THESIS: The active femme fatales use their intelligence and sexual appeal to try to gain control over the male protagonist and seek independence in the films, which represents how the roles of men and women changed at the start of World War II.
Active Femme Fatales Seeking Control and Independence
Film noir started to form just before the United States entered World War II with films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), High Sierra (1941), and Rebecca (1940). Film noir was the term invented by the French critics to explain a unique style in American film during the period after the war and reflects the dark atmosphere in American society (Moustakas 105). At the start of the war in 1939, women and men’s roles started to change. While men were at war, women had to be active members of society and take on more responsibility than they had before the war. In noir films, they started to reflect the changing gender roles that were happening during and after World War II. The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon are two good examples of how the femme fatales want to be the dominant character in the films. The active femme fatales use their intelligence and sexual appeal to try to gain control over the male protagonist and seek independence in the films, which represents how the roles of men and women changed at the start of World War II.
The purpose of this essay is to argue that the femme fatales in film noir want to be active characters in the film and seek independence. The primary argument will describe the femme fatales, including their relationship with the male protagonist on screen, and how it reflects the gender role changes during and after World War II. By extension, the paper will also reflect how pop culture depicting the Second World War reflected the society of the corresponding times, mainly the role of women during the war. The primary reason behind this observation is the obvious transformation in the role of women between the years from the end of the First World War to the start and the end of the second one. Women were considered as passive members of the society in earlier times, expected to sit back home, wait for their “men” while they talked about parties and victories, the Second World War forced women to take on a more active role. Women of the time had changed their perceptions by 1939: they were more aware of the current political scenarios, more active on the civil front, and even willing to go out into the fields with the men. The Second World War also saw the rise of some of the most popular female spies of all times, thus cementing the role of women in espionage and investigation. Thus, the women depicted in the movies that are the primary focus of this paper are to some extent a reflection of the contemporary woman of the age, shunning the Gibson Girl image and ready to get her hands dirty, while knowing exactly how to use her powers of persuasion to turn things in her favor.
Before delving into the discussion, it is also important to look at the film noir, and how it depicted the role of women in pop culture. Inarguably, it is the brighter side of the depiction of the women of the 1940s. Before the advent of the genre, movies depicted women as the passive, weaker element of life. Moreover, they admonished women for wanting more than a man or a rich husband from life. Even strong women, who were capable of venturing out into the world all on their own had to pay grave prices for desiring a life not centered on a partner. The idea was clear: you cannot want it all and get it. If you were intelligent and brave, you had to sacrifice love. If you wanted love, you had to sacrifice children. You can be rich and successful, but the amount of time you spend commanding everyone in the office will be compensated in the form of your family and children resenting you and murdering someone else. Thus, women had to compromise in every walk of life CITATION Zei08 p 34 l 16393 (Zeisler 34).
On the contrary, the women of the film noir were strong, independent, and couldn’t care less about what their male counterparts thought of them. The film noir portrayed women not as damsels in distress, but as dames, who, in the words of Andi Zeisler, compelled you into committing murder and then ratted you out to the cops. They were not the homely women whose only concerns were dinner and laundry: they were vamps, liars, criminals, and tricksters. Moreover, they always got away with it. Furthermore, their power was a subtle balance of both sexuality and intellect. While they were not hesitant in using their womanly powers to seduce information or actions out of women, it was their brains, cunning and acute presence of mind that were set up to be the real heroes in the movies CITATION Zei08 p 35 l 16393 (Zeisler 35).
In The Big Sleep, there are three female characters that have their own charm and charisma, namely Carmen Sternwood and Vivian Sternwood. Both of them are the embodiment of what the typical woman is not supposed to be. Carmen, probably, is the most out of character representation of the story insofar as she represents a double standard that is consistent throughout the story. She is, in simple words, a double edged sword. Like a typical woman of the film noir, she is flirtatious, bubbly, and womanly. On the other hand, however, she is an alcoholic and sexual deviant, habitual of wearing provocative clothing and using her femininity to get people to do her bidding. She is also the murderess of Rusty Reagan and does an excellent job at covering it up. All these qualities form a clash of perception for the people who watch cinema and are a part of the general structure of society: a seemingly fragile woman with underlined psychotic and nymphomaniac tendencies, having the power to make people dance to her tunes CITATION Bir15 p 11-15 l 16393 (Biro 11-15).
Carmen’s psychotic tendencies are shared by her sister, Vivian, who is possibly even more of a spoiled brat than she is. She is adamant about getting her way, and is even capable of being cruel to achieve what she wants. Unlike the stereotyped woman, she is a heavy drinker, gambler, and quite possibly the murderess of her husband. Thus, she too portrays the femme fatale: the determined, cunning woman who will stop at nothing to materialize her ambitions CITATION Bir15 p 11-15 l 16393 (Biro 11-15).
