Bill Wilder's Double Indemnity, 1944TWITTER/JADEDSUMMERS

Femme fatale: the woman who confidently slinks on camera, exuding and using her intrinsic allure to her advantage. The term itself has become synonymous with female power, whether emblazoned on Britney Spears’ 2011 comeback album, or Kim Kardashian’s perfume line at a time when her death grip on pop-culture was beginning to take hold. And yet, even if she has been dolled up in knowing looks and a chameleon persona, the cinematic femme fatale has been assigned the same story arc since Eve, Jezebel and Delilah of bible infamy. Her role is a simple one: to represent the danger posed by the autonomous, sexually liberated female who triggers, not only the downfall of men, but ultimately herself too.

In the early 1940s, the femme fatale found a home on the silver screen. While men were fighting in World War II, women at home were working in key jobs, earning their own money, and, for the first time, not automatically designated to the role of housewife. This unsettling shift incited a male paranoia that, with greater freedom, women were cultivating a taste for money, casual sex and independence.

“She’s not ‘rotten’, as the noir femme fatale proclaims with jaded gaze, nor is she particularly admirable. She is simply a woman.”

Such anxieties were written neatly into the signature femme fatale of film noir; a crime genre characterised by its moody cynicism. This brand of femme fatale is defined more by her superficial motives than any unique backstory or psychology. Gold-digging, promiscuous and conniving, her behaviour is predictably unpredictable. For all her confidence, she is eventually punished or, at the very least, subdued and ushered into her rightful future of monogamy and motherhood as the credits roll.

In Double Indemnity (1944), actress Barbara Stanwyck’s platinum blond wig and red lip raise alarm bells about her character from the outset. Playing puppet mistress, she manipulates an insurance agent (Fred MacMurray) into murdering her husband for his money. Said insurance agent ultimately retrieves his masculinity, however, killing her before he is caught.

Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, 1955TWITTER/MARILYNDIARY

Later, in Gilda (1946), the audience follows a man forever tearing his hair out (Glen Ford), as he convinces himself that his flirtatious wife (Rita Hayworth) is unfaithful. He has henchmen follow her, is physically abusive and prevents her from leaving the house until, plot twist, it turns out that she’s not promiscuous after all, she was only pretending to be, and they reconcile. Lovely. Screen sirens like Hayworth generally rode the wave of typecasting until they were inevitably washed up.

“I want to be an artist... not a celluloid aphrodisiac.”

The late 1950s and early ’60s saw the dumb blond trope overshadow the femme fatale, possessing all the curves and beauty of the latter, but none of her deadly machinations. Marilyn Monroe became the face of this stereotype: a new male fantasy, now as unthreatening as the cookie-cutter housewife. Monroe’s typical character radiates sex appeal, yet is unaware of it herself, she has grand, gold-digging aspirations, but is too thick to achieve them through power play. The most iconic scene of her career comes from The Seven Year Itch (1955): she smiles ecstatically as her dress flies teasingly close to her crotch. The camera lingers for a while on her legs, and her doe-eyed character acts oblivious to the sexual connotations of the pose. The main character (Tom Ewell) surveys her salaciously in the background, mirroring the audience of male voyeurs for whom the scene is constructed. She is here, and was generally, more spectacle than character. Monroe herself felt a quiet desperation to break the constraints of her exploited sexuality, despite her iconic status: “I want to be an artist... not a celluloid aphrodisiac.”

“She is here, and was generally, more spectacle than character.”

Cut to the quintessential femme fatale, Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct (1992), and still her character is not fleshed out beyond a clever, unhinged murder suspect who communicates through sultry gestures and husky one-liners. This may add to her mystique for a while, but ultimately results in a one-dimensional character, whose motive is lazily attributed to an inherent perversion in women who take ownership of their sexuality. Catherine is bisexual, over thirty and unmarried, loves sex in its own right – plus she smokes. Red flags all around! Only one split-second frame from the film has found a place in collective memory, where the audience explicitly sees that Stone is not wearing any underwear. Ironically, Stone has said that she was completely caught off guard upon first seeing her genitalia displayed for the world to see – a contrast to her character’s assured control over her sexuality.

Rosamund Pike in Gone GirlTWITTER/FILMSTOFILMS_

2014’s Gone Girl, based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, comes oh-so close to triumphantly critiquing the male lens through which female sexuality is arguably filtered, and yet aggressively unravels its own commentary by the end. The femme fatale in question, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), highlights the repressive expectation for women to be the golden girl publicly, and malleable “cool girl” for her lover. However, her revenge scheme against her cheating husband (Ben Affleck) proves so extreme, so very attention-seeking, that she manages to alienate the audience far more than he ever does. And so, we are led straight back to the deranged, sex-weaponising woman.


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In light of this history, the significance of the recent rise of on-screen stories with a focus on female sexuality, tethered to realistic and relatable characters, should not be underestimated. Hustlers (2019) manages to take a group of con-artist women working in one of the most frowned upon industries, and make their characters sympathetic and likeable.

Normal People (2020) is full of sex. Clue in the title, however, these scenes are not a glossy fantasy; they reflect the ever-evolving emotions and experiences of the central couple with unparalleled sensitivity and equality. Likewise, Fleabag (2016-19), with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s cheeky asides to the camera, depicts the array of complex, and sometimes random, reasons women act as they do, in sex and life generally, just like men. She’s not ‘rotten’, as the noir femme fatale proclaims with jaded gaze, nor is she particularly admirable. She is simply a woman.