When beauty meets beast – The identification of goodness with beauty is a constant in Western thought, from Plato to Wittgenstein through Disney. And in popular culture, this identification is recurrently embodied in the archetype of the good and beautiful heroine, whose antithesis is the ugly and evil witch. A necessarily young heroine, since, for the grotesque (never better said, since it comes from the caves) patriarchal logic, feminine beauty is inseparable from youth. And only a maiden can be good, beautiful and young since, according to troglodyte logic, goodness in women is inseparable from virtue.
But the ancient maiden-witch antinomy is not enough to account for female reality or male fantasy, which has always dominated our culture. It is not for nothing that something spectacular is said to be “de puta madre”, an expression that shows better than any other the fusion of opposites that the male imaginary clumsily attempts. The virtuous maiden of the tales, who almost always ends up marrying the hero, is the perfect potential mother. Still, the horrible witch does not fulfil the symbolic function of the prostitute, who is the embodiment of unbridled and unbridled sexuality. In the patriarchal pantheon, a third female archetype/stereotype is needed, a woman who, refuting the beauty = goodness equation by reduction to absurdity, is both beautiful and sexually active, that is, “bad”: the femme fatale.
The polysemy of the adjective «fatal», which means both «inevitable» (from fatum: fate) and «mortal» or «very bad», reflects the hypnotic fascination that this type —or rather stereotype— of woman exerts on her victims, Normally insecure or excessively passionate men, who feel irresistibly—fatally—attracted to her dazzling eroticism like the moth to the flame that will end up scorching her.
When beauty is the beast (black)
It is interesting to compare the myth/binomial of beauty and the beast with that of the femme fatale and her victim. King Kong, the bestialized prince or the creature from the Black Lagoon (in Spain, the film was significantly titled La Mujer y el monstruo ), are brutal but not evil; at the same time, Lola-Lola ( Marlene Dietrich ) from The Blue Angel, Phyllis Dietrichson ( Barbara Stanwyck ) from Perdition and Catherine Tramell ( Sharon Stone ) from Basic Instinctthey are downright mean, even sadistic. Decoding the corresponding metaphors, it concluded that male sexuality a force of nature, while female sexuality a demonic perversion. The eruption of a volcano one thing, and the fire of hell is another. It not for nothing that the seductive and sexually active woman called a “vampiress”: a succubus who, together with sperm, sucks the life out of her victim.
The femme fatale is not necessarily voluptuous, and her sensuality, often subtle, is mainly in her gaze and in some gestures and postures that contradict the codes of conventional feminine modesty. If the timid woman lowers her eyes and draws her knees together as she sits, the femme fatale stares and crosses—and uncrosses—her legs “provocatively.” The famous sequence of Basic Instinct in which Sharon Stone reveals to the police officers interrogating her that she is not wearing her underwear and that she is the one in charge of her could not be more expressive.
The femme fatale smokes and drinks legal —but unfeminine— vices that suggest less licit ones. It frequently represented her smoking with a long holder, like an arrow that pointed to her sensual lips and underlined her avid orality.
when beauty meets beast
The femme fatale shows her body in a strategically fragmentary way. It is no coincidence that, in the sequence above, the protagonist wears a dress that covers her torso and neck to focus attention on the dance of her bare limbs. And in The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich generously shows off her legs (which, in 1930, was a real scandal) but not her cleavage. The typical long skirt with a side slit that allows one leg to alternately shown and hidden a clear example of this strategic fragmentation of the body (which some psychologists associate with hysteria).
The femme fatale often exhibits typically masculine behaviours, attitudes, or clothing to underscore that she is not a “normal” woman but rather an intruder who dares to invade aesthetic and moral realms reserved for men. Marlene Dietrich’s tailcoat in Morocco caused even more of a stir than her bare thighs in The Blue Angel, and she would become one of the hallmarks of the ambiguous German diva.
Good girls like sex too
With the “sexual revolution” that began in the sixties of the last century and, above all, thanks to the claim of female sexuality by feminism, “liberated” women ceased to be necessarily evil. Although the myth of women’s fatal did not disappear, it faded and relativized notably, both in cinema and literature and, above all, in comics. Barbarella, Jodelle or Valentina, to mention only the pioneers, propose a new female model who, despite her ambiguity and opportunism, questions the macho stereotype of the chaste and modest “good girl”: they are vivacious heroines and, sometimes at the same time, sexually active women (or even hyperactive, like the insatiable Barbarella).
Unfortunately, the misogyny—or gynophobia—underlying the myth of the femme fatale has not faded as much as the myth itself. To some extent, male phobia has shifted from the sexually active to the professionally competitive female. But that is another article.