The gender equaliser of fiction, the femme fatale is a counter-cultural figure. Between the pages, those seductresses will do anything, and not let any obstacle stand in their way. As manipulative as
men and capable of cold-blooded murder; which is mostly detrimental to any male character she has her eye on. A powerful figure in the noir film. For me she is a beautiful, dark and mysterious woman with brooding eyes and a crooked smile. Maybe an agent in WWII tasked with stealing secrets from the enemy and dispensing with them afterward with a vial of poison, a dagger hidden in her suspenders, or a small pistol in her bra.
The femme fatale is a confident and lonely figure. She is someone unattainable, who carries herself with poise and grace, has immense power that in her stillness can’t help but be drawn in. Her strength might derive from a past tragedy or betrayal (the femme fatale in my book is this category). And like Sirens whose irresistible call draws sailors to their death, the role conjures the mystical and paranormal. However, it needs to be said the femme fatale has been condemned as misogynistic.
Why so powerful, so corrupted and unscrupulous?
Pre and post-war, most crime fiction was written from the male perspective. Few female writers broke through, and some that did wrote under a male pseudonym. The role of women was indeed largely seen as confined to domestic life.
Women play an important nurturing role and still have a dominant role in raising children. And women don’t generally kill. The vast cases of violence and homicide involve males. So when casting a female as the killer, the only source was the rich fertile ground of the imagination. And while you’re toiling for material why wouldn’t you indulge a character that runs counter to social norms (male fantasy played a large role), as to be almost monstrous?
And so it was with one the earliest fatal female. Eve seduced Adam to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and so unleashed evil itself upon the world – no small burden for women to carry thereafter. So from the outset, the cast was set for women in literature throughout the ages.
So who are the great female villains of literature?
I soon found the topic to be vaster than first anticipated. The list is biased to the research undertaken for my book.
Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Vivian Rutledge in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939).
Brigid O’Shaughnessy in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929).
Cora in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934).
Phyllis in James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity (1943).
Today it’s commonplace to read stories with a strong female character that isn’t so bent or is in the case of Gone Girl, but at least in the case of Amy Dunne she was conjured up by a woman.
Also published on Medium.