge your children and get a young woman hooked on a decadent lifestyle.

Mildred: “Money. That’s what you live for, isn’t it? You’d do anything for money, wouldn’t you?” - Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce also highlights post-war discomfort with the working woman. Veda resents and looks down on her mother for pursuing a career. And while Mildred commands viewers’ respect for her hard work, one interpretation of the film is that it’s showing all of Mildred’s troubles as stemming from her decision to become a career woman. Lingeman even writes in The Noir Forties, “Hollywood resorted to a noir plot to sell the postwar message that women belonged in the home, not in the factory—let alone in the boss’s office (except as his loyal secretary).”

Mildred: “You look down on me because I work for a living, don’t you?” - Mildred Pierce

Later examples of the femme fatale have played even more overtly on our society’s continuing discomfort with female ambition and the career woman Nicole Kidman’s Suzanne Stone in To Die For is so driven to pursue her dream job as a TV journalist that when her husband suggests she quit her career to start a family this triggers Suzanne’s decision to have him killed. You could also view Breaking Bad’s Lydia Rodarte-Quayle as an update to this deadly working woman, driven by bottomless corporate greed.

In 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson’s femme fatale Norma Desmond brings out our culture’s discomfort with the aging woman, which continues to be fueled by Hollywood’s obsession with youth. Older women are expected to gracefully fade into the background and give way to the young, so Norma’s villainy and delusion stem in large part from her refusal to follow this unwritten rule.

Joe Gillis: “Norma, you’re a woman of 50. Now grow up.” - Sunset Boulevard

Often, the femme fatale might be contrasted with a sweet, innocent female character who represents wholesome, “good” womanhood. By the conclusion of the story, the male hero may end up respecting or caring more for this “good” woman and feeling hatred or contempt for the femme fatale who once ensnared him.

Walter Neff: “I guess that was the first time I ever thought about Phyllis that way. Dead, I mean. And how it would be if she were dead.” - Double Indemnity

At the heart of the femme fatale depictions is a fear of female sexuality. In the 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell takes the pure sexuality of the femme fatale to a deadly extreme.

Catherine: “He falls for the wrong woman.”

Nick: “What happens?”

Catherine: “She kills him.” - Basic Instinct

It’s significant that the character is often promiscuous. She’s aware of the power of her sexuality and not afraid to use it. And crucially (in most examples) she rejects being a mother and building a traditional family home. Arguably, this is the character’s original “sin” and the fundamental reason she’s so villainized—her will to be sexual without this leading to motherhood. Virginia M. Allen writes that a woman not bearing a man’s child is quote, “an extreme form of destruction of the male: deprivation of his posterity, his immortality” and that the Femme fatale herself comes out of the “fear and desire experienced by men confronted with women who…deny the right of men to control female sexuality.’”

Ned: “Maybe you shouldn’t dress like that.”

Matty: “This is a blouse and a skirt. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Ned: “You shouldn’t wear that body.” - Body Heat

The femme fatale’s drive to destroy men is often made incredibly literal. The femme fatale is frequently trying to kill her husband, but she also tends to destroy the hero from the inside — by awakening something dark and dangerous within the protagonist. Fritz Lang’s 1944 noir Woman in the Window ends with revealing its plot has all been its male protagonist’s dream, getting at how the femme fatale is in large part a presence in the man’s subconscious.

Mal: “I thought you might be missing me.”

Cobb: “You know I am but I can’t trust you anymore.” - Inception

There are generally two endings for the classic femme fatale: 1) She’s redeemed or revealed to not really have been bad (and thus not a femme fatale deep down)

Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way” - Who Framed Roger Rabbit

—so she’s allowed to get a happy ending. But more often, we get Ending Number 2: She’s revealed to be rotten to the core, and usually, she must be punished, generally with death or with jail. Though this comeuppance for sins was mandated by the Hays Code in the classic noir era, examples of the femme fatale escaping consequences remained few and far between, until the 90s on. Thus, whether it’s through destroying her or through revealing her to be secretly decent, in most classic examples (and many to this day) the threat of the femme fatale is finally eliminated. And thus, male anxieties are purged.

The Contradictions of the Femme Fatale: Is it Sexist or Empowering?

One of the enduring questions about the femme fatale is whether this trope is misogynistic or feminist. She’s the picture of female power and sexual liberation-but for this, she’s vilified and taken down by her story. The best answer to this debate is, really, that the Femme Fatale can be both sexist and empowering. Though the ending of her story usually condemns or eliminates her, in the majority of her screen time she’s portrayed as incredibly compelling. She tends to be the most iconic, memorable character in her story. One way of viewing this trope—especially when we look back on older films—is that it allowed writers to create strong female characters who are smarter than everyone else around them, while also owning their sexuality and womanhood. In order for writers to do this, this character usually had to be reigned in, so as not to feel too threatening to the status quo.

The femme fatale is also often portrayed as the victim of her society. This is seen in 1945’s Detour, where the femme fatale isn’t presented as alluring. This sick, down-and-out hitchhiker has had to fight off her share of bad men, which explains her bitter view of the world.

Vera: “Listen, mister, I’ve been around, I know a wrong guy when I see one” - Detour

In the 1974 neo-noir Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray, who starts out framed as the femme fatale, turns out to be not a villain at all, but a victim of the worst abuses imaginable. Ultimately, the femme fatale-as-victim illuminates how women like her are trapped in her society.

