By Julie Grossman
I am grateful for the opportunity to update my introduction to Rethinking the Femme Fatale: Ready for Her Close-Up. The book was originally written to question the assumptions surrounding film noir’s character patterns and, in particular, to explore why we rely so heavily on a narrow construction of the “femme fatale” as malevolent seductress. Its aim has been to reexamine the ways in which we interpret and respond to what I regard, rather, as the fabulously unfatal women in noir. My hope has been to show how the ways women are filmed and written about (in academic and popular venues) profoundly influence our views of gender and society. In film noir, how women’s behavior is “drawn,” how women’s motives are represented and left un-represented, remains a critical crux. The representation of women in noir and the often-contradictory readings of them in critical and popular discourse, I believe, have much to tell us about the persistence of problematic ways of thinking about gender in society.
Getting Darker: Noir Since 2009
While film noir was certainly a going concern in 2009, when this book was first published, now, a few years later, it’s noir generally—noir as text and sensibility–that seems to be transgeneric, transmedial, transhistorical, and global. Noir has become a way of understanding global political, aesthetic, psycho-social, and historical phenomena and productions that seem to share a sensibility, set of values, or substantive focus. Indeed, Jennifer Fay and Justus Nieland refer in their Film Noir: Hard-Boiled Modernity and the Cultures of Globalization (Routledge, 2009) to the “Fragments of One International Noir History” (236) that combine global history, local culture, film history, and noir culture. Dennis Broe’s work on labor and international noir similarly locates noir in an expanded materialist history, not just within America but, in a forthcoming book, Globalizing America’s Dark Art: International Film Noir, across the globe. These engaged cultural-studies film critics and theorists make choices to foreground critical ideas and ideological points that generalize the politics, thematic concerns, and narrative patterns of noir out of its traditional association with America between the years of 1941 (The Maltese Falcon) and 1958 (Touch of Evil), and this internationalization has added another level to the study of noir.
If noir has been adapted to new geographical spaces, it has also crossed cultural boundaries and blurred generic definitions. The range of noir material that has been produced–across media, from academic, popular, artistic, and journalistic spheres—is striking. Noir’s pervasiveness can be seen in the myriad websites and organizations devoted to the topic, including the not-for-profit Film Noir Foundation, which seeks to restore and preserve classic film noir movies, and “Feministfatale.com,” an online feminist magazine that adapts the concerns of film noir into a forum for discussing gender and popular culture. In 2011, a video game called L.A. Noire was released and also shown at the Tribeca Film Festival.
In its most creative aspects, this boundary-crossing proliferation of noir has continued to generate compelling and potentially critically productive texts. The millennial Memento, for example, is, like the best noir films of the classic period, paradoxically chilling and poignant. Megan Abbott’s recent noir novels, including Die a Little (2005) and The Song is You (2009), replay and interpret the conventions of noir with a subtle awareness of the theme of the victimization of women that is so central, I maintain in this book, to our fully appreciating original-cycle film noir. AMC’s The Killing similarly adapts familiar character patterns. This cable television series combines the femme fatale with the hard-boiled detective in the character of Sarah Linden, a Seattle homicide detective obsessed with solving the murder of Rosie Larson, who is herself a projection of noir gender fantasies.
In addition to these revisions of noir types and texts, Alain Silver and James Ursini have updated their Film Noir Encyclopedia (2010) and continue to publish widely marketed edited collections of essays (the Film Noir Readers, as well as the 2012 edited collection Film Noir: The Directors, featuring short essays written by twenty-four writers and eminent film scholars) that reflect, as Robert Miklitsch’s admirable exploration of music in classic film noir does too, a healthy convergence of academic study and popular fascination with film noir.
