Today, she adds, ‘‘ a new realism is favoured in cinematic depictions of female criminals’’. For example, the Academy Award winning film Monster ( 2003) detailed the life and crimes of American serial killer Aileen Wuornos without turning her screen alter ego ( played by Charlize Theron) into a sex bomb.
Campbell says when modern writers create femmes fatales, they give a sense of the characters’ psychology. In contrast, the classic crime genre demands that moral order be restored, so female criminals routinely are killed off, punished or discarded by the heroes they have seduced or flirted with. This convention, she writes, led to ‘‘ many implausible endings with a high level of mortality among femmes fatales’’.
This has caused many feminists to look dimly on the genre. On the website detnovel. com, William Marling, an English professor from Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University in the US, writes: ‘‘ The femme fatale has been roundly condemned as misogynist by feminist literary criticism, though in most ( and especially contemporary) hard-boiled narrative, the reader is more apt to find modern female characters with some archetypal traits, and female characters unrelated to the archetype at all, rather than the pure archetype . . . More recently, scholarship on film noir has seen the role of femmes fatales as empowering, pointing to Bette Davis and Kathleen Turner, among others.’’
Campbell argues the femme fatale can be seen as both empowering and a product of misogyny. On the one hand, such characters were horrible women who did horrible things and were punished. On the other, they moved through the world with ‘‘ enviable freedom’’ and when ‘‘ they set a goal they went after it. So they are a combination of strength and repulsiveness.’’
The unreconstructed femme fatale who was born and died bad is showing her age. But Campbell warns that writing her obituary would be premature: ‘‘ Women who commit violent crimes are rare and this makes them particularly fascinating. They confound societal stereotypes of women as passive, selfless and maternal . . . Fictional and real-life femmes fatales both attract and repulse us, and will continue to do so.’’ Femme Fatale: The Female Criminal by Nerida Campbell, Historic Houses Trust, $ 19.95. The Femme Fatale exhibition opens at Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum on March 7.
Sleep Slaughter in Satin Sunset Boulevard The Postman Always Rings Twice ( 1946); Mata Hari; and the real deal, Tilly Devine in 1925 police mug shots
Glamour and grime: Top, Humphrey Bogart eyes Lauren Bacall in The Big ( 1946); from left, opposite page,
book cover ( 1954); Gloria Swanson in ( 1950); poster for