More Deadly Than the Male: The Femme Fatale
What is the eternal fascination with the femme fatale? This enigmatic figure has been represented in opera, the ballet, film and the visual arts for centuries, and her enduring quality has resulted in years of constant revival. The fundamental purpose of the femme fatale is unwavering; to seduce and destroy men. In depictions of the femme fatale, there seems to be a reverent awe and fear of her, which always derives from her powerful sexuality.
Salome is the undisputed icon of dangerous female seductiveness, gaining infamy in The New Testament for causing the execution of St. John the Baptist through her seductive dance: ‘No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs.’ Instead, she is regarded as both an object of sexual desire and as a cruel and dangerous figure.
Franz Von Stuck’s ‘Salome’ depicts her using her powers of seduction; her skin is luminous, emphashing the importance of the flesh in her maninpualtion of the king. Indeed, her success is highlighted as the head of St. John is held on a platter.
The visual arts really hammered home the destructive quality of the overtly sexual woman, for example Kilimt’s ‘Judith and the Head of Holofernes’ (1901). Her actions mirror Salome: when Jerusalem is besieged, Judith surrenders herself to Holofernes, leader of the army, to stop them. In his post-coital and drunken stupor, she takes the opportunity to decapitate him for the greater good of society.
In the Victorian era particularly, the archetype was reproduced in various guises in art and literature, such as the ‘voluptuous’ female vampires in Dracula, whose arresting dominance threatened the autonomy of the men. A J.W. Waterhouse’s exhibition in the summer of last year piqued my interest in the figure of the femme fatale in art of this period, and she appears frequently in his work. Though Ezra Pound asserted that Waterhouse had not made the transition from Aestheticim and his works were not ‘keys and passwords admitting one to a fleeting knowledge’, I think that the message evoked is disturbing enough. If nothing else, the images perpetuate the myth that beautiful women who unashamedly pursue sex serve as formidable opponents to men. Disturbingly, this belief is not far from the depressing double standards of society today.
My favourite from Waterhouse’s collection was ‘Circe’, who exudes power from her throne, dark hair cascading down her body as she raises her wand to turn Odysseus and his men into swine. I don’t think it would be too outrageous to say that there are women, and indeed men out there, who would relish this power!
The compelling figure of the femme fatale regularly appeared in film noir, which emerged in the post-war period of cynicism and disillusionment. Women were resented for a sense of newly found independence, so they were made to suffer on screen and were divided into unreasonable archetyes. The typical plot of a film noir goes as follows: disillusioned cynical male meets beautiful, promiscuous double -crosser who seduces him into life of depravity. Ultimately her wrongdoings would destroy them both, and she would almost definitely be killed off. This generic convention is still seen today – just look at the women in Bond movies.
The on-screen femme fatale developed from Theda Bara, who utters the immortal lines ‘kiss me, my fool’ in A Fool There Was (1915). With her heavyily kohled eyes and a mass of dark hair, she is the epitome of the ‘vamp’- exotic and alluring, yet dangerous.
It is worrying that this stereotype is still utilised in popular culture; is the concept of a woman who enjoys and pursues sex really that unpalatable?
However, despite the misogyny behind the archetype, I can see how the figure is so compelling. After all, the erotic and the dangerous often offer the same degree of excitement when linked.
But guys, the next time an alluring woman gives you the eye, remember: she probably just wants to have sex with you and is likely not to be elaborately scheming your demise!