Hello and welcome to my project: “The Femme Fatale and the distortion of female criminality.”

This site is dedicated to the research I have conducted as a Digital Humanities Summer Scholar at Lafayette College. By toggling through the pages of this site, you will see the scholarly work and data that I have compiled which serves to answer my research question,

Does the presentation of the femme fatale in Hollywood movies distort the reality of women’s involvement in the US criminal justice system and female criminality?

Each page of this site deals with different tenets of my argument. Ultimately, I argue that the presentation of the femme fatale in Hollywood movies does distort the reality of women’s involvement in the US criminal justice system and female criminality. I also end my argument with my explanation for why I think this is important in the era of mass incarceration in the US.

There has been a lot of research in the past four to five decades that has focused on women’s involvement in the US criminal justice system. This scholarship is warranted because, as I will explore throughout this site, since the onset of the War on Drugs in the 1970s and early 1980s women have been disproportionately affected by crime policies. As a result, the population of women in the US criminal justice system has been increasing over the past few decades, despite general crime rates going down.

Female criminality has been at the forefront of the work of feminist criminologists because of this upward trend. Throughout my project I will explore the work and research that has been done concerning women in the criminal justice system and female criminality by scholars. Central to my project is the comparison of the results of this research on female criminality with the presentation of female criminality in Hollywood movies. One of the most explicit and key tropes of female criminality in Hollywood is the character of the ‘femme fatale.’ There has been plenty of work done on the femme fatale by film theorists, psychologists and feminists. I will explore the scholarly background of the femme fatale trope in this project. In particular I will use theories and approaches put forward by Kathleen Daly, James Messerschmidt and Jody Miller. Daly’s gendered pathways approach identifies the specific and gendered ways that women become involved in the criminal justice system. Messerschmidt’s situated action theory, which argues that people ‘do gender’ through crime, provides an interesting framework through which we can look at the femme fatale and her assertion of an independent, ‘badass’ femininity through her criminal activity. Miller argues that Messerschmidt’s theory is a too simplified view of the relationship between gender and crime, as she argues that are many contributing factors that affect a woman’s involvement in crime. 

In order to compare film with reality, I have collected my own set of data on films which feature characters that I would define as a femme fatale. For each film I have recorded the name of the film, the year it was produced, the name of the femme fatale character, the name of the actor playing the character, the ethnicity of the actor, whether or not the femme fatale character is the main character of the film, the crime/villainous act committed by the femme fatale, the method by which the femme fatale commits this act, the motivation for committing the act, and the repercussion for the femme fatale. As well as looking at this quantifiable data, I will also feature five case studies of different films, in order to explore the nature of female criminality presented by each film in more detail. Through this broad and detailed data I will explore if and how these films distort the reality of female criminality.

Finally, the ‘so what’ aspect of my project lies in the question ‘does it even matter if the femme fatale trope/character distorts the reality of female criminality?’ I will deal with this ‘so what’ aspect of my project by drawing on theory and arguments put forward by psychologists that deal with the connection between films and people’s/society’s beliefs and culture.

The key goal of this project is to expose the reality of mass incarceration and its effect on women, to people who may be unaware of how women interact with the criminal justice system. I want people to be interested by mass incarceration and women’s increasing contribution to it, so that they may go away and learn more. Finally, I want my readers to understand that one of the reasons they may not know much about mass incarceration and women in the system, is because the only interaction they have with it is through films which present crime to us as a form of entertainment.


  • Megan Deacon ’21