Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 4.2 of 7)

IV. Imperfect Perfection: The Fembot, the Femme Fatale, and the Male Psyche

Joan Crawford in "Mildred Pierce"
The incomparable Femme Fatale, Joan Crawford

In her essay Women in Film Noir, Janey Place explores these and other questions relating to the enigmatic figure of the Femme Fatale in film noir. By picking apart her arguments and claims, one can find ideas and concepts that shed equal illumination on the Fembot and her functions as a failure of female performance in a male dominated world.

Within the first paragraph of her essay, Place makes several bold claims, the first being that “Film noir is a male fantasy, as is most of our art” (Place 47). While at first this claim may seem too broad and unsupportable, it relates back in many ways to the discussion of superiority (man versus nature) that was brought up earlier. The Wilde essay proved the point that for many centuries, man’s inventions, and especially the inventions he creates in the form of art, have been considered superior in many ways to anything natural. They are man’s way, and man specifically in the gendered sense, of controlling and shaping the world to better support his inclinations and desires. Whether a physical machine like a robot or an art form like film noir, the power to create has long been situated squarely in the male realm.

It stands to reason then, that Place’s next claim would be that, “woman here [in film noir] as elsewhere is defined by her sexuality…women are defined in relation to men, and the centrality of sexuality in this definition is a key to understanding the position of women in our culture” (Place 47). The Femme Fatale, like the Fembot, is juxtaposed in the other male and female characters that populate her world purely in terms of the ways in which her sexual life affects, or does not affect, others. The question of whether or not she is in control of her sexuality, whether or not she is using her intentionality in her sexual and emotional life, never comes up – it is crushed before it can be asked. The answer in film noir and in classic science fiction is always no, because the main women of these worlds are either directly created by men or placed under their control by the social system in which they function, a system that presupposes their lack of interiority.

“The primary crime the ‘liberated’ woman is guilty of is refusing to be defined in [relation to men], and this refusal can be perversely seen (in art, or in life) as an attack on men’s very existence” (Place 47). The Femme Fatale’s fatal flaw in these films is breaking out from the control of her male ‘overlords’ and acting directly contrary to their wishes or expectations. By doing so she becomes a threat to the gender logics that structure society, undermining the patriarchy system that still exists to a smaller extent today and certainly existed during the golden age of both film noir and science fiction. A direct threat to the entire social order, the Femme Fatale, like the Fembot, must be destroyed – either physically by being killed or socially by being forced into a position of subservience (jail, marriage, etc.).  

Peggy Castle, the Femme Fatale in the film "Lawman", and John Russell
Peggy Castle, the Femme Fatale in the film “Lawman”, and John Russell

In the same way that the science fiction genre is uniquely adept at portraying the Fembot figure and is one of the only genres that could discuss the myriad of social and scientific problems she inspires, film noir is also a medium which lends itself particularly well to portray a complicated figure like the Femme Fatale. “Visually, film noir is fluid, sensual, extraordinarily expressive, making the sexually expressive woman, which is its dominant image of woman, extremely powerful” (Place 48). Through the use of various body specific close-ups, lighting, and camera movement particular to the stylistic genre of film noir, “[t]he source and the operation of the sexual woman’s power and its danger to the male character is expressed visually both in the iconography of the image and in the visual style” (Place 54). Through the lens of the camera, the Femme Fatale becomes not just emphatically sexualized, but emphatically embodied. Her personality, her actions, indeed, her conscious thoughts are all anchored irrevocably to her body. She does not have the freedom that the male characters do within the films, a freedom which is evident by the use of voice over narration, a common trope in film noir. The male characters are everywhere at once, freely commenting on the action before them or judging and rearticulating the events of the past. The Femme Fatale does not have this freedom of narrative movement – she is trapped within her body and trapped within the here and now. She can manipulate events as they pass by her in the stream of time, but she cannot pluck them from the stream or put something new into the flow. She resides in a prison of her body, much as the Fembot struggles to be recognized outside of her man-made frame because not just her gendered identity, but in fact her conscious mind is recognized as dependent on the physical make-up of her being.

For the Femme Fatale, this embodiment is seen through a gendered gaze, where “[t]he femme fatale is characterized by her long, lovely legs… [often] from the viewpoint of the male character who is to be seduced” (Place 54).  The Femme Fatale also takes up various symbolic visual objects that cue the viewer to their gender-blurring natures. “Cigarettes with their wispy trails of smoke can become cues of dark and immoral sensuality, and the iconography of violence (primarily guns) is a specific symbol…of her ‘unnatural phallic power’” (Place 54). With Fembots, one sees less of this overt visual prompting, both in the literature and in the large science fiction community of television and film. This is because the Fembot’s power rests on her conforming visually to male ideals of womanhood, both in behavior and in appearance. Where part of the Femme Fatale’s allure comes from her blatant breaking of these conventions, the Fembot’s resistance is often one of a more internal, intellectual nature. Rather than breaking conventions by being a sex object, she must break out of the convention of being a sex object.

A Femme Fatale by violarenate via Flickr
A Femme Fatale by violarenate via Flickr

Works Cited

Place, Janey. “Women in Film Noir.” Women in Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaylan. London: BFI, 1998. 47-58.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying: An Observation.” Intentions (1891). “Life Imitates Art Far More than Art Imitates Life” Minnesota State University, 29 Oct. 2002. Web. 1 Dec. 2010. <http://www.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/phil%20of%20art/wildetext.htm>.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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