Musings & Meditations

Good Girls and Bad

An excerpt from Vamps: An Illustrated History of the Femme Fatale

I don’t know if I can tell you what first drew me to the femme fatale. It must have started at the tender age of four with my burgeoning love of horror movies, a passion that quickly developed into a love of all movies. Perhaps it was the first time I saw The Wicked Lady (1945). Or maybe it was simply that I was raised to be a good girl, obedient, polite, and friendly, always giving more than I took and asking little in return. And I was a good girl. My parents knew I would behave. My teachers thought me the ideal student. But in my mind’s eye, and in the privacy of my own playtime, I lived the life of a lady pirate. Sometimes I was a dance hall floozie. I dearly wanted to be Cleopatra, floating down the Nile. But most of all, I wanted to be exciting, exotic, demanding. I wanted to be in control. And perhaps that’s why I was so drawn to the dark and mysterious heroines of the movies I loved so much. They may have paid dearly for their freedom, but still, they lived life on their own terms.

As I got older, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who wanted to break free from my Good Girl past. That’s what the women’s movement of the seventies was all about. By challenging the stereotypes of good woman and bad, Madonna and whore, feminists expanded the range of possibilities for girls like me. But what they didn’t count on was how much girls like me loved the Bad Girl. We embraced her, not because she was everything we wanted to be, but because she let us express parts of ourselves that we had been taught to deny. And she looked so damn good doing it, too.

The femme fatale is a complex icon. She is, we are often told, what young women should never aspire to be, a cautionary example of the consequences of bad behavior. Men have used her as a representation of their fears and desires, marking themselves as innocent victims of her ill will. But there was a time when she was worshipped, too, in the form of the Devouring Mother, the destroyer aspect of the great goddess.

Unless there is death, there cannot be life.

~ Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Although the phrase “femme fatale” is relatively new, the archetype she represents is as old as the ancient Goddess in whom she finds her roots. The Goddess was the ultimate expression of women’s ancient power held in awe. Hers was and is a sexual power. She contained all of the mysteries of universe within her in her three phases, as girl, mother, and crone, she embodied the universal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. (Contemporary Goddess worship is about reclaiming the power of the feminine, celebrating the cycle of women’s lives and their fertility, and holding women’s sexuality to be sacred.) With the transition to a god-centered religion and an emphasis on the male as the sacred center of the universe, the image of the Goddess was shattered. But even in god-centered religions, aspects of the Goddess were maintained. As the virgin, the mother, and the wife, she was celebrated and revered. In her dark element, the devouring mother who delivers her children unto death, we find the witch, the hag, and the whore. Her sexuality in service to the male gods was valued and revered, while her autonomous sexuality was viewed as corrupt and evil. From her status as the Mother of All Being, she was reduced to her various elements, a menagerie of monsters, demons and bogeys.

In the Middle Ages, the mystical and wondrous Other of the Goddess became the feared and dangerous witch, the woman who cast her spells and worked her magic to seduce both women and men into the realm of evil through desire. The rites and rituals associated with the Goddess were maintained throughout rural Europe with the help of village midwives and healers, the priestesses of their communities. They posed a direct challenge to the authority of the Church and its ability to maintain control over the religious expression of rural populations. To discredit these women and the religions they practiced, Church authorities proclaimed them witches, threats to good and decent people everywhere. The power of witches, like the power of the Goddess, lay in the sexual realm, for through “the wantonness of the flesh [witches] have much power over men.” This aversion to women’s sexuality fueled the hatred and fear of the witch hunts. In the hands of the Church, and with the help of the legal establishment, the once-sacred Goddess becomes the consort of the Devil, a danger and a threat to society and Christian faith. Christianity Worshipping her became a crime punishable by death.

The early eighteenth century, the “golden age of vampires,” introduced the vampire as we now know it. Austrian authorities began systematic investigations into reports of vampirism. Drawing on folklore, legend, and the anxieties of people living in a plague-ridden era, the image of the vampire coalesced into the revenant, the creature who returns from the grave to drink the blood of loved ones. These tales, combined with earlier legends of ruthless leaders and blood-sucking ghosts, served as the foundation of the vampire literature that would begin to flourish in the nineteenth century.

…communion is, above all, a penetrating of death, the great mother, because only death–which is night, sickness, and Christianity, but also the erotic embrace, the banquet at which the “stone becomes flesh”–will give us access to health, to life and to the sun.

~ Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre

The femme fatale returned to command mainstream attention in the nineteenth century. Artists, writers, and designers drew on earlier images, the names and faces of the Goddess, the trickery and malevolence of witches, and the effusive imagery of the Romantics to create the femme fatale as we know her today. These artists came of age in the midst of a cultural revolution marked by the rise of industrialization and the formation of a European middle class. Women asserted their rights as the battle for women’s suffrage came to the center stage. In the midst of it all was the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, with syphilis at the forefront, that reached epidemic proportions by the end of the century. The femme fatale, deadly as ever, found a spotlight in the works of artists such as Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and Edward Munch.

Ever vigilant and always aware of her next opportunity, the femme fatale transformed, entering the twentieth century through the movies, a new medium and a burgeoning art form. The pristine prudishness of Victorianism mores had made the evil women a worthy foil. The sensationalism of the fallen woman was made socially acceptable by its implicit condemnation of her evil nature. The self-righteous tone of the message failed to dim the spectacular nature of the woman who left a trail of destruction in her wake.

As the techniques and styles of movie-making evolved, so did the image of the femme fatale. filmmaking From the mortal woman whose capacity for evil warranted her reputation as “The Vampire,” she became increasingly human, more sympathetic, and less deadly. She continued to be desirable, although she was still touched with the potential for danger. To love her was to come to a tragic end. She knew this and resisted the urge to draw her prey, but to love until death was her raison d’etre, whether the death be hers or her lovers’.

As the culture surrounding sex and sexuality became more open, so did the representation of sexual women. By the 1950s, with World War II behind and Playboy just ahead, social norms and sexual politics made the femme fatale less threatening and more acceptable. The femme fatale was no longer fatal, at least not to others. Stripped of her power, but maintaining her allure, the femme fatale became the sex kitten. Her openness and her vulnerability marked her as women’s sexuality tamed. By the 1960s, with the sexual revolution just around the corner, the sexual image of women in popular culture had returned once again to the supernatural for the edge, the frisson, the risk that we associate with the classic femme fatale. She is, after all, the woman who both attracts and repels. Once the now-diluted image of the vamp has become clich, no longer able to instill fear, to repel, to incite passion, “The Vampire” returns to the silver screen, ready to work her charms.

In the nineties, vampires and vamps exist side-by-side. Mainstream films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire have kept vampires in the forefront, while the vamp can be seen in a wide variety of movies, including Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction, Bound, and even Irma Vep.

The Dark Goddess is still with us. She is the vital essence of women’s power–the power of life and death, the realm of darkness that leads us into the light. The once sacred image of the Devouring Mother has become profane, but she still exists and is still worshipped in her various forms and with her many names–Theda Bara, Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Sharon Stone. She tells us as much about who we are as individuals and a society as she does about herself, her needs, and her desires. Vamps traces the image of the fatal woman, both sacred and profane, to bring together the common threads and related themes that are the source of her power and a testimony to her endurance.

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