Noir's Fearless Women

  • Jessica Barbour (Dublin City University)


Film noir represents the cynicism and despair of a society riddled with criminality, violence, and misogyny that often directly reflect socio-political concerns and fears at the time of their release. The femme fatale character, most notably present in film noir, can be read as representing a rejection of society’s subservient pressures imposed upon women. Despite her reputation as a cunning, overly-sexualised and dangerous woman that tries to undermine her male counterpart, such a persona can alternatively be perceived as a powerful, influential woman who demands a more significant social status within society. The following review, focusing on the films Gilda, Sunset Boulevard, and Gone Girl, will draw from and analyse the growing existing theoretical body surrounding film noir and the femme fatale character, focusing on an analysis of her capacity to raise questions about society’s anxieties about feminism, alongside her growing influence on female audiences.

Keywords: feminism, film noir, modern, society, contemporary woman, femme fatale

Published on
06 Sep 2023
Peer Reviewed

Introduction: Film Noir — Genre or Style?

A central question surrounding film noir literature focuses on its classification as either a genre or a cinematic style of filmmaking. Dark visual motifs and cataclysmic themes are at the centre of the 1940s film noir genre, with a pessimistic mindset consistently pervading throughout. Though these elements appear coherent, lending them to be described as a coherent genre, many other scholars classify it as a style due to the cinematic techniques used throughout that can, in turn, apply to multiple genres. Thus, it is crucial to explore the contrasting viewpoints in this debate to assist in acquiring a better understanding of film noir.

In particular, it is helpful to examine the works of Paul Schrader and his views of film noir, as explored in his book Notes on Film Noir (1972). Schrader elucidates that the film noir label arises from its dark style of filmmaking and defeatist themes; therefore, he presumes that it is “not a genre” as it is “not defined” (ibid, p.53.). Instead, he identifies it as a style of bleak cynicism that sets the mood for this mode of filmmaking rather than being categorised as a coherent genre. Using this logic, it is not a genre as laid out by conventions of setting and conflict, similar to the “western or gangster genres”. Film noir is alternatively defined by more “subtle qualities of tone and mood” (ibid, p. 54).

Furthermore, Schrader most notably elucidates the four principal elements that make up film noir, including war and post-war disillusionment, post-war realism, German influences, and the hard-boiled tradition. He simultaneously identifies that film noir consistently displays romantic elements of narration for the femme fatale character to shine through. A weakness, however, in Schrader’s thesis is his observations of film noir possessing a “complex chronological order that is frequently used to reinforce these sentiments of hopelessness and lost time” (ibid, 54). Though this is possibly true, especially for acclaimed film noir pictures, it is certainly a generalised statement that does not apply to all films of this category. Schrader finally concludes his studies with a stirring testament to film noir, distinguishing it as an immensely creative period that brought out the best in filmmakers. Film noir, as a unique stylistic mode of practice, indeed obliges filmmakers to engage their creativity. Thus, Schrader’s statement remains a valuable and constructive account in assessing the evolution of film noir.

Conversely, Frank Krutnik’s book ‘In a Lonely Street’ (1991) explores film noir and its effect on traditional Hollywood cinema, especially its significance within 1940s American pop culture. Krutnik believes that film should appear as a two-way process due to its characterisation of an interlocking between “subject” and “culture” (ibid, p. 10). Thus, Krutnik finds value in film noir by identifying transformations within the representational parameters of 1940s Hollywood cinema. Such transformations include a shift towards a “chiaroscuro” visual stylisation, a critique of the “values of post-war American society”; a new “psychological trend in the representation of the character”; and recurring attention to “excessive and obsessive sexuality” (ibid, p. 11). Such elements present a real disruption to the generic forms of the “classical” filmmaking system (ibid). For this reason, Krutnik ultimately argues that film noir can be classified as a genre because it possesses this clear template for understanding narration. Krutnik’s research is crucial when carefully identifying film noir’s capacity to accurately reflect a turbulent society. However, his studies are rather indirect when justifying film noir’s classification as a genre, as he consistently dwells on its stylistic elements rather than its narrative structure.

