Femme fatale

Last updated
Femmes fatales were standard fare in hardboiled crime stories in 1930s pulp fiction. Spicy-Adventure Stories November 1936.png
Femmes fatales were standard fare in hardboiled crime stories in 1930s pulp fiction.

A femme fatale ( /ˌfɛmfəˈtæl/ or /ˌfɛmfəˈtɑːl/ ; French:  [fam fatal] ), sometimes called a maneater [1] or vamp, is a stock character of a mysterious, beautiful, and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, deadly traps. She is an archetype of literature and art. Her ability to enchant, entice and hypnotize her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as verging on supernatural; hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, seductress, witch, having power over men. Femmes fatales are typically villainous, or at least morally ambiguous, and always associated with a sense of mystification, and unease. [2]


The term originates from the French phrase femme fatale , which means 'deadly woman' or 'lethal woman'. A femme fatale tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, or sexual allure. In many cases, her attitude towards sexuality is lackadaisical, intriguing, or frivolous. In some cases, she uses lies or coercion rather than charm. She may also make use of some subduing weapon such as sleeping gas, a modern analog of magical powers in older tales. She may also be (or imply that she is) a victim, caught in a situation from which she cannot escape. [3] A younger or underage version of a femme fatale is called a fille fatale, from the French phrase for 'deadly girl'.

In American early 20th-century films, a femme fatale character was referred to as a vamp, a reference to The Vampire, Philip Burne-Jones's 1897 painting, and Rudyard Kipling's later 1897 poem, and the 1909 play and 1915 film A Fool There Was .

Female mobsters (including Italian-American Mafia or Russian Mafia) have been portrayed as femmes fatales in films noir. [4] Femmes fatales appear in James Bond films.


Ancient archetypes

The divine femme fatale of Hindu mythology, Apsara Mohini is described to have enchanted gods, demons and sages alike. Wood carving detail2 - Vishnu Mohini.jpg
The divine femme fatale of Hindu mythology, Apsara Mohini is described to have enchanted gods, demons and sages alike.

The femme fatale archetype exists in the culture, folklore and myths of many cultures. [5] Ancient mythical or legendary examples include Inanna, Lilith, Circe, Medea, Clytemnestra, Lesbia, Tamamo no Mae, and Visha Kanyas. Historical examples from classical times include Cleopatra and Messalina, as well as the biblical figures Delilah, Jezebel, and Salome. [6] An example from Chinese literature and traditional history is Daji.

Early Western culture to the 19th century

The femme fatale was a common figure in the European Middle Ages, often portraying the dangers of unbridled female sexuality. The pre-medieval inherited biblical figure of Eve offers an example, as does the wicked, seductive enchantress typified in Morgan le Fay. The Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute shows her more muted presence during the Age of Enlightenment. [7]

The femme fatale flourished in the Romantic period in the works of John Keats, notably "La Belle Dame sans Merci" and "Lamia". Along with them, there rose the gothic novel The Monk featuring Matilda, a very powerful femme fatale. This led to her appearing in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and as the vampire, notably in Carmilla and Brides of Dracula . The Monk was greatly admired by the Marquis de Sade, for whom the femme fatale symbolised not evil, but all the best qualities of women; his novel Juliette is perhaps the earliest wherein the femme fatale triumphs. Pre-Raphaelite painters frequently used the classic personifications of the femme fatale as a subject.

Salome in a 1906 painting by Franz von Stuck Franz von Stuck 010.jpg
Salome in a 1906 painting by Franz von Stuck

In the Western culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the femme fatale became a more fashionable trope, [8] and she is found in the paintings of the artists Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Franz von Stuck, and Gustave Moreau. The novel À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans includes these fevered imaginings about an image of Salome in a Moreau painting: [9]

No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, – a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.

Joris-Karl Huysmans, À rebours , Sisters of Salome

In 1891, Oscar Wilde, in his play Salome : she manipulates her lust-crazed uncle, King Herod, with her enticing Dance of the Seven Veils (Wilde's invention) to agree to her imperious demand: "bring me the head of John the Baptist". Later, Salome was the subject of an opera by Strauss, and was popularized on stage, screen, and peep show booths in countless incarnations. [10]

She also is seen as a prominent figure in late 19th- and 20th-century opera, appearing in Richard Wagner's Parsifal (Kundry), Georges Bizet's "Carmen", Camille Saint-Saëns' "Samson et Delilah" and Alban Berg's "Lulu" (based on the plays "Erdgeist" and "Die Büchse der Pandora" by Frank Wedekind).

