The Data

In order to answer the 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?’ I have compiled data that shows an overview of how the femme fatale is presented through these movies. This data is broad and aims to present just a generalized picture. I will also focus on five case studies in which I go into more detail about the femme fatale of certain films.

I compiled 60 films with femme fatale characters. These films range from the 1940s during the era of film noir where the tradition femme fatale was a key trope of the genre, right through to 2019. I compiled my data using Microsoft Excel, I then cleaned this data using Open Refine and then I used Tableau to visualize my data. 

In terms of time period, the data is somewhat uneven. Although I have crafted my own definition of what I mean by ‘femme fatale,’ which allows for contemporary films to be included in my data, the stereotypical femme fatale originated in film noir films. As a result, there are less films per decade in my data set for the 1950s-1980s because “in the 40s, noir expressed itself mainly through the many ‘B’ films that were made [but] in the 50s the genre was fading, and it was all but disappeared between the 1960s and the 1980s.”[1] The decline of film noir during this time period, meant there were less femme fatale characters, as they had not yet branched out into different film genres. This changed, however, in the 1990s when “the specifically crime narrative [of these films had] been replaced by variations of the thriller which mix film noir with the serial killer genre.”[2] The broadening of the film genre allowed for the femme fatale to appear in many different types of movies, notably thrillers. We see this continue in the 21st century, and now many femme fatales are found in other types of genres, such as comedy and science fiction films.  

I have created a dataset where I have recorded the information from 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. I will explain why I have chosen each variable below.

Name and Year Produced: This is basic information necessary for identifying the film and where it fits within the development of the femme fatale character.

Character and Actor: This is basic information necessary for identifying who the character is and the actor playing that character. This may reveal interesting information about the actors who are cast in the role of the femme fatale, especially if they play this type of character more than once.

Ethnicity: Through my research of women in the criminal justice system, I have found that women – especially women of color – have been disproportionately affected by ‘get tough on crime’ policies that have contributed to the rise of mass incarceration. It is therefore important to understand the ethnicity of the female criminals being presented in Hollywood movies. Specifically, I am recording the ethnicity of the actor.

Main Character: My project explores the increasing population of women in the US criminal justice system, which is a fact that is arguably overlooked by society. Whether or not these female criminals are the main characters of these films is telling of the importance that filmmakers and, by extension, filmgoers place on female criminals. Do people see female criminality as legit, real, or important?

Crime/Villainous act committed: My research shows that a significant portion of women in the criminal justice system, enter the system because of non-violent drug and/or property offenses. Therefore, the crimes/villainous acts that the femme fatales commit are important as they will stand as the key factor of comparison between film and reality. For example, if many of these femme fatales commit non-violent drug or property offenses, then one could argue that the films are, to some degree, accurate.

Method: The method the femme fatale uses to commit the crime will further elucidate the crime committed by the femme fatale and also exposes the resources the women have at their disposal. As Messerschmidt’s use of the situated action theory argues that people ‘do gender’ through crime, but Miller argues that this is not an accurate way of explaining how and why women do crime, it is important to see how the femme fatales commit crime. For example, the femme fatale is notorious for seducing men in order to commit crime. Arguably this is a way of ‘doing gender’ as it is enacting a kind of female sexuality. If seduction is seen as a common method for committing crime throughout this data then, arguably, the films do not accurately present real female crime.

Motivation: The key aspect of my project is gendered pathways to crime as it explains the reality of women’s involvement in the US criminal justice system. As a result, the motivation for the femme fatale to commit the crime(s) they do in the films will serve as an important comparison to the reality of gendered pathways to crime. Does the femme fatale commit the crime because she has suffered abuse (physical or sexual) as a child? Does she commit the crime as a way of surviving a life on the streets? If the data shows that these women conform, in some way, to the five basic categories of Daly’s gendered pathways to crime approach, then the films arguably present female criminality in an accurate way.

Repercussion: As my project is about women in the criminal justice system, it is important to see whether any of these female criminals have any direct interaction with the criminal justice system, such as law enforcement, in the film. If a femme fatale commits murder, for example, but is not ‘caught’ or incarcerated, then it is likely not a realistic representation of a real-life female murderer.

As you can see, these factors have all been chosen because, from my research about the reality of women in the US criminal justice system and female criminality, these factors can serve as some form of comparison between film and reality. I have recorded each of these factors from each film according to my own interpretation of the film. For example, if I saw the femme fatale flirt or have some form of physical relationship with another person in order to commit any crime, I noted down “seduction” in the method column of my dataset. Many of the films I watched in full, some I watched in part by watching scenes that involved the femme fatale only, and there where many films I was unable to access so I used plot summaries from IMDB and Wikipedia to identify the basic information I needed for my dataset. This is one of the key reasons why I am also using case studies as part of my evidence, as it allows me to explore, in detail, aspects of the films I may have missed when I just recorded the basic information.

I must also note the way in which my data is recorded in my dataset. Most of the femme fatales in these films commit multiple crimes, using multiple methods, sometimes for multiple reasons and can suffer – in some cases – multiple repercussions. As the crimes committed are often interconnected, it is too difficult to identify which method corresponds to which crime. Further, the motivation for the femme fatale to commit each crime may vary by crime and thus recording each motivation for each crime would complicate the data even more, especially as many of the crimes are interconnected. Finally, in many of these films, the repercussion for the femme fatale is not directly related to the crime(s) she commits. For example, the character may be arrested for murder, but no mention may be made of other crimes she has committed, such as fraud. As a result, I have had to be deliberate in how I have recorded my data. I have not recorded method, motivation and repercussion in direct relation to each crime committed. Instead, I have just recorded each instance I see a method, I recorded the overall motivation for why the femme fatale commits any of the crime(s) that she does, and I recorded the final overall repercussion that the femme fatale suffers at the end of the film. My results will reflect this deliberate choice I have made. For example, I will be looking at ‘how many of the femme fatales committed murder,’ or ‘how many femme fatales made use of seduction as a way to commit crime.’ This is instead of ‘how many femme fatales committed murder by using a knife.’ I hope that my data visualizations will make my choices and results clear.

I will delve into the factors explored above for the five film case studies. Further, I will also explore the femme fatale’s socio-economic and childhood/familial background, as well as other important aspects of the films, as this is not something that could be easily quantified in the dataset. The five films I have chosen as case studies are films from post 1970s. I have argued throughout this project that the war on drugs caused, in part, a turning point for the incarceration of women. The detailed information I have on female criminality and women’s involvement in the US criminal justice system stems from this point in time though until today. Therefore, I believe looking at films from this time period 1970s-present day, rather than starting from the 1940s, will be provide a more accurate comparison. I hope the five case studies will help show more clearly what the results of the dataset show.  


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[1] E. Anne Kaplan, Women in Film Noir (London: British Film Institute, 1998), 1.

[2] Kaplan, Women in Film Noir, 1.