Femme Fatale in Film Noir

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The term film noir was coined by French critics for 1940s-50s American films that shared a dark sensibility and a dark lighting style, such as Double Indemnity (1944), Out of the Past (1947), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Many theorists related the common noir attributes and aesthetic elements to a post war society characterised by insecurity about gender roles, the economy, changing definitions of race, and nuclear technology. One of the cultural problems the term genre attempts to address is the gender question. The familiarity of the femme fatale character across film noir is the predominant cause for discussion amongst feminist theorists. Feminist theorists became, and still remain, interested in the woman's portrayal in noir because the majority of quintessential film noirs were manufactured just after World War II when a massive surge in standing occurred within society for women. All the normal stereotypes and roles were being either broken down or at the very least questioned. The quintessential noir woman, the femme fatale represents the most direct attack on traditional womanhood and the nuclear family. She refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society generates, dictates and prescribes for women. It is understood that the majority of feminist film theorists' objections lie within how differently the female image is treated in film from the male image. The image of the femme fatale in film noir finally portrayed an image of a strong, independent woman who could easily manipulate the men around her to get what she wanted. However, feminist critics appreciate that the immortality of the sensational femme fatale characters in film noir ultimately assists their argument in the battle for equal rights because women are shown to subvert their male counterparts.

The females in film noir were one of two types - dutiful, reliable, trustworthy and loving women; or femme fatales - mysterious, duplicitous, double-crossing, stunning, unloving, predatory, unreliable, irresponsible, manipulative and desperate women. Usually, the male protagonist in film noir wished to elude his mysterious past, and had to choose what path to take by picking one of the women. It would be to follow the goadings of a traitorous, self-destructive femme fatale who would lead the struggling, disillusioned, and doomed hero into committing murder or some other crime of passion coupled with twisted love. The femme fatale, who had also transgressed societal norms with her independent and smart, menacing actions, would bring both of them to a downfall. As scholar Elisabeth Bronfen noted, indeed, the classic femme fatale has enjoyed such popularity because she is not only sexually uninhibited, but also unabashedly independent and ruthlessly ambitious, using her seductive charms and her intelligence to liberate herself from the imprisonment of an unfulfilling marriage. The femme fatale was a central character in film noir, usually tempting the male protagonist to his inevitable doom. The violence and power of her rebellion against that role earlier in the film overcomes the contrived ending, so that the dominant image of the femme fatale is one of defiance against the traditional family and woman's place in society. On the surface it would appear that man had managed to subvert women again as film noir's portrayal of the femme fatale would seem to support the existing social order by building up the powerful, independent woman, only to punish her in the end. However, film noir, it can be argued, actually shows that women are confined by the roles traditionally open to them, that their destructive struggle for independence is a response to the rigid restrictions that the male dominated society placed on them. By the late 1950s and into the 1960s, these strong, tough, independent women were being replaced by coadjutors and consorts as if to restrict this new found freedom.

Intellectual Michael Mills...
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