I want to talk about homme fatals – one single homme fatal in particular. And to do that, I need to talk about femme fatales as a trope. And to do that, I need to mention that there are maybe a dozen semi-legitimate ways to use that term, looking something like this:
And what I want to talk about is in the very fundamental Femme Fatale center, like so:
Because actually, I’m really interested in how femme fatales function in a narrative at their most intrinsic; and I want to talk about how that’s tied up with the unspoken rules that govern their existence.
For example: you can take a male Uncomfortably Stereotyped Fortuneteller trope, and you can swap only his gender and nothing else – and now she’s still recognizable as an Uncomfortably Stereotyped Fortuneteller, right? (I mean, at least, coin-operated booths seem to agree:)
And you take a movie like, say, Gravity and you swap the gender, and the protagonist is still recognizable as one of those Audience-Surrogate Survivors in a classic man vs. nature plot, yes?
Those are non-gendered tropes. They’re recognizable characters of a certain type, regardless of their gender. The thing the makes the trope fundamentally it doesn’t rely on gender – it doesn’t mutate or disappear if you swap the gender.
If you take the Tomboy trope and swap the gender – it just melts away. A boy Tomboy is… just a boy. Not really a trope at all.
And if you take the traits that make up a Femme Fatale trope and swap them to a man, you get – James Bond.
Unnervingly competent, dangerous as an enemy, a master in espionage situations, and most importantly physically beautiful and in his prime, seductive and irresistible to the opposite gender…
I think this is so because the foundation of the femme fatale trope is not the femme fatale’s competency, and not even her sexual charisma (though that is a very close second in importance), but her perceived weakness.
Femme fatales only work if you underestimate them. They only work if the rest of the characters, inevitably male, expect them to be somehow weaker (in mind, body, or spirit) than they are. The men, and everyone else around them, have a certain idea of what women are like, and how women behave, and the femme fatale’s existence is (just like the feminine or gay man) an aberration against the natural order.
Of course it helps that, in these stories, men tend to be the ones running the world. The bosses, the heroes, the movers and shakers of the plot, are invariably men. And those men are so very often heterosexual, heteronormative men. Men who “look and act like men”, men with “normal” sexual appetites.
The femme fatale can rely on that. (This is crucially important.)
Because, just as the men in these stories can (usually) rely on feminine women to be docile and pretty and ultimately harmless in the larger scheme of things, the femme fatale can [a] rely on being underestimated due to gendered stereotyping, and [b] rely on the men who run the world to be of a certain type, and thus easy to manipulate in a certain way (aka: she got ’em by their balls, okay).
Femme fatales, as a trope played straight, can’t exist in a non-sexist world. Swapping the gender neutralizes the trope, yes. But putting a femme fatale into a non-sexist world (or even, sometimes, into a world that isn’t watertight in its sexism – like ours) neutralizes the trope just as well.
Is Angela Merkel a femme fatale because she was dangerously easy to underestimate during her early years, and because she could reliably use the ego and machismo of her rival male politicians against them in her own rise to power?
Well, you could call her one if you want, and by doing so reference that trope when describing her modus operandi – it is, after all, a term with a slippery and multi-faceted use in daily language – but she is not a femme fatale in the traditional fictive sense. She is not seducing the man who is running Germany. She is running Germany.
There are no female mob bosses – not in these types of narratives, at least (because they certainly exist in real life! But try telling that to Hollywood, or to HBO, or to the classic noir genre as a whole).
If a woman wants power, she’d better find a powerful man and go from there.
There are the men who run the world, and there are the women that they sleep with. And then there is the femme fatale, flitting between the two, like one of those insect mimics disguised as something harmless, just waiting for her hapless prey to get close enough to sting.
She is stunningly feminine, because you have to be stunningly feminine to carry off the trope. But though feminine = weak in these types of stories, she is not weak, and that is her danger.
She can operate, I think, usually in three modes, and this depends on the story she’s in. She can, for example, use her femininity as a disguise of helplessness, or purity, or innocence. Consequently a minimum of suspicion attaches to what are otherwise blatantly suspicious actions. (“I won’t strip-search you, ma’am, no worries! But if you do see our notorious diamond thief whose timing always seems to coincide with your visits, do let us know…”)
So long as feminine women are expected to be sweet lamb-like creatures with feeble bodies and minds, the femme fatale can use her own skin – that of a feminine woman – to be invisible in her competency. She can rely on the misconceptions about her (contrary to all the evidence), which are shared by all the men who run her world, to get away with (sometimes literally) murder. (And I would also call this the most classic mode of the three, because it relies on the lack of awareness of her femme fatale nature – and, generally, a seeming lack of awareness of the trope’s existence. This is what gives this type of femme fatale her main invisibility, and consequently her main power.)
