Femme fatale

A femme fatale (/ˌfæm fəˈtɑːl/ or /ˌfɛm fəˈtɑːl/; French: [fam fatal], literally "lethal woman"), sometimes called a maneater[1] or vamp, is a stock character of a mysterious, beautiful, and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, deadly traps. She is an archetype of literature and art. Her ability to enchant, entice and hypnotize her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as verging on supernatural; hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, seductress, witch, having power over men. Femmes fatales are typically villainous, or at least morally ambiguous, and always associated with a sense of mystification, and unease.[2]

Femmes fatales were standard fare in hardboiled crime stories in 1930s pulp fiction.

The phrase is French for "fatal woman". A femme fatale tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, or sexual allure. In many cases, her attitude towards sexuality is lackadaisical, intriguing, or frivolous. In some cases, she uses lies or coercion rather than charm. She may also make use of some subduing weapon such as sleeping gas, a modern analog of magical powers in older tales. She may also be (or imply that she is) a victim, caught in a situation from which she cannot escape.[3] A younger or underage version of a femme fatale is called a fille fatale, or "fatal girl".

In American early 20th century films, a femme fatale character was referred to as a vamp, a reference to The Vampire, Philip Burne-Jones's 1897 painting, andRudyard Kipling's later, 1897, poem, and the play and film A Fool There Was.

Female mobsters including Italian-American Mafia or Russian Mafia) have been portrayed as femme fatales in films noir.[citation needed] Femme fatales appear in James Bond films.


Ancient archetypesEdit

The divine femme fatale of Hindu mythology, Apsara Mohini is described to have enchanted gods, demons and sages alike.

The femme fatale archetype exists in the culture, folklore and myths of many cultures.[4] Ancient mythical or legendary examples include Lilith, Circe, Medea, Clytemnestra, Lesbia, Tamamo no Mae and Visha Kanyas. Historical examples from Classical times include Cleopatra and Messalina, as well as the Biblical figures Delilah, Jezebel, and Salome.[5] An example from Chinese literature and traditional history is Daji.

Early Western culture to the 19th centuryEdit

The femme fatale was a common figure in the European Middle Ages, often portraying the dangers of unbridled female sexuality. The pre-medieval inherited Biblical figure of Eve offers an example, as does the wicked, seductive enchantress typified in Morgan le Fay. The Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute shows her more muted presence during the Age of Enlightenment[6]

The femme fatale flourished in the Romantic period in the works of John Keats, notably "La Belle Dame sans Merci" and "Lamia". Along with them, there rose the gothic novel The Monk featuring Matilda, a very powerful femme fatale. This led to her appearing in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and as the vampire, notably in Carmilla and Brides of Dracula. The Monk was greatly admired by the Marquis de Sade, for whom the femme fatale symbolised not evil, but all the best qualities of women; his novel Juliette is perhaps the earliest wherein the femme fatale triumphs. Pre-Raphaelite painters frequently used the classic personifications of the femme fatale as a subject.

Salome in a 1906 painting by Franz von Stuck

In the Western culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the femme fatale became a more fashionable trope,[7] and she is found in the paintings of the artists Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Franz von Stuck and Gustave Moreau. The novel À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans includes these fevered imaginings about an image of Salome in a Moreau painting:[8]

No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, – a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.

— Joris-Karl Huysmans, À rebours, Sisters of Salome

In 1891, Oscar Wilde, in his play Salome: she manipulates her lust-crazed uncle, King Herod, with her enticing Dance of the Seven Veils (Wilde's invention) to agree to her imperious demand: "bring me the head of John the Baptist". Later, Salome was the subject of an opera by Strauss, and was popularized on stage, screen, and peep-show booth in countless reincarnations.[9]

She also is seen as a prominent figure in late nineteenth and twentieth century opera, appearing in Richard Wagner's Parsifal (Kundry), Georges Bizet's "Carmen", Camille Saint-Saëns' "Samson et Delilah" and Alban Berg's "Lulu" (based on the plays "Erdgeist" and "Die Büchse der Pandora" by Frank Wedekind).

Other considerably famous femmes fatales are Isabella of France, Hedda Gabler of Kristiania (now Oslo), Marie Antoinette of Austria, and, most famously, Lucrezia Borgia.

