Why was the Film Noir Femme Fatale Popular in the 1940s?

On a Femme Fatale

Femme Fatale in Film Noir 1940s. Photo via Christy Birmingham.

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.

Lizabeth Scott played a femme fatale in Dead Reckoning

One 1940s movie with a femme fatale was Dead Reckoning, which starred Lizabeth Scott (shown here) and Humphrey Bogart. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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

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100 thoughts on “Why was the Film Noir Femme Fatale Popular in the 1940s?

  1. I really appreciate this “looking back” post. I have a very difficult time watching these films because of the way they protray women and the interaction between men and women. I often think of Abigail Adams warning: “Remember, all men would be tryants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determiend to forment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.” Strong words for her time, but certainly ones that have had lasting impact.

    • R, thank you. It is difficult to see but does give us an idea of how far (in some respects) women have come, both in real life and in film. We need to remember to speak up for ourselves, otherwise we allow negative societal conditions to continue… That is a quote that I read three times just now. Wow.

  2. Christy what a lovely informative post as you take us back to those years when women were striking out to please themselves more and yet obviously were being labelled at the same time. And I agree with your thoughts..

    “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?”

    We think we have come a long way in equality, and gaining our independence, In some Nations yes.. But women still have lots of old indoctrinated thinking to overcome Especially in some parts of the world…. Your post was a unique way of looking back at how prejudice and labels were so easily given..

    Great piece of writing Christy x
    Hugs Sue x

  3. Hi Christy, I really enjoyed this intriguing text, as always you bring something to the table that is thought provoking. I am a fan of film noir and like to write it myself. I imagine the femme fatale as a rather threatening phenomenon to women who considered this role a threat to the family unit. I feel the world has always been “men” dominated and think this is actually a trend contrived and invented by men as a money making invention/subject for the big screen. We still see the femme fatale regularly in movies such as “Basic Instinct”, “Fatal Attraction” and so on. Of course I could be all wet! 🙂 Thank you Christy ❤

    • There’s a media effect for sure. It’s funny, when people say there are more females with the lead roles in TV shows, or whatever the new “female trend” is, I think, well nobody’s pointing out the men in lead roles – by pointing out the women it’s undermining them and saying they’re still not equals, isn’t it?, I ask myself. Thank you Holly for sharing more about your writing and your thoughts on the subject. I appreciate it! ❤

  4. A well-written analysis of the ‘femme fatale’ phenomenon, Christyb –the insecurity of older women (usually homemakers ) was challenged by the ‘femme fatale’ character who was not only a threat to ‘family life’ and stereotyped as a “less than ideal” role model in society –but vigorously objected to as a blatantly in-your-face potential husband-stealer without morals who not only demanded their just dues, but took them. “:) Of course, in our male-dominated society, weak-minded, hen-pecked husbands secretly admired them, but were also intimidated by strong female characters too. “

    • It really was interesting to do the research for this one, Ray. I appreciate your comment and reflections on it. Oh yes morals play into the movie roles and can make audiences compare the characters on the screen to their own lives… and the effects can be… well… hmmmm!

  5. the male characters in noir films are often portrayed as hapless. they walk right into the spider’s web, as Fred MacMurray does in Double Indemnity. they might give up a devoted girlfriend to pursue a woman whom they know will prove to be a disaster, like Robert Mitchum does (twice) in Out of the Past. As Kathleen Turner says to William Hurt in Body Heat, “You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”

  6. It’s a wonder those movies weren’t squashed, but at the same time, it was entertaining to see a confident female getting what she wanted for a change.

    A great post. I haven’t thought about Noir Femme Fatale in a long time.Mostly likely, I’d already forgotten about these movies.

  7. This made me think of a recent article about Hillary Clinton that suggested her ambition was a serious flaw that might bring her down. Why is ambition a problem in women but admirable in men? Why is a man strong but a woman shrill? Why does a man not suffer fools gladly but a woman is an out and out bitch? It goes right back to Adam and Eve, of course- she’s the reason we’re in the mess we’re in!

    • Ah, don’t even get me started on the Hillary stuff! I see many ways that women are condemned for certain attributes while men receive pats on the back. You went way back with the Adam and Eve mention, if only we could get their take on the world today – oh my! Thank you for taking time here.

  8. Another great post, Christy. For femme fatales, it’s just that the venue has changed (and it’s less glamorous). Now she is the woman everyone is sure advanced by sleeping her way up. She’s the “bitch” or the “bossy” woman. She’s the single woman who loved her career more than a family. What i’m saying is that outdated attitude is still STILL out there and going strong… unfortunately.
    Great-big hug. 🙂

    • Teagan, it’s such an unfortunate truth what you write here. I wish that women who stand up for themselves weren’t sometimes seen as being “b”s as that irks me to no end. I would much rather the woman be admired for her confidence. You’re awesome, by the way! Hugs 🙂

  9. Thank you for this interesting and informative post, Christy. I am a fan of the film noir movies. It could have been a sign of the times, a hollywood characterization trend, or an underhanded demeaning of women. So many points of view, that it why I enjoy your post greatly. Thanks again, C.