A femme fatale can, also, operate in a world where she is instantly recognizable as a danger – a sexy, saxophone-accompanied danger – so we must no longer be in the classic, pure mode, but in a slightly genre-savvy mode, usually the noir-ish mode, where the men know about these types of women; they know that they exist; and thus they can know, or suspect, when they’re confronting one.
But she can still hoodwink the men because they know, or think they know, that if they manage to seduce her (while being seduced by her, of course) – then, why, they will have made her as toothless as the rest of the women in their lives. If they can get her to fall in love with them, she will throw aside all her morals and beliefs and ideals and loyalties, and she will join them in a heartbeat – out of emotion, out of love. (“Woman are emotional creatures, dear boy.”)
And the femme fatale played straight, in this type of story, can either follow this pattern, and confirm everything that the men of her world believe about her so-called toothless race.
Or, as happens half the time, she can use that expectation as yet another type of disguise. It becomes yet another form of underestimation on the side of her opponent – since he does not expect her to be quite so strong in her convictions (in her mind, in her spirit) as he is. He certainly doesn’t expect her to be more competent than him. He doesn’t think her capable of outsmarting him; or of being the more cold-blooded, rational creature.
What a blow to his ego, I suppose.
And the third mode of the femme fatale, I think, is where knowing her femme fatale-ness does nothing to neutralize her danger because she is just that powerful and the man is just that helpless and he is literally/metaphorically castrated before her presence… and meanwhile, other men continue to be deceived by her femininity, deceived into thinking that she is actually a pure and innocent woman.
This third mode has two distinct hallmarks that I’ve noticed. They are not essential but they seem to crop up more often than not. The first hallmark is an enormous male resentment towards the woman who can so blatantly control him (I think the resentment is present in the other modes too, but I’ve noticed that it tends to be a lot more undisguised and blistering in this one – for example, take Ubik by Philip K. Dick as a classic example that makes you grateful for film as a medium where we’re not as easily privy to the male characters’ inner monologues). And the second hallmark of the third mode is the knowledge that, if you were to make everyone else in the fictive world aware of her true nature – whether by physically destroying her good looks (and thus signaling her inherent corruption, in this type of story), or settling merely for globally destroying her reputation as a feminine woman – then you would rob this femme fatale of much of her power.
(Think of the ending in Cruel Intentions, after all. The ultimate blow to Kathryn is her unmasking as a manipulative amoral bastard in front of her schoolmates, teachers, and social acquaintances. Destroy her generic reputation as a pure and virtuous woman, and you have defanged the viper.)
Of course, in practice, femme fatales tend to slide back and forth between these three modes all the time – even when the story isn’t playing with the trope or subverting it (like in North by Northwest) or just referencing it briefly to give one of its character a patina of noir-ish mystique (like in Blade Runner).
In practice, a book/movie like Rebecca, for example, has its titular character oscillating between the first and third mode – depending on where in the story you are, and which character’s viewpoint you’re considering. She’s a classic first-mode femme fatale for most of the story, from our point of view and from the protagonist’s too – but she’s been a third-mode femme fatale for Max, for most of his life, and she becomes one for us too by the end.
And Ava in Ex Machina ought to be a femme fatale in the second mode, because Caleb certainly had warning enough; but Ava is just so good at it that she manages to make Caleb forget about the potential danger, and also forget about the possibility that she might have emotions and motives separate from his own.
He forgot about her agency.
I think you could say that she slides between second and first mode as a result.
If you have the misfortune to be ambitious while in the body of a woman, in a story where only the men have agency: then your only way to power, to agency, is through men. And the men’s response seems to be: goddamn those sexy dangerous women and their Magic Ability to Control Us Through Our Dicks.
Because we, of course, are always men. “We” are always straight, horny men who always want women, particularly women who look and act in a very certain way (I, for one, would enjoy seeing a subversion of the femme fatale trope where all the men involved in the story are regulars at the Butterfly Lounge).
And women, well, they can be ugly and competent, or they can be beautiful and vapid – and it is tempting to reference A Spell For Chameleon here; such a pleasant little example of this type of good-natured misogyny in practice – so, it’s supposed to be not dangerous if we bed a vapid woman. It’s either/or. If we make ourselves vulnerable to this beautiful sexdoll, we know she won’t take advantage. She simply don’t know how.