Early 20th-centuryEdit

The Vampire, 1897,
Philip Burne-Jones
Actress Theda Bara, in the film A Fool There Was.
Mrs Patrick Campbell

Mrs Patrick Campbell, George Bernard Shaw's "second famed platonic love affair", (she published some of his letters)[11][12] and Philip Burne-Jones's lover and subject of his 1897 painting, The Vampire, inspired Burne-Jones's cousin Rudyard Kipling to write his poem "The Vampire", in the year Dracula was published.[13][14][15][16] The poem, which began: "A fool there was...",[17] inspired Porter Emerson Browne to write the play, A Fool There Was, becoming a 1909 Broadway production, and leading to the 1915 film, A Fool There Was starring Theda Bara, as "The Vamp".[18][19][20][21][22][23][24][25]

The short poem may have been used in the publicity for the 1915 film.[citation needed] 1910s American slang for femme fatale was vamp, for vampire.[26][27][20]

Another icon is Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. While working as an exotic dancer, she took the stage name Mata Hari. She was accused of German espionage and was put to death by a French firing squad. After her death she became the subject of many sensational films and books.

The 1913 film The Vampire by Robert Vignola, contains a "vamp" dance.[28] Protagonist Alice Hollister was publicised as "the original vampire".[10][29][30]

Femmes fatales appear in detective fiction, especially in its 'hard-boiled' sub-genre which largely originated with the crime stories of Dashiell Hammett in the 1920s. At the end of that decade, the French-Canadian villainess Marie de Sabrevois gave a contemporary edge to the otherwise historical novels of Kenneth Roberts set during the American Revolution.

Film villainess often appeared foreign, often of Eastern European or Asian ancestry. They were a contrast to the wholesome personaes of actresses such as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. Notable silent-cinema vamps included Theda Bara, Helen Gardner, Louise Glaum, Valeska Suratt, Musidora, Virginia Pearson, Olga Petrova, Rosemary Theby, Nita Naldi, Pola Negri, Estelle Taylor, Jetta Goudal, and, in early appearances, Myrna Loy.

Post WW IIEdit

"Temptress of the Tower of Torture and Sin", cover illustration for the story in the Avon Fantasy Reader, 1950.

During the film-noir era of the 1940s and early-1950s, the femme fatale flourished in American cinema. Examples include Brigid O'Shaughnessy, portrayed by Mary Astor, who murders Sam Spade's partner in The Maltese Falcon (1941); manipulative narcissistic daughter Veda (portrayed by Ann Blyth) in Mildred Pierce who exploits her indulgent mother Mildred (portrayed by Joan Crawford) and fatally destroys her mother's remarriage to stepfather Monte Barragon (portrayed by Zachary Scott); Gene Tierney as Ellen Brent Harland in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), and the cabaret singer portrayed by Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946),[31] narcissistic wives who manipulate their husbands; Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944), Ava Gardner in The Killers and Cora (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on novels by Ernest Hemingway and James M. Cain respectively, manipulate men into killing their husbands.[31]

In the Hitchcock film The Paradine Case (1947), Alida Valli's character causes the deaths of two men and the near destruction of another. Another frequently cited example is the character Jane played by Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears (1949); during her quest to keep some dirty money from its rightful recipient and her husband, she uses poison, lies, sexual teasing and a gun to keep men wrapped around her finger. Jane Greer remains notable as a murderous femme fatale using her wiles on Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947). In Hitchcock's 1940 film and Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel Rebecca, the eponymous femme fatale completely dominates the plot, even though she is already dead and we never see an image of her. Rocky and Bullwinkle's Natasha Fatale, a curvaceous spy, takes her name from the femme fatale stock character.

