Defining the Femme Fatale
I would sooner have danced than supped with her.1
John Inglis, Madeleine Smith’s defence lawyer
The intention of this first chapter is to trace some of the key elements of the ‘genetic makeup’ of the femme fatale
in Western culture, exploring how key myths and stereotypes of female character and behaviour, particularly in relation to transgressive or dangerous sexuality, have been established over time. Although there is a brief discussion of the early modern, modern and contemporary eras, the more specific analysis of the evolution of the femme fatale
in different time periods is reserved for the case study chapters that follow. The exception is the nineteenth century, where a section in this first chapter allows a little space to consider this important era in the emergence of the femme fatale
meme, with a brief case study that prefigures some of the most significant elements of the studies that follow. However, the opening overview is primarily intended to provide a vista of the ancient roots of the lethal woman in Western religion and mythology, and to look in more detail at the way one particular construction of the ‘deviant’ female – the femme fatale
– has underpinned the understanding of female criminality. The book’s attention switches constantly between, and in some places merges, representations of the ‘real’ (historical cases) and the fictive (their intertexts in such media as literature, drama, film and television). Central to my argument is that there is an on-going, inductive process which subsumes these real and fictive lethal women, with the figure of the femme fatale
evolving and crystallising over time. Julie Grossman refers to ‘a habit of projecting ideation about the “femme
fatale” onto real women’, and notes that ‘[t]his kind of blurred association of women in noir with gender phantoms keyed to “real life” results in a continual reassertion of the “femme fatale” as a fixed object and category’ (2009, pp. 48–9). Grossman points to the tendency to collapse distinctions between actress, character and the femme fatale
persona as further evidence of this process, a process that I will show is critical to an understanding of each of my case studies, most acutely in the case of Amanda Knox, whose elevation to the status of celebrity murderess in the coverage of the killing of Meredith Kercher throws the relationship between the real and the fictive into high relief.
The femme fatale: Opening Pandora’s box
Janey Place writes that ‘[t]he dark lady, the spider woman, the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction is among the oldest themes of art, literature, mythology and religion in Western culture’ (1980, p. 35). The conspicuousness of the femme fatale
in Western culture has waxed and waned; she features heavily in the tragic drama of the early seventeenth century and was something of an obsession for a number of poets and novelists in the nineteenth century and in popular art in fin de siècle
France. She became ubiquitous in Hollywood film noir
of the 1940s and 1950s, the genre with which the term femme fatale
is most closely associated, as well as the neo noir
of the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, as mentioned in the introduction, the beautiful but deadly woman is as old as the earliest Judaeo-Christian scriptures and Greek myths, the latter a rich resource for writers down the centuries aiming to justify misogyny. Hesiod’s mythical creation Pandora is a perfect example. According to the myth, Pandora was created in the wake of Prometheus’s attempt to steal fire from the gods and give it to humankind. Pandora was Zeus’s punishment for Prometheus’s disobedience. The eighth-century poet Hesiod describes her as ‘ “a sheer, impossible deception” characterized by “lies, and wheedling words of falsehood, and a treacherous nature” ’ (cited in Henderson and McManus 1985, p. 5). In Theogony
, she is presented to ‘both immortal gods and mortal men’ and ‘they were seized with wonder when they saw that precipitous trap, more than mankind can manage’ (Hesiod 1988, p. 20). While the biblical account has Eve punished for her sin with the pain of childbirth, in Hesiod’s myth it is men who are punished: ‘For from her is descended the female sex, a great affliction to mortals as they dwell with their husbands – no fit partners for accursed Poverty, but only for Plenty’ (a torturous way of accusing women of profligacy). He continues:
‘As a bane for mortal men has high-thundering Zeus created women, conspirators in causing difficulty’ (pp. 20, 21). The account in Works and Days
specifies the roles of different gods in her genesis, Ambidexter (Hephaestus) creating ‘the likeness of a modest maiden’, the Graces ‘and the lady Temptation’ putting gold necklaces around her body, while Hermes fashioned in her ‘lies and wily pretences and a knavish nature’ (Hesiod 1988, p. 39). Pandora herself does not embody the evil visited on the mortal world, but her curiosity prompts her to take the lid off the jar that contains all the misery that humankind had formerly lived free from: ‘ills [. . .
