The femme fatale is now a vicious man-killer, and she's getting away with it. Christopher Tookey explores screen violence by and against womenby Christopher Tookey / January 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in January 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.