Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Femme Fatale

The French phrase femme fatale (lit. deadly woman) represents male sexual fantasies and fears as well as the sexual empowerment of women. Although portrayals of the femme fatale in literature and film have altered considerably, as a mythic creature she continues to endure. Sociologically the role of the femme fatale can be interpreted as embodying female independence and rebellion against traditional female gender roles. In Jungian psychology the femme fatale is an archetypal figure who represents the lowest manifestation of the anima in the unconscious contents of the male psyche.

Typical descriptions include her being mysterious, subversive, double-crossing, unloving, predatory, tough-sweet, unreliable, irresponsible and manipulative. She is often portrayed as a woman who is extremely attractive with a sultry voice, a provocative body and a complex character. She tends to be very intelligent, in addition to her beauty she often speaks, behaves and dresses in an unusual and striking manner designed to attract male attention. Most importantly, she is extremely dangerous; an entanglement with a femme fatale often involves devastating consequences for a man.

From the enchantress Circe’s transformation of men into pigs to the alluring song of the Sirens in Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey’, to Biblical characters such as Delilah’s emasculation of Samson to Salome’s erotic dance, examples of the femme fatale occur throughout  world literature. Other notable literary characters  include Sheridan Le Fanu’s  ‘Carmilla’ and De Quiros’ Genoveva in  The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers  but there's many other portrayals of the femme fatale  scattered throughout world literature, too numerous to mention.

Depictions of the femme fatale often proliferate whenever there is rapid social change and upheaval. An early cinematic portrayal of the femme fatale can be seen in Von Sternberg’s 'The Blue Angel'  (1930) in which the infatuated fall of school-teacher professor Rath through night-club singer Lola (Marlene Dietrich) occurs. Another historical epoch  in which the role of the femme fatale  was prominent was after the social upheaval caused by World War II  in American society, as depicted in film noir cinema. Notable femme fatales in film noir include Rita Hayworth in  ‘Gilda’, Lana Turner in ‘The Postman always rings twice’ and Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Double Indemnity’.

The writings of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung provide an illuminating  understanding of the psychological significance of the femme fatale. In Jungian psychology the femme fatale is a somewhat negative manifestation of the anima (it’s corresponding term in a woman being defined the animus). It’s worthwhile refreshing one’s understanding of the Jungian concept of the anima. Jung defined the anima as the feminine component in a man’s personality and the totality of all the unconscious feminine psychological qualities that a male possesses. In his words, woman has carried for man the living image of his own feminine soul and likewise man has carried for woman the living image of her own spirit. 

Central to Jungian psychology is the concept of projection, that is, active but unconscious thought  towards another, often towards the opposite sex. Projection in itself is neither good or bad, but an unconscious activity, it is what one does with the projection which matters. Negative effects of projection upon the anima (animus in a woman) are directly related to a man’s unawareness and devaluation of his feminine side, and vice-versa in a woman. 

According to Jung the entire process of anima development  is about the male opening up to emotionality and to a broader spirituality, this includes intuitive processes, creativity, imagination and psychic sensitivity towards himself and others. Just as the anima is the master of a man’s moods and irrational behaviour, so too the animus  is the master of opinions and judgements in a woman. Its important here to emphasis that woman is as much in the unconscious grip of her animus as man is of his anima, resulting in unconscious  judgements, opinions and over-intellectualism  at the expense of feeling in her.

Jung proposed that there were four stages of the anima in man’s psyche, these being Eve, Helen of Troy, the Virgin Mary and at the apex of development of the anima the spiritual wisdom of Sophia.  The character of the femme fatale in literature and film, the lowest rung in the sequential development of a man’s anima equivalent to the temptress of Eve takes on a clearer understanding and profounder meaning in  the light of Jung’s psychology.

The problem of relationship and  the frequent misunderstandings between the sexes  according to Jung arises from the fact that, more often that not, rather than accepting and listening to the real  and flawed person facing one, there frequently  arises unconscious  and projected anima or animus activity which overtake true relating. Whenever a man or woman fascinates us we can be sure that a projected content of the unconscious is at work. For a man, this means recognising that his moods, compulsive sexual fantasies, and insatiable restlessness have a dark feminine side at their source. For a woman it means recognising that the opinions and destructive criticisms that suddenly come into her consciousness have the inner figure of the animus behind them. 

Woman as a femme fatale  in Jung's psychology is none other than an immature and undeveloped aspect of a man's anima figure. The misunderstandings between the sexes are succinctly stated  by Jung thus -

‘no man can converse with an animus for five minutes without becoming the victim of his own anima…. The animus draws his sword of power and the anima ejects her poison of illusion and seduction’.  - CW 9 ii 29

The persona of the femme fatale divides opinions amongst sociologists. Some consider the femme fatale to be closely tied to male misogyny, while for others the role of femme fatale remains an example of female independence and a threat to traditional female gender roles. for it, ‘expresses woman's ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm’. 

Some have argued that Jung's psychology, based upon mythology, simplifies the complexities of  relationships between the sexes. What is certain however is that many years before the American pop-star Britney Spears (b. 1984) entitled her new seventh album Femme Fatale,  the German-born chanteuse, Gothic uber-fraulein and prodigy of Andy Warhol, Nico, (1938-98 photo above)  accompanied by the Velvet Underground, sang Lou Reed’s song entitled Femme Fatale in 1967. Like many self-styled femme fatale’s Nico died prematurely.

The modern femme fatale is as likely to have the same self-destructive tendencies and mental health problems which are usually associated with men, that is, problems arising from alcohol abuse, drug addiction, violence and aggression, negative effects from empowerment not resulting in true equality for women.

Jung's psychological  observations, although less fashionable than once, when fully comprehended, continue to clarify the often confused relations between the sexes today. 

Recommended reading and quotes from - The Invisible Partners: How the Male and Female in Each of Us Affects Our Relationships by John A. Sanford 1979


Jeb said...

Ive never looked at modern examples in any detail but she has always struck me as an evolving version of the loathly lady ( certainly very strong potential)

More limited in inflection. e.g the choices the knight is given in Chaucers the Wife of Bath, the treacherous beauty is only one possible outcome.

She is somewhat interesting in Oral Narrative as well. Vast amount of examples. All rather interesting.

Still Ive never got beyond the late 17th 18th century with this one other than the folk record (not enough hours in the day) so I may be wrong.

She is a complex creature who splinters off in a number of diffrent aspects at this time and indeed takes any number of guises before this date as she is ancient and somewhat fluid.

Kevin Faulkner said...

Thanks Jeb, your observations are food for thought from an earlier era in literature than is commonly associated with this archetypal figure. Now to peruse your blog !

Jeb said...

I find it interesting that we have similar interests and also different approaches.

Mine is simply with classification and movment through time. Meaning plays no role.

I want to build up a complete history and taxonomy of few related narratives. But I don't see what i am doing as standing in opposition to other approaches.

It should hopefull in the end provide an anatomy, taxonomy and history demonstrating how these things breath, move and reproduce in the wild.