Use in criminal trialsEdit

The term has been used by the media in connection with highly publicised criminal trials, such as the trials of Jodi Arias[32][33] and Amanda Knox.[34]

See alsoEdit

  Literature portal


  1. ^ Cope, Rebecca (11 March 2014). "Best Film Femme Fatales". Harper's Bazaar.
  2. ^ Mary Ann Doane, Femme Fatales (1991) pp. 1–2
  3. ^ The Lady from Shanghai
  4. ^ Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, ch. IV, p. 199: La Belle Dame sans Merci (The Beautiful Lady without Mercy). London/New York, 1933–1951–1970 (Oxford University Press).
  5. ^ Mario Praz (1970) The Romantic Agony. Oxford University Press: 199, 213–216, 222, 250, 258, 259, 272, 277, 282, 377
  6. ^ C. G. Jung ed, Man and his Symbols (1978) p. 187
  7. ^ Jill Scott, Electra after Freud (2005) p. 66
  8. ^ Huysmans À rebours – Toni Bentley (2002) Sisters of Salome: 24
  9. ^ Toni Bentley (2002) Sisters of Salome
  10. ^ a b Kalem Films The Lotus Woman. Moving Picture World. 1916. p. 1074.
  11. ^ Campbell, Mrs Patrick (1922). My Life and Some Letters. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. Retrieved 9 October 2016.
  12. ^ "Shaw's Vampire". Time Magazine. 1940-04-22. Archived from the original on 2009-03-21. Retrieved 2008-08-09.
  13. ^ https://poets.org/poem/vampire-0
  14. ^ https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/first-edition-of-dracula
  15. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20100207235200/http://artmagick.com/pictures/picture.aspx?id=7427&name=the-vampire
  16. ^ https://muse.jhu.edu/article/479931/summary
  17. ^ https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Vampire_(Kipling)
  18. ^ "Progressive Silent Film List: A Fool There Was". www.silentera.com.
  19. ^ "Theda Bara (1885-1955)". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved April 21, 2021.
  20. ^ a b Adinolfi, Francesco (2008). Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation. Translated by Pinkus, Karen; Vivrette, Jason. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 24. ISBN 9780822341321. OCLC 179838406.
  21. ^ http://www.vaultofthoughts.com/2014/05/31/vamping-it-up/
  22. ^ https://www.qbbooks.com/pages/books/52956/rudyard-kipling/the-vampire
  23. ^ https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/lookupid?key=ha010824184
  24. ^ https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Vampire.html?id=nrMrAQAAMAAJ
  25. ^ http://www.artandpopularculture.com/The_Vampire_(painting)
  26. ^ Per the Oxford English Dictionary, vamp is originally English, used first by G. K. Chesterton, but popularized in the American silent film The Vamp, starring Enid Bennett
  27. ^ "Vamp", Oxford English Dictionary; retrieved 30 December 2016
  28. ^ John T. Soister, American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913–1929, McFarland, 2012, p. 41
  29. ^ Greenroom Jottings. Motion Picture Story Magazine. 1914. p. 136.
  30. ^ Who's who in pictures. Motion Picture Magazine. 1918. pp. 51.
  31. ^ a b Johnston, Sheila (27 February 2009). "Whatever happened to the femme fatale?". The Independent. Archived from the original on February 28, 2009. Retrieved 27 February 2009.
  32. ^ Ortiz, Erik. "Jodi Arias: Femme fatale or woman of faith? Jurors hear conflicting persona in murder trial as prosecutors play phone calls of Arias lying".
  33. ^ "Jodi Arias Trial Update: Lawyer Reveals Femme Fatale Was Terrified During Sentencing". 15 April 2015. Retrieved 2015-04-30.
  34. ^ "Amanda Knox is no femme fatale, defence lawyer says". BBC News. 27 September 2011. Retrieved 2015-04-30.

Further readingEdit

  • Dominique Mainon and James Ursini (2009) Femme fatale, ISBN 0879103698. Examines the context of film noir.
  • Giuseppe Scaraffia (2009) Femme fatale, ISBN 9788838903960.
  • Toni Bentley (2002) Sisters of Salome, ISBN 9780803262416. Salome considered as an archetype of female desire and transgression and as the ultimate femme fatale.
  • Bram Dijkstra (1986) Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-De-Siecle Culture, ISBN 0195056523. Discusses the Femme fatale-stereotype.
  • Bram Dijkstra (1996) Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Culture, ISBN 0805055495.
  • Elizabeth K. Mix Evil By Design: The Creation and Marketing of the Femme Fatale, ISBN 9780252073236. Discusses the origin of the Femme fatale in 19th century French popular culture.
  • Mario Praz (1933) The Romantic Agony, ISBN 9780192810618. See chapters four, 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci', and five, 'Byzantium'.