I recently came across a post about the term femme fatale. Firstly, I wanted to explore the definition of a femme fatale and also why the 1940s film noir femme fatale became popular.
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, one of the leading 1940s film noir femme fatale characteristics was her discontent with being married. Why not? Typically the female found 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 toward more female characters than male ones reflected societal changes 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.
Many women wanted to keep their jobs, 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.
Female Roles in 1940s Film Noir
So, you might be thinking by now that the women’s films of the 1940s were empowering to women? No, not all. The 1940s film noir femme fetale were depicted as objects sought out by men. Other femme fatale characteristics were that they 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 shrunk down to pocket size, put away into his pocket and brought out in normal size when wanted. Those words haunt me. But they also illustrate how those 1940s films depicted women as objects to men.
1940s Film Noir Femme Fatale: 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 1940s film noir femme fatale was sexually adventurous and unmarried. At that point in history, she was viewed negatively by society. As Susan Morrison explains about 1940s attitudes, “the ideological necessity of punishing the sexually independent woman seems oppressive and unnecessarily cruel.”
Why was a woman who didn’t want to be married, one of the femme fatale characteristics, seen as dangerous and sexy? Couldn’t it instead be that women were becoming stronger in real life as they took jobs and explored 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?
On Women, Society, and Movies: Then and Now
As I asked myself these questions, it was then I realized something big. Women with confident personalities are still seen 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 theaters 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 1940s film noir projects with femme fatale may, therefore, have contributed to the male-dominated Western society we still see today. 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 1940s film noir femme fatale. What are your thoughts?