In a genre long characterized by its inability to be presumed, the femme fatale is one of few constants. Though the narrators of film noir are almost exclusively male, the story is often catalyzed by the actions of a female—quite literally, a “disastrous woman”. What is lost in narration is gained in visual presence, as Karen Hollinger argues in her essay “Film Noir, Voice-Over, and the Femme Fatale”. Hollinger contends that the dominating visual deportment of these women carries an unspoken voice of its own, a voice that portrays the femme fatale as “an object with a difference” (Hollinger 246). In film noir, the sexuality of women is not only recognized, it is emphasized. This signals a sharp departure from the feeble, powerless characterization of the female gender in nearly all previous cinematic ventures, a byproduct of the long-standing cult of domesticity. As Hollinger sees it, while film noir fundamentally neglects to recognize the complexities and multifaceted nature of women, its reliance on the femme fatale “release[s] the female image from…fixed roles and grant[s] it overwhelming visual power” (Hollinger 246). In essence, this argument asserts that the femme fatale is empowering because it is bluntly antithetical to the archetype of the homemaker. However, though Hollinger does touch on the troubling underdevelopment of women in film noir, she fails to recognize that the genre’s foray into female sexuality is a condemnation rather than a celebration, and as such, serves to deliberately undermine any perceived gender equity.
Binary opposition often serves as a subtle means of exploring the “gray area” inherent to reality—very rarely can we classify someone as purely “good” or purely “bad”. Film noir does recognize this truth in part, with its morally ambiguous protagonists. However, the women in film noir can easily be pigeonholed into the binaries of good and bad; or, rather, “submissive” and “seductive”. In the case of film noir, docility is equated with innocence, and sexuality with guilt. Moreover, these two extremes of what should be a fluid spectrum are meant to convey a larger understanding of the world: women are either pure and plain or sensual and scheming, neither of which will ultimately satisfy their male counterparts. Karen Hollinger eloquently attributes this demonization to “a failure even to begin to comprehend a female nature that because of women’s changing societal roles seems to have appeared unfathomable” (Hollinger 247).
Hollinger clearly does not deny the problematic nature of the femme fatale’s depiction in film noir. However, her essay maintains the perspective that these gendered conflicts accentuate and advance “ideological battles raging in the 1940s in regard to women’s appropriate social role” (Hollinger 247). This assertion is questionably optimistic given the utter damnation femme fatales receive by the men with whom they share the screen, and, presumably, the audience at large. While film noir does acknowledge female sexuality and influence to an extent its predecessors never imagined, the manner in which these characteristics are acknowledged serves to justify why women cannot be trusted to possess a luxury so dangerous as freedom of self. Meaning to further her own conclusion, Hollinger writes, “The narrator’s problems are said to stem not from his inability to find a satisfying place in the social structure but from a malign fate that directed his life to destructive ends” (Hollinger 253). This “malign fate” and the femme fatale are one and the same. This is especially evident in the film Double Indemnity. Walter attributes his depravity to Phyllis, the film’s femme fatale, while the virtuous Lola receives credit for his scant decency. Ostensibly, feminine wiles are irresistible when presented in an arousing and self-assured package, making the repression of these qualities necessary for male survival.
The complexity of Karen Hollinger’s “Film Noir, Voice-Over, and the Femme Fatale” comes as little surprise to those familiar with the intricacies of gender relations in film noir. Though plot development plainly hinges on the femme fatale, what the depiction of this woman, and of all noir women, is meant to convey proves less clear. Hollinger alleges that the newly liberated women of film noir helped catalyze the emerging feminist movement. However, in all likelihood, it seems this characterization was a condemnatory response to such a crusade. Nevertheless, Hollinger poignantly articulates the “unresolved issue of female sexual difference” (Hollinger 258): “Specifically in regard to their presentation of women, [film noirs] strongly represent through their narrational structure the inability of a patriarchal society not only to answer the question of ‘what the woman wants,’ but even to understand it.”