Other considerably famous femmes fatales include Isabella of France, Hedda Gabler of Kristiania (now Oslo), Marie Antoinette of Austria, and, most famously, Lucrezia Borgia.

20th-century genres

Early 20th century

The Vampire, 1897,
Philip Burne-Jones
(1861-1926). Philip Burne-Jones - The Vampire.jpg
The Vampire, 1897,
Philip Burne-Jones
Actress Theda Bara, in the film A Fool There Was. Thedarose.jpg
Actress Theda Bara, in the film A Fool There Was .
Mrs Patrick Campbell Mrs. Patrick Campbell 1.jpg
Mrs Patrick Campbell
Alice Hollister, star of the 1913 film The Vampire
by Robert Vignola Silent film actress Alice Hollister (SAYRE 3236).jpg
Alice Hollister, star of the 1913 film The Vampire
by Robert Vignola

Mrs Patrick Campbell, George Bernard Shaw's "second famed platonic love affair", (she published some of his letters) [12] [13] and Philip Burne-Jones's lover and subject of his 1897 painting, The Vampire, inspired Burne-Jones's cousin Rudyard Kipling to write his poem "The Vampire", in the year Dracula was published. [14] [15] [16] [17] The poem, which began: "A fool there was ...", [18] inspired Porter Emerson Browne to write the play, A Fool There Was, becoming a 1909 Broadway production, and leading to the 1915 film, A Fool There Was starring Theda Bara, as "The Vamp". [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26]

The short poem may have been used in the publicity for the 1915 film.[ citation needed ] 1910s American slang for femme fatale was vamp, for vampire. [27] [28] [21]

Another icon is Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. While working as an exotic dancer, she took the stage name Mata Hari. She was accused of German espionage during World War I and was put to death by a French firing squad. After her death she became the subject of many sensational films and books.

The 1913 film The Vampire by Robert Vignola, contains a "vamp" dance. [29] Protagonist Alice Hollister was publicised as "the original vampire". [11] [30] [31]

Femmes fatales appear in detective fiction, especially in its 'hard-boiled' sub-genre which largely originated with the crime stories of Dashiell Hammett in the 1920s. At the end of that decade, the French-Canadian villainess Marie de Sabrevois gave a contemporary edge to the otherwise historical novels of Kenneth Roberts set during the American Revolution.

Film villainess often appeared foreign, often of Eastern European or Asian ancestry. They were a contrast to the wholesome personas of actresses such as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. Notable silent-cinema vamps include Theda Bara, Helen Gardner, Louise Glaum, Valeska Suratt, Musidora, Virginia Pearson, Olga Petrova, Rosemary Theby, Nita Naldi, Pola Negri, Estelle Taylor, Jetta Goudal, and, in early appearances, Myrna Loy.

Post World War II

"Temptress of the Tower of Torture and Sin", cover illustration for the story in the Avon Fantasy Reader, 1950. Avon Fantasy Reader 14.jpg
"Temptress of the Tower of Torture and Sin", cover illustration for the story in the Avon Fantasy Reader, 1950.

During the film-noir era of the 1940s and early-1950s, the femme fatale flourished in American cinema. Examples include Brigid O'Shaughnessy, portrayed by Mary Astor, who murders Sam Spade's partner in The Maltese Falcon (1941); manipulative narcissistic daughter Veda (portrayed by Ann Blyth) in Mildred Pierce who exploits her indulgent mother Mildred (portrayed by Joan Crawford) and fatally destroys her mother's remarriage to stepfather Monte Barragon (portrayed by Zachary Scott); Gene Tierney as Ellen Brent Harland in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), and the cabaret singer portrayed by Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), [32] narcissistic wives who manipulate their husbands; Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944), Ava Gardner in The Killers and Cora (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice , based on novels by Ernest Hemingway and James M. Cain respectively, manipulate men into killing their husbands. [32]

In the Hitchcock film The Paradine Case (1947), Alida Valli's character causes the deaths of two men and the near destruction of another. Another frequently cited example is the character Jane played by Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears (1949); during her quest to keep some dirty money from its rightful recipient and her husband, she uses poison, lies, sexual teasing and a gun to keep men wrapped around her finger. Jane Greer remains notable as a murderous femme fatale using her wiles on Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947). In Hitchcock's 1940 film and Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel Rebecca, the eponymous femme fatale completely dominates the plot, even though she is already dead and we never see an image of her. Rocky and Bullwinkle 's Natasha Fatale, a curvaceous spy, takes her name from the femme fatale stock character.

