The seductress, better known as a femme fatale, is one of the oldest and most common archetypes for women. In researching it, I came across a variety of interesting things, after which I would advise caution in researching this archetype or watching any of the movies described below. There is diversity in the way she is presented, but there are some core characteristics to the femme fatale. She is manipulative, selfish, intelligent, driven, a survivor, and of course a temptress. She is often cynical, was forced to grow up quickly, and is a rival to other women, with few female friends. The term femme fatale is French for fatal woman, and she is often fatal to the men she tangles with, usually being cast as a villain in the story. Femme fatales were a popular figure in the film-noir era of the 1940s and 50s, crime dramas with a cynical and sexual woman often playing a villainous role. When most people picture a femme fatale, this is the role they most often think of, but it has a rich presence in literature as well.
The seductress appears in the Bible, fairytales, Shakespearean plays, and The Odyssey. Delilah, in the story of Samson and Delilah in the Book of Judges, seduces Samson causing him great pain, loss of his strength, enslavement, and eventually death. In the Arthurian legends, Morgan le Faye, also known as Morgana, is often portrayed as a seductress and a sorceress depending on the version. Fairytales contain seductresses, frequently in the role of the step-mother; examples include the story of Hansel and Gretel where the step-mother convinces their father to kick them out of the house. The step-mother in Cinderella convinces Cinderella’s father to marry her and then she treats Cinderella like a slave. In Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth is also considered a seductress manipulating her husband into killing because of her quest for power. The sirens in The Odyssey are also a prevailing example of seductresses luring sailors to their deaths.
There are far too many femme fatale movies to mention, but some of the most popular ones include Body Heat, Basic Instinct, Vanity Fair, Fatal Attraction, Evita, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Gone with the Wind. Some of the less obvious examples are Mystique from X-Men, Poison Ivy from Batman, Sydney from Alias, and Inara from Firefly. All of these women are vastly different, but the underlying theme is using their bodies in some way to achieve their goals.
Body Heat starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner in 1981 is one of the most popular examples. Kathleen Turner, playing Matty, seduces William Hurt as Ned Racine and manipulates him into killing her husband, thus inheriting everything and landing Ned in jail while she remains free. Matty made everything seem like Ned’s idea. She pulled his strings so well that he never figured out he was being played until it was too late. She knew just how much to give him and when to pull away to leave him wanting more.
Basic Instinct from 1992 is also considered one of the best femme fatale movies. It stars Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone as Detective Nick Curran and Catherine Tramell. Nick is investigating Catherine in a murder case, eventually coming to the conclusion that she was not guilty, not realizing he barely escaped death by ice pick himself. Her main tool is her body, as was Matty’s in Body Heat, hiding the brilliant and manipulative mind behind it.
In some cases, the idea of a seductress is looked at in a more positive light. Sydney in the TV show Alias frequently uses her body and her sex appeal as a part of her job as a spy trying to protect innocent people. She uses her manipulative power over men for a positive goal. In Firefly, the character of Inara uses her body to make a living and can wrap men around her finger with little more than a look. She is not seen as a villain in the story but as a protagonist.
This archetype, along with the damsel in distress and the mother figure, stretches back in history as far as we can see making it one of the most prevalent ideas about women. There are many different viewpoints on why this is so. Perhaps the most popular is that until more recently, men held the power in writing. They were the authors of essentially all literature and could portray women however they saw fit, mainly the three archetypes above. Men saw (and perhaps still see) from this misogynistic viewpoint of women as seductresses trying to lead them astray. The fear of women as witches with unearthly powers to ensnare men and stories of women as vampires and sirens luring men to their deaths is also a prevalent idea. Some see this archetype as a fearful response to feminism. Women who asserted themselves as being intelligent and with power and strength were seen as evil seductresses.
On the other side of the argument, the seductress can be seen as a sign of female independence. It is looked at, not as demeaning to women, but as a sign of female power and perspicacity. Seductresses would then be precursors to modern feminists. Between these two views of the seductress, as an evil enchantress bent on men’s destruction or as a feminist, the prolific usage of the archetype makes sense.
By Melissa Blakely