In my book, The Contemporary Femme Fatale: Gender, Genre and American Cinema, I was keen to expand research on the figure beyond the erotic noir thrillers of the 1980s and 1990s that have been so central to the majority of research on the femme fatale in the post-studio era. Such films have been interrogated in terms of their representation of the dangers of professional women, their complicity with backlash discourses against second wave feminism, their controversial representations of violent women, and their updating of the classical noir narratives that have been central to foundational work in feminist film studies. Rather than thinking about the value and limits of the femme fatale per se for feminism (a tempting but irresolvable debate), I found it more productive to think through the details of those representations. Therefore, I moved away from theoretical narratives of backlash and sought to address the representation of teenagers as femme fatale figures in an era of ‘girl culture’, by using bisexuality to frame my readings of neo noir and by re-reading science fiction films’ use of the femme fatale in its hybrid human/alien bodies.
What I was most taken with, however, was the constant return to film history, or at least, film memory, in representations of the femme fatale over the past quarter-century. As James Naremore argues in More Than Night (1998), contemporary noir films are often “about” their noir look. This attention to aesthetics is uniquely tied up with nostalgic fantasies of glamour, femininity and power when it comes to the femme fatale. This is most obvious in retro noir films set in the 1940s or 50s, or drawing on the iconography of classic noir. Films like LA Confidential (1997), Lonely Hearts (2006) and Gangster Squad (2013) lean heavily on the aesthetics of the femme fatale in their promotional materials, despite being reluctant to follow through on their initial promise by creating truly dangerous femme fatale characters. Exploring the specific ways that the cinematic memory of the femme fatale has been put to work as a useable myth complicates attempts to claim the figure as being intrinsically feminist or antithetical to feminism. The aesthetics of the tough, glamorous retro femme fatale have been deployed in wildly divergent ways. Emma Stone’s passive moll in Gangster Squad is horribly at odds with the hard glitter of her appearance, whereas Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) provides Eva Green (who studied Barbara Stanwyck’s noir performances in preparation for the role) an unlikely opportunity to fulfil the role of femme fatale with excess and camp abandon. Thus, the figure’s nostalgic glamour is often used simply as an appealing and marketable surface, but it also presents an opportunity to revisit and adapt the energetic femininity of the classic noir femme fatale.
A timely example of this can be found in the opening of the new season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2017), a series characterised by its knowing deployment of genre and popular culture tropes and clichés. Having been left at the altar, the titular character Rebecca Bunch pulls herself out of her hotel room depression with a trip to the shops to transform ‘from a victim to a woman scorned’. This makeover includes dark nail varnish, dark hair dye, a tight white dress cut in a retro style, and most tellingly, DVD copies of Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992). She returns to her workplace to enact an elaborate, exaggerated and self-referential performance of sultry femininity. As she informs the friend who interrupts the routine, ‘Paula, I’m trying to do a thing!’ Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s ‘doing’ of the femme fatale allows for a clear explication of both the aesthetics of the figure and some of her more violent and vengeful incarnations in film history. The femme fatale becomes a ‘thing’ reducible to a palette of aesthetic choices, but is also presented as an available and malleable fantasy. The cinematic memory of the femme fatale is employed as a transitional myth, used to shift from one way of being to another. Rebecca’s ‘doing’ of the femme fatale provides her with a sense of control, and a reprieve from the humiliation of her circumstances, even as the series’ narrative presents the femme fatale as a comically unlikely and unsustainable fantasy.
The femme fatale is a consumable and compelling archetype that gestures back to Hollywood history in fascinating ways, and demonstrates the complex power of cinematic nostalgia. The looking back facilitated by the femme fatale does not simply represent a desire to return to how things once were, but rather invites a reconsideration of the pull of past femininities, and provides an opportunity not for wholesale recreation, but for playfulness and transformation.
Katherine Farrimond is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. Her research explores gender and genre in contemporary popular culture with particular focus on the femme fatale, mediated constructions of virginity, and the politics of nostalgia. Her monograph, The Contemporary Femme Fatale was published with Routledge in 2017, and she has published numerous articles and book chapters on representations of girlhood, femininity, sexuality and the uses of the past in popular culture. She is book reviews editor for Feminist Theory Journal and co-editor of SEQUENCE.