1980s to the present

The femme fatale is one of the most mesmerizing of sexual personae. She is not a fiction but an extrapolation of biologic realities in women that remain constant.

Sexual Personae (1990) by Camille Paglia [33]

The femme fatale has carried on to the present day, in films such as Body Heat (1981) and Prizzi's Honor (1985) – both with Kathleen Turner, Blade Runner (1982) with Sean Young, Blue Velvet (1986) with Isabella Rossellini, Fatal Attraction (1987) with Glenn Close, The Witches with Anjelica Huston, Basic Instinct (1992) with Sharon Stone, Damage (1992) with Juliette Binoche, The Last Seduction (1994) with Linda Fiorentino, To Die For (1995) with Nicole Kidman, Lost Highway (1997) with Patricia Arquette, Devil in the Flesh (1998) and Jawbreaker (1999), both with Rose McGowan, Original Sin (2001) with Angelina Jolie, Femme Fatale (2002) with Rebecca Romijn, and Jennifer's Body (2009), with Megan Fox. In 2013, Tania Raymonde played the title role in Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret . In 2014, Eva Green portrayed a femme fatale in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and Rosamund Pike starred in Gone Girl .

Academy Award-winning actress Marion Cotillard has frequently played femmes fatales, in such films as A Private Affair (2002), A Very Long Engagement , The Black Box , Inception , Midnight in Paris , The Dark Knight Rises and Macbeth . Nicole Kidman has also played a few femmes fatales in films as To Die For , The Paperboy , Moulin Rouge! and The Northman .

The archetype is also abundantly found in American television. One of the most famous femmes fatales of American television is Sherilyn Fenn's Audrey Horne of the David Lynch cult series Twin Peaks . In the TV series Femme Fatales , actress Tanit Phoenix played Lilith, the host who introduced each episode Rod Serling-style and occasionally appeared within the narrative. In the Netflix TV series Orange Is the New Black , actress Laura Prepon played Alex Vause, a modern femme fatale, who led both men and women to their destruction.

Femmes fatales appear frequently in comic books. Notable examples include Batman's long-time nemesis Catwoman, who first appeared in comics in 1940, and various adversaries of The Spirit, such as P'Gell.

This stock character is also often found in the genres of opera and musical theatre, where she will traditionally have a mezzo, alto or contralto range, opposed to the ingénue's soprano, to symbolize the masculinity and lack of feminine purity.[ citation needed ] An example is Hélène from Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 .

Use in criminal trials

The term has been used by the media in connection with highly publicised criminal trials, such as the trials of Jodi Arias [34] [35] and Amanda Knox. [36]

See also

Books-aj.svg aj ashton 01.svg  Literatureportal

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Salome</span> Biblical daughter of Herod II and Herodias

Salome, also known as Salome III, was a Jewish princess, the daughter of Herod II, son of Herod the Great, and princess Herodias, granddaughter of Herod the Great, and stepdaughter of Herod Antipas. She is known from the New Testament, where she is not named, and from an account by Flavius Josephus. In the New Testament, the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas demands and receives the head of John the Baptist. According to Josephus, she was first married to her uncle Philip the Tetrarch, after whose death, she married her cousin Aristobulus of Chalcis, thus becoming queen of Chalcis and Armenia Minor.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Theda Bara</span> American actress (1885–1955)

Theda Bara was an American silent film and stage actress.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">William Fox (producer)</span> Hungarian-American film producer (1879-1952)

Wilhelm Fried Fuchs, commonly and better known as William Fox, was a Hungarian-American film industry executive who founded the Fox Film Corporation in 1915 and the Fox West Coast Theatres chain in the 1920s. Although he lost control of his film businesses in 1930, his name was used by 20th Century Fox and continues to be used in the trademarks of the present-day Fox Corporation, including the Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox News, Fox Sports and Foxtel.

Vamp most commonly refers to:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vampire film</span> Film genre

Vampire films have been a staple in world cinema since the era of silent films, so much so that the depiction of vampires in popular culture is strongly based upon their depiction in films throughout the years. The most popular cinematic adaptation of vampire fiction has been from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, with over 170 versions to date. Running a distant second are adaptations of the 1872 novel Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu. By 2005, the Dracula character had been the subject of more films than any other fictional character except Sherlock Holmes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vampires in popular culture</span>

Vampires are frequently represented in popular culture, including appearances in ballet, films, literature, music, opera, theatre, paintings, and video games.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alice Hollister</span> American actress (1886–1973)

Alice Hollister was an American silent film actress who appeared in around 90 films between 1910 and 1925. She is known for her roles in movies such as From the Manger to the Cross and The Vampire.

