Femme fatale. What does the term bring to your mind? If you remember the movie Body Heat, Kathleen Turner’s character Matty Walker might spring to mind. Matty Walker’s seduction and duping of Ned Racine, a hunky lawyer so dunce-like one wonders how he passed the bar, is a classic case of a femme fatale luring a man to think with parts of his body other than his brain.
Femme fatale is a French term for a deadly woman. Literally translated “fatal woman”, a femme fatale is a strong-willed, manipulative woman who is as alluring and irresistible as she is dangerous. The femme fatale leads men into danger or compromising situations with her seductive charms. This female archetype is present in mythology and folklore, literature, film, and, of course, history.
How different would the world be without the femme fatale? If Henry VIII were alive, we might ask him that question. Thanks to Anne Boleyn’s seductive charms, the former Defender of the Faith (the title conferred on Henry by Pope Leo X in 1521) began the struggles with the Roman Catholic Church that eventually led Henry to separate the Church of England from papal authority. His desire to annul his marriage and wed a younger, more alluring woman spurred him to sever his ties with a religion he’d staunchly upheld until Anne Boleyn came into his life.
Femme Fatales have been around as long as humans have walked the earth. History documents the talent for romantic liaisons that brought rulers like Cleopatra power and infamous spy Mata Hari the information she coveted. A femme fatale can charm a man into doing her bidding without him giving a thought to the consequences. Unfortunately for the enamored male, love usually has very little to do with the couplings of the femme fatale.
The Bible contains numerous references to femme fatales, including Delilah, the temptress who tricked Sampson into getting his infamous haircut and Salome, a femme fatale whose seductive dance led Herod to order the beheading of John the Baptist. Folklore and mythology is populated with femme fatales such as Helen of Troy, Sirens, and Aphrodite.
The femme fatale is probably best represented in film noir. Movie classics such as Double Indemnity establish the femme fatale as a force to be reckoned with; films such as Basic Instinct and The Postman Always Rings Twice demonstrate the power of a seductive woman that’s used to lure a man into committing a murder that benefits the vamp. Even Chicago’s Roxie Hart is a femme fatale, though not as effective a femme fatale as her fellow jailbird, Velma Kelly.
Femme fatales also occupy a prominent place in literature. Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Dashiell Hammett’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, and John Steinbeck’s manipulative, evil Cathy in East of Eden exemplify the use of the femme fatale archetype in English and American literature.
Even comic books have their share of femme fatales. Where would Batman be without Catwoman and Poison Ivy, or Daredevil without Elektra?
While writing this article, I pondered the question of femme fatales in romance novels. I’ve seem femme fatales used as scheming rivals or as villains who would drive a stiletto through the hero’s heart without a second thought, but I cannot recall seeing a femme fatale as the heroine. What are your thoughts on this? What are some examples of novels in which romance authors effectively used the femme fatale archetype as a heroine? Would this engage you as a reader? Would you become sympathetic to the heroine, even if she were a manipulative flirt? Would the author have to transform the character to a more sympathetic type, or would you relate to the femme fatale, flaws and all? I’d love to know your thoughts.