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Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Femme Fatale Throughout History

A femme fatale is defined as a woman of great seductive charm who leads men into compromising and or dangerous situations. This iconic figure has existed in one form or another in nearly all cultures throughout history. She makes one of her earliest and most profound appearances in Biblical myth, under several different guises. But probably the most talked about and debated fatale character from the Bible is Eve.

Eve is viewed as a famous femme fatale because she brought about the fall of humankind and in turn introduced sin and death into the world. She succumbs to the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and is responsible for Adam's fall. She tempts him with her beauty and sexuality to eat the forbidden fruit. God recognizes Adam and Eves' transgressions and punishes them accordingly. Eve is condemned to pain during childbirth and subordination to men. Adam is cursed with having to toil and suffer for sustenance by working the land. Although many academics view Eve as the first true fatale, some believe another character of Jewish tradition is more fitting to the role: this woman is Lilith.

In Jewish legend, Lilith is Adam's first wife, and she is both sexual and in control. Unlike Eve who was born of Adam's rib, God created Lilith from clay, just like her mate, and is therefore more his equal. Lilith demonstrates her independence, a key feature of the femme fatale, by leaving Adam because of their sexual incompatibility. According to legend, Adam and Lilith fight because Adam only wants sex in the missionary position and Lilith doesn't enjoy this submissive role.

She leaves Adam and flies away to the bank of the Red Sea where she is found by the angels of God having demonic sex. The first appearance of Lilith is said to come from The Alphabet of Ben Sira, a collection of proverbs from the 11th century. She is also present in some oral Jewish mythology.

Delilah is another character from the Old Testament regarded as a temptress. She is a Philistine from the valley of Sorek who betrays Samson, the Nazirite. Delilah tricks Samson into revealing that the secret of his extreme strength lies in his long shiny hair. Then, while he was sleeping, Delilah cuts his hair, forcing him to loose his power, which leads to his capture at the hands of his enemies. To this day, Delilah's name is equated with voluptuary and treachery.

The femme fatale hasn't only existed in Biblical tales: Cleopatra is another classic example of a "Dark Lady" from antiquity. Cleopatra represents the femme fatale because of her ambition, charm and sexual prowess. She married her brother Ptolemy XII at the age of 17. She then led a revolt against him with the aid of Julius Caesar. Cleopatra went on to marry a second brother and she became theof Caesar, whom she followed to Rome from Egypt.

After the murder of Caesar, Cleopatra returned to Egypt and won over the heart of Marc Anthony. She saw her marriage to Anthony as a way of reestablishing power over the Egyptian throne. Both Marc Anthony and Cleopatra eventually committed suicide, but she is not remembered for this, but for her strong character and alluring nature.

Another example of the fatale character is Succubus of European folklore. She is a hag disguised as a beautiful woman who engages in sexual activity with sleeping men, causing them to have horrible dreams that leave them fatigued. The hag is thought by some scholars to have evolved from the primitive nature goddesses.

The Siren of Greek mythology is also legendary for corrupting men. These creatures are half woman and half birds who lure sailors to death by intoxicating them with songs. Sirens are generally believed to be the daughters of the sea God Phorcys or of the river God Achelous. These predatory creatures evolve from the early tales of exploration mixed with the Oriental birdwoman, and they are sometimes linked to the Harpies of Greco-Roman mythology.

In the 1940s, the archetype of the femme fatale flourished in contemporary pop culture with the introduction of film noir. This woman is a stable of the film genre, and she represents the liberation and power gained by females throughout the Second World War: she is sexy, duplicitous and often ruthless.

While the women of earlier screwball comedies and studio musicals worked to reaffirm social values through marriage, the femme fatale refuses to be bound to the domestic sphere prescribed to her by mainstream society. She rejects marital duties and embraces a life of complete independence—often smoking and drinking. The femme fatale uses her sexual powers to string the male protagonist of the film through a labyrinth of lies.

Film noir rarely portrays the image of a healthy marriage or a traditional nuclear family, and this leads the viewer to see the femme fatale as a logical product of her deviant environment. Yet in order to reinstate the status quo, the femme fatale must ultimately die by the end of the film. She must pay the price of promiscuity, and her transgression of social norms, with her life.

Today, the femme fatale still exists in popular film, literature and politics. This character is constantly metamorphosizing to represent the social views of the times and will continue to do so. She remains an example of female independence and a threat to traditional female gender roles.



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