The portrayal of these women in the context of war cannot be missed either. In a time of utter control and oppression, these two were the “wild daughters”. They did a stellar job at breaking away from the mold prepared previously by their predecessors, and successfully created a class of women who could not only prove their worth, but compel men to use their abilities to their strengths.
Like the Big Sleep, the movie the Maltese Falcon has also been instrumental in changing perceptions about the standard balance of power between the two sexes. It represents women in the limelight, as the active participants of a story, and as powerful and in control. Men, on the other hand, as presented as weak and dumbed down CITATION Luh95 p 3-13 l 16393 (Luhr 3-13).
One of the most interesting themes in the story is the “black widow” type narrative, wherein the woman uses her powers to seduce, compel and then kill or obliterate her partners. Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in fact, is an excellent example in the aspect. Although the female characters being described in the paper were destroyed and lost much of their power towards the end of their respective stories, they did a commendable job in setting the stage for the more powerful women to come. These women were not the goody two shoes of the era: they were evil, vicious, and downright malicious. They did not live in surrender, but were accomplices in actions, walked step in step with their male counterparts, and performed every bit of work with the utmost care CITATION Luh95 p 3-13 l 16393 (Luhr 3-13).
What was even more commendable, and to some extent strange and new, was the portrayal of male characters in the story, who despite having figured out their ladies’ intentions, insisted on going back to them. This was something that men in the film noir, which focused largely on women, did not do or were incapable of doing. Whether this set men up as noble, or women as gullible is a matter of utter debate. For example, towards the end of the Maltese Falcon, when Spade turns Brigid in, he reveals his awareness of her deceptions and lies, thus breaking the stereotype of the film noir. He even refuses to take the place of the dead men who preceded him in Brigid’s life. Thus, despite being under the compelling spell of a powerful woman, the man resists her ministrations and is finally able to make decisions on his own, which ultimately becomes the downfall of the anti-heroine CITATION Luh95 p 3-13 l 16393 (Luhr 3-13).
This is where the story breaks away in depicting the man of the film noir. The genre set men up as weak and pathetic, and in need of constant attention; or as deceiving elements in the woman’s life, who used her to no end, and in the end got the treatment they deserved. Although, when looked at in continuation of the theory, Spade’s punishment was being betrayed and separated from the woman he loved. In fact, he was no saint either: having an affair with his partner’s wife and harboring very little respect for the law despite being a servant. However, he is nowhere near as suspicious and psychotic as Brigid has been depicted.
It was Hardy who exulted that the art of an era reflects the thinking and perceptions of its generation. The statement could not have fit better in the content of the Big Sleep and the Maltese Falcon, two movies of the film noir who set women up to be more than sex symbols and passive characters. They attack the conventional style of Hollywood, providing flesh and blood to even the most blatant and annoying of stereotypes in the form of women CITATION Man90 p 225 l 16393 (Manchel 225).
When considering the roles of women in the discussed movies, and juxtaposing the same with their roles during the wars, it is clear to see how they complement each other. With the vast number of jobs created due to the shortage of able “men”, women began leaving their conventional jobs as waitresses, seamstresses, and garment makers to take on more “manly” tasks, like welding and inspecting. In fact, one of the major reasons for the success of the America in the Second World War was the way they utilized the capabilities of their women to mobilize their troops, something that was unpopular in Germany. The latter, unlike America, harbored a deep-seated rivalry against women rising among the ranks CITATION And98 p 35 l 16393 (Anderson 35).
The steak started by these women, moreover, seems to continue in pop culture in the coming times as well. Although the prospects moved from strong and independent to sex objects and elements of visual pleasure quickly, female stars rose in popularity over the coming years. It seemed that even the actresses who have sacrificed their careers for their families had redeemed themselves, or at least found a way to do through the movies of the film noir.
What is most impressive at the end of the day, however, is how film noir has evolved over times, giving us characters increasingly dark and yet efficiently alluring: the genre has set women up as determined characters, capable of more than just knitting and acting like a desperate housewife. It has inculcated ferocity, cunning and charm, and has inspired not only other works but also people watching and having almost constant access to such literature.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Anderson, Karen. “Teaching About Rosie the Riveter: The Role of Women During World War II.” OAH Magazine of History 3.3-4 (1998): 35-38. Print.
Biro, Balazs. Raymond Chandler: Breaking the norms of the Detective Genre. n.d. Web. 28 November 2015. <http://www.ia.hiof.no/~borres/krim/pdffiler/Biro.pdf>.
Luhr, William. “The Maltese Falcon, the Detective Genre, and Film Noir.” The Maltese Falcon. John Huston, director. Ed. William Luhr. Rutgers University Press, 1995. Web.
Manchel, Frank. Film Study: An Analytical Bibliography, Volume 1. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1990. Print.
Zeisler, Andi. Feminism and Pop Culture: Seal Studies. Seal Press , 2008. Print.