The femme fetale in modern film: An illusion of empowerment?

The femme fetale archetype featured prominently in the 40’s and 50’s classical genre of film noir. The fatal woman was the ‘love interest’ of the protagonist whose beauty and sexuality bestowed power over the male characters, often to a dangerous end. In Gilda (1946) the eponymous heroine (Rita Hayworth) uses her glamorous looks and sexuality for revenge; she publicly dances and flirts with other men to make Johnny (Glenn Ford) jealous. On the surface, Gilda’s sexuality bestows her with immense power which is able to affect the actions of the male characters. However, Gilda demonstrates that she can only use her appearance rather than intellect or physical power; she is dominated by male characters who physically punish her. The femme fetale’s power is signified as dangerous in film noir, it must be broken by the finale of the film through either repentance or death. At the end of Gilda, her display of sexuality is described by another character as “just an act” as Gilda’s return to her ‘innocent’ form is symbolised through her change of clothing and rejection of sexuality. In The Lady From Shanghai (1947), femme fatale Elsa (again Rita Hayworth) is shot dead during the ending sequence, as a punishment for her killing Grisby (Glenn Anders). The classical sexually ‘empowered’ woman therefore was seen as sinful, their sexual power taken away from them by the end of the film.

Laura Mulvey describes that in classical film, female characters are “the one, or rather the love or feat she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.” Despite the film being entitled Gilda, her importance lies in how she causes the men to act; Ballin fakes his own death because of her cheating while Johnny marries her for revenge. Mulvey demonstrates that the narrative structure of classical film is always controlled by a male protagonist who acts to forward the story, females as a result are given passive roles. Johnny is clearly presented as the protagonist from the first scene of the film which sets up his narrative goal, voice-over narration is also presented from his point-of-view. In contrast, very little information is communicated about Gilda, she is introduced merely as Ballin’s wife and described as his “property”. Gilda exerts her power through sexual displays; performing a strip tease and character traits such as flicking her hair. However these also function to present Gilda as an object of Mulvey’s “male gaze”. Her body is objectified through clothing, fragmentation and close-ups which are presented from the male characters point-of-view.

In modern film another interpretation of the femme fetale, the ‘sex goddess’, also appears. In Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life, (Bont, 2003) the female heroine is a similarly sexual, dangerous woman who uses her appearance for her own needs. She teases Terry (Gerard Butler) by kissing him to lure him into a feeling of security, allowing her to chain him up and interrogate him for information. However, in contrast to the classical femme fetale, Lara also uses her intellect to acquire information to find the hidden treasure; her dialogue details her extensive knowledge of Pharaohs and treasure maps which she uses to seek the treasure. Gilda wears typically ‘feminine’ clothing and lacks physical power but in contrast, Lara displays physical power, fighting using typically ‘masculine’ machine guns. Lara’s heavy use of guns indicates phallic undertones, escaping submission by metaphorically becoming the typical male hero. Lara rejects traditional female clothing such as lightly coloured dresses and skirts, opting for dark shorts or trousers that reveal her body, rejecting femininity while simultaneously symbolising her sexuality. The indication from both Cradle of Life and Gilda is that women who look and act feminine are submissive and lack power. In order to gain control, they must reject feminine norms and metaphorically become male through costume and characterisation.

Richard Gray describes that “in the first decade of the new millennium, representations of technology, pleasure and sexuality have intersected in films with female superheroes” (2011: 80). Here he describes that in modern films, female characters are sexualised but they can also be heroes. Although Gilda and Lara both use their sexuality for their own goals, in the modern film Cradle of Life Lara uses both ‘beauty and brains’ which reflects the cultural change of women’s independence between the 1940s ‘femme fetale’ and the 2000s ‘sex goddess’ superheroes. Similar representations of physically strong, sexualised ‘superhero’ women can be found in many modern films such as Charlie’s Angels (Nichol, 2000), Resident Evil (Anderson, 2002) Catwoman (Pitof, 2004), Aeon Flux (Kusama, 2005) and Elektra (Bowman, 2005.) Not only do the women of these films exert their sexual power like the classical femme fetale, but they are also smart and physically strong – rejecting typically ‘feminine’ traits which restrain the femme fetale. Additionally, Mulvey’s theory of a male character controlled narrative is disputed; the clear protagonists of these films are all women, however Richard Gray argues that this is for male audiences who like to watch sexualised ‘unattainable’ women rather than for female audiences who want to watch independent women. Like in classical film, Mulvey’s “male gaze” remains constant throughout modern film. Changes in censorship means that modern female characters are more overtly sexually objectified. As an addition to cinematographic techniques such as fragmentation that are used in both Gilda and Cradle of Life, Lara’s nude body is exposed in a sex scene and shower scene which are used as spectacle rather than for narrative importance.

The protagonists of modern ‘superheroine’ films all possess strikingly similar physical characteristics, wearing dark, tight and revealing costumes to strongly signify their ‘dangerous’ sexuality. Women’s success and power in film is still dependant on their appearance. While modern heroines are arguably more ‘empowered’ their success cannot be based purely on their merits and intellect. They have to possess sex appeal to gain physical power. The message here is that a woman’s worth still lies in her beauty and for both the classical femme fetale and modern sex goddess, only beautiful women can hold any power.

Originally posted on my blog: SecondAura.blogspot.com
Adapted from a university dissertation written by Laura Connett, copyright 2011.

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