] harsh toil [. . .
] and grievous sicknesses that are deadly to men’. Only Hope remained ‘under the lip of the jar’ and was prevented from flying out by the will of Zeus (pp. 39–40). As we shall see with Eve, the emphasis is on beauty, temptation and the misery woman brings to (hu)man(kind).
Circe, the sorceress who had a custom of turning those she lured into animals, falls into the same category of fatal seductress. She is most familiar from her association with Odysseus who, travelling home after the fall of Troy, lands on the island of Aeaea. Almost his entire crew is drugged and transformed into pigs before being rescued by their master, rendered immune to her spells by a herb given to him by Hermes the messenger god. However, although Circe is referred back to in some later descriptions of the femme fatale, the more striking and culturally resonant figure is Medusa. She is probably most familiar in contemporary popular culture via the logo of the fashion designer Gianni Versace (1956–97); Versace claims he adopted her image because of the associations with ‘classicism’ and a ‘sense of history’, but also because ‘Medusa means seduction . . . a dangerous attraction’ (cited in Garber and Vickers 2003, p. 284).
According to Ovid, Medusa was a woman of renowned beauty, ‘the jealous hope / Of many a suitor, and of all her charms / Her hair was loveliest’ (Metamorphosis,
Book 4, 883–5) (Ovid 1986, p. 98). After Medusa was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, Athena punished her by transforming her hair into serpents and giving her a face that would turn men to stone. It is not uncommon to find female victims of sexual violence being victimised further by reinforcing and exacerbating the feelings of guilt and shame that are, for complex historical, cultural and psychological reasons, very often significant elements of suffering in the aftermath of an attack. Shakespeare’s brutal revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus
finds the eponymous general citing ancient precedent as justification as he slaughters his raped and mutilated daughter Lavinia: ‘the girl should not survive her shame, / And by her presence still renew
[her father’s] sorrows’, he tells the assembled company (5.3.40–1). It is a singular cruelty the patriarchy has historically inflicted upon some of the most vulnerable victims of its ideology. However, what concerns me here is not Medusa’s punishment but the implications of this odd evocation of beauty transmuted into something lethal. It seems to incarnate a number of male anxieties about female allure, and connects with the bait of the forbidden which, as I will show, is central to the ideation of Eve, the most significant figure in Western myth in terms of understanding what it means to be a woman. In the sixteenth century, Natale Conti wrote that ‘[t]o demonstrate how constant we must remain in our confrontation with pleasures, the sages depicted Medusa as the most beautiful of women [. . .
] but all who saw her the ancients said were changed into stone by her’; Conti believed the moral to be ‘lust, boldness, and arrogance must be restrained because God is the most exacting avenger of these flaws’ (cited in Garber and Vickers 2003, p. 62). Medusa would become a muse for, among others, Petrarch (who used her as an index for the depth of his love for his adored Laura), Leonardo da Vinci, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Goethe, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and, in a very different way, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. For Freud, she symbolised the female genitals, and so embodied the male’s castration anxiety (and, in Freud’s typically tortuous logic, the snakes on her head are inevitably phallic); for Marx, she represented the hidden evils of capitalism. In 1975 Hélène Cixous reconfigured her as a subversive, feminist figure challenging patriarchy: ‘You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing’ (1975, p. 885). Cixous’s characterisation is by far the most intriguing, and I will return to her essay as a key conceptual strand in the conclusion when I take stock of what I have found.