Similarly, Michelle Mercure’s studies of the femme fatale character in her seminal article ‘Bad Girl Turned Feminist’ (2010) and her effect on feminist studies are crucial to this research. Before investigating this, Mercure, too, found it necessary to analyse the complex classification of film noir. Mercure ostensibly discerns film noir as a genre due to its consistent cinematic elements and cryptic characters. The key characteristics include “criminality and lack of virtue in the male protagonist, who thrives in a world characterised by lack of colour, discontinuity of time, and strange camera angles” (ibid, p. 114). Mercure discerns these dark elements as a reflection of changes in domestic and economic structures in the United States before, during, and after WW11. Most notably, the manner in which women established newfound independence following their inauguration into the workforce during the war caused a “sense of confusion concerning the roles of women and men in the workplace and at home” (ibid). Mercure further explains that the “confusing status of women in society at that particular moment in history” is reflected and mirrored in the “duplicity of the femme fatale” character in film noir, whose alluring and innocent outward appearance masks her corruption and deviance (ibid). The character’s consistent deception in film noir acts as a metaphor for how women are obliged to function and act in a patriarchal, traditional society, alongside a hunger for independence that results from this oppression. Mercure is persistent in her opinion of film noir as a genre and is coherent in her description of the consistent narrative structure.

Introduction: Film Noir — The filmThe film’s atmosphere as a reflection of productions atmosphere as a reflection of production

Film scholars and historians remain fixated on trying to analyse how the cinematic elements of film noir reflect societal angst. The seminal studies of Marxist film theory are most prominent in this field of study, with Mike Wayne being the most distinguished writer in this sphere. He elucidates how Marxist film theory is one of the most impactful tools used for creating a range of cinematic hypotheses, which explores how technologies and elements of communication alongside various cinematic forms, knit together to form a “variety of widely circulated storytelling and aesthetic strategies” (Wayne, 2005, p. 1). In this way, a transformation in media and cinematic production values can be read as translating or informing the audience, while at the same time gaining more of a personal connection to the characters and the world around them.

Wayne clarifies that considerable establishment anxiety grew in 1940s America over the role of new mass media in drawing an “ethnically and religiously divided working-class together around a shared cultural form” (ibid, p.5). Thus, Marxist film theory pivots around these tense relations between the working class and cinema. Wayne identifies mass media and the eruption of film noir in the 1940s in America as the “primary means for women to become more independent” and stand up against traditional values that were ubiquitously prevalent (ibid). Similarly, an oligopoly of film companies that primarily controlled production, distribution and exhibition increased integration in the production of such output with ever-flowing finance capital. Hence, the proletarian image began to be marginalised in favour of a “middle-class social milieu that stripped out a materialist, realist layer to early film” (ibid). Wayne argues that this intense marginalisation made way for a new form of filmmaking where filmmakers could be more creative and shed light on different societal issues, starting with feminism. It is important to note that Marxism operates against a taken-for-granted way of living and promoting the status quo, to alternatively and even radically cross gender boundaries that existed prior to the growth of film noir. Wayne’s studies are crucial when understanding how cinematic techniques of film noir effectively mirror society, with such modes of filmmaking distinctly reflecting the pervasive ‘darkness’ in society. Conversely, it is important to note that the representation of individual characters, their personality and inner thoughts can specifically be reflected through captivating costume design, as well as filmmaking techniques outlined by Wayne.

Paul Jobling explored this relationship between a character and their wardrobe, concluding that the role and representation of women in classic Hollywood cinema can be attributed to “the relationship of costume to the narrative, the costume designer, body discipline, commerce and film, and visual pleasure” (Jobling, 2013 p. 2). Jobling further explains that dress plays a crucial part in the mise-en-scéne and overall narrative of a film on a diegetic level, where the character, in turn, serves as a natural element of the world presented in the film. Such studies are crucial in understanding how the essence of the femme fatale is expressed through fashion, especially without the use of colour in film noir. Applying Jobling’s research to an analysis of the costume design in Gilda (1946), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Gone Girl (2014) will most explicitly shed light on how women can utilize fashion as a means of expression in a society that attempts to silence them.

The femme fatale — A role model or a disgrace?

In order to come to a coherent conclusion about the femme fatale’s effect on society, it is essential to explore the contrasting standpoints in the existing literature; including, one that defends the femme fatale and her beneficial effect on women; and the other that believes the figure displays women in a negative light and represents women as merely threatening and unintelligent.

