The object of desire: the voiceless power of the noir femme fatale
America in the 1940s was a time of huge social change. WWII transformed the dynamics of American society in many ways – not least, gender roles and the relationship between men and women.
In a very stylised way, drenched in darkness, mystery and anxiety, film noir reflects that epochal change.
The dangers of the ambitious woman: American society after WWII
Although fought on a different continent, WWII brought about shocking changes in American society. Maybe one of the more apparent was the shifting role of women in what had been to that point a society predominantly determined by male authority.
WWII impacted hard on that asset.
As millions of men left for the front, millions of women stayed home and had to keep the machine going on their own. The shortness of male workforce opened up work positions that were previously unavailable for women, and because they were the only one left to care for the family, women became the money-earner and the chief of the house. For the first time in American history, a considerable number of women worked outside the house and managed the money they earned on their own judgement.
When men returned from the war, shaking off that experience proved to be hard. After having dealt with a predominantly male environment and with constant violence for years, veterans found it difficult to readjust to peaceful, civil life. Besides, the situation they found at home was very different from the one they had left. Trying to cope with this new world proved to be testing.
As veterans returned, women were ejected (sometimes forcefully) form the workforce and encouraged to quietly go back to be dutiful wives and mothers.
It wasn’t this easy. Many women refused to let go of the independence they had conquered. Their determination crashed hard on the insecurities of men who, in addition to civil life maladjustment, had to cope with women’s unexpected demands of social advancement.
The noir damaged hero, insecure of his social role and identity, and often forced in a position of disadvantage by people and environment, reflects this anxiety. The femme fatale, self-confident and dangerous, reflects the new woman.
The tough face of crime: film noir male’s perspective on the world
It’s interesting to notice that in a society where women were advancing and finding new outlets, classic film noir was recognisably a predominantly male form of narration. In the peculiar ways of storytelling, where every reality is morphed into story elements, classic film noir expresses men’s anxiety toward a world that doesn’t recognise male authority as the only possible reality anymore.
Thought often structured around a crime or a mystery, film noir is always the story of a relationship. A very problematic, mistrustful love/lust relationship between the damaged hero and the femme fatale.
In this male-centred narration, the femme fatale (predatory, self-centred and ambitious) is always a very important element, but never a positive one. Even when she’s not an outright villain (and often, she is), she’s dangerous and ‘other’, distant and unknowable like fate. The hero never fully understands her motives, and even if he recognises her dangerous nature, he still desires her.
The ‘fatefulness’ of the femme fatale is stressed by the fact that we never get her perspective of the story. Even when she’s a main character (as it’s often the case) film noir is never concerned with her motives. We see her action and what it causes, but we never truly know why she acts as she does.
The film’s interest is always on the hero and what the femme fatale’s action does to him. The eyes of the camera never moves away from the hero. Even when it is the femme fatale who moves the story, she never gets her own voice.
This becomes even more apparent when we take into account her sex-appeal. The femme fatale is always beautiful and sensual and she knows how to use this at her advantage. But once again we see it from the male’s perspective, whose eye turns the woman into an object of desire. Turning her into an object it’s clearly a way to try and get a control over her.
The femme fatale unspoken power
The femme fatale’s resourcefulness and strong will is never seen as a positive force, but rather as a destructive one. Still that force is there. Even without a voice of her own, even if always observed and never touched by empathy, the power of this female figure can’t be denied. Breaking through the male’s gaze and his objectification, the inner strength of the femme fatale shines through to the point that she sometimes obliterates the hero, whom the narration supports.
Classic film noir clearly takes side with the endangered male authority, but it gives such a clear depiction of American society in the 1940s that we can see through its narrative structure. So it is that even if the narration tries to silence her, the femme fatale’s message of independence and self-determination still comes through.
Narratively, she’s a clear alternative to the many forms of male authority in the story and her vitality and power are so strong that she delivers her message even when denied her own voice.
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About the author
Sarah Zama was born in Isola della scala (Verona – Italy) where she still lives. She started writing at nine – blame it over her teacher’s effort to turn her students into readers – and in the 1990s she contributed steadily to magazines and independent publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.
After a pause, in early 2010s she went back to writing with a new mindset. The internet allowed her to get in touch with fellow authors around the globe, hone her writing techniques in online workshops and finally find her home in the dieselpunk community.
Since 2010 she’s been working at a trilogy set in Chicago in 1926, historically as accurate as possible but also (as all her stories are) definitely fantasy. She’s currently seeking representation for the first book in the Ghost Trilogy, Ghostly Smell Around. In 2016, Sarah published her first novel, Give in to the Feeling.
She’s worked for QuiEdit, publisher and bookseller in Verona, for the last ten years. She also maintains a blog, The Old Shelter, where she regularly writes about the Roaring Twenties and anything dieselpunk.
Susie has never thought she might want more. More than being Simon’s woman. More than the lush life he’s given her when she came from China. More than the carefree nights of dance in his speakeasy.
Simon has never asked her anything in return but her loyalty. Not a big price.
Until that night.
When Blood enters Simon’s speakeasy, and Susie dances with him, she discovers there’s a completely new world beyond the things she owns and the things she’s allowed to do. A world where she can be her own woman, where she can be the woman she’s supposed to be. A world of sharing and self-expression she has never glimpsed.
But she’s still Simon’s woman, and he won’t allow her to forget it.
Soon Susie will discover there’s more than two men fighting over her in the confrontation between Blood and Simon. There’s a fight breaking through the wall of the real world, into the spirit world where Susie’s freedom may mean life or death for one of them. And if Susie gives in, she will lose more than just her heart and happiness.
Buy Give in to the Feeling here
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