Taken from The Power Issue of Achey Breaky Heart Zine, our EIC Beccy Hill looks at the idea of a modern day femme fatale.
“A femme fatale is a stock character of a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. She is an archetype of literature and art.” Wikipedia then goes on to explain “Her ability to entrance and hypnotise her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural; hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, seductress, vampire, witch, or demon, having power over men.”
I have been fascinated by mythological women for as long as I can remember - my left arm is adorned with several embodiments of the aforementioned ‘femme fatale’. Women who are beautiful and alluring, yet if you dare to look at them, let alone touch them, you will meet a highly unpleasant end. However, whilst I have always associated this idea with strength and empowerment, it does seem warped that a female figure completely in control of her image and her power should be regarded as dangerous. Some of Wikipedia’s suggested pages to click through from femme fatale are; ‘Dragon Lady (stereotype) ‘Girls With Guns’ ‘Histrionic Personality Disorder’ and ‘Psychological Manipulation’. Right. So not really all that positive then. Why is it that the romanticised idea of a dangerous woman has existed for centuries, yet the connotations of a woman with power are so negative?
In my eyes, a femme fatale is a woman who has been so wronged by the world around her, that she decides to take back the power and seek revenge - probably something most of us can relate to. I think back to writing my dissertation on the late designer Alexander McQueen who said “I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress,” after seeing his sister suffer at the hands of domestic violence. This quote has always stuck with me, especially when I reflect upon McQueen’s work. His women are intimidating, often in towering platforms, bandaged heads and clown like make up, yet their clothes fit to the body in a way that is nothing short of sexy. They say I look fucking amazing, but don’t you dare come anywhere near me.
Men who are dangerous yet powerful on the other hand, are seen as heroes. Let’s take for example, Batman. The 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises sees the billionaire socialite adopt his alter ego in aid of saving Gotham from the fate of ‘liberator of pain’ Bane, who is desperate to continue Ra's al Ghul's legacy by destroying the city. Of course, due to Batman’s tenacity this doesn’t happen, and during the course of his mission he has a steamy fling with Miranda Tate, a member of Wayne Enterprises. She later reveals herself as Talia, Ra’s al Gul’s daughter who was born in prison and managed to escape with the help of Bane. She has double crossed him, by aiding the bomb set off, and pays for this sin by death when her truck crashes. The closing scene of the film sees Batman living happily in Florence with his other fling Selina Kyle. Talia was doing what she felt was right, by using any means necessary - and isn’t that what super hero Batman has always done?
Another portrayal of a doomed femme fatale, is of the character Satine in Moulin Rouge! A courtesan who dreams of being an actress, she is forced by Zidler (owner of the Moulin Rouge) to embark upon a relationship with a wealthy duke in the hopes that he will invest in them. Despite falling for penniless writer Christian, she has to plough on with the illusion she loves the duke, as he is funding their new theatrical venture. At the end of the film she dies of tuberculosis, whilst all three men survive. It could be said she was using her sexual power to get what she needed from a man - however Christian pretended to be a renowned playwright to get an initial meeting with Satine, so surely he was using a certain power as well? The depiction of women on screen who are self assertive and ruthless in fighting for their desires are more often than not negative, as the plots tend to see them sealing the fate which the audience feels they deserve.
So where does the femme fatale fit into today's society? Is tricking men into getting what we want such a bad thing, especially when we can't seem to get there through hard, honest work? We still get paid less, aren't offered the same opportunities and taxed for our bodily functions, so with many set backs perhaps it's just a case of playing the game differently. Maybe there would be no need for a femme fatale if the sexes were equal. Maybe society wouldn't perceive women in control of their destiny and their sexuality as dangerous if we actually got what we wanted when we asked nicely, or if we were listened to when stating what we didn't want. It seems pretty fucked up to suggest the ‘stock character’ of the femme fatale is not to be trusted, when people who possess the most power, such as male politicians (hiya David, Boris, Farage!), are consistently economic with the truth. Maybe as women we use our sexuality as it's the only weapon we feel has gravitas.
However, I don't believe your physical attraction equals your weight in power. As woman we are all mighty in many ways; we bring life into the world for fucks sake. The femme fatale is simply taking what she is owed, and what her surroundings have declined her - and looking fleek whilst doing so.