The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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