From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"It was Mérimée who localized in Spain the type of the Fatal Woman which towards the end of the century came to be placed more generally in Russia: the exotic and the erotic ideals go hand in hand, and this fact also contributes another proof of a more or less obvious truth – that is, that a love of the exotic is usually an imaginative projection of a sexual desire. This is very clear in such cases as those of Gautier and Flaubert, whose dreams carry them to an atmosphere of barbaric and Oriental antiquity where all the most unbridled desires can be indulged and the cruelest fantasies can take concrete form."--The Romantic Agony (1930) by Mario Praz
A femme fatale (plural: femmes fatales) is an alluring and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous and deadly situations. She is an archetypal character of literature and art.
The phrase is French for "deadly woman," or "fatal woman." A femme fatale tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, and sexual allure. Typically, she is exceptionally well-endowed with these qualities. In some situations, she uses lying or coercion rather than charm.
The tradition of the femme fatale can be traced back to the Sumerian goddess Ishtar as well as the "scarlet women" of the Old Testament such as Jezebel and Delilah, and the Greek myths of Medusa, Circe and Medea. Both the femme fatale and the lesbian vampire are of course stereotyped depictions of female psychopathy that contain strong and perhaps biased and distorted elements of sadomasochistic male sexual fantasy and fear.
Although typically villainous, femmes fatales have also appeared as antiheroines in some stories, and some even repent and become heroines by the end of the tale (see, for example, Bell, Book and Candle).
In social life, the femme fatale tortures her lover in an asymmetrical relationship, denying confirmation of her affection. She usually drives him to the point of obsession and exhaustion so that he is incapable of making rational decisions.
The femme fatale archetype exists, in the folklore and myth of nearly every culture in every century. (Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, La Belle Dame sans Merci The early examples are Ishtar, the Sumerian goddess, and Eve, Lilith, Delilah, and Salome from the Judaeo-Christian Bible. In ancient Greek literature, the femme fatale is incarnated by Aphrodite, the Siren, the Sphinx, the empusa, Scylla, Circe, Lamia (mythology), Helen of Troy, and Clytemnestra. Beside them is the historical figure Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, with her ability to seduce the powerful men of Rome. Roman propaganda attacked Cleopatra as a femme fatale; as a result, she became the legendary archetype of the attractions and the dangers inherent to the powerful, exotic woman.
The femme fatale as an archetypal character also existed in Chinese myths, stories and history, certain concubines (such as the historical Yang Guifei) have been accused of being responsible in part for the weakening and downfall of dynasties, by seducing her lover into neglecting his duties or twisting him to her will.
In the Middle Ages, the idea of the dangers of female sexuality, typified by Eve, was commonly expressed in medieval romances as a wicked, seductive enchantress, the prime example being Morgan le Fay.
The femme fatale flourished in the Romantic period in the works of John Keats, notably "La Belle Dame sans Merci" and "Lamia". Along with them, there rose the gothic novel, The Monk featuring Matilda, a very potent femme fatale. This led to her appearing in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and as the vampiress, notably in Carmilla and Brides of Dracula. The Monk was greatly admired by the Marquis de Sade, for whom the femme fatale symbolised not evil, but all the best qualities of Women, with his novel Juliette being perhaps the earliest wherein the femme fatale triumphs. Pre-Raphaelite painters frequently used the classic personifications of the femme fatale as a subject.
Fin de siècle
In the Western culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the femme fatale became a more fashionable trope, and she is found in the paintings of the artists Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Franz von Stuck and Gustave Moreau. The novel À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans includes these fevered imaginings about an image of Salome in a Moreau painting:
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; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, - a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.
She also is seen as a prominent figure in late nineteenth and twentieth century opera, appearing in Richard Wagner's Parsifal (Kundry), George Bizet's "Carmen", Camille Saint-Saens' "Samson et Delilah" and Alban Berg's "Lulu" (based on the plays "Erdgeist" and "Die Büchse der Pandora" by Frank Wedekind).
In fin-de-siècle decadence, Oscar Wilde re-invented the femme fatale in the play Salome: she manipulates her lust-crazed uncle, King Herod, with her enticing Dance of the Seven Veils (Wilde's invention) to agree to her imperious demand: bring me the head of John the Baptist. Later, Salome was the subject of an opera by Strauss, was popularized on stage, screen, and peep-show booth in countless reincarnations.
Another enduring icon of womanly glamour, seduction, and moral turpitude was Mata Hari, 1876 - 1917, an alluring oriental dancer who was accused of German espionage and was put to death by a French firing squad. As such, she embodied the femme fatale archetype, and, after her death she became the subject of much fantastical imagining. She was the subject of many sensational films and books.
20th century film and theatre
The femme fatale has been portrayed as a sexual vampiress; her charms leach the virility and independence of lovers, leaving them shells of themselves. Rudyard Kipling was inspired by a vampiress painted by Philip Burne-Jones, an image typical of the era in 1897, to write his poem "The Vampire". Like much of Kipling's verse it was incredibly popular, and its refrain: "A fool there was...", describing a seduced man, became the title of the popular 1915 film A Fool There Was that made Theda Bara a star. The poem was used in the publicity for the film. On this account, in early American slang the femme fatale was called a vamp, short for vampiress.
From the American film audience perspective, the femme fatale often was foreign, usually either of an indeterminate Eastern European or Asian ancestry. She was the sexual counterpart to wholesome actresses such as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. Notable silent cinema vamps were Theda Bara, Louise Brooks, Helen Gardner, Louise Glaum, Musidora, Nita Naldi, Pola Negri, and in her early appearances, Myrna Loy.