<i>A Fool There Was</i> (1915 film) 1915 American silent film

A Fool There Was is an American silent drama film produced by William Fox, directed by Frank Powell, and starring Theda Bara. Released in 1915, the film was long considered controversial for such risqué intertitle cards as "Kiss me, my fool!"

<i>Salomé</i> (1918 film) 1918 film by J. Gordon Edwards

Salomé is a 1918 American silent drama film produced by William Fox and starring actress Theda Bara.

The Vampira Show was an American television show that broadcast vintage horror films presented by horror host Vampira. The series aired on the Los Angeles ABC television affiliate KABC-TV from April 30, 1954, through April 2, 1955. The weekly series was produced and created by Hunt Stromberg, Jr., and featured the Vampira character created by Maila Nurmi.

Mary Ann Doane is the Class of 1937 Professor of Film and Media at the University of California, Berkeley and was previously the George Hazard Crooker Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. She is a pioneer in the study of gender in film.

The Kreutzer Sonata is a lost 1915 American silent romantic drama film directed by Herbert Brenon and costarring Nance O'Neil, Theda Bara, and William H. Shay. The film was based on the 1902 play of the same name by Jacob Gordin, which was based on Leo Tolstoy's 1889 novella. Produced by Fox Film Corporation, it was shot at the company's studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

<i>The Devils Daughter</i> (1915 film) 1915 film

The Devil's Daughter is a lost 1915 American silent drama film directed by Frank Powell and starring Theda Bara. Based on the 1899 play La Gioconda by Italian writer Gabriele D'Annunzio, this updated adaptation portrayed the story of vengeful woman—a "vamp"—who uses her beauty and sensuality to lure a young man to ruin, destroying both his marriage and his career as an artist. The film was produced by Fox Film Corporation and shot at the company's studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey and on location in St. Augustine, Florida.

<i>A Woman There Was</i> 1919 film by J. Gordon Edwards

A Woman There Was is a 1919 American silent South Seas drama film directed by J. Gordon Edwards and starring Theda Bara. The film is based on the short story "Creation's Tears", by George James Hopkins. Bara portrays Zara, the daughter of a South Seas island tribal chief, who falls in love with a missionary and is killed after helping him escape.

<i>When Men Desire</i> 1919 film by J. Gordon Edwards

When Men Desire is a 1919 American silent drama film directed by J. Gordon Edwards and starring Theda Bara. It is presumed to be a lost film.

<i>LApparition</i> 1876 painting by Gustave Moreau

The Apparition(French: L'Apparition) is a painting by French artist Gustave Moreau, painted between 1874 and 1876. It shows the biblical character of Salome dancing in front of Herod Antipas with a vision of John the Baptist's severed head. The 106 cm high and 72,2 cm wide watercolor held by the Musée d'Orsay in Paris elaborates on an episode told in the Gospel of Matthew 14:6–11 and Mark 6:21–29. On a feast held for Herod Antipas' birthday, the princess Salome dances in front of the king and his guests. This pleased him so much he promises her anything she wished for. Incited by her mother Herodias, who was reproved by the John the Baptist for her illegitimate marriage to Herod, Salome demands John's head on a charger. Regretful but compelled to keep his word in front of everyone present, Herod complies with Salome's demand. John the Baptist is beheaded, his head brought on a charger and given to Salome, who in turn gives it to her mother.

<i>The Blue Flame</i> (play) 1920 science fiction play

The Blue Flame is a four-act play written by George V. Hobart and John Willard, who revised an earlier version by Leta Vance Nicholson. In 1920, producer Albert H. Woods staged the play on Broadway and on tour across the United States. Ruth Gordon, the main character, is a religious young woman who dies and is revived by her scientist fiancé as a soulless femme fatale. She seduces several men and involves them in crimes, including drug use and murder. In the final act, her death and resurrection are revealed to be a dream. The production starred Theda Bara, a popular silent film actress who was known for playing similar roles in movies.

The depictions of women in film noir come in a range of archetypes and stock characters, including the alluring femme fatale. A femme fatale, is a prevalent and indicating theme to the style of film noir.