While the widened scope of film noir may expand its power to critique socio-historical phenomena, in the area of gender, there may be a cost to such global redirection and pervasiveness when many assume in post-feminist fashion that the work of gender analysis in studies of film noir has already been done. Some of the unquestioned gender roles in noir may not be helped by global noir, not to mention the continued proliferation of glamour coffee-table books on “film noir and the femme fatale” or Garrison Keillor’s “Guy Noir,” a popular character on public radio’s Prairie Home Companion, who evokes the cadences of noir with an unreflective repetition of sexist clichés like leggy, dangerous dames. In Robert Coover’s 2010 novel Noir, which features Philip M. Noir as the main protagonist, the critical impulses of noir are subsumed utterly by a postmodern execution of the noir style. Even in the best works, there is reason to be a little anxious about the hyper-availability of these character patterns and motifs. In 2011, the Punchdrunk Theater Company brought its intriguing “immersive theater” mash-up of Macbeth and film noir to Chelsea warehouses in NYC. In the program book for Sleep No More, artistic director Felix Barrett said of the production, “It was an easy leap from film noir to Macbeth, as Shakespeare’s play has all the classic noir motifs: passion, a femme fatale, and a paranoid, power-obsessed man who’ll do anything to get what he desires.” Having seen Sleep No More multiple times, I am enthralled by its stunning creativity and originality. I am nonetheless made anxious by the ways in which the production so comfortably adopts these noir motifs, especially the “femme fatale.”
Indeed, Rethinking the Femme Fatale is preoccupied with the stubborn resilience of an idea of the “femme fatale,” the fact that, as Helen Hanson recently observed, “the formation of the femme fatale . . . has remained uncontested” (217). This book is also mainly interested in the tension between the figure of the “femme fatale”–which some see as chic and powerful and which others see as sexist or misogynist–and stories about women that are primarily about their ambitions. The noir narrative is often also about the men who are threatened by the desire of women to have agency in the world. As Jess Sully writes in 2010,
The threat posed by the fatal woman lies ultimately not in her feminine beauty or eroticism but rather in the way in which she establishes rule over men by utilizing the apparently ‘masculine’ qualities of power and authority. The femme fatale, popularly perceived as a fundamentally feminine archetype, should more accurately be regarded as a figure in which feminine beauty and masculine power combines. (Hanson, O’Rawe, 57)
Such combination of traits ignites cultural anxieties about women and power that can keep viewers from appreciating the complicated representations of women and gender in film noir.
In 2012, David Brooks joins this ever-expanding cultural conversation about film noir in a New York Times editorial that, again, reflects the easiness with which we latch on to noir character types. For Brooks, we need more Sam Spade “tough” guys in Washington who can “take it” and maintain, at bottom, a kernel of respect for order and the law:
[The hard-boiled detective] assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. He makes no social-class distinction and only provisional moral distinctions between the private eyes like himself and the criminals he pursues. The assumption in a Hammett book is that the good guy has a spotty past, does spotty things and that the private eye and the criminal are two sides to the same personality. He (or she — the women in these stories follow the same code) adopts a layered personality. He hardens himself on the outside in order to protect whatever is left of the finer self within.
Brooks finds the noir sensibility especially appropriate for negotiating the muck of Washington politics while maintaining a set of principles that provide a stable moral compass. While I am suspicious of the formulaic pitting of noir’s “moral realism” against a social idealism and service mentality that Brooks implies are naive, he very interestingly observes in a sort-of aside that the women in noir are also embattled as a result of their experiences in a shoddy world; they too carry an inner strength. Brooks’s point about women and the noir “code” speaks to a growing awareness of the centrality of women as subjects in noir—a recognition I hope this book helps to extend— while still relegating the idea of their hard-boiled demeanor to secondary status in the argument.
Like Brooks, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has “made a case for” noir, having written a “hard-boiled dissent” in a narcotics case in 2008. Chief Justice Roberts dissented from the Court’s denial of a writ of certiorari from a lower Pennsylvania court asking for review of a drug case involving probable cause: Officer “Devlin” is on his beat and observes what looks like a drug deal; the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the police did not have probable cause to arrest the defendant. Roberts’s opening statement in his dissent establishes the terms of his argument:
North Philly, May 4th, 2001. Officer Sean Devlin, Narcotics Strike Force, was working the morning shift. Undercover surveillance. The neighborhood? Tough as a three-dollar steak. Devlin knew. Five years on the beat, nine months with the strike force. He’d made fifteen, twenty drug busts in the neighborhood.
