Fascination with ‘grim ladies,’ as the femme fatale was known in the nineteenth-century (the term was femme fatale was not coined until the twentieth-century), found its beginnings during the eighteenth century in a sexist reaction to women’s arrival in the public sphere. Starting in the eighteenth century, “concerted efforts for a legal declaration of women’s equality to men have periodically been made,” especially as women moved out of the private sphere and their expected roles within the home (Heller 8). As they moved into the public sphere, some women began pursuing jobs in factories or offices. However, despite this opportunity for these women to gain a certain degree of autonomy, historically the “image and perception of women [had] commonly been determined by men rather than by women themselves” (Heller 8). Women faced this same issue of men determining their place in society during the eighteenth century as “men… came to question what the nature of women was” without their role inside the home to define them (Heller 9). “Seeing women’s increasing non-maternal and non-conjugal significance resulted in fear and anxiety,” because men quickly viewed this as a threat to the patriarchal system around which all of society was built (Heller 9). Though women understood their shifting roles within society as “the right of woman to assert her own personality,” men viewed this same phenomenon as “the inversion of the healthy and natural relationship between the sexes,” in which men held the dominant position (Heller 9).
During this age of enlightenment, intellectuals made connections between sex and the natural order in defense of the male-dominated society. Intellectuals and men in power worked “under the guise of preserving moral values and the social institutions of marriage and family; any attempt to determine the independent rights or nature of women was dismissed as essentially subversive to the natural, God-ordained order” (Heller 9). Due to this, early feminists faced many of the same cultural and institutional obstacles that modern feminism still battles, especially in the form of supporters of the patriarchal system. Contemporary thinkers engaged pseudoscience to rationalize the divide between the sexes. Scientific thinkers who studied evolution “soon decided that feminism was the clearest example of [the] masculinizing degeneracy” from which society was suffering (Dijkstra 213). They argued that females were evolving to become more masculine, reducing males to feminine beings, upsetting the established social order. These theories of evolution directly related to the development of the femme fatale archetype, casting women in roles of animalistic and evil beings. Women were viewed as “heading for another cultural ‘fall,’ which, toppling… from her place among the household gods of bourgeois society, would first drive her out of the window of domesticity into the trees… any by the end of the nineteenth century, straight into the primordial lair of the devil” (Dijkstra 4). This belief concluded that “men who… were enticed by women… were doomed to sink to woman’s level” through engaging in sex which would lead to his eventual downfall (Dijkstra 220).
Depictions of the femme fatale, or dangerous woman, coincided directly with the rise in women’s further participation in the public sphere. As an archetype, the femme fatale took on the same characteristics that men feared and desired in their contemporary women: “beautiful, erotic, seductive, destructive, exotic… self-determined and independent” (Allen 4). Appearing in both art and literature, femme fatales mirrored the idea that women could only be one of the two extremes “of unattainable ideals or horrid monsters” (Heller 8). Though that standard would be impossible for real women to uphold, the femme fatale sometimes fit into both categories at once, as both beautiful seductress and dangerous bringer-of-death. The portrayals of these women reaffirmed the cultural misconception that “man, with his intellect, could make a choice; woman, considered to consist only on instincts, could not,” which reduced women to instinctual animals (Heller 12). Femme fatales often became characterized by animalistic characteristics, like their bloodthirsty nature, which placed men above all women in yet another way.
Similarly, femme fatales characteristically were depicted as bringers-of-death to men, and therefore were unable to fill the normal domestic roles of women. “With no possibility of generating life [in the form of motherhood], [the femme fatale’s] ‘animalism,’ becomes dangerous, and men become her helpless victims” (Heller 11). She breaks the societal norms of docile women – wives and mothers – because “no matter how amorous, does not conceive. Sin alone may feed at her luscious breast” (Allen 4). Perpetuating images of women’s beauty leading to desire and lust, and the eventual downfall of man, femme fatales characterized the fearful social climate of the time. Men argued that “women should be denied any higher education since it turns them into ‘modern fools,’ granting them false masculine traits whereby they seek power over men while being poor child bearers and bad mothers” (Heller 10). It should be noted that these dangerous women, in both the artistic realm and real life were viewed as having adopted masculine traits, which inherently threatened the social balance of male and masculine domination of the feminine female.
A seductress by nature, the femme fatale’s greatest threat to men was her allure, to which men helplessly succumbed, leading to their deaths at her hands. She uses this “uncanny, overpowering force of nature, bestowing supreme delights or dealing destruction, and [man] trembles before this power, to which he is [defenseless]” (Heller 9). This idea again translated into the greater beliefs within the wider culture. A general belief that “those who fused the sensual charm of women with the intellectual capabilities of men into a sterile union capable only of generating death. It was death for men; it was death for children born weak and deprived of nourishment; it was death for a civilization; it could only be death for the woman herself” (Heller 11). By stepping out of her normalized domestic realm, woman became the scapegoat for the ‘death’ of the wider culture, dependent on her submissive compliance. The femme fatale characterized this failure to society because, “despite the powers her sensuality might give her, she retained the fate of all women as the nineteenth century interpreted it: failing to fulfill her natural function as mother, she could generate only death, including her own” (Heller 13). Even in a larger cultural context, the artists and authors who made use of the femme fatale archetype viewed women in general as a threat to them in particular because “sexual contact with a woman was often considered incompatible with artistic creation: seduction by woman meant artistic death” (Heller 35). This fear of women and their temptations continued in society, even after the use of the femme fatale in art and literature became less common, and even remains in some aspects of culture today. As an artistic reaction to an early women’s movement, the femme fatale proves significant and gives a tangible example of men’s fear of autonomous and powerful women.