I recently came across a post about the term femme fatale. I wanted to explore why the term femme fatale was popular in 1940s film noir and what exactly is a femme fatale.
What is a Femme Fatale?
For anyone not familiar with the term, a femme fatale is a French term used in film noir that refers to a female character who is seductive and alluring. According to The Free Dictionary, a femme fatale also “leads men into danger or disaster.”
The most obvious thing to deduce about this type of woman in film noir is that she does not fit with the traditional role put on women as being loving wives and doting mothers. Often the femme fatale in films is not content with being married as she finds it dull and lacking passion. This type of character was a popular one in film noir in the 1940s and 1950s. Examples of film noir femme fatale are I Wake Up Screaming (1941) and Double Indemnity in 1944. Now the question is, why did this type of woman become commonplace in film noir during the 1940s?
Femme Fatale as a Product of 1940s Society
In the 1940s, Hollywood films were largely about women. Women composed the primary audiences for movies. It was the first time that the movie industry focused on women, on their goals, challenges, and interests. So, the main moviegoers were female, and the main movie stars were women too.
This shift in movies to be more about female characters than male ones reflected societal changes that were happening at the time. After all, World War II spanned half of the 1940s. Many women’s roles changed in the years between when WWII began and when it ended. Prior to the war, many women viewed themselves as being their husband’s supporter or plus one. However, by the time WWII ended several of these ladies had been working for some time to support their families as their husbands were off at war.
The jobs were ones that many women wanted to keep, even after the war ended. Why? Reasons likely included that employment brought with it an empowering feeling for them, a new sense of self, and it probably filled a want to contribute to society.
So, you might be thinking by now that the women’s films of the 1940s were empowering to women? No, not all. The femme fatale popular in 1940s film noir were represented on the movie screen as objects men sought out who refused to fit into traditional female roles such as getting married.
For example, in the 1947 film Dead Reckoning, Rip Murdoch, played by Humphrey Bogart, wishes that women “could be reduced to pocket size, to be put away when not desired and returned to normal size when needed” (as per John Blaser). Yes, those words were difficult for me to type out but show you that women were depicted in films at that time as being objects to men.
Femme Fatale in 1940s Film: A Way to Oppress Women?
As well, as I earlier noted, a classic femme fatale involves danger. They can cause danger to the male protagonist. The femme fatale of the 1940s, depicted as being sexually adventurous and unmarried, was viewed negatively by society at that time. As Susan Morrison explains about 1940s attitudes, “the ideological necessity of punishing the sexually independent woman seems oppressive and unnecessarily cruel.”
Why was it that a woman who didn’t want to be married, as was characteristic of a femme fatale, were being seen as dangerous and sexy? Couldn’t it simply be instead that women were becoming stronger in real life as they took on jobs and were exploring their independence? Perhaps they wanted to look into their career options first, rather than taking to marriage straightaway. Couldn’t a woman be strong in personality and not be risky to a man; in fact, couldn’t she be a positive force for men and society as a whole?
As I asked myself these questions, it was then I realized that women with confident personalities are still seen today by some people as being a negative phenomenon. And many women still face oppression today as there is not wage equity in the workplace, which actress Patricia Arquette recently spoke out about at the Oscars.
When I think about the women sitting there at theatres watching 1940s Hollywood films such as Dead Reckoning, I think about how they were starting to see themselves as being more shades than solely a wife or mother. They likely understood they could be successful in careers and deserved employment opportunities, whether it was wartime or not. But, did they also realize these movies were potentially tools to keep them oppressed in a predominantly male system?
I mean, we can be influenced by what we see in movies. Watching films, we start to learn different perspectives, and, often, if it is a quality film then we start to identify with the characters. The popular film noir projects of the 1940s with the femme fatale may, therefore, have contributed to the male-dominated society we still see today in the Western world. It reinforced women as objects and clashed with women’s ideas of having separate identities from their traditional family roles.
These are a few of my musings on the femme fatale of film noir. I welcome feedback, as always.
©2015 Christy Birmingham