Devlin spotted him: a lone man on the corner. Another approached. Quick exchange of words. Cash handed over; small objects handed back. Each man then quickly on his own way. Devlin knew the guy wasn’t buying bus tokens. He radioed a description and Officer Stein picked up the buyer. Sure enough: three bags of crack in the guy’s pocket. Head downtown and book him. Just another day at the office.
Pennsylvania v. Nathan Dunlap (555. U.S. )
The stylized prose of the dissent signals not only an internalized noir tone and content but also a sense of the relevance Roberts sees of noir suspicion to the workings of society and the law. Roberts does seem to miss the irony of a Supreme Court Justice adapting a genre that takes as a given a corrupt and/or impotent legal system. Nevertheless, his attraction to the language of noir clearly has to do with its evocation of a cynical worldview: Officer Devlin, felicitously sharing Cary Grant’s noir protagonist’s name in Notorious (1946), carries a resigned understanding—“Devlin knew”—of the workings of the streets (“just another day at the office”) and the character patterns and stories that inhabit these “mean streets.” That the legal system doesn’t trust Devlin’s noir insight is, as Roberts suggests later in his dissent, a failure of the courts to recognize the hard-boiled habits of the city: “the core fact pattern is the same: experienced police officers observing hand-to-hand exchanges of cash for small, unknown objects in high-crime neighborhoods” (4).
Brooks’s editorial and Roberts’s dissent certainly reflect the embeddedness of noir character types and narrative patterns in the cultural psyche, but they also point to a strange habit of perceiving real life through these literary character types, a conflation of noir themes with “the real” that I address in particular in Chapter Two. Things may not always be as bad as the “mean streets” theme suggests, but because of our attraction to noir stories, to the noir sensibility, these ways of thinking about how we exist in society can permeate attitudes and decisions that have a real impact on society, culture, and politics. How strange that Judge Roberts dissolves the distinctions we typically make between the actual and the fantastic, fact and fiction, reality and ideation, as the Chief Justice transposes a legal document within the workings of the Supreme Court into a piece of writing best understood in terms of its literary themes and fictional narrative patterns. Although reading literature and viewing film has, one would hope, a real-world effect, these examples suggest the importance of attending carefully to what those effects are. The cynicism of Brooks and Roberts is influenced by, or at least exemplified in, noir, and such a perspective is, like the reading of gender and the “femme fatale” in film noir, a stance, not a truth or reality.
While the cynicism of judges and politicians and journalists may draw them to noir, in film, literary, and cultural criticism, noir’s extended purview of late may have something to do with a desire on the part of cultural critics to find new lenses through which to read the history and culture of perceived hard-boiled 20th and 21st-century realities. The pervasive intellectual attraction to noir speaks certainly in part to the contemporary draw of cultural pastiche, but also to the strange comforts of an intermittently nihilist tone, as it denotes despair and a cynicism that may prepare us for the dire global challenges that face us. Such is the force of Wheeler Winston Dixon’s writing in his Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009) that “This is the true message of noir; that today is horrible, and tomorrow will be worse; that hope is an illusion.” (4). The “message” here recalls the really dark moments in film noir: the opening exchange in The Killers (1946)—“What’s the idea? There isn’t any idea”—or Uncle Charlie’s chilling speech in another 1946 noir film, Shadow of a Doubt : “Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell.” As we survey the pervading appeal of film noir’s pessimism, one thinks of Satan’s claim for the universality of evil in Book Four of Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell” (line 75). Like Milton’s Satan, noir seems to generate its own darkness, becoming an all-encompassing perspective.
And yet, the darkness of noir is indeed a perspective, whose meaning changes based on context. In the nineteenth century, William Blake took Satan’s evil and “drew” him differently, as a romantic hero who questioned the authority of God and who saw a Manichean view of the world as destructive to human creativity and individual desire. Noir, too, while sometimes seen as reflecting hopelessness and despair, can also be read as making a bid for freedom, democracy, and human expression. Critics and viewers have long recognized noir’s social critique, its unameliorative consideration of the underbelly of psycho-social experience, especially as this rough side of social life affects those on the margins because of their race, class, or gender. Noir lends itself to a global perspective that affirms social justice. For this reason, it appeals to the idealistic left, as well as the cynical right: The latter bases its readings of the contemporary world on an assumption of human weakness and venality, while the former focuses on the inequities that rig the social system.
