During cinema’s early years, the expected role for females in film was reduced to the stereotypical damsel in distress. Where female actress’ were offered little more than background props, the male actors were provided the juicy narrative, multidimensional character development, and memorable scenes in the early landscape of cinema. However, cinema has long been viewed as a reflection of the culture and times of particular communities. In a pre-World War II society, the role of women remained limited in many civil societies. Considering those involved in the production of a film were predominantly male, it is unsurprising that this translated to film in that women were portrayed as being passive and relatively insignificant in terms of plot.
However, post-war anxiety created a new society, not only culturally, but concurrently with the development of new cinema. In many developed countries, female liberation and the rise of feminism defined the following decades. As a result, the issue of female importance could no longer be accepted to be reduced as background props in movies. Accompanying this shift concerning the traditional role for women was a certain mood of distrust and pessimism (primarily from men). Thus, this cynicism towards this societal change was reflected in the new roles of women in cinema. Giving rise to new film genres in the wake of the feminist movement, femme fatales were characterized by their ambition, cunning, and manipulation of men that contradicted traditional views of women.
In particular, it was the film noir genre that focused on crime drama and sexual motives which brought to the forefront femme fatales in film. A femme fatale literally translates from French into a “deadly woman.” Literature from around the world had long introduced the idea of femme fatales, with characters such as Lady MacBeth, Medea from Greek mythology, Lady Rokujo from the epic Japanese work The Tale of Genji, all being characterized of using seduction as a means of achieving their dangerous and immoral ambitions. Film noir genre developed in the midst of the Second World War where women were finally afforded to work alongside men in many professions (although much of the reason had to do out of necessity than the desire for gender equality as labor shortages due to fighting males required it). With this new challenge to the nuclear family and traditional idea of womanhood, women in cinema that reinforced a wide-spread suspicion of what would become of society with these fundamental changes.
Femme fatale film was characterized by many things. First, they overtly rejected the roles women had been assigned by the male dominated society. Being a mother and wife are of no interest. Femme fatale figures are presented as independent spirits. Or, if they are portrayed as being married, the marriage is given suspicious undertones as being rooted in advantage and manipulation. Film noir cinema stresses that women have long been viewed as objects by their male counterparts in the context of marriage, and now there is a collective awareness of this by women. In the 1944 Double Indemnity movie, the female protagonist Phyllis Dietrichson murders her husband because she is frustrated by her lower worth in the marital context, rather than being an object of desire on the singles scene. The persona of femme fatale movies is portrayed ironically: On one hand, these women reject the traditional objectification because of their gender, yet they use seduction and are willing to objectify themselves as a means of achieving their ambitions. The portrayal of marriage has an interesting design in cinema that features femme fatales in practicing a childless marriage. Femme fatales view marriage neither out of love nor for the creation of new life, but rather it is primarily about advantage and selfish gains.
Femme fatale movies primarily limited the role of women in cinema as a moral obstacle for the male protagonist of the movie, mostly detectives. Their integrity and moral groundings were at stake and lost when femme fatales were introduced into the equation in these films. Independent, smart, and sexual women proved more menacing than the murderers that were on the street.
Femme Fatales continue to captivate audience’s imagination because they contradict the very notion of the damsel in distress that women have been traditionally portrayed as in cinema. Femme fatale film has today been extended beyond the film noir genre, although stories involving crime and passion are the most prevalent backdrop for femme fatales. The 1987 film Fatal Attraction, for example, told the story of an adulterous affair involving the married Michael Douglas and Glenn Close that became violent when the woman refused to let the affair to end. Such a portrayal in femme fatale film reflects an evolution and variation within the characterization. In some movies, femme fatales are stable and viewed to have too much mental control over men. Yet in others, women in cinema suffer from mental instability that makes them that much more dangerous.