But a woman who is beautiful and cunning is the goddamn anti-Christ because she can trick us into dropping our defenses with her femininity, which turns out to be only skin-deep (as if “femininity” is a defining trait or virtue, as if it can be anything more than skin-deep).
And thus this deceptively feminine bastard – this helpless shell hiding a competent core – can get past our defenses, reach into our plans, and wreak her particular brand of havoc. She can, worst of all, make a fool of us in the process. She can laugh at us.
There is a deleted scene in Charlie’s Angels where Dylan and Natalie, disguised as businessmen, follow Roger Corwin into the men’s bathroom and laugh at the size of his dick.
(This shit just writes itself, I swear.)
A man who is sexual is in control.
A woman who is sexual is not in control. Or at least, she is not supposed to be…
So when she secretly is in control, even more than the man, it is terrifying.
Or so the trope goes.
So that’s the formula for a femme fatale, reduced to three points:
She is powerful in her supposed powerlessness – you will underestimate her.
She is powerful through the reliability of her sexuality – you will be attracted to her.
And she is powerful because everyone important in her fictional world is heterosexual and male and horny – men like you will reliably be the majority, and she can manipulate the majority’s predictable adherence to the codes of masculinity as a reliable weapon against you all.
And so, because according to these stories “the masculine = powerful”, and “the feminine = weak”; and because “masculine = running the world”, and “feminine = invisible in the sidelines”; and because the same exact traits that we admire as healthy in James Bond become duplicitous and sneaky and aberrant in a woman: there is no such thing as a homme fatal.
Homme fatals, played straight, cannot exist. They can exist if you, for example, have a narrative largely consisting of gay men – you can have a feminine gay homme fatal – but only if you carry over that same derision for femininity that exists in straight culture. (Unfortunately, many gay communities have already done that work for you, so actually, writing a gay homme fatal would be depressingly easy. But that just drives home the point: homme fatals, played straight (har har!), cannot exist.)
Unlike women, heterosexual and heternormative men are not initially perceived as weak. At least, not in the dominant culture of our day and age.
Thus they cannot combine that perceived weakness that a femme fatale can use – that universal underestimation – with an immense competency to wreak the femme fatale’s particular kind of gendered havoc.
And men do not need to. The Movers & Shakers of their narrative world are men anyway – why gain power by seducing someone with power – when you can just be someone with power?
Why seduce the German chancellor when you can be the German chancellor?
And yet… you know, there is that one example of a homme fatal that I keep harping on.
Frankly I believe he’s really the thing that supports my point most of all — so yes, time for me to get on my high horse about Charlie’s Angels.
* * *
The movie version of Charlie’s Angels (first movie only – I often like to pretend that the second one doesn’t exist) is such an un-selfaware, by-the-numbers example of femme fatales in action that I kind of love it, just for that sake.
See, the only reason that the Angels are such a killer team within their artificial bubblegum world is that they can reliably use that perceived weakness of femininity, as understood by everyone else in their world, to operate invisibly in the sidelines.
They can dress up as barmaids, and singing telegram girls, and massage ladies, because it is always the men in the center, and the women in the sidelines, and – similarly to how in Gosford Park the parody!detective never suspects the servants – in this world no one suspects the waitresses or the escorts.
In the process, the Angels infiltrate everything and just Get Shit Done. It’s so easy for them too. The Angels can almost always rely on their sexuality as a potential weapon because their world is mostly run by heterosexual men, who are actually mostly caricatures of men – caricatures who lose all coherent thought the moment their dicks begin to plump up.
That is why the Creepy Thin Man, for one, is such a dangerous enemy. He is on one hand almost asexual. And, on the other hand, he is extremely sexual, in a way that is outside of the Angels’ jurisdiction and in no way controlled by them. He is sexual at them, violently, in contexts that they do not want, and can’t use.
And we understand that he is of a different caliber than the bumbling baddie Roger Corwin, or any of Corwin’s many, many bumbling employees – because the Creepy Thin Man’s mind cannot be short-circuited through his dick.