What these examples show is that film and fictional narratives establish and then appeal to certain ideological perspectives. Narrative, film, and the discourses surrounding these texts, “draw” us and our habits in ways we should be attentive to—as cynical, for example; as hard-boiled; as, in the case stereotypically of the “femme fatale,” evil seductress. My hope is that the analysis in this study helps to alert us to the extent to which men, women, and society are “drawn” in ways that reinscribe and don’t question certain assumptions about gender and culture. In the Introduction that follows, I outline some of the ramifications of our cultural obsessions with the figure of the “bad woman.” Assuming important continuities among art, popular film, views of gender roles, and social politics throughout eras, I spend some time here talking about Hillary Clinton because she has been in recent decades such a touchstone for cultural ambivalence about female agency. While Hillary Clinton’s popularity as Secretary of State has repressed early misogynist vitriol unleashed by her candidacy in the presidential primary in 2008, the sexism surrounding her bid for the presidency revealed the stubborn remnants of cultural resistance to female leadership, anxiety about female power, and an abiding commitment to gendered labels. The stereotypes that continue to stoke anxiety surrounding female leadership are trotted out as a means of conserving the status quo—for example, in the case of “stay-at-home moms,” whose defense many on the right and left ran to after Hilary Rosen’s 2012 comments about the wife of Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. According to Rosen, Ann Romney was in a weak position to speak about the concerns of American working women since she “never worked a day in her life.” Sensitivity about women and work, the “mom-culture wars,” pervade the culture during times of change, as I discuss throughout this book.
At the same time, a more sympathetic view of the women familiarly labeled “femmes fatales,” an approach this book argues for, can also be related to representations of feminist upstarts—energetic and smart women portrayed as wanting independence and creative, meaningful lives. The following examples, from contemporary fiction, film, television, and media coverage of an international crime story, show the abiding appeal of the “femme fatale” in portrayals of female power. These examples also show the extent to which representations of female experience in society often fall prey to bad-faith readings. As is revealed in the most interesting noir texts, this is where Satan perhaps really “flies,” in simplistic readings of women and their actions and choices that are so often closely linked to themes of entrapment, violence, and thwarted ambition. One thinks, for example, of Clash By Night’s Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck), who describes her “life history . . . . in four words: big ideas, small results.” Opting for the “bad woman” interpretation of the “femme fatale” is, like the least generous analogies drawn between Hillary Clinton and Rasputin (see Introduction), deeply at odds with the spirit of the best film noir movies.
Steig Larsson’s portrait of Lizbeth Salander in his noir series that begins with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adapts noir’s portrayal of female energy and ingenuity. This dangerous woman refuses to remain in a state of victimization that is keyed to the real experience of girls and women in society. As Maureen Corrigan said in an NPR piece called “Super-Smart Noir with a Feminist Jolt” (September 23, 2008),
Larsson’s multi-pieced plot snaps together as neatly as an Ikea bookcase, but even more satisfying is the anti-social character of Salander, whose movements are described as “quick and spidery.” Certainly the utopian allure of traditional detective fiction had something to do with the omnipotent Sam Spades and Phillip Marlowes who made criminals quake and femme fatales swoon. The liberating fantasy of Salander, at least for this female reader, has something to do with watching a woman operate who doesn’t give a darn whether she pleases people or not.
Such is the legacy of film noir’s “femme fatale,” who creates different terms for agency—some dangerous, all ambitious—than the limited ones on offer in and by society. Further, Lizbeth’s past and her story in general suggest that the dangers of the “quick and spidery” “fatal woman” are directly related to the threatened and violent men around her, a noir preoccupation with psychotic men who scapegoat women that is forecast in Larsson’s original title for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which translates as “Men Who Hate Women.” This “homme fatale,” or “deadly man,” theme is referenced in the third novel in the series when Blomquist says to his sister, “When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it” (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, 514). That Lizbeth’s response to misogyny and the assaults on her is a “liberating fantasy” for women demonstrates continued fascination with representing undaunted female agency. These patterns of representation have evolved out of a very often sympathetic portrayal of powerful yet victimized women in film noir.
