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Monday, April 15, 2024

The femme fatale: an empowering badass or an extension of the male gaze?

Students share thoughts on the historically controversial character trope through a modern lens

By SIERRA JIMENEZ — arts@theaggie.org

Provocative body, luscious, silky hair and radiant red lips that whisper seductive words as she struts through the sea of men hypnotized by her sexual allure — this is the stereotypical depiction of the femme fatale in film noirs from the 1920s to ‘50s, who uses her sexuality as a tool to achieve an underlying or hidden agenda. 

While men are often applauded for their sexual conquests, the femme fatale is often viewed negatively for abusing her feminine charm and sexuality. From a young age, women are dissuaded from embracing their sexuality, but the femme fatale counteracts these societal expectations of the submissive woman and encourages her primordial sexuality. 

Is the femme fatale an empowering character trope who rises from the ashes of the patriarchy, or does she “air on the side of a tragic hero?” asked Sophie Adriasola, a Davis graduate in neurobiology, physiology and behavior whose view of the femme fatale stems from 1950s classic noirs like the film “Gilda.”

“She wants sex, she wants money, she wants power. These are things men are supposed to want, but here she is. She’s going to ruin everything,” said Adriasola. “Everything that the femme fatale does is centered around the worst nightmares of a man,” she added with a smirk. 

Her ability to enchant her victim with her charm gives the femme fatale a supernatural aura. Referred to as the enchantress, witch, vampire or siren, these terms have one trait in common — sex. French for “fatal woman,” the femme fatale quite literally brings out the destruction of men in her story, oftentimes from her seductive nature. 

Early versions of this trope, such as the biblical Eve or Circe from Greek mythology, are depicted as cautionary tales to warn against the risks of unchecked female sexuality and empowerment. She is the epitome of female power and sexual liberation, yet she is villainized for it.  

As Adriasola pondered this double standard, she asked, “What is this expectation that women have to be so moral? That’s an issue too, nobody expects a man to have perfect morality,” she said. Rather, men tend to be quickly excused for their faults. 

The core of the femme fatale exposes the cultural anxieties of female empowerment. Rooted in post-World War II culture, the trope was created to counteract the male discomfort and fear of women gaining too much autonomy when called away from traditional domestic roles to work men’s jobs during the war. 

Janek Kindel, a fourth-year German exchange student majoring in studio art, communicated his thoughts on the femme fatale through his perspective as a man. “[The femme fatale is] a woman who is hard to reach and who is met with either disdain or disrespect,” he said. “The masculinity of the man is hurt by that because the man cannot conquer her.”

“The femme fatale challenges the male ego, giving her power, and therefore creates this idea that the sexual woman must be discriminated against,” he continued. “The independent woman is frowned upon because she doesn’t adhere to the man, she does not follow his orders, she has her own line and all of a sudden, the man is not in control anymore. And so, the femme fatale is a derogatory term made by men.”

Kindel goes as far to say that the femme fatale could be a “highbrow” way of calling a woman “slutty” in the antiquated postwar era. Adriasola also considers this idea: “What if she just wants sex but not money, does that make her just a slut?” By using her feminine charm, she hurts the male ego and in effect, takes away the perceived right of men to control female sexuality.

Is [the femme fatale] solely about sex appeal?” Adriasola questioned. The conundrum here is that she is villainized for her sexuality when her male counterparts are idolized. 

If the femme fatale was historically created by men for men, her mere presence creates a pseudo illusion of feminism. She may come off as a strong independent trope, but is then romanticized, then besmirched, by the male gaze. 

Correspondingly, Kindel refers to the classic French film, “Love in the Afternoon,” to reveal “how powerful the male gaze is and how much power [men] have in the world,” in which he sadly admits is “always present.” 

The notion of the femme fatale is a double-edged sword: “Is it empowering or is it just sad?” Adriasola asked. 

In the face of a dominantly patriarchal world, she also contemplated if utilizing one’s sexuality is actually the only way for women to achieve their goals: “Can women do things based on their own merit, or will they always have to go the extra mile?”

On the flip side, utilizing what society already views about the sexual woman and using it to her advantage is, in its own way, empowering. By recognizing the blatant sexism weaved into the fabric of societal norms, she can utilize that reality to take back her power. 

“Women understanding that males are inherently sexual creatures with one brain cell, and taking advantage of that in an [empowering] way” is in itself powerful, said Juan Nava, a fourth-year history major.

This angle of the femme fatale breaking the cycle of the antiquated notion of the feminine mystique is a byproduct of the evolution of the archetype throughout history.

“Archetypes should be able to evolve over time,” Adriasola said. “The femme fatale reflects different struggles of womanhood throughout the decades.” 

Recently, the “femme fatale is being reclaimed by women” in contemporary popular culture through various outlets of expression, according to Adriasola. Lana Del Rey’s song “F*cked My Way Up To The Top” is an example of this artistic expression of this renewed version of the femme fatale using her sexuality for personal gain.

By having agency, the femme fatale has evolved from “sexpionage” to a “bad-asssery character,” explained Kyle Anderson, a third-year managerial economics and accounting major whose fondness of reading sparked interest in sharing his thoughts on the literary female character trope. 

From the prior manipulation of female sexuality portraying her as an unsuitable woman to a more recent embrace of her sexuality as a strength, the femme fatale is now perceived as a “women empower women” scenario, according to Nava. 

“It’s not the switch from villainization to empowerment that I find most empowering, it’s what you do with that concept of the femme fatale,” said Adriasola, who finds the modern femme fatale influential.

There may be different perceptions of this character trope depending on your perspective. Is she simply a creation to feed into the male gaze? Or is the femme fatale set free by her sexuality, perhaps even a mockery of female expectations?

Anderson concluded that his view on the controversial archetype is empowering: “this woman is empowered. She’s not empowered because she’s a woman, she’s empowered because she’s a human, she’s a person.” 

Written by: Sierra Jimenez — arts@theaggie.org

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