The Femme Fatale in Hollywood

I believe that the femme fatale character is one that has transcended her original boundaries of film noir and can be seen in other film genres such as modern thriller, action and comedy movies. For the purposes of my project, I have defined ‘femme fatale’ as a female character who commits a criminal or villainous action, often relying on methods of (including but not limited to) seduction and lies to succeed in getting what she wants. Although the definition of the femme fatale as a trope within the film noir tradition is rather specific – for instance she was white, middle class and almost always died at the end of the film in order to restore balance to the film’s story line – I argue that the femme fatale is ultimately and essentially a woman who commits crime. She has therefore transcended the confines of the noir tradition because we see female criminal characters in other film genres, especially in the 1990s and beyond. My definition is therefore broad, as I believe femme fatales can be seen in many film genres, such as contemporary thriller, action and comedy films.

I have relied on many secondary sources in order to come to this definition and contextualize the trope of the femme fatale. As Maysaa Jaber describes in her book Criminal Femme Fatales in American Hardboiled Crime Fiction, “in popular culture, the femme fatale is deemed to be sexually voracious, irresistible, and dangerous, leading men to their ruination.”[1] The femme fatale appeared in American crime fiction and film noir during the interwar period and post WWII. Most of the famous film noir films, such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Maltese Falcon (1941), came out in the 1940s and were made up until about the late 1950s. The genre of ‘neo-noir’ emerged in the 1960s-1970s. The 1980s-1990s saw the era of post-noir, with films such as Fatal Attraction (1994) and Basic Instinct (1992). Jaber argues that although many feminist scholars, film critics and theorists have posited that the original femme fatale of film noir was an object of male desire “that serves a misogynistic and phallocentric world view,”[2] she argues that there is more to the femme fatale than this. She concludes that these women, through their seduction and criminal activity, are women with agency – a point I eluded to previously in this project.

Furthermore, the post-war context, the increased participation of women in the workforce and growing women’s liberation movements, explains why the femme fatale became a representation “of wartime misgivings about sex roles, marriage and sexuality.”[3] As Jack Boozer describes, the men returned home from the war to find women taking hold of the public, rather than simply the private, sphere as they had filled men’s jobs whilst they were gone. Boozer aptly observes that “it seems no coincidence that the rise to prominence of Hollywood’s lethal siren occurred simultaneously with wartime and postwar readjustments in society.”[4] As such, Hollywood noir films of the 1940s and 1950s presented ‘independent’ and resourceful women as murderers (particularly of men) and seductresses hell bent on the ruin of men for their own personal gain. From this context, the femme fatale was born.

Interestingly, as Boozer goes onto discuss, the femme fatale of neo-noir (1960s-1970s) is presented less as a manipulative woman who represents the insecurities men had about women in the workforce, and more as a victim of her own troubled past who “acts out a rescue fantasy by attaching herself to a man of intelligence, social standing and business sense, who helps her to deconstruct her personal problem.”[5] Boozer identifies how this more vulnerable presentation of the femme fatale fits the context of the women’s liberation movement of the time period, but also the strong socio-economic forces that still subdued women. The femme fatale of post-noir in the 1980s again reflects changing social attitudes of America, as she regains the position of ‘man hater.’ As more women during this time were moving into positions of authority in the work force and gaining economic independence, the femme fatale of this era is sophisticated, powerful, and “no longer needs the man for violence as she is fully capable of it, nor as a means to profit, since she is already rich (or at least fully equipped for career success).”[6] This increased power and success causes further male insecurity and thus these women are presented as evil and/or unhinged. The 1990s sees this explored further as the femme fatales are presented as being driven by “economic betterment [which] usually takes the form of careerist excess.”[7] She is presented as a siren who uses her sexuality for personal gain, much like in the original film noir. According to Boozer, this “seems consistent with the ethically corrupted marketplace competition and sexual exhibitionism” of the 1990s.[8]

Scholarly work on the femme fatale in the 21st century is currently scarce, although there are many films that feature this kind of character. I would argue that this is because the femme fatale character was traditionally essential to the film noir (including neo and post) tradition. As we have not seen as many noir films in the 21st century, the conventional femme fatale seems to have disappeared. However, I argue that the femme fatale – according to my definition – does still exist, even if she features more prominently in other genres like the modern thriller, action and comedy movies, for example, Wild Things (1998), Ocean’s Eight (2018), and Hustlers (2019). Kirsten Smith even identifies the character Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff as a modern-day femme fatale, for “she is an athlete, gymnast, martial arts and weapons expert, and, in all the [Marvel] films [she features in], she is able to hold her own against her male colleagues as well as outshining them in some skills.”[9] Although her actions may not seem criminal because she is one of the ‘good guys’ in the films, she still commits crimes such as murder, theft and assault, by using weapons, lies and seduction – although Smith identifies that she is careful not to take the seduction too far. In the 21st century, especially in the last two to five years, we have seen more powerful female criminals on the silver screen. These women are gaining starring roles, and often operate in connection with other criminal women. This centering of femme fatale characters in Hollywood movies arguably represents the social change of the recent #MeToo movement, and more work being done to make women equal to men in all aspects of social, cultural, political and economic life.

From my research, I have found that the femme fatale is often explored and analyzed by scholars in terms of how they represent women as a whole. However, the femme fatale is ultimately a criminal. Regardless of what era you are looking at, these characters commit murder, theft, assault and many other crimes, and their methods often involve lies and seduction. Therefore, I argue there is value in exploring how the femme fatale represents specifically criminal women. This was the impetus for my project and is the reason why I have collected data about femme fatales (explored on the next page) according to their criminal behaviors and actions.


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[1] Maysaa Husam Jaber, Criminal Femmes Fatales in American Hardboiled Crime Fiction (London, UNITED KINGDOM: Palgrave Macmillan Limited, 2015) 1.

[2] Jaber, Criminal Femmes Fatales, 2.

[3] Jack Boozer, “The Lethal Femme Fatale in the Noir Tradition,” Journal of Film and Video 51, no. 3/4 (1999): 20.

[4] Boozer, “The Lethal Femme Fatale,” 20.

[5] Boozer, “The Lethal Femme Fatale,” 24.

[6] Boozer, The Lethal Femme Fatale, 27.

[7] Boozer, The Lethal Femme Fatale, 29.

[8] Boozer, The Lethal Femme Fatale, 29.

[9] Kirsten Smith, “Seduction and Sex: The Changing Allure of the Femme Fatale in Fact and Fiction,” Re-Visiting Female Evil, January 1, 2017, 48.