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The irresistible pull of the femme fatale

Press release issued: 23 August 2010

Angelina Jolie, Anna Chapman, Naomi Campbell – celebrities, spies and divas who the media love to hate. The modern day female icon holds much in common with the archetypal femme fatale, whose enduring appeal dates back to Eve, the Sirens and Medusa. Now, a new collection of essays from distinguished arts scholars examines fatal femininity as a cultural preoccupation across different historical epochs.

A new collection of essays that explores the enduring fascination of the femme fatale, from Hollywood through to world and European cinema, questions what is at stake in representations of gender that combine good and evil, and examines fatal femininity as a cultural preoccupation across different historical epochs.

The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts, published by Palgrave Macmillan, focuses on figures such as Medusa and Mata Hari through to Greta Garbo and the femme fatale of film noir.  Yet as the authors note, this captivating notion transcends time – and arguably progress – and dates back as far as Eve as the ultimate temptress who must be punished for her allure.

In one of the book’s essays, this notion of Eve instigating man’s fall is reinterpreted to suggest her compulsion for the forbidden fruit was an act that inspired wisdom rather than temptation.

Distinguished scholars from the visual arts, literature and film similarly tackle age-old stereotypes.  In the case of Mata Hari, the infamous spy executed by the French during the First World War, her story is noted more for its tragedy, and yet what prevailed was the idea of an oriental villainess. 

In these as in other cases, the uncertainties of each historic period were projected on to women who symbolised the most feared and desired aspects of modernity.

According to co-editor Dr Catherine O’Rawe, specialist in Italian cinema at the University of Bristol, the femme fatale figure has always been a way of displacing blame: “Women are seen as powerful figures and the individual woman is considered to be representative of womanhood as a whole.  So when we are saying we want to see this dangerous figure put back in her place, it is almost a pronouncement on all women.

“Women get singled out for being beautiful, powerful, assertive, and we all presume that we can judge them for that.  It’s very striking that no matter how much we seem to be emancipated, there actually seems to be a very strong desire on behalf of the culture to punish women for that.”

Originating in myth, Biblical stories and legend, such as Lilith, the Sirens and Medusa, the femme fatale is always a contradiction who defies definition. A universal notion that invariably embodies gender threat, she also marks societal boundaries particular to individual cultures.

In Spanish cinema, behind the femme fatale was a subtext tackling the complexities of civil war.  While in post-war Britain, the casting of Norwegian-born actress Greta Gynt as the ‘wicked lady’ allowed a nation shaken by war to project its fears on to a seemingly exotic Other.

Iconic stars such as Rita Hayworth and Zhang Ziyi are the focus of other chapters which unpick the relationship between the on-screen femme fatale and the off-screen attitudes and cultural dynamics that she embodies.

As Dr O’Rawe adds: “Although women are now politically and socially much more free, the narrative of the femme fatale always brings them back to much more traditional ideas of what women should be.” 

Further information

The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts, edited by Catherine O'Rawe of the University of Bristol and Helen Hanson of the University of Exeter, published by Palgrave MacMillan. Available from
Please contact Aliya Mughal for further information.
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