Sunday morning at breakfast, talking about The Lady from Shanghai, you posed a question concerning the femme fatale and what we might make of her. This, as you know, is a subject dear to my heart, and I’ve been thinking much about what you asked. Some theorists have considered this figure a cipher, a screen onto which male fears and anxieties are projected. But you and I know better. I wrote about precisely this question during my preliminary exams, citing a famous passage from The Maltese Falcon as evidence for our viewpoint:
Following the exposure of a series of intricately woven lies and demurrals, Brigid O’Shaughnessy appeals once more to private investigator Sam Spade, pleading that he continue with her case. When Spade makes it clear he sees her latest cry for help as just another scene in a now fairly elaborate act, Brigid pulls out all the stops:
“I deserve that,” she said. “I deserve it, but—oh!—I did want your help so much. I do want it, and need it, so much. And the lie was in the way I said it, and not at all in what I said.” She turned away, no longer holding herself erect. “It is my own fault that you can’t believe me now.”
Spade’s face reddened and he looked down at the floor, muttering: “Now you are dangerous” (38).
The question raised by this pivotal moment in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon concerns, of course, just what it is that makes the femme fatale so dangerous. Is it, as Mary Ann Doane suggests in Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, that the femme fatale “is never really what she seems to be,” that she threatens “a potential epistemological trauma” through her failure to be “legible, predictable, or manageable” (1)? Or is it, rather, that the femme fatale is precisely what she seems to be? After all, as Spade admits, he and his partner Miles Archer didn’t believe a word of Miss O’Shaughnessy’s story even when she first delivered it under the telling alias of Miss Wonderly (Hammett 35). Might the problem be, then, that we know the femme fatale for what she is right from the beginning, but we also know that she has something we want, something which makes her worth the risk she so obviously poses? When it comes to the femme fatale, is the issue really that she cannot be read, or is it rather that we read her all too clearly?
The question remains, though—what does the femme fatale have that we want? What makes her so appealing to the men who ultimately sacrifice their lives to her cause? With the notable exception of Sam Spade, they mostly do just that.
The femme fatale is all about excess—she’s just too much. She’s greedy. She wants it all. She seduces us and draws us out beyond our limits. And in the end you can’t have her. She belongs to death alone. Slavoj Žižek has pointed to her alignment with the hysteric and used her as proof of Lacan’s infamous claim that Woman does not exist. Yet, she seems to be something more than the sum of her “symptoms.” For Žižek, behind the mask is yet another mask. I don’t buy it. Nor can she be readily aligned with Deleuze’s icy woman of masochism. Yes, she dolls out the punishment. But not in accordance with male desire.
Freud famously posed the question: What does a woman want? Feminist theorists gave it a slight spin, asking, all tongue-in-cheek: What? Does a woman want?!? For me, the femme fatale is an attempt to grapple with that elusive thing we call female desire. That this desire calls upon (often quite literally) the spectre of death is no accident. Have you noticed that the femme fatale is never a mother? Yet she has something in common with the woman who says (if a woman ever says): by god, I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it. As my advisor once said to me, “if a woman is responsible for life, she dooms us all to death.” Take back the night, indeed.
Female desire is a tricky thing. Women aren’t supposed to want. We are supposed to be the objects of desire, not the subjects. Perhaps it’s no small wonder that so many of us are left asking just what, precisely, we do want. I mentioned yesterday that I felt the femme fatale to be closely related to the woman revolutionary, two sides of the same coin. What they have in common is their desire— “I want, I need, I must have.” Imagine saying that without shame or embarrassment. I’m not sure if I can.
At the same time, isn’t this the dangerous appeal of the femme fatale? In her we have before us that elusive figure, the woman who wants. Can she possibly be a model for thinking female desire? Do we want her to represent us to ourselves in any way, shape, or form? I mean, she is the quintessential bad girl of film, the one who lets what she wants get in the way of everything else. And what, pray tell, is everything else? Law and order, certainly. And, of course, male desire.
We were talking the other day about how to create the kind of world we’d both like to live in, and I, in a mood, quoted Scarface: “first we get the guns, then we get the money, then we get the women.” Now isn’t this, in some perverse way, the mantra of both the femme fatale and the revolutionary? We’re talking about women who are willing to go to any end to get what they want, right? So I would say that of course this figure has something to teach us. Now, perhaps, a different question remains—where do we get those guns?