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Monday, March 21, 2011

Bad Girls and the Men Who Love Them

Femme fatale. What does the term bring to your mind? In the latest movie incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, the sleuth is intrigued and besotted by Irene Adler, a notorious thief with a dubious moral compass. She has a soft spot for Holmes, but you're never sure if she's working for him, or against him. She's perhaps the only woman who could take Holmes' mind off the clues around him, simply because he's so fascinated with her. Irene Adler's interactions with Sherlock Holmes call to mind the femme fatales of old. She may be luring him into a trap, or at the very least, thwarting his plans, but he's too besotted to resist. Ah, the allure of the femme fatale.

In 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.


Eliza Knight said...

Excellent post, Wendy! You pointed out some fabulous examples in both history, literature, mythology and film.

I think you're right that more often than not it is the hero who seeks reformation and redemption in stories, rather than the female. I don't really know if I've read a story about a femme fatale, and I would like to. I think it would be something new for the heroine to seek reformation, and to find love.

I wonder if the reason for this lies in the fact that the majority of romance readers are female, we like to read about tortured heroes who are absolved and healed by the heroine...

I'm curious to see what examples of romance people offer, so I can add them to my reading list!

Emma Lai said...

I can't think of a romance featuring a femme fatale heroine off the top of my head. I like the unusual so I think it would be an interesting read.

Keena Kincaid said...

I can't think of a femme fatale heroine in book either, and I suppose it would be hard to pull off in standard genre romance (but it could be done). In the movie, RED, it's possible Helen Mirren's character was a femme fatale in her day, so what we see there is a reformed FF.

Susan Macatee said...

Great post! I can't ever recall reading a femme fatale heroine in a romance novel, it's usually the hero who the heroine has to reform. Probably because most romances are written primarily in the heroine's POV.

I've also noticed editor's don't like heroes who have to be reformed now, either. They might have a checkered past, but have to be reformed at the beginning of the story to work as a hero.

I think it would be hard to find an editor who'd contract a story with a femme fatale heroine.

Victoria Gray said...

I think the potential is high, and if done right, could be quite an interesting book. Keena, great point about Helen Mirren in Red...I definitely think she'd been a femme fatale in her youth. I'm feeling inspired :)

Barb H said...

What an interesting post, Wendy! Why don't we see the FF as a heroine? I can't think of any in literature, either.

Perhaps it's because our female readers like to identify with the heroine and they might not want to "see" themselves in that kind of role.

Victoria Gray said...

Oooh, actually, I would love to identify with the femme fatale...that's so different from my life :)

Caroline Clemmons said...

FOREVER AMBER was a femme fatale, wasn't she? I love what Eliza said, but anothe reason is that a man can do dreadful things and reform. Once a woman has done anything out of the norm, she is branded forever. Times change, but women are still expected to be nurturers and to keep the home together.