Resisting oppression, rejecting patriarchal structure, and reviving women’s voices are at the core of the femme fatale character. This element of embracing the patriarchal language of the past and reviving the voice of feminist theory is explored in Michelle Mercure’s seminal article ‘Bad Girl Turned Feminist’ (2010). Mercure claims that where feminist film theory is concerned, the femme fatale character focuses on creating a “flashy outward appearance” to attract the opposite sex with an “inclination to perform for the male protagonist” (ibid, p. 115). Thus, film noir has projected a vision onto society of women as mere objects of desire. However, Mercure effectively reconsiders the character and interprets the femme fatale as one that “causes a spectacle” – an image that was always perceived as negative – to take hold of the dominant role that was usually always in the hands of the male protagonist (ibid). Mercure deciphers that for the femme fatale, her sexual power is an essential aspect of her character, which she can use to elevate her status in society and thereby triumph over men. Therefore, Mercure’s innovative studies are crucial when analysing the femme fatale as sifting from an object of desire to a potent stimulant for feminist movements.

It is no secret that the femme fatale character is presented in an overly-sexualised manner, with her male counterparts consistently attempting to exploit her. However, film noir scholar Jack Boozer effectively iterates that the femme fatale gains independence through sexual initiative, and by doing so, she “threatens traditional phallocentric authority” (2000, p. 21). The post-war era of society indeed saw an increase in the social inclusion of women and a sudden return to the workforce. The gender marginalisation prevalent prior to the war was “slowly diminishing with this introduction reflected in the femme fatale character” (ibid, p. 5). Thus, Boozer maintains that film noir certainly reflects anxieties prevalent among society at the time of its release, with the femme fatale character serving as a proxy or reflection of society’s anxieties about the swift establishment of women into mainstream society. Boozer’s standpoint is relevant to this research in vividly outlining the ways in which the femme fatale threatens traditional ideals of gender expectations in society.

Though the femme fatale character has suffered a somewhat problematic relationship with aspects of feminist activism since the 1940s, it is vital to discover if she still occupies a highly visible space in contemporary cinema. Filmmakers continue to draw on the notion of the sexy and deadly femme fatale, which Katherine Farrimond explores in her 2017 study of the contemporary femme fatale. Farrimond observes that the femme fatale character still offers a vital means for “reading the connections between mainstream cinema and representations of female agency” (2017, p. 4). Similarly, Farrimond believes that contemporary femme fatale characters coincide with traditional views of the 1940s and 1950s in that she raises important questions about the “limits and potential” of positioning women who meet “highly normative standards of beauty as influential icons of female agency” (ibid). Additionally, Farrimond makes an essential connection between traditional and contemporary femme fatale characters. She declares that they consistently point toward the constant shifting between patriarchal appropriation and feminist recuperation that inevitably accompanies such representations within film noir contexts.

Many films that fit into the film noir category do not function only under a male fantasy, but can also serve as a woman’s film that is specifically tailored to female audiences. Female spectatorship and feminist discourse have generally gone unnoticed in film scholarship, which has a lot to do with the literary preoccupation with the ‘male gaze’ and little enough emphasis on the ‘female gaze’. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey (1975) coined the term the ‘male gaze’, defining it as an act of depicting women primarily from a male perspective. Mulvey explains that “in their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact to be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (1989, p. 19). Mulvey’s studies are certainly dated, but they are still essential to consider when analysing the femme fatale’s effect on female audiences who view her and, in turn, shifting the screen character from one created for male pleasure to one that serves women’s empowerment.

Correspondingly, more emphasis indeed needs to be put on female spectatorship, which film scholar Anne Dennon investigates and concludes that women often use spectatorship to learn behaviour patterns and project personal desires onto the women they view in film noir. She explains that “the female gaze trained on the femme fatale takes her sexiness, beauty, and fetishised fashion as honest signals of her power” (Dennon, 2017, p. 21). Here, Dennon believes that the psychology of the femme fatale teaches the viewer how to become a powerful woman. Dennon strongly argues that film noir’s prioritisation of character development, personal relationships, and overall characterisation of female characters follow female viewer preferences up to contemporary times. To conclude, Dennon’s work is vital to consider as she argues that the femme fatale is “an authentic representative of powerful femininity” (ibid, p. 24), threatening the patriarchal system and inspiring female audiences. This threat was recognised at the height of film noir in the 1940s when women attempted to unveil newfound independence and fight for power. Such tensions can be recognised in the following film readings, beginning with Gilda.