While discussion of Marilyn Monroe may seem far afield of the study of the femme fatale figure (though Monroe appeared in a number of film noir movies), there are striking similarities in the cultural processes at play in the construction of “Marilyn” as idea and the “femme fatale” as idea. In the film My Week with Marilyn (2011), Michelle Williams’s performance of Marilyn Monroe shows a broken self peeking through the cast-iron commodification of the female image. The film’s portrayal of Monroe recalls Sunset Blvd, another film that presents a “difficult” woman, whose danger is linked to her response to having been victimized by Hollywood. Both films show women eviscerated by an industry seeing them only in terms of their marketability as physical icons. In My Week, desperate measures are taken to buoy up the star, who, it turns out, is not “ageless.” In Sunset Blvd, Max Von Mayerling (Erich Von Stroheim) insists to Norma (Gloria Swanson), “Madame is the greatest star,” just as Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) implores Marilyn—“You are a great star!” It is no coincidence that, as I mention in my final chapter, David Lynch considered making a film about Marilyn Monroe, whose story, like Diane Selwyn’s in Mulholland Drive (2001) and Norma Desmond’s (which fascinated Lynch), captures a psycho-social case of obsession and neuroses. The energy, charisma, and power of these women—Marilyn, Norma, Diane—make them stunning to watch, but the films under discussion here establish a narrative of women struggling to makes sense of their psycho-social lives: Diane (Naomi Watts), Norma, Marilyn, finding out the cost of their success; women dying or becoming mad or schizophrenic as a result of their incarceration in the commodified female image.
One of the most telling moments in My Week With Marilyn occurs when Monroe is approached by adoring fans at Windsor Castle. She turns to Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), her companion, and whispers, “I’ll be her now” and proceeds to posture erotically for her fans in the familiar Marilyn Monroe poses. The film provides a fascinating portrait of the psycho-social process by which women are split off from their selves, lured into a world of celebrity and appearance in which agency and self-respect are limited to, trumped by, giving an audience the visual pleasures it craves. Monroe is shown to be self-aware in her control of “being her,” a poignant reference to psychological dissociation as a by-product of female celebrity (“Marilyn’s like a veil I wear over Norma Jean,” Monroe once said to photographer Lawrence Schiller), but also to Monroe’s high intelligence in reading her gendered place in society. In the June 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, the above-mentioned Lawrence Schiller recalls some of his exchanges with Monroe as he photographed her on the set of Let’s Make Love in 1960. During their initial meeting, Monroe tells Schiller that she “always [has] a full-length mirror next to the camera when I’m doing publicity stills. That way,” she said, “I know how I look.” Schiller continues, “Her remark came out of nowhere, and I found myself asking, “So do you pose for the photographer or for the mirror?” “The mirror,” she replied without hesitating. “I can always find Marilyn in the mirror” (135). This stunning remark reflects the power of the image of woman, whether it be “Marilyn” (see network television’s hit show Smash about making “Marilyn: The Musical”) or the “femme fatale.” In the case of Marilyn Monroe’s image in the mirror, the idea of “Marilyn” has been utterly internalized by and has in some ways taken over the woman who “plays” her. Such “possession” reflects the scary potential of ideation stoked by celebrity culture to infect our way of being in the world. “Playing” “Marilyn,” or the “femme fatale,” and “being” her, become indistinguishable.