  10. Very thought-provoking! Art, in this case cinema, reflects changes in society but at the same time distorts them according to a certain group’s perspective (male film makers). Interestingly, the femme fatale has appeared much more often than the male equivalents in literature and art, too. Thanks for contextualizing this phenomenon.

  11. This is a brilliant piece, Christy. it took me back to my university days of studying Cultural Studies and there were a few weeks where we studied film noir and the femme fatale….but never really WHY where they popular or drew so much attention. The lecturers really just explained the ideologies within the films.

    I think back in the day many directors were men, and hence the sexualisation and fetishisation of the femme fetale. I wonder if the femme fetale character was created under male-dominated or female-dominated circumstances.

    Agree with you in that femme fatale characters reinforces women to be looked at objects. I’m not a huge fan of the word “fatale” to be honest – it sounds awfully close to “fatal” and isn’t far from turning in to this word at all. Sounds like I’m bashing on this kind of character. I’m not, just think that women are more than that 🙂

    • Yes, Mabel, I think word ‘fatale’ is a telling choice as it hints to the dangerousness of the woman in the film noir. Thank you for picking up on that point and adding your own reaction to it. I find it interesting that in university the real world circumstances were not addressed as to why the term was popularized; perhaps the university didn’t want to get into issues or simply didn’t have the time to fit it within the curriculum. Your compliments on the post humble me, my friend.

      • By looking at themes within film noir and how they came about, I think this perpetuates the cycle that objectifies women. Hopefully one day that will change. However, maybe this is usually covered at post-graduate or PhD level.

        When it came to the weeks where we studied femme fetale in film noir, it was mainly the girls in my class who were outspoken, not the guys. That says something, but I’m not sure what.

        Very humbled to be your friend, Christy 🙂

        • Mabel, I appreciate our conversations. You like to question the way the world works and look under the surface for the ‘why’ of things, and that’s what I do a lot too. Thank you for being here 🙂

  12. And the femme fatale is usually punished in some way in the end, for not fitting into the box of the way a woman ‘should’ be. On the other hand, some of those roles were played with such character by the actresses involved that they’ve become iconic, so maybe there are elements we can reclaim.

  13. Awesome post! Your post makes great points and though I’ve thought about the portrayal of women in more modern films, I hadn’t given much thought to Film Noir Femme Fatales. The movie industry still continues to be dominated by males, so it’s no wonder the ways women get presented as being dangerous, but especially back in the 40’s. Lately, the “she can have it all” character has been more popular as has the “strong woman.” I’m still looking for an archetype I can more fully identify with 😉

  14. Interesting analysis here of the Femme Fatale. I used to watch all those movies! 🙂 Although they may have been looked upon as dangerous women, I still believe it’s because they were empowering women, regardless of how they were looked upon. 🙂

  15. Interesting analysis, Christy. It makes me think of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew: Beatrice’s independence is admired for a time but, in the end, she has to be put back in her place.

  16. We still have these ‘roles’ within different context. We call them by different names today, paint them in different colors, nonetheless they still exist. The archetypes have not changed all that much:

    Damsel (Virgin), Mother (Healer/Crone), Femme Fatale (Prostitute/Bitch), Warrior (Avenger/Goddess)

    We, as women, are all to often forced into these roles and without knowing it pick up the mantle and wrap ourselves into them. We don’t question, we don’t shrug our shoulders trying to escape the bad fit.

    This was a good analysis my friend.

  17. Informative – thanks. I can see several women in my family in the independent role. But maybe not so much due to film noir, but out of necessity especially after WWII.

    Thanks for stopping by. Cheers, Jules

      • They just did what they had to do. One gal went into reservations for a major Airline in her 40’s or later, after having part time jobs most of her life, because her hubby a WWII vet couldn’t get good employment because most of his records were lost. So they didn’t get any benefits at all from his service. One grandmother traveled here by herself… family may have come later, but ended up being a seamstress to help provide for her family.

  18. Hi Christy…

    Great article and I must say it opened up a new insight into the roles movies have played, not only as entertainment but also the adverse way it has made society see itself.
    I do agree with you on many of the points, I have worked in many work places where the female roles have been considered lesser. I have worked with many ladies over the years in the roles I have had. Some would say they are a lesser role but I would say then you have never really viewed the female in a role of equality.
    It is articles like you are researching and writing which are making a difference… proud of the voice you have Christy as it is far reaching… keep up the great work.

    Hugs from Alberta

    • There are certainly many ways to look at the history of women and through the film roles is one way I wanted to look into it in this post, Rolly. Thank you for appreciating my research and writing here!

  19. The noir novel written by women was for a long time largely neglected. It is only recently that noir authors of the 40s such as Vera Caspary, Dorothy Uhnak, Dorothy B. Hughes, Evelyn Piper and others are finding their novels reprinted by feminist presses.

    What differentiates these femmes fatales from those written by men is the femme fatale’s independence, her intelligence, her strength, her high sense of self-esteem and her belief that she can have whatever she sets her heart on.