During the film noir era of the 1940s and 1950s, the femme fatale flourished in American cinema. Examples include the overly-possessive and narcissistic wife Ellen Brent Harland, portrayed by Gene Tierney, in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), who will stop at nothing to keep her husband's affections. Another is Brigid O'Shaughnessy, portrayed by Mary Astor, who uses her acting skills to murder Sam Spade's partner in The Maltese Falcon. Yet another is the cabaret singer portrayed by Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), who sexually manipulates her husband and his best friend. Another noir femme fatale is Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck, who seduces a hapless insurance salesman and persuades him to kill her husband in Double Indemnity (1944). In the Hitchcock film The Paradine Case, (1947), the character played by Alida Valli is a poisonous femme fatale who is responsible for the deaths of two men and the near destruction of another. One frequently cited example is the character of Jane in 1949's Too Late for Tears, played by Lizabeth Scott. During her quest to keep some dirty money from its rightful recipient and her husband, she uses poison, lies, sexual teasing and a gun to keep men wrapped around her finger.
Today, she remains a key character in films such as Body Heat, with Kathleen Turner, The Last Seduction, with Linda Fiorentino, To Die For, with Nicole Kidman, Basic Instinct, with Sharon Stone, and Femme Fatale with Rebecca Romijn.
In popular culture
In contemporary culture, the femme fatale survives as heroine and anti-heroine, in Nikita and Moulin Rouge!, as well as in video games and comic books. Æon Flux is the titular femme fatale of MTV's eponymous animation series. Elektra from Marvel Comics, Catwoman and Poison Ivy from the Batman series, and Fujiko Mine from Lupin the 3rd are examples. In the board game Cluedo (Clue in the US), Miss Scarlet occupies the role of femme fatale. Other American cultural examples of deadly women occur in espionage thrillers, and juvenile adventure comic strips, such as The Spirit, by Will Eisner, and Terry and the Pirates, by Milton Caniff.
Cinematic femmes fatales as psychopaths
This type is exemplified in the classic movie femmes fatales, first introduced in the silent era as the Theda Bara "vamp" in A Fool There Was (1915) and later apotheosized by classic Hollywood film noir villainesses like Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944) and Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past (1948).
More recent cinematic portrayals and variations of the psychopathic femme fatale include:
- Dominique Blanchion (Margot Kidder in Sisters)
- Ursa (Sarah Douglas in Superman II; see also Extraterrestrial psychopaths)
- Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) in Play Misty for Me
- Diana (Jane Badler in V and V: The Final Battle; see also Extraterrestrial psychopaths)
- Alex Forrest (Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction)
Note: As many commentators have pointed out, Alex Forrest presents more accurately as a borderline personality disorder — although her morbid condition and the suffering it causes her are not treated with any real sympathy or insight, or even psychological context, in the film. Alex's salient borderline traits are wildly exaggerated to the point of an obsessive paranoid psychosis marked by vicious, anti-social tendencies — i.e., the kind of perverse and violent behavior otherwise associated with aggressive criminal psychopaths.
- Catherine Peterson (Theresa Russell in Black Widow)
- Anna Raven (Suzanna Hamilton in the BBC miniseries Never Come Back)
- Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct)
- Micheline "Mimi" Bouvier (Emmanuelle Seigner in Bitter Moon)
Note: Like Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, Mimi's behavior seems more consistent with that of an abused-and-abusive, passive-aggressive borderline personality disorder than a full-fledged psychopath in the accepted clinical sense. Mimi might also qualify as a vengeful and abusive care provider like Baby Jane Hudson in addition to being an oversexed and manipulative femme fatale. Similar to Fatal Attraction, Bitter Moon treats Mimi's unbalanced and volatile personality as a subject for overwrought Gothic huis clos suspense-thriller titillation and exploitation (and lurid S&M fetishism) rather than for any real psychological context or insight.
- Kris Bolin (Lara Flynn Boyle in The Temp)
- Jude (Miranda Richardson in The Crying Game)
- Mona Demarkov (Lena Olin in Romeo is Bleeding)
- Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction)
- Nicole Wallace (Olivia D'Abo on the dramatic television series Law & Order: Criminal Intent)
- Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah in Kill Bill)
- Martha Beck (Salma Hayek in Lonely Hearts)
All are prime examples of the type of "smooth" female psychopathic character who uses her feminine wiles to ensnare and destroy her victims.
Male characters who may play a "fatale" role include Don Juan, Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, many of the heroes in Lord Byron's books (termed the "Byronic hero"), as well as such diverse characters as Billy Budd, Count Dracula, Tadzio in Death in Venice, Harthouse in Charles Dickens's Hard Times, Georges Querelle in Jean Genet's Querelle of Brest, James Bond, and Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith's "Ripley" novels.
- Toni Bentley (2002) Sisters of Salome. Salome considered as an archetype of female desire and transgression and as the ultimate femme fatale.
- Bram Dijkstra (1986) Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-De-Siecle Culture, (1986) ISBN 0-19-505652-3. Discusses the Femme fatale-stereotype.
- Bram Dijkstra (1996) Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Culture, (1996) ISBN 0-8050-5549-5
- Elizabeth K. Mix Evil By Design: The Creation and Marketing of the Femme Fatale, ISBN 978-0252073236. Discusses the origin of the Femme fatale in 19th century French popular culture.
- Mario Praz (1951) The Romantic Agony (1951). See chapters four, 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci', and five, 'Byzantium'.
- Anatomy of a Murder
- Archetypal literary criticism
- Dragon Lady (stereotype)
- Female criminality
- Girls with guns
- Gun moll
- Histrionic personality disorder
- Madonna-whore complex
- Male gaze
- Warrior princess