When Sexual Manipulation Is the Most Feminist Move of All

Amanda Fortini makes a case for the femme fatale

This article originally appears in the November 2015 issue of ELLE

At a loft party in Soho one early fall night in 1999, I met a man—a brilliant and respected writer. He was 40, wild, irreverent, feeling the first flush of literary success, recently separated from his wife, and on the prowl. I was 22, youthful, guileless, recently graduated from college, wearing a black miniskirt with knee-high leather boots, and thrilled to meet the author of the incendiary magazine essay I’d pored over and underlined the day before.

Anyone could have predicted where this meet-cute was headed, but after an initial frisson, our relationship settled into something much rarer between men and women: a deep and genuine friendship uncomplicated by sex. This man was obsessed with a beautiful older woman, an Israeli academic who lived with an investment banker. She wanted sex, crackling conversation, and eloquently expressed affection from my soulful friend; she wanted financial security from the banker. My friend was tortured by this coldly pragmatic setup–it pained him to be manipulated so. And yet he could not, would not, extricate himself.

I became a kind of amateur therapist, listening for hours to his tales of woe. Before long, the Israeli academic took on a mythological status in my mind. One night, as my friend and I were discussing his situation from the backseat of a cab, he told me that she’d called herself “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” an allusion to John Keats’s poem about a knight bewitched and broken by a cruel maiden known for destroying her lovers. (The title translates to “the beautiful woman without pity.”) La Belle Dame Sans Merci! What audacity, I thought. But it wasn’t a criticism. Frankly, I wished I had some of her chutzpah myself. And that’s when it occurred to me, as we cruised up the West Side Highway, that I was in an unusual sort of threesome. I was nearly as in thrall to the Israeli academic as he was. To me she represented a real-life incarnation of an archetype I have long been fascinated by: the femme fatale.

The phrase is French for “deadly woman,” and it refers to a figure from myth and literature and film: the seductive woman who lures men to their downfall with seemingly supernatural powers. She’s the enchantress Circe, who turned Odysseus’s crew into swine and detained him for a year with her charms. She’s the all-too-human Eve, whose taste for verboten produce led to mankind’s banishment from paradise. She’s Edie Sedgwick, the delicate, drugged-out, professional pretty girl about whom the Velvet Underground wrote a song at Andy Warhol’s request. But she is most famously associated with the noir films of the 1940s and ’50s, and neo-noir films of the 1980s and ’90s, where actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Jane Greer, and, later, Sharon Stone, Glenn Close, and Linda Fiorentino played some of the most memorable characters in film history: sexy, strong, duplicitous, sometimes lethal.

In noir films, the laboratory where the femme fatale was refined, a glamorous, deceitful antiheroine seduces a male protagonist, who tends to be a lonely, single guy grateful for her attention, then manipulates him into committing some unscrupulous act, like offing her husband. In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, a slinky blonde with a déclassé ankle bracelet, who convinces a credulous insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), to help her take out a policy on her husband’s life, and eventually to murder him. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lana Turner, as Cora Smith, an ambitious diner owner’s wife with a thing for white turbans, commits the same crime; only the men and the murder plot differ.

As riveting as such characters were, it’s rare to see a true femme fatale in current films, perhaps because it’s not necessarily an empowering type for contemporary women bent on professional success. The idea suggests that women can only get what they want through entrapment, artifice, and seduction rather than through any sort of meritocratic achievement. It suggests that sex—the ability to amplify its signifiers, hint at its possibility, or flat-out promise to deliver it—is a tool women can employ as they drill and tunnel and hew their way through a male world. Intrigued as I am by women for whom this approach is a lifestyle, I’ve never been able to operate that way myself. It has always seemed embarrassing, dramatic, maybe a little undignified, and surely antifeminist—or so I once thought.

I attended college in the late ’90s, at the height of third-wave feminism, when the prevailing notion—absorbed in an act of campus-wide osmosis—was that to roll with the “patriarchy,” to “break the glass ceiling,” we not only had to equal men in all endeavors, we had to surpass them. We had to be smarter, tougher, more skillful. I carried this idea into my adult romantic and professional lives. It wasn’t a wildly successful strategy. I traded intellectual aperçus with men I wanted to sleep with, straining to show how formidable I was. Fearful of being perceived as unserious, I went to job interviews having done everything I could to appear less attractive and feminine. I wore a stark-black minimalist suit and thick-framed gallerist glasses, slicked my hair into a bun, and put on the sort of ’90s-era “neutral” makeup that made everyone look like they’d just been baked in a kiln. I wasn’t entirely wrong that the world seeks to categorize women as brains or beauties, substantive or silly, and that people often can’t, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” And yet there have always been women who somehow manage to be at ease in their femininity and still be taken seriously.

One type who has mastered this—the art of the integrated self, you might say—is the femme fatale. Even if she rarely graces the silver screen these days, she persists in popular culture. “Femme Fatale” is the name of both Britney Spears’s 2011 album and the lingerie line launched by burlesque star Dita Von Teese in May. In Rihanna’s wickedly fun video for “Bitch Better Have My Money,” the singer is a bikini-clad, blunt-smoking femme fatale who tortures the wife of her accountant in a bid to recover the money he owes her. And in Orange Is the New Black, Laura Prepon plays Alex, an alluring con artist who seduces Piper (not a man this time, but a victim nonetheless), convincing her to transport drug money, then dances in and out of involvement with her.