Jane Palmer: “Housewives can get awfully bored sometimes.” - Too Late for Tears

Even the fact that the villainous examples of the trope are so often trying to get free of their husbands and achieve financial independence tells us how powerless they feel in their starting situations. While Phyllis is revealed to be lying about many things, her numerous comments about feeling stifled by her husband and married life still ring true:

Phyllis Dietrichson: “He never lets me go anywhere, He keeps me shut up, he’s always been mean to me” - Double Indemnity

We can see this frustration with feeling trapped by stifling gender expectations driving much later femme fatales as well.

Kathryn Merteuil: “God forbid I exude confidence and enjoy sex. Do you think I relish the fact that I have to act like Mary Sunshine 24-7 so I can be considered a lady?” - Cruel Intentions

And the femme fatale’s trademark dishonesty is encouraged by a society that would not accept the real her.

Kathie Moffat: “I never told you I was anything but what I am. You just wanted to imagine I was.” - Out of the Past

The Femme Fatale Updated

So where is the femme fatale at today?

Whereas in the past the femme fatale tended to prey on men, more recent films & shows might show her leading another woman astray. In the early seasons of Orange is the New Black, criminal Alex is painted as a femme fatale in a lesbian relationship, tempting protagonist Piper down a dark path But while the show spends a lot of time exploring dark influences it eventually sympathizes with Alex and frames Piper’s relationship with Alex as flawed yet ultimately loving.

In Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor, Blake Lively’s femme fatale Emily Nelson brings darkness into the life of a new female friend. Interestingly, A Simple Favor’s femme fatale is a mother, unlike the classic version of the trope who eschews motherhood, but A Simple Favor uses its update to the trope cleverly to expose what are still taboos and sore points for women today—its femme fatale is a working mom who is judged for prioritizing her career.

Emily Nelson: “You don’t need to apologize. It’s a f***ed-up female habit. You don’t need to be sorry for anything, ever.” - A Simple Favor

Another modern femme-fatale-mother is Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, whose main redeeming quality (we’re told) is love for her children.

Tyrion Lannister: “You love your children. It’s your one redeeming quality - that and your cheekbones.” - Game of Thrones 2x1

But far from making her a more generous person, this lioness’s ferocious motherly love makes her even deadlier toward everyone else.

Science Fiction takes on the femme fatale following on the tradition of the temptress being “othered.” Under the Skin follows an alien posing as a human woman to pick up men and kill them. Blade Runner and Ex Machina explore femme fatale types who are actually man-made artificial humans.

Caleb: “Did you program her to flirt with me?”- Ex Machina 2014

While Blade Runner’s Rachael looks the part of the ‘40s femme fatale, she has human-like feelings for protagonist Deckard. But Ex Machina’s Ava—just like Phyllis Dietrichson—only apes those feelings to manipulate a man into helping her get what she wants. In the superhero genre, Catwoman is an example where the femme fatale’s sexuality is so heightened she’s an animal, again not quite human.

Horror offers its versions of the trope, too—like Jennifer’s Body, where Megan Fox’s Jennifer becomes a literal man-eater. And most recently, the femme fatale can also be used to represent current social issues. “Social thriller” femme fatale Rose in Get Out represents the sins of the white-female racist. And in Promising Young Woman, Cassie fashions herself as a femme fatale punishing men for their wrongs against women.

Cassie: “I go to a club, I act like I’m too drunk to stand, and a nice guy asks if I’m okay” - Promising Young Woman

In classic noir, the femme fatale isn’t the protagonist—she’s seen through the point of view of a hero whose life she derails. Marvel series Jessica Jones is a modern spin on a noir, where the femme fatale also gets to be the sam spade-like PI hero.

Luke Cage: “A lot of booze for a small woman”

Jessica Jones: “I don’t get asked on a lot of second dates” - Jessica Jones 1x1

With classic noir dame looks, Jessica is tragic, self-destructive, and witty; and like a number of past femme fatales she’s been badly victimized. She’s even a superhero, exaggerating the exceptional strength of the old-school femme fatale. But this is her story, interested in her psychology and not how she influences someone else.

Gone Girl also lets its protagonist-femme fatale Amy tell her story and explain why her man deserves to be destroyed.

Amy: “And my lazy, lying, cheating, oblivious husband…Will go to prison for my murder.” - Gone Girl

The movie chillingly implies that these femme fatale dynamics play into universal gender roles and the hatred that married people feel for each other over time. While Gone Girl sympathizes with its protagonist’s grievances, at the same time the story doesn’t vindicate her manipulative and murderous actions. And many of this trope’s best examples demonstrate that this fearsome lady remains most potent when she’s not declawed, defanged, tamed. The black widow’s danger and poison are important parts of why we continue to be mesmerized, confused, and challenged by this spider woman.

The femme fatale illuminates the link that poets have long observed between sex and death; you could even read some femme fatales as an embodiment of death itself.

Catherine: “Somebody has to die.”

Nick: “Why?”

Catherine: “Somebody always does.” - Basic Instinct

Post-WWII noir movies were grappling with the mass death and destruction the world had just experienced, and at times the femme fatale in these movies seems to personify that darkness still hovering over the world. By suddenly entering an apparently normal life and filling it with the shadows of mortality, the femme fatale shocks us awake. She forces us to face the basic, deeper truths of our existence and reminds us that—underneath the artificial, everyday concerns we distract ourselves with—there lurks an abyss we could fall into at any moment.

Michael O’Hara: “Maybe I’ll live so long that I’ll forget her. Maybe I’ll die trying.” - The Lady from Shanghai