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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Notorious Femme Fatale

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.

20 comments:

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

To make the femme fatale work in a romance would require a deft hand and extreme motiviation; perhaps if she didn't do what needed doing a sibling or child would be forfeit. However, most femme fatales give no indication of a softer side, so our heroine would have to have the skills, but not the heart.

Therein lies the difference, I think. A true femme fatale is all about herself. Someone exclusively self-involved would not make a good romance heroine. The heroine playing the role to protect someone isn't a true femme fatale, but the world in which she operates can't know this lest her 'mission' be compromised.

A very interesting twist.

phyllisjohnson said...

Femme fatales, they make life interesting, huh? They certainly make books and movies more exciting. Understanding what drives them can vary widely. Maybe it's insecurity or a need for attention. Maybe it's a power play. Maybe it's hormones gone crazy. Much to think about here...

Cheryl Ann Smith said...

Femme fatales certainly can be scary, but they certainly are interesting to read about or watch in movies. Fun post!

Victoria Gray said...

Joanna Bourne's The Spymaster's Lady features a character who is outwardly a femme fatale, but inwardly, she's more of a waif forced by circumstances into her life. As Gwynlyn pointed out, a femme fatale has the skills, but not the heart.

Anonymous said...

Thought of another historical Femme Fatale of sorts - Cleopatra.
I recently read Queen Pin by Megan Abbot. This neo-noir follows the transformation of a somewhat average woman into a femme fatale after she takes out the femme fatale who "nurtured" her in the mob biz. She made a great anti-heroine. The romance genre is not generally conducive to the anti-heroine or anti-hero, although you can certainly have non-conformists and rebelious heroes and heroines.

I'd love to see someone figure out how to make it work.

E. Ayers said...

Guess everyone needs a little love in their life. But may be the story has been written. Bonnie and Clyde comes to mind.

Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Victoria,

Great post! I would have no problem with a femme fatale as a heroine--as long as she's redeemable. I love following a character's transformation from "I don't think I like you" to "I want to read more about you." It's all in the execution of the character.

Tracey

Kathryn Albright said...

I really liked this post! All kinds of ideas started evolving. I think this would be a challenging heroine to write and I definitely agree with Gwynlyn that it would take a deft hand. She'd have to be redeemable as Tracey said too. But wow--what a heart stopping moment when she sacrifices her "hardness, her selfishness" to grow and change, to take that chance at true love.

Victoria Gray said...

I don't doubt these insightful comments will provide inspiration for a textured femme fatale heroine. I love the redemption concept...the possibilities are so intriguing!

linda said...

There's certainly scope for the imagination a femme fatale...but she'd make for a challenging romance heroine. She'd have to be a 'fake', as Gwynlyn said, or she'd have to have a glimmer of compassion. An intriguing possibility!

Susan Macatee said...

Great post! But I don't see how an author could cast a femme fatale as heroine. I just don't see that working.

Victoria Janssen said...

My favorite "femme fatale" character was played by Theda Bara in "A Fool There Was."

Lise said...

Victoria, the question you pose is one of those that had a light bulb going off over my head. Why NOT a femme fatale heroine? A woman having to live by her wits and her wiles? Why leave all the great conflicts to those tormented, wounded heros who behave badly only to be redeemed by the love of a good heroine. I'd LOVE to see an author turn the tables and give us a woman who's checkered past and seductive ways hides a heart yearning for the perfect hero to understand her, and give her the security of heart of soul to relinquish her femme fatale ways.

Victoria Gray said...

I had that same lightbulb feeling after reading these comments...redemption is a powerful theme....time to get out my notebook and start brainstorming :)

Kwana said...

Great post. I would enjoy the Femme fatale as a romance heroine but yes she would need some sort of vulnerability as everyone has.

Patricia Barraclough said...

That is a hard one. Don't think I've ever read a book with the femme fatale as the heroine. By definition she is sort of the antithesis of what a heroine is. If soften her, make her misunderstood or forced to do the dastardly deeds, and them redeem her, you could make her the heroine. But then, she wouldn't really have been a femme fatale.

nancy said...

Making a femme fatale a heroine is like making a arch villian the hero. It is not the same as reforming a "bad boy" hero.
A femme fatale doesn't have a heart to be transformed. In her own way she is without empathy.
A woman who is pretending to be a courtesan to help someone has empathy. One who is hard and seems unfeeling because she has been kicked too many times can have a heart and feelings. If one goes by the definition, a femme fatale can not be redeemed and made a heroine. A selfish person can be made more generous, a self centered one can learn to think of others but a true femme fatale is not redeemable

Generic Viagra said...

We should be careful with that kind of woman because they take advantage of their figure and beauty, most of time they like to manipulate men to do whatever they want, actually they might be fatal women.

Anonymous said...

Femme fatales are determined to control the ends to meet their ends. She has one goal only its all about me, myself and I.

Anonymous said...

To me, anything is possible but it depends on the Femme Fatale herself. why would she choose one side? why not both? as in 50/50. what about "Shorty" from the game "Sift heads"(a relative of mine made me play it once.) she gets to be on the good side but of course there was a price for her to stay but still...A femme Fatale is lethal,she is like the venomous spider by using her web of deceive and lies to manipulate everyone around her like the pretender she is. what if she became who she is because she was one of the victims for too many times. she wants to be a heroine, she doesn't want to be one. It all depends on her goals and reasons. She wants revenge, so she'll get her revenge using her skills and wits to finish the job. But most importantly, as a reminder to the authors, a Femme Fatale is always unpredictable...