<i>The Vampire</i> (1913 film) 1913 film by Robert G. Vignola

The Vampire is an American silent film drama, directed by Robert G. Vignola, based on the 1897 eponymous poem by Rudyard Kipling. It stars Alice Hollister and Harry F. Millarde. It is generally considered the first recognized film depicting the vamp character, also known as femme fatale.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Salome (Wilde): Themes and derivatives</span>

Salome by Oscar Wilde, a play written in 1891 and first produced in 1896, has been analysed by numerous literary critics, and has prompted numerous derivatives. The play depicts the events leading to the execution of Iokanaan at the instigation of Salome, step-daughter of Herod Antipas, and her death on Herod's orders.


  1. Cope, Rebecca (11 March 2014). "Best Film Femme Fatales". Harper's Bazaar.
  2. Mary Ann Doane, Femme Fatales (1991) pp. 1–2
  3. The Lady from Shanghai
  4. Hanson, Philip (2008). "The Arc of National Confidence and the Birth of Film Noir, 1929–1941". Journal of American Studies. 42 (3): 387–414. doi:10.1017/S0021875808005501. ISSN   0021-8758. JSTOR   40464308. S2CID   145788781 . Retrieved 5 May 2022.
  5. Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, ch. IV, p. 199: La Belle Dame sans Merci (The Beautiful Lady without Mercy). London/New York, 1933–1951–1970 (Oxford University Press).
  6. Mario Praz (1970) The Romantic Agony. Oxford University Press: 199, 213–216, 222, 250, 258, 259, 272, 277, 282, 377
  7. C. G. Jung ed, Man and his Symbols (1978) p. 187
  8. Jill Scott, Electra after Freud (2005) p. 66
  9. Huysmans À rebours – Toni Bentley (2002) Sisters of Salome: 24
  10. Toni Bentley (2002) Sisters of Salome
  11. 1 2 Kalem Films The Lotus Woman. Moving Picture World. 1916. p. 1074.
  12. Campbell, Mrs Patrick (1922). My Life and Some Letters. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. Retrieved 9 October 2016.
  13. "Shaw's Vampire". Time . April 22, 1940. Archived from the original on March 21, 2009. Retrieved August 9, 2008.
  14. "The Vampire by Rudyard Kipling – Poems | Academy of American Poets".
  15. "British Library".
  16. "Archived copy". artmagick.com. Archived from the original on 7 February 2010. Retrieved 17 January 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  17. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/479931/summary
  18. "The Vampire".
  19. "Progressive Silent Film List: A Fool There Was". www.silentera.com.
  20. "Theda Bara (1885–1955)". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved April 21, 2021.
  21. 1 2 Adinolfi, Francesco (2008). Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation. Translated by Pinkus, Karen; Vivrette, Jason. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 24. ISBN   9780822341321. OCLC   179838406.
  22. "Vamping It up: Rudyard Kipling, Theda Bara & the 20th Century Femme Fatale". 31 May 2014.
  23. "The Vampire by Rudyard Kipling on Quill & Brush, Inc".
  24. "The vampire : A poem : Written for a picture by Philip Burne-Jones exhibited at the New Gallery in London, 1897 /, by Rudyard Kipling | the Online Books Page".
  25. Kipling, Rudyard (1898). "The Vampire: A Poem : Written for a Picture by Philip Burne-Jones Exhibited at the New Gallery in London, 1897".
  26. "The Vampire (Painting) – the Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia".
  27. Per the Oxford English Dictionary, vamp is originally English, used first by G. K. Chesterton, but popularized in the American silent film The Vamp, starring Enid Bennett
  28. "Vamp", Oxford English Dictionary; retrieved 30 December 2016
  29. John T. Soister, American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913–1929, McFarland, 2012, p. 41
  30. Greenroom Jottings. Motion Picture Story Magazine. 1914. p.  136.
  31. Who's who in pictures. Motion Picture Magazine. 1918. pp.  51.
  32. 1 2 Johnston, Sheila (27 February 2009). "Whatever happened to the femme fatale?". The Independent. Archived from the original on February 28, 2009. Retrieved 27 February 2009.
  33. Paglia, Camille (1990). Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. London: Yale University Press. pp.  16. ISBN   978-0-300-04396-9.
  34. Ortiz, Erik. "Jodi Arias: Femme fatale or woman of faith? Jurors hear conflicting persona in murder trial as prosecutors play phone calls of Arias lying".
  35. "Jodi Arias Trial Update: Lawyer Reveals Femme Fatale Was Terrified During Sentencing". 15 April 2015. Retrieved 2015-04-30.
  36. "Amanda Knox is no femme fatale, defence lawyer says". BBC News. 27 September 2011. Retrieved 2015-04-30.

Further reading