An examination of the stereotypical femme fatale role and subversions of the archetype.
Our hero is a Humphrey Bogart-type. He’s a product of the Great Depression; a private eye, intent upon exposing injustice, locked in a fruitless battle against the corruption that infects the very foundations of capitalist America. He’s drowning in filth excreted by slimy politicians and vicious racketeers, and he must fight to restore the purity of the world, alone. His one temptation: a woman. She’s beautiful, glamorous, and takes no prisoners. She’s probably wrapped up in a crime racket, a gangster’s moll. She’ll lie and cheat, but our trusty private dick won’t turn a blind eye to a damsel-in-distress. Our hero is a knight in shining armour reconfigured for 20th century America. And with that archetype comes all the baggage, including its attitude towards women. The noir genre may have birthed the hardened P.I., but it’s the femme fatale that has dug her sharpened crimson claws into the cultural consciousness.
When the visual style that characterised German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s migrated to the US to become film noir, voice was given to the female characters as well as the male protagonists. Barbara Stanwyck is famed for her complex and meaty roles, with Double Indemnity’s (1944) Phyllis Dietrichson perhaps her most memorable. The holy trinity of Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946), and Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941) offer an acid-tongued reprieve from the meek, passive women that populated so many screens. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that women were released from one box, only to find themselves stuffed into another. They no longer had to conform to the pure, angelic love interest, instead they could be the sultry, morally-ambiguous object of lust. And though everyone loves an anti-hero, most would prefer they weren’t bound by the male gaze. The proto-femme fatale Morgan le Fay was cast as an evil hag in Arthurian tales; Lady Macbeth, wracked with guilt, kills herself. The film noir femme fatale, too, often ends up tamed, shamed, or deeply indebted to our hero.
Regardless, progress can be incremental, and the golden age of film noir is a treasure trove of treats despite its imperfections. As the decades passed, the protagonists started to spring from the pages of William Gibson rather than Raymond Chandler, the setting not contemporary America but cityscapes of a dystopian future, and yet the nihilistic themes of corruption proved eternally timely. Unfortunately, the representation of women in these (often cyberpunk) neo-noirs is uneven at best. For every ass-kicking Trinity in The Matrix films (1999-2021), there is an unauthorised VFX version of Sean Young in Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Even the most famous femme fatale in the current zeitgeist, the MCU’s Natasha Romanoff—though she escapes being cast as simply a love interest—was granted the solo film her male counterparts had by right only after her in-universe death.
Though femme fatales still stumble in the most popular of blockbusters, turning to the silver-screen offers an alluring alternative. In the early 2000s, inspired by the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), screenwriter Rob Thomas decided to place another petite, blonde teenager at the centre of a genre series. But rather than a monster-of-the-week affair, Kristen Bell’s Veronica Mars is more concerned with the crime-of-the-week. In Veronica Mars (2004-2019), a teen girl is the gumshoe. She’s the receptionist at her father’s private detective agency—a role traditionally reserved for the perky blonde, referred to by every epithet (angel, darling, precious) but her name. But in the perilous world of American High School, she’ll use her snooping skills to solve murders in a Los Angeles characterised by the extremes of wealth and poverty. It’s bold and brilliant. The femme fatale is reconfigured into Jason Dohring’s homme horrible. The banter between our lead and her on-again-off-again angsty-bad-boy lover recalls the explosive chemistry of Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep. Rob Thomas makes it seem only natural that the grizzled hero of the 30s and 40s would evolve into Kristen Bell with a Nikon D70 camera.
Noir will never die. It will persist as neo-to-the-nth-degree-noir as long as human vice does. To say that the genre is irrevocably misogynist ignores the wonderful characters and stories that it has given us. But it has at times found it difficult to view female characters as something other than an object of male desire, whether they be untainted madonnas or deadly seductresses. Despite Veronica Mars’s success, it is not necessary to gender-flip the entire genre. We can see the femme fatale placed centre-stage in all her glory and complexity in Jennifer Check of the cult horror Jennifer’s Body (2009), or Ginger Fitzgerald in the underrated (and, frankly, superior) gem Ginger Snaps (2000). Just as filmmakers continually return to the character of the hardened private eye, the femme fatale will seldom be far from our screens, with her biting wit and stunning style. And thank God for that.