The femme fatale is seductive, cynical, mysterious, and rebellious in nature. The archetype of the femme fatale remains a true reflection of what society both loves and fears in women. The term was popularized during Hollywood’s film noir era in the 1940s & 50s, but the origins of this character date much further back. Throughout history in religion, mythology, art, and literature, we’ve seen her in countless forms. Famous cautionary examples of deceit and betrayal are displayed through the biblical tales of both Eve and Delilah. The privileged-turned-tragic narratives of historical figures like Cleopatra and Marie Antoniette are represented in paintings and films alike. Hollywood’s Golden Age brought her to life through actresses, Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, and Lana Turner among others. The iconic on-screen roles played by the women from this period have come to exemplify the modern femme fatale. Her story, often laced with scandal, is supported by character traits ranging from materialism and manipulation to infidelity and malice. These less-than-desirable attributes are then coupled with contrasting elements of intelligence, resilience, and almost always an undeniable style. In whichever form encountered she usually leaves her counterpart obsessed, angry, or vengeful, and her viewer slightly confused albeit mesmerized. What is it about the femme fatale that leads society to rewrite her story time and time again? One typically formed with a misogynistic undertone though often instilling a contradictory sense of empowerment in women.
The gender-driven parameters of the 1940’s are clearly evident in film noir. In any given resolution, either through discovery of virtue or execution of punishment, the threat of the femme fatale is nearly always eliminated. However, she spends the majority of the film dominating the screen with her unstoppable presence. Elements of style reflect her rebellion. Nuanced with sexual tension, Veronica Lake’s famous peek-a-boo blonde hairstyle was a catalyst for her fame and mirrored the mysterious allure of her character, Sally Vaughn, in the 1941 breakout film, I Wanted Wings. Lana Turner, another iconic femme fatale, gave a critically acclaimed performance in the 1946 film, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Here she plays Cora Smith, an unhappy housewife and aspiring business owner who plots to murder her husband in exhange for a more fulfilling life. These films came at a time when women, aiding the war initiatives, stepped into jobs that were not typically reserved for them. These films illuminated a blanket sense of paranoia and fear surrounding a cultural shift which amplified feminine independence and sexuality. A leading woman's integrity was typically in question and perpetuated the idea that women were better suited at home. Although the ending generally favored traditional gender norms and vilified it’s leading lady, the films still supplied role models for women; figures who aimed to harness the power of their sexuality and reject a typical domestic trajectory. Throughout the storyline, they remained fearless, compelling, strong, and intelligent. They exuded impeccable style and possessed a striking beauty that the Golden Era became known for. A variation of the original femme fatale is still present in modern narrartive. She still challenges male posterity and incites fear but we’ve learned to allow her more control in the outcome of her story, celebrating both her individuality and independence.
By Alexis Kanter
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