So it is maybe a little funny that Charlie’s Angels is actually one of the most benevolent examples I can think of with the femme fatale trope played straight – maybe because the femme fatales, instead of being relegated to the usual supportive (and mostly villainous) role, are now the main characters. They are operating their very own Cool Awesome Secret Agency. It becomes a little hard to express that underlying male rage at their confidence and sexuality when they’re our film’s protagonists. And yet… and yet, because this movie is almost a thought experiment of “what would an uncurious male director imagine to be going on in the head of his femme fatale protagonists?” you still have those weird, weird moments. Like that one deleted scene where the ladies go out of their way to follow Corwin into the men’s bathroom, to make fun of the size of his dick.
Or, the fact that the film barely passes the Bechdel test, and not in a conversation that any of the Angels have among themselves.
Or, the issue that immediately comes up for a Hollywood audience, which is: what sort of men would these femme fatale Girl Power! protagonists want to date?
The answer – obviously, as far as the movie is concerned – is the reverse of the usual dynamic in femme fatale movies. The powerful women, here, want to date really sweet, really handsome, really dumb arm candy.
All three of the Angels’ guys are so utterly obliging, so utterly sweet, that their appeal to the Angels is almost magnetic. They are simple, lamb-like creatures with no serious ambition, without a dishonest bone in their body; endlessly obliging. They would never hurt a fly.
They are, essentially, the feminine ideal of the 1950s. Just packaged in a handsome, masculine body.
So – just as obviously – a homme fatal could exist in this sort of environment.
It is an environment so precarious and artificial, but so splendidly assembled by the oddball world of the film. It is a nested gender/power dynamic. The three women exist within a sort of male primordial soup; they float within a massively sexist and male-dominated culture and can use that against the culture to Get Shit Done. But, in a sort of Petri dish way, they create their own reversal of that culture, in a closed loop, among themselves.
So the homme fatal could operate within that Petri dish, should he so desire. He would just have to look and act like one of those sweet, child-like men. He (or his agent, as happens in the movie) might sashay into the Angels’ office, pleading for their aid in solving some terrible crime… “Oh, detective! You gotta help!” How could the Angels resist a man so helpless, so earnest?
How, indeed, does Dylan manage to resist Knox? She doesn’t, of course. She falls head over heels for his earnest bumbling charms, and they turn out to be an extremely calculated sham, aimed at seducing her and getting her to drop her defenses. And it succeeds spectacularly.
Knox only reveals his outer sexual charisma when the gig is up, when he’s successfully bedded Dylan and has her vulnerable and naked in his apartment. He’s ready to assassinate her, before she even has time to get fully dressed – so now he reveals his true colors. Instead of his geeky programmer’s outfit that he’s worn until then, he’s suddenly sporting skin-tight clothing, dancing to the radio in stylish shoes, clearly more comfortable in this overtly sexual skin. Because he was sexy/evil all along.
“Sexy women are dangerous. James Bond knows that. Ah, but if only James Bond had known she was sexy from the start, he would never have let Natasha into his bedroom… He would have been forewarned and forearmed…”
Here we have a rare case where you can flip the genders in that sentence and it still makes sense – for Charlie’s Angels.
Is there another homme fatal in existence?
Maybe. Possibly not one as prominent in our cultural memory (since maybe half the American population has seen Charlie’s Angels), but he could certainly exist.
He would have to exist in that sort of closed loop/Petri dish world where the default woman is confident and powerful – and, more importantly, where the men are assumed to be weak. A fictive world where, with very few exceptions, men carry out these assumptions and are weak. A whole world where men (for example) are either buffoons easily manipulated by their dicks, or sweet earnest child-men who are innocently transparent in their intentions and who would never hurt a fly.
A homme fatal could exist in a world where a man who is competent, who is dangerous as an enemy, who is a master in espionage situations, and most importantly who is seductive and irresistible in a non-threatening way – is not James Bond.
ONION, I hope you are well, and now that I have wrapped up my letter, I courteously take your leave.
# # #
 Let’s make it extra clear that when I refer to the “world” of a story, I mean the world that we see in the story, operating by that story’s individual inherent assumptions of how the world in general works. These assumptions (usually not completely conscious on the part of the creator) end up functioning essentially as inherent laws. And, unless indicated otherwise, we can reasonably infer that the world as displayed extends indefinitely beyond the borders of this one story – we can assume that the whole world functions in a consistent manner. For example: as I mention later I this letter, the real world has female mob bosses. But the fictive worlds of noir stories almost never do – so the unstated rules of the collective noir worlds tend to say that there is no such thing as a female mob boss. Just as the rules of our world tend to say that there is no such thing as winged, fire-breathing dragons.