Gilda — Establishing the Femme Fatale

Charles Vidor’s 1946 film noir Gilda takes the stereotypical femme fatale character to a level of captivating avant-garde, presenting an intensely passionate, loving character portrayed by the indelible Rita Hayworth. William Swift and Graham Cody (1998) claimed in their studies of the film that the portrayal of Gilda as a strong, active, sexual woman placed her firmly in the category as an object of desire. Similarly, they perceived the film as one that served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of misogyny at a deep level and its injurious effects on both men and women. Gilda’s most notable striptease, where she removes “only her long black satin gloves from her arms”, sees the character reaching “peak sophisticated eroticism” (Swift and Cody, 1998, p. 64). Many feminist scholars view this scene as incredibly sexist, where director Charles Vidor’s principal aim was to overly-sexualise Gilda for the male audience. However, Swift and Cody’s analysis alternatively perceives this scene as a moment where Gilda withdraws an essence of power away from men and places all screen attention on her.

Film critic Bosley Crowther expressed his hatred for femme fatal Gilda and her cunning mannerism in his expressive 1946 New York Times review. Crowther believes the film provides a “perplexing lack of motive point” with nothing substantial to prove. He expresses that “[Rita] wears many gowns of shimmering lustre and tosses her tawney hair in glamorous style, but her manner of playing a worldly woman is distinctly five and a dime” (1946). In his tabloid journalism review style, he further expresses that she merely “sings song numbers with little distinction” and is “nothing short of crude”. Crowther writes from an outdated standpoint for most contemporary audiences, viewing Gilda as an unsavoury character that serves no purpose other than to heighten the male fantasy. Like many of his readers, Crowther sees no value in presenting Gilda as a sensual woman expressing her interest in sex. He views it simply as indecent, while a contemporary perspective often views such a scene as a woman claiming back her own sexuality.

Michelle Mercure shifts Crowley’s convictions and analyses the striptease from a much more modern standpoint, viewing the scene as a way to take the attention away from the male characters and ultimately heighten her social status. In her sultry performance of ‘Put the Blame on Mame,’ Gilda begins stripping off her clothes during the number as protagonist Johnny watches, “slowly removing her long, shiny black glove, swinging it around, and throwing it into the audience, before removing the second glove and finally, her necklace” (Mercure, 2010, p. 115). A furious Johnny is unable to read the falseness of her performance, which Mercure believes is a “perfect revelation” of how Gilda uses the “language of the patriarchal structure—her image as a spectacle—to practice the theories of feminism” (ibid). She communicates a practical mode of feminism through her performance by rendering it illegible to the male subject that objectifies her, “redirecting the power of the patriarchal structure to herself—the object” and preventing Johnny from acquiring the “satisfaction to control her” (ibid). Mercure reinstates the pioneering message of female autonomy behind this scene, which is reflected throughout the film and is an essential benchmark for the femme fatales that follow. Meanwhile, Sunset Boulevard supports an alternative form of femme fatale.

Sunset Boulevard — The Ageing Femme Fatale

Norma Desmond, portrayed by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard, portrays a dejected, ageing femme fatale who allures screenwriter Joe Gillis with her wealth and superficial love. Film scholar Lucy Fischer analyses Norma Desmond as a vicious, headstrong femme fatale who on the surface is just an “ageing actress over the veritable hill” (1997, p. 23). Fisher’s study focuses on the pressures on women to remain young and the preservation of beauty that Hollywood perpetually imposes and simultaneously presents throughout society. Fischer perceives Desmond as a “tattered but resilient icon of womanhood” who fell victim to the studio system and now finds herself forgotten by society (ibid). When screenwriter Joe Gillis describes her as a has-been (“you were big”), she snaps back: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” she instantly captures the toxic mix of “arrogance, nostalgia, and resentment” (ibid, p. 41). Similarly, Fischer remarks on the effect of the intense audience gaze on an actress, which transforms Desmond into a “victim-centred hysteric” (ibid). Fischer adds that Norma Desmond shows a genuine vigour to reappear in cinema and achieve her destiny as forever “undead” through her portrayals on-screen (1997, p. 27). Fischer’s studies are crucial when analysing how the femme fatale showcases the oppressive beauty standards inflicted upon women while showcasing the consequences of trying to repel such burdens.