    Evelyn Piper’s Bunny Lake is Missing conjures up Tennessee William’s femme fatale, Blanche Dubois. Here, Piper brutally deals with the psychological violence that is a common theme throughout her noir thrillers.

    It is too bad that literature and films continue to be dominated by men, as your post, Christy, excellently shows. The comparison of the femme fatale portrayed by men and women writers is startling. There needs to be more of a balance.

    • Thank you Carol for pointing out about noir novels. Great to learn more about that through your comment. You’re right that there are indeed startling points. I hope that raising awareness is helpful to finding workable solutions. I appreciate your thoughtful comment here very much.

  20. I enjoy the new “freedoms” during the 40’s like Rosy the Riveter,who symbolized women assisting the war hero in WWII.
    The way attractive women are shown in film noir, I don’t mind the “femme fatale” label. To me, maybe silly, it means “heroine” to me!

  21. Oh my gosh, I am so glad to find your post! I am currently taking a fil m class I did not realize would be film noir and I find it disgusting to watch. And I kept searching for feminists views of this because the crazy thing is many people would think (buying into teh fraudulent and hypocritical mysogeny of it) that it is about empowered “liberated” women. I could not disagree more and it honestly sickens me to watch it. The lines are written by men based on corny (and we have come to see in ,many societies, dangerous) male fantasies. (not all male, but double Indemnity was created by and for Wilder’s fantasy version). The thing is my professor, a male, is SOOOO convinced that Wilder is the BEST movie doirector ever!) so it’s even more frustrating and he is going to hat emy dicussion post lol when he sees it tomorrow. That’s ok.
    Film noir is NOT fun for everyone. It is a lose -lose because it explouts and demeans women, and thus humans. Not ONE of the women I have seen in these would have gotten the part without her half nakedness, mascara batting eye lashes and snake seductive smiles and oh of course, greed for a man’s money and dependence on him, with the males seen as powerless to not be weak. I titled the post “Some like it Weaker”…because that is what film noir does to women: it served to weaken our image like a circus show. (Money hungry murderes?)
    I saw one “famous scene” in a film noir classicclip in which a secretary bared her calf to the Dr who invented the panty hose. There was no talent at all. It was her legs that made the scene famous I guess!

    Where, I ask,(sarcastically) are all the half naked male eye candy actors in these films that have to work THAT hard pushing “sex appeal” a lot of make up, revealing sultry clothes, etc, and so much”seduction?”

    And with banter that is downright cheesy and male fantasy- centric. Not one of the women spoke for/from a female perspective, but looked like dolls dressed up to role play. I am very offended this class is being taught as such great film! And I expressed as much. Thanks so much for writing this! What a relief! I can’t believe there isn’t more!

      • Truly. Hollywood and all of its Jewish representatives decided (correctly, I think) that women should have rights and should have a choice of whether they want to be stay-at-home mothers or career women. I personally like the idea of being a career woman, but I place no judgment on those who choose to be stay-at-home mothers. Both roles are equally as important. It sucks that stay-at-home mothers get a bad rap now. Before say like… 1970, the opposite was true. Women were actually encouraged to be stay-at-home mothers.

        • Yes, it’s interesting that many stay-at-home moms are now branded as not having a “real” job … When it’s such hard work! I totally understand what you mean. Appreciate your comments 🙂

        • Thank you. And it’s because America is taking the feminist movement too serious and twisting it into something it shouldn’t be. It’s like opposite day. They are cursing females for being females and want us to become like men in the workplace. The whole point of what feminism should be in my eyes is to respect the fact that females have rights and for them to be treated equally in both blue and white collar jobs.

  22. I always wondered about what that idea really meant. I am a very strong confident person, though depression gets to me at times. I know a lot of men and even (envious) woman are intimidated by a woman with strength. It is so ridiculous how people still act . I find out about the gossip-mainly from woman and years ago more often because of the people I knew at that period of time. Love this article.

    • Thank you for sharing your views here! Yes, women are intimidated sometimes by strong women and that I don’t always understand as we should support one another… We share so many things and can help each other rather than cause hurt… Of course I hope these women learn this over time..~! HUGS

  23. Interesting post . Just one thought . Feminism has tried to dismiss the femme fatale as a misogynist libel, a hoary cliche – But the femme fatale expresses woman’s ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm . The specter of the femme fatale stalks all of men’s relationship with women . Thanks for sharing this post !

  24. A really interesting post. Glad I came across it. I am a fan of classic movies, and old enough to remember when the glass ceiling was a commonplace reality. Many younger women seem to have fallen back on the use of “feminine wiles” in the workplace, something the women of my generation vehemently opposed. These are generalizations, of course. Thanks again for the post!

  25. hi christy,
    i am researching a similar subject for a university project. i wondered if you found any articles whilst writing this that you think were relitive and worth a look at?

    thanks,
    tegan-bliss

    • I believe there is a Film Noir Foundation online that you can peruse for further info, and I would also suggest looking through Roger Ebert’s site to get some examples and learn more about the genre. Hope that helps you!

  26. hello Christy, what do you think of the Femme Fatale in 2005’s Sin City? 🙂 i am doing a paper on it and need peoples views on it

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