Myths aside, perhaps the most vicious, sustained attack on womankind in the classical era comes courtesy of a Satire written by Juvenal (c. AD 55–127) which provides an exhaustive list of women’s supposed faults. The persona
adopted in Juvenal’s Sixth Satire is strictly speaking misogamist rather than misogynist: the speaker in the satire suggests to the addressee, Postumus, who has asked advice about taking a wife, that suicide is preferable to marriage. The targets of the satire are too numerous to enumerate here, but they include their supposed faithlessness and promiscuity (‘Tell me, will Hibernia / Think one man enough?’), profligacy, litigiousness, shrewishness and duplicity (Juvenal 1967, pp. 128–37). The description of the ‘pure female / Urge’ (lust) culminates in a vision of an orgy: if their lovers cannot satisfy them, the wives call on
their slaves; and if men are in short supply, ‘they’re ready and willing / To cock their dish for a donkey’ (p. 139).
Juvenal channels all of his misogyny in a very focused fashion into his portrait of Messalina, wife of the Roman emperor Claudius (10 BC–AD 54). In the Sixth Satire, Messalina is referred to as the ‘whore-empress’ who, once her husband was asleep, would disguise herself with a blonde wig and ‘make straight for her brothel’, where ‘A more than willing / Partner, she took on all comers, for cash, without a break’, always the last to leave, ‘still with a burning hard on, / Retiring exhausted, yet still far from satisfied’, and wandering back to the palace ‘carrying home [. . .] the stink of the whorehouse’ (Juvenal 1967, p. 131). Messalina was drawn so vividly by a number of historians, including Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Elder and Juvenal, that her name has been used as a synonym for nymphomania (‘Messalina complex’). Pliny refers to one particular story intended to illustrate her insatiable nature: ‘Messalina, the wife of Claudius Caesar, thinking it would be a royal triumph, chose to compete against a certain young servant girl who was a most notorious prostitute, and, over a twenty-four-hour period, beat her record by having sex with twenty-five men’ (Pliny the Elder 1991, p. 148). The veracity of the story is impossible to determine, of course, but, as Mary Beard points out, one of the paradoxes of a patriarchal culture is that it has a strong tendency to imagine women as ‘fantastically dangerous and in need of all the kind of male control that men can actually offer them’ – hence the plethora of images of women as oversexed (cited in McIntyre 2012). Inevitably, re-imaginings of Messalina in fiction, on stage and on screen have tended to centre on this most salacious reported detail of her life, including Robert Graves’s novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God (1934–5), subsequently adapted as a highly successful UK TV series I, Claudius (1976).
The image of the insatiable woman remains an alluring one in the fantasies of male heterosexuality, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the deep-seated fears it conjures at the same time (of infidelity, and of the male failure to satisfy women’s supposedly fathomless sexual appetites). However, the figure of Eve is obviously a foundational one in understanding the rise of the myth of the deviant woman in a culture founded on Judaeo-Christian tradition and teaching. Kathleen McLuskie remarks how ‘[m]isogynists from the Church fathers onwards insisted on woman’s direct descent from Eve which gave her the attributes of lust and duplicity’ (2000, p. 105). Eve’s weakness in allowing herself to be deceived and tempted by Satan, in the form of the phallic serpent, is seen as the trigger for original sin, which in turn led to the Fall and
the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. While both Adam and Eve ate of the fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge, the Genesis account unequivocally identifies Eve as the instigator: persuaded by the serpent that she will not die if she eats of the tree in the middle of the garden, only that her eyes ‘shall be opened’, she ‘took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat’ (Genesis 3:5–6). Adam is quick to redirect the blame when God asks why he has eaten the forbidden fruit: ‘The woman thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat’ (3:12). When Eve diverts the blame to the serpent, God punishes each of them: the serpent is destined to crawl on its belly, the woman is cursed with the pain of childbirth (while, in addition, ‘thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee’) and the man will have to work the land to bring forth the produce that Eden had up until then freely provided: ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’ (3:13–19).