I’m Just Drawn That Way
In an immediately famous episode in Season Five of AMC’s Mad Men, Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) performs “Zou bizou bizou” as a 40th birthday present for her now mythically mad-manly husband Don Draper (Jon Hamm). The multiple perspectives on offer here make the scene a jumping off point for discussions of the show and a provocation similar to film noir. We ask parallel and still-relevant questions about gender in each: Are Megan and film noir’s “femme fatales” sexist renderings of a woman performing for a man? Does the scene, like many in noir films, provide a case study of the homosocial environment that appropriates, here, Megan’s “red meat” performance: first, as an invitation to male desire (perversely postscripted on the following day when Megan seduces Don as she cleans the apartment in her underwear); second, in Don’s uncomfortable awareness of the future implications of Megan’s performance, his anxiety about playing “the dumb lug” to his wife’s Gilda-esque performance, making a spectacle of herself and – worse—him as a potential “patsy”? (How, for example, would Don feel if he had seen [the following work day] his co-worker/employee Harry Crane [Rich Sommer] lasciviously making fun of Megan’s performance in the office coffee enclave as Megan stood unseen behind him, much as Evelyn Mulwray [Faye Dunaway] stands behind Jake Gittes [Jack Nicholson] as he tells his vulgar “Chinaman” joke to his cohorts in Chinatown )? Does the scene, like film noir’s treatment of strong women, provide a chance to reflect on Megan’s ambitions, singing and acting, in whatever forum her social and familial role and environment allow? Such questions, as I hope my Janus-faced exploration of classic film noir establishes (looking back, for instance, to Victorian fiction’s representation of gender and forward to David Lynch’s darkly poetic reflection on film noir and women in Mulholland Drive), remain important, as we consider the radical changes we observe in cultural attitudes toward gender and the surprising moments in which such changes seem illusory, when we recognize how doggedly gender stereotypes have taken hold on the cultural imaginary.
Then, finally, there is Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner) in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), who became a character in the story of Amanda Knox, whom I refer to in the Introduction that follows. As Knox appealed her conviction in the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy, her attorney, Giulia Bongiorno, claimed in the fall of 2011 that Knox is not a bad woman, a she-devil (read, “femme fatale”); she is, “like Jessica Rabbit,” “just drawn that way” (Sept. 27, 2011). The sentiment reflects what I say in my Introduction about media representations of women in the public eye whose lives become part of the fictions we like to construct about dangerous women that seem to derive from a perception of their power:
Jessica Rabbit: You don’t know how hard it is being a woman looking the way I do.
Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins): You don’t know how hard it is being a man looking at a woman looking the way you do.
Jessica Rabbit: I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.
The exchange reflects a familiar noir story of men’s fear of losing control, specifically by falling prey to their own desire, and also evokes an equally familiar convention of gendered readings that revert to type, which prey instead on women who desire power and women who express sexual desire. My hope is that this book will continue to play a role in conversations about gender representations—how women and men are “drawn”—in film, literature, media, and popular culture–and what insights that gleans for us.
 Siren City: Sound and Source Music in Classic American Noir (Rutgers University Press, 2011).
See Dana Polan’s excellent commentary in his review of Fox Film Noir: Laura, Call Northside 777, Panic in the Streets; House of Bamboo, Nightmare Alley, The Street with No Name:
“Noir suddenly can seem to be everywhere, inherent in everything, and this means it loses its critical edge as either a cinematic or sociological concept. Think, for instance, of that vast and ever-growing array of coffee table books on film noir that treat it as little more than a fascinating look, a compelling style, a mere ambience, a fashion. Noir becomes noir-chic, one more retro commodity disconnected from everything the genre meant—and fundamentally continues to mean—as part of our contemporaneity” (The Moving Image: 7: 1 [Spring, 2007]: 110-114).
 The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts, ed. Helen Hanson and Catherine O’Rawe (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010).
 “Sam Spade at Starbucks, “ The New York Times (April 13, 2012): A31.
 Steve Neale takes this approach in his excellent essay in Hanson’s and O’Rawe’s The Femme Fatale, “’I Can’t Tell Anymore Whether You’re Lying’: Double Indemnity, Human Desire, and the Narratology of Femmes Fatales” (187-98). Neale makes the point that a “possible reading” of Vicki (Gloria Grahame) in Human Desire (1954) as a “femme fatale” “is qualified by the emphasis placed on the behavior of the men with whom Vicki is involved” (193) and Neale observes, further, “[Vicki’s] status as a powerless victim of powerful men” (194).