Film scholar Julie Grossman published a study of Sunset Boulevard in 2009 and explained that the film’s primary narrative surrounded the plight of women, as they reflect the “cultural demand for, restrictions on, and destructive manipulation of the female image” (2009, p. 136). Desmond summarizes the treatment of women in Hollywood in the 1950s, revealing its constant “mocking treatment of the conditions of possibility” for women in Hollywood (Grossman, 2009, p. 136). Norma intones the silent movie genre that she flourished in, revealing “we didn’t need dialogue. We had faces” (Sunset Boulevard, 1950). Grossman discerns Desmond as a constructive femme fatale due to the strongly sympathetic portrait of her tragedy and the forces that process dispose of her as an image (2009, p. 136). Ultimately, Grossman’s studies are crucial in highlighting societal pressures concerning women’s image that descended Desmond into madness. Such pressures are mirrored in contemporary filmmaking, where the idea of a powerful woman still poses a threat to both male and societal anxieties, as seen in Gone Girl.

Gone Girl — Frenzied Unconventionality

Intrigue in the femme fatale character has materialized in a contemporary cinematic cycle of film noir – known as neo-noir - which Samantha Lindop’s studies extensively explore. The femme fatale characters present in neo-noir films are similar to their predecessors in that they are generally considered to “function as an expression of male paranoia” (Lindop, 2015, p. 44). Similarly, the character is argued to operate as a “patriarchal response” to women's increased power and autonomy following the significance of “second-wave feminism in the 1970s” (Stables, in Lindop, 2015, p. 44).

David Fincher’s 2014 adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl, constructively mirrors postfeminist anxiety surrounding traditional family values, which is evident in the postmodern femme fatale, Amy Dunne. Dunne suddenly goes ‘missing’ and intentionally accuses her husband of her disappearance by leaving mystifying clues. Irene Heni Indrasakti discusses the significance of the Dunne character in her seminal thesis, where she concludes that through her methods of madness, Dunne represents a contemporary femme fatale figure who “severely questions patriarchal society” (2018, p. 4). Indrasakti explains how such a character, in a similar way to earlier iconic femme fatale characters, can be considered an ‘evil woman’ who perfectly fits into the archetype due to her desire to “destroy” her husband, Nick Dunne. She represents a neo-noir femme fatale who fights against an orthodox lifestyle – no matter what time period is foreground - and does everything to prevent herself from conforming to a traditional family. Thus, Indrasakti reveals that Dunne encompasses a powerful woman in a more contemporary society.

Similarly, Anne Dennon explores Dunne’s character and explains that she is a perfect example of how “the oppressed become the victims, and the binary endures in flipped form” (2017, pp. 13). Dennon explains that the root of Amy’s hunger for “social ascendency” comes from her personalized literary guideline for success: a series of children’s books written by her parents that project her ideal life as ‘Amazing Amy’ (ibid, p. 14). Classic femmes fatales utilize the only available female weaponry, affective manipulation, to escape subordination. However, Dennon discerns that Amy seeks to continue her performance rather than “seek freedom or female enfranchisement” (ibid, p. 14).

Furthermore, Amy’s attraction to fictionalized existence is a perfect example of the effect of beauty standards that are present in a media-saturated society, where her capacity to switch between characters highlights not only her “talent but also the impossibility of becoming anyone new” (ibid, p. 15). Dennon concludes that the “consumerism, superficiality, and script-following that attend the portrayal of her static female type undermine feminist goals of self-realization, while quite literally buying into patriarchal capitalism” (ibid, p. 16). Thus, Dennon’s studies are crucial to consider when exploring Amy’s consistent hunger for reinvention. This desire directly reflects the effects of modern society on women expected to suppress their rage.


The femme fatale character serves as an iconic historical archetype of cinema history that traditionally presents a highly seductive woman who is enticing and alluring but menacing in nature. For many scholars, the femme fatale’s chauvinistic essence at the surface mirrors film noir’s overall pessimism.

For some, she represents the worst misogynistic parts of mid-20th Century society that were merely created to serve the male gaze. However, when further exploring existing research into the character, she can conversely be read as a woman becoming free of oppression, which inspires the female audience to follow suit.

Following an analysis of the existing studies of the character and the films Gilda, Sunset Boulevard, and Gone Girl, the femme fatale can be viewed as a monumental character whose strong charisma and sexual nature are discerned as either good or bad.

Nevertheless, one thing is certain: her presence is a force to be reckoned with that challenges old-fashioned, misogynistic expectations of women in society.

Word count: 3,967 words (excluding abstract, keywords and references)


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