For John A. Phillips (1984), the Old Testament Eve maps closely onto the myth of Pandora; the trickster god Hermes, the one who imbued her with her ‘knavish nature’, is the equivalent of the serpent; the eating of the fruit parallels the opening of the jar; and the outcome of each story is the same, with the earth turned from a paradise into ‘a problematic place where hard labour, birth and death are facts of life’ (Phillips 1984, p. 19). Phillips also notes how the Church Fathers picked up on the Pandora myth in order to complete the story of Eve and how they perpetuated the misogyny of late Greek civilisation. He quotes Theodore Reik’s observation that ‘the vessel in which all evils are contained represents the female genital [sic
]’ (cited in Philips 1984, p. 23), bringing us back to Freud again. Paul’s first letter to Timothy confirms the orthodox interpretation of Eve’s action in his justification for not allowing a woman to teach in church: ‘Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection [. . .
] For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression’ (1 Timothy 2:11–14). The Church Fathers believed the fact that Eve was the one to be tempted was clear evidence that the woman was, and was perceived to be, the weaker one; commentaries and stories around the Adam and Eve narrative sometimes included an encounter between the serpent and Adam where he rejects the invitation to eat of the forbidden fruit. There is also a clear connotation of sexual transgression in Eve’s sin. Not only is the serpent an over-obvious phallic symbol, but the fact that, after they ate of the tree of knowledge, ‘the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’ strongly implies a sense of sexual shame (Genesis 3:7). Michelangelo’s ‘Temptation and Expulsion’ (1511) (Figure 1.1
) is particularly rich in its sexual connotations. It looks for all the world as if Eve has been interrupted in the course of performing oral sex on Adam, as she turns to receive the fruit offered to her by the markedly feminine serpent. The fruit itself is a fig, which Phillips notes would have specific connotations for sixteenth-century Italians: the word fico
is close to both fica
(vulgar term for female genitals) and ficcare
(to fuck) (1984, pp. 68–9).
Figure 1.1 Michelangelo’s ‘Temptation and Expulsion’ (1511)
Early theologians including Tertullian, St John Chrysostom and St Augustine issued frequent warnings about, or tirades against, dangerous womankind: ‘attractive snares and sources of temptation who are inherently weaker than and inferior to men’ (Henderson and McManus 1985, p. 7). Tertullian described woman as ‘the devil’s gate [. . .] the first deserter of the divine law’, and St Anselm declares: ‘woman, “this milkwhite creature”, has a lovely form, [. . .] “but if her bowels were opened and all the other regions of her flesh, what foul tissues would this white skin be shown to contain” ’ (cited in Billington 1988, p. 198). St Jerome conjures Messalina’s spirit when he warns that female lust ‘is accused of ever being insatiable; put it out, it bursts into flame; give it plenty, it is again in need; it enervates a man’s mind, and engrosses all thought except for the passion which it feeds’ (cited in Henderson and McManus 1985, p. 8). Indeed, for Jerome, in an infamous phrase, woman is the root of all evil.
The figure of Lilith, mentioned briefly in the introduction, bears some scrutiny before I move on. According to the Talmud, Lilith was the first woman, formed not from pure earth (like Adam) but from ‘filth and
sediment’ (Graves and Patai 1983, p. 65). Because (unlike Eve) she had not been created from Adam’s rib, Lilith saw herself as Adam’s equal, and refused to lie beneath him when they had intercourse. When he tried to coerce her, she fled in a rage, alighting beside the Red Sea, where she consorted with ‘lascivious demons’, refusing to return when ordered to do so by God’s angels. ‘How can I return to Adam and live like an honest housewife, after my stay beside the Red Sea?’ she mocked (p. 66). In the Talmudic literature, and again in the Kabbalah2
(Jewish mystic texts from the Middle Ages), Lilith takes on two of the key features of the femme fatale
: a refusal to submit to patriarchy’s rules and a powerful sex drive that strikes fear – of impotence, of defeat or of mortal danger – into the heart of man. In a fusing of Christian, Jewish and classical tradition, in the nineteenth Canto of the Purgatorio
Dante portrays a Siren that, in a dream, tries to lead the poet as...