She’s seductive. She shirks conventional morality. She probably smokes long cigarettes. Say the phrase “femme fatale,” and you can recite the ingredients back to me by heart. The quintessential image of the femme fatale, or dangerous woman, was cemented in 1940s noir film. But the archetype of a woman who uses her seductive powers – the woman who is aware enough of her gender role to use it to gain power (and occasionally ruin men’s lives) — is an old one. Look at Delilah, Cleopatra, Salome.
Why did femmes fatales feature so heavily in film in the '40s? A classic academic reading of the femme fatale resurgence states that femmes fatales were a response to women entering the public sphere in unprecedented numbers in the '40s. Men created characters that embodied their anxieties about these newly empowered women. But it’s not that simple, and it shouldn't be that pessimistic. Film noir gave women a space to exist beyond the typical bounds of womanhood. A woman could be sexual, she could be a villain, she could escape from confining marriages — she could be other than what gender prescriptions laid out for her.
The archetype of the femme fatale has proven to be fluid, and able to adapt to different eras. Let’s take a look at the evolution of the femme fatale character in movies — and why the recent uptick of movies featuring violent leading likes, like Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow, is actually the mark of evolution.