Nineteenth century Europe gave rise to the archetypal character of the femme fatale, who spanned many different mediums including literature and art. The emergence of the femme fatale figure served as a direct response to shifting roles of women in society, as they moved from remaining strictly in the home into the public realm, pursuing jobs and their own interests. The strictly male-dominated public sphere reacted by creating female characters in art and literature who used their feminine characteristics to seduce unwitting men, who they would then kill. The femme fatale archetype essentially developed in order to show the ‘threat to society’ that men perceived through the rise in women’s autonomy, as well as to warn the rest of society to prevent women’s continual social rise.
In observing examples of the femme fatale, I looked at three different mediums: paintings by Gustave Moreau – Oedipus and the Sphinx, The Apparition, and Helen at the Scaean Gate, Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and modern movie and television portrayals of Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes. Analyses across mediums of art, literature and film give a more comprehensive look at different portrayals of the femme fatale, and ultimately, how the society viewed them. Studying the femme fatale gives a glimpse of what occurred in the minds of men when they felt that their dominant position within society was threatened by the rising roles of women, even though their disfavor of women’s roles ultimately proved pointless.