Here she comes again

The femme fatale is now a vicious man-killer, and she's getting away with it. Christopher Tookey explores screen violence by and against women
January 20, 1996

Femmes fatales are back with a vengeance. Nicole Kidman's homicidal weather-girl in To Die For is already being tipped for an Oscar. Vanessa Paradis is confirming her credentials as the latest French sex symbol in Elisa, where she avenges herself on men for the fact that her mother was once deserted by her father. Channel Four has been presenting a season of film noir feature films, old and new, with a heavy emphasis in its publicity on femmes fatales.

Women are taking increasingly violent leading roles, from a string of "women's westerns," including Bad Girls and The Quick and The Dead, to action films such as Species and Goldeneye.

The curious thing is that femmes fatales all but disappeared in the aftermath of feminism, being deemed misogynistic. In the 1970s, actresses were much more likely to win Oscars playing "positive" role-models, such as Jane Fonda's hospital volunteer in Coming Home, or Sally Field's union organiser in Norma Rae.

Shady ladies re-emerged at the start of the 1980s in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Body Heat. These films made stars of up-and-coming actresses Jessica Lange and Kathleen Turner, both of whom played women who use their sexuality to have their husbands murdered. Suddenly, it was once again box-office to be bad.

Why? One theory about why screen villainesses multiplied in the late 1940s is that women had taken jobs during the second world war which men wanted to take back. Film noir's strong, scheming, spider-women were a nightmarish distortion of these realities, where men returned home to find that women were no longer the subservient, dependent creatures of pre-war days.

Since 1980, as women's education and equal opportunities legislation have advanced, and men's jobs and social functions have been taken over by women or have disappeared completely, it is hardly surprising that male paranoia has re-emerged on our cinema screens, with women as a favourite scapegoat. One corroboration of this theory is that the current model differs significantly from her 1940s predecessors in being far more career-conscious.

There is Nicole Kidman in To Die For, cheerfully having her husband murdered simply because he wants her to have babies and she wants to be a television celebrity. Other single-minded villainesses have included Demi Moore, a high-flying businesswoman harassing her professional subordinate Michael Douglas in Disclosure, and Glenn Close, another adulterous career-woman-from-hell in Fatal Attraction (with Michael Douglas again the victim). Feminists have castigated such films as reactionary; but even left-wing film-makers such as David Hare have produced their share of career bitches in films such as Paris By Night and The Secret Rapture.

The modern femme fatale can climb higher and get further than any woman of the 1940s. In Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone's bisexual novelist-cum-murderess not only looks a million dollars; she gets away with her crimes, catches her man (it's that Michael Douglas again) and earns millions of dollars as well.

The cold, mercenary women of the 1940s-such as Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity-might inveigle gullible men into doing away with their rich, redundant husbands; but public morality demanded that they receive their comeuppance. Since the start of the 1980s, women have been much more likely to get away with their offences-from Kathleen Turner arranging her businessman husband's demise in Body Heat, to Linda Fiorentino doing away with her drug-dealing spouse in The Last Seduction.

Many film-makers, anxious to fend off accusations of misogyny, have taken to condoning their female characters' bad behaviour. As a result, the new wicked ladies have become distorted role models-examples of the kind of ruthlessness which can bring success. They have also been painted more sympathetically, held to be less blameworthy for their excesses. Movie villainesses are usually given a moral justification for their crimes-and almost invariably the same one.

A history of sexual abuse has become the blanket excuse for every kind of feminine excess, whether in mainstream Hollywood hits such as Thelma and Louise or more abstruse Indian offerings such as Bandit Queen. It doesn't matter much if it's abuse by father (as in Natural Born Killers), husband (in China Moon), brother (in Innocent Lies) or racist cop (in One False Move).

In the 1990s, such special pleading has been taken to bizarre extremes. Even the relatively minor offence of male sexism now carries the death penalty-not only in obviously over-the-top films such as Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and Michael Winner's Dirty Weekend, but also in such mainstream releases as Species.

The man-hating lesbian-a stereotype made taboo by the Hays code of decency from 1930 until the mid-1960s-re-emerged jokily in early Bond films, with Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love and Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. In keeping with the spread of permissiveness, such women have grown not only more explicit but also more attractive, with a sexy Sharon Stone wielding a phallic ice-pick in Basic Instinct, serial husband-killer Theresa Russell weaving her web around federal agent Debra Winger in Black Widow, and Saskia Reeves and Amanda Plummer as lesbian lovers indulging themselves on a serial-killing tour of Northern England in Butterfly Kiss.

Previously unmentionable perversions such as rubber fetishism and sado-masochism have become so commonplace that the appearance of a woman in bondage gear scarcely caused a ripple in Batman Forever, a "PG" film which the authorities deemed suitable for unaccompanied children. Only rarely is there any suggestion that such minority sexual tastes are wrong, depraved, or in any way anti-social.

As if in reaction, another significant trend of the past few years has been the arrival of the conservative femme fatale-the woman who kills in defence of hearth and home. Among these have been Annabella Sciorra saving her husband and baby from mad nanny Rebecca de Mornay in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle-or, on a lighter note, Kathleen Turner conducting a one-woman reign of terror in defence of family values in the black comedy Serial Mom.

Most famously, there was Anne Archer at the end of Fatal Attraction, a movie whose ending had to be reshot when preview audiences insisted that Archer, as the wronged wife, should finish off the career-woman adulteress who was threatening her family, and-in effect-take over the senior, "male" role in her marriage.

Clarice Starling, the FBI-trainee character who won Jodie Foster an Oscar in The Silence of the Lambs, appears to be a throwback to those feminist heroines of the 1970s, struggling for career success in a male-dominated world; but in another sense, she's also a traditionalist preserving the home from the threat of a serial-killer who is reversing the sex roles by wearing women's clothing-made, even more threateningly, out of women's skins.

Social trends suggest good reasons why both female and male anxieties about sex roles are continuing to multiply. Fewer and fewer husbands are sole breadwinners. In some sections of society, whole tranches of the male population find themselves unemployable.

Common sense suggests that canny film-makers will reflect this; but rampant, scarcely concealed misogyny seems increasingly to be the result. Femmes fatales have always been sexual creatures and a convenient focus for fears of promiscuity. Nowadays, a femme fatale can hardly appear on screen without some critic interpreting her as a metaphor for Aids. The irony is that heterosexual women are now the most common cinematic symbol for a disease carried-at least in the developed world-most commonly by men.

New, ultra-violent mutations on the femme fatale are being spawned. Almost every criminal gang in modern action films now contains an aggressive, often professional woman, who is usually dispatched in an especially unpleasant way by a man with whom the predominantly young, male audience for such films can identify. In the latest, thoroughly typical Steven Seagal action movie, Under Siege 2, the job of killing her is given to Mr Seagal's unskilled black sidekick.

It is noticeable that male violence against women is being portrayed not only more frequently than ever before, but also more sympathetically. In two recent movies, Goldeneye and Romeo is Bleeding, femmes fatales who murder men by crushing them between their legs (not exactly subtle symbolism) are dispatched to the cheers of the audience. In the forthcoming Strange Days (directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow), the audience is invited to share in a sex murder through the eyes of the killer, in a sequence widely seen as the most voyeuristic sex-slaying since Michael Powell's Peeping Tom.

Perhaps this marks the arrival of a new phenomenon, the homme futile-violent men hitting out at women because of their own feelings of inadequacy, and the rest of us paying to share in the cathartic thrill. With male violence against women on the increase, as well as female violent crime, the perennial question is as relevant as ever: are the movies reflecting a nastier sexual culture, or actually helping to create it?