By Adelina Sarkisyan
“She was bad. She was dangerous. I wouldn’t trust her any farther than I could throw her. But…she was my kind of woman.” –Tony Hunter, “The Band Wagon”
Once there was a fool who stumbled his way into the ocean and blamed it on a woman. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe his broken heart, but he was certain—he’d bet his life on it—that he had heard her calling. And in his dreams he swears he’s met her more than once, for he wakes up every morning with a different nightmare to recall. And in his memories, she is always the same: a woman.
If I had to describe her, I would say this: she is the glow in a Vermeer painting; the smoke from a cigarette that curls up and burns your eyes; the rough tides that seem to create both chaos and harmony as they crash around you. She is “la femme fatale,” the deadly woman; a broken lighthouse for crashing ships in the night. And she is utterly dangerous, or so they say. Humbert’s Lolita all grown up. And we’ve known many Lolitas, haven’t we? We pried our eyes on her for she was beautiful and wild and free, a warped she-monster, fantastical and seductive; she was born to bring men to their knees, if only to pray for their lives.
And she is born again—reincarnated—every night he closes his eyes. He wakes up and recalls:
Monday night—she is Lilith. She is the woman meant to be Adam’s first wife before Eve, but upon demanding equality and refusing to obey her husband, she was cast out of Eden and condemned to become a succubus, forever trapped in mirrors, seducing men through sexual activity. She now appears to him in his darkest of dreams from a mirror above his head, dark-haired and naked, riding a black horse above his bed. He reaches out to her floating body as she reaches out for his.
Tuesday night—she is the Sphinx. Half woman, half lion, she guards the entrance to Thebes with a riddle which, if answered incorrectly, results in being devoured. He looks upon her face, lit up, and begs to be let inside that which she guards so closely. “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” she asks. He looks up at her, not knowing the answer, as she smiles upon him and opens her beautiful mouth wide.
Wednesday night—she is all three of Dracula’s brides. Young, beautiful, enchanting women experienced in the art of seduction; they ap pear to men and engage in uninhibited sexual behavior. The chaos lives in the hearts of the men who are both attracted to and repulsed by them. Tonight they tease and torment him with their burgundy lips and see-through nightgowns, sucking the blood from his neck as he cries in both pain and ecstasy.
Thursday night—she is a film noir star. A woman whose seductiveness is more than human, she is from the 40s and 50s era of film production that represented a dark and shadowy world. Like her predecessors before, she is beautiful, dangerous, greedy, corrupt and she exudes sexuality. She has intelligence, power and an ability to be an agent of her own sexuality; a trait usually reserved for men. Ambitious and carnal, she rebels against traditional female roles, victimizing men for her own benefit instead of being a victim. She is a vamp in black and white, smoking a cigarette and holding a small revolver pointed at his face. “I never wanted you,”she says. “I just wanted you to want me. And I told you not to fall in love with me, didn’t I?”
Friday night—she is a siren. A sea nymph who lures sailors to their death with her bewitching song; she is a beautiful woman, whose body, not only her voice, is seductive. She brings with her the ocean, the tides now lapping at his bare feet, her ethereal face floating just above the surface of the waters. “Come to me,” she sings, music playing in the background. And as his eyes glaze over, he deserts his bed for another one beside her at the bottom of the sea.
The “femme fatale” is always being revamped as history reincarnates her, yet she is still an agent of chaos occupying a space where the masculine and feminine coexist. A mysterious and seductive woman, her charms lure her lovers into dangerous and compromising situations. In earlier accounts, she was more supernatural in nature, with an ability to entrance and hypnotize. The “femme fatale” today is still often described as having powers like that of a supernatural temptress; something more than human. She has a power that lies not in her ability to seduce and kill men, but rather in enticing men to kill themselves; the victims of the “femme fatale” come to her willingly. She eschews traditional female roles and is a rebel in a world far too complaisant.
“Feminism has tried to dismiss the femme fatale as a misogynist libel, a hoary cliché. But the femme fatale expresses women’s ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm.” –Camille Paglia
The demise of the “femme fatale” is, however, always similar and always inevitable. She tries to achieve her purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm and sexual allure; characteristics traditionally reserved for men to take control of. Existing outside that which is acceptable for a woman, she is ultimately vilified and destroyed. Lilith is cast out of Eden and spends eternity as a succubus; the Sphinx throws herself from her rock and dies after Oedipus answers her riddle correctly and fails to love her; Dracula’s brides are killed by Van Helsing, who overcomes their spell and destroys them; film noir women are captured, outwitted or killed by the protagonist; and the sirens, fated to live only until mortals who heard their songs were able to pass by without being lured, threw themselves into the sea and drowned when Odysseus sailed by with his men without succumbing to their enchantment.
But although the fates of these “femme fatales” are imbedded in misogyny, the “femme fatale”herself is a symbol of feminine independence. She is fierce, powerful, charming and an agent of her sexuality. She is not ashamed of her charms, nor does she apologize for them; she simply knows the power she has and revels in it. She enjoys being that untamed, white sun that travels the skies—free, wild and utterly her own. There is no better example than the dialogue between Jessica Rabbit and Eddie Valiant.
Jessica Rabbit: “You don’t know how hard it is being a woman looking the way I do.”
Eddie Valiant: “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.”
Jessica Rabbit embraces her sexuality as her own and distinguishes it from the negative connotations it once represented. Despite being beautiful and sexually bewitching, she rejects the notion that she is “bad” because of it; she rejects the idea that she is at fault for having power and for a man’s ability to give his up so easily.
A fool there once was who built a house on the cliffs on the edge of the sea and promised to kill the woman with the haunting voice from his dreams. But it is morning now, and the sirens have all gone home. There is no one here to seduce you my friend, no long-legged siren songs to tug at your heartstrings or walk into your gin joints. And I apologize, for they had such beautiful voices, didn’t they?And although he wakes up every morning, alive and gasping for breath, he secretly longs for her lustful eyes and sweet, sweet voice.
Oh, she frightens yet fascinates me fiercely, to the point of madness.
A femme fatale is not just a mythical or supernatural creature found in history, literature or film. Although she has been manifested in many forms—sirens, vampires, succubi, etc.—she is always a woman in control, always fighting for the right to draw herself. Watch her jump and float across the sky like a rebel diamond, shining and bursting in space; listen to her voice as she makes the world weep and the oceans billow with salt water; feel her body, a watercolor painting an artist cannot control or correct; catch her looking at you as you quickly walk past a mirror. Do you dare look back?
We must sleep and dream of her yet: escape from every mirror hung on every wall; tell riddles on a rock at the top of a great city; sleep in coffins in see-through nightgowns; live in the black and white film stocks of the 40s; join her in her kingdom by the ocean. We are now the artists, the rebels, and no longer the poor, poor girls named Ophelia, as Shakespeare wrote, always incapable in the face of our distress. The wise ones know that our sharp tongues turned these tides. We have since learned to undress and float, and draw ourselves