These are only a few examples, but they leave me convinced that Hollywood should channel what’s clearly floating around in the Zeitgeist and give audiences a nouveau femme fatale: a woman who exerts intellectual and sexual power, who is successful and shrewd in her own right, but also has an intense, charismatic, manipulative sexuality.

What’s remarkable is how modern a film noir femme fatale like Barbara Stanwyck (as Double Indemnity‘s Phyllis Dietrichson) seems even now, how of the moment. “I never loved you, Walter,” Phyllis says after she shoots at him, having donned a silk pantsuit for the occasion. “Not you, or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart.” At a time when the only paths open to most women were that of wife and mother, these characters shunned traditional domesticity—they rarely have children—in favor of independence. “Nothing in the world is any good unless you can share it,” Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) says with gauzy sentimentality in Out of the Past, when he finds Kathie Moffat (a young Jane Greer, who’s so lit-from-within gorgeous that watching her is like looking at a solar eclipse) in Mexico. “Maybe you ought to go home,” she tells him, and takes a drag from her cigarette.

Scholars have noted that the archetype was popular culture’s response to shifting gender roles during and after World War II: Women had gone to work, gaining independence and disposable income and sexual freedom; men were anxious about the disruption of the family and the workplace. The femme fatale was thus a projection of male fears, and a cautionary tale for women of what happens when they step out of bounds. Along similar lines, one could argue that the neo-noir films of the ’80s and ’90s were a response to increasing numbers of women entering the workforce.

In one sense, the femme fatale has disappeared because the code between the sexes has changed. The archetype relied on a chivalry that no longer exists; the femme fatale was one half of a duo. “What it’s all about to me,” says James Ellroy, author of the 1990 neo-noir novel L.A. Confidential, “is the man at loose ends in his life and career, and nothing is more exciting existentially than meeting a woman that will change your life…so what you’re looking to do is capitulate. She wants you to commit murder; she wants you to commit irrational acts to please her, and a certain kind of man will do it.” The femme fatale wasn’t only a man’s nightmare, she was also his fantasy: a woman in charge of her own sexuality who’d take charge of his as well.

It’s now clear to me why, as a young woman figuring out her sexual desires and boundaries, I would have fixated on such women. The neo-noir thrillers Basic Instinct and The Last Seduction came out when I was 16 and 18 years old, respectively, and though I was forbidden to see these movies, I saw them anyway. I will never forget the perverse thrill of watching an icy-blond Sharon Stone (as bisexual novelist Catherine Tramell) rendering a roomful of male detectives speechless with the calculated crossing of her legs, or the weird mix of shock and titillation I felt when a swaggering Linda Fiorentino (as the provocateur Bridget Gregory) unbuckles the belt and paws the goods of a guy (Peter Berg) who brags, upon meeting her in a bar, that he is “hung like a horse.”

While the violence in these films was nothing I planned to emulate, by the time I was in college I had, like most young women, encountered enough sexism and male idiocy—the 18-year-old guy who told a 14-year-old me that losing one’s virginity is “like learning to ride a bike”; the professor 40 years my senior who came on to me repeatedly during the writing of my thesis—that the sadism of these movies held a harsh appeal. The detached, clinical way the characters dispatched with men was a revelation: Watching them allowed me to channel my own unexpressed anger, to experience a revenge fantasy of sorts.

But what of the idea, voiced by a young male friend of mine, that when there are so few female characters in film overall, perhaps we can’t afford for the ones we do see to be villainous? This is a variation on the protests of gay-rights activists when Basic Instinct was released in 1992; they argued that the film’s portrayal of bisexual and lesbian women lacked balance, that these characters were only “psychopaths and man-killers.” And yet, 20 years on, do we remember the crimes of Catherine Tramell, or her cool composure and self-preservation? Similarly, in noir films, as numerous critics have pointed out, the femme fatale is almost always punished, but it’s not her downfall that lingers. Instead, we recall a crafty, magnetic woman who manages to maneuver around society’s constricting rules and expectations.

Last year there was one film that offered an update on the femme fatale: a woman who does the punishing. Gone Girl presented Amy Elliott Dunne, played with furious intensity by Rosamund Pike. Amy doesn’t dupe a man into doing her dirty work; she’s diabolical all by herself. Of course, her husband, played by Ben Affleck, is no peach either, and their marriage-as-suicide pact was a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

Hollywood loves a proven formula, and the success of Gone Girl surely means that we’ll soon see a few films starring self-sufficient alpha femme fatales. But there’s room for the genre to evolve further. What about films that explore the subjectivity of the femme fatale, which acknowledge that sexuality, however assured, can sometimes be a performance?

And although I have spent this essay advocating a return to feminine wiles, there’s at least one way in which women could be more like men. Men aren’t forced to cleave themselves in two, to choose one kind of power or the other. James Bond is a male femme fatale—also known as a cad—who leaves women in his wake, but there’s never any question that he’s accomplished and excellent at his job. Why aren’t there female characters like this? The truly feminist notion, I now think, is to use every advantage you’ve got. A man would.