Re-imagining the noir femme fatale on the Renaissance stage

Antonio, Amy Brooke (2015) Re-imagining the noir femme fatale on the Renaissance stage. M/C Journal, 18 (6).

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[Introduction]: Traditionally, the femme fatale has been closely associated with a series of noir films (such as Double Indemnity [1944], The Maltese Falcon [1941], and The Big Heat [1953]) in the 1940s and 50s that necessarily betray male anxieties about independent women in the years during and following World War II. However, the anxieties and historical factors that precipitated the emergence of the noir femme fatale similarly existed in the sixteenth century and, as a result, the femme fatale can be re-imagined in a series of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. In this context, to re-imagine is to imagine or conceive of something in a new way. It involves taking a concept or an idea and re-imagining it into something simultaneously similar and new. This article will argue, first, that the noir femme fatale’s emergence coincided with a period of history characterised by suspicion, intolerance and perceived vulnerability and that a similar set of historical factors—namely the presence of a female monarch and changes to marriage laws—precipitated the emergence a femme fatale type figure in the Renaissance period. Second, noir films typically contain a series of narrative tropes that can be similarly identified in a selection of Renaissance plays, which enables the production of a new, re-imagined reading of these plays as tragedies of the feminine desire for autonomy.

The femme fatale, according to Rebecca Stott, is not unique to the twentieth century. The femme fatale label can be applied retrospectively to seductive, if noticeably evil women, whose seduction and destruction of men render them amenable to our twenty-first century understanding of the femme fatale (Allen). Mario Praz similarly contends that the femme fatale has always existed; she simply becomes more prolific in times of social and cultural upheaval. The definition of the femme fatale, however, has only recently been added to the dictionary and the burden of all definitions is the same: the femme fatale is a woman who lures men into danger, destruction and even death by means of her overpowering seductive charms. There is a woman on the Renaissance stage who combines adultery, murder, and insubordination and this figure embodies the same characteristics as the twentieth-century femme fatale because she is similarly drawn from an archetypal pattern of male anxieties regarding sexually appetitive/desirous women. The fear that this selection of women elicit arises invariably from their initial defiance of their fathers and/or brothers in marrying without their consent and/or the possibility that these women may marry or seek a union with a man out of sexual lust.

The femme fatale of 1940s and 50s noir films is embodied by such women as Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Maltese Falcon), Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity), and Ann Grayle (Murder, My Sweet), while the figure of the femme fatale can be re-imagined in a series of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, including The Changeling (1622), Arden of Faversham (1592), and The Maid’s Tragedy (1619). Like the noir femme fatale, there is a female protagonist in each of these plays who uses both cunning and sexual attractiveness to gain her desired independence. By focusing on one noir film and one Renaissance play, this article will explore both the historical factors that precipitate the emergence of these fatal women and the structural tropes that are common to both Double Indemnity and Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling. The obvious parallels between the two figures at the centre of these narratives—Phyllis and Beatrice-Joanna respectively—namely an aversion to the institution of marriage and the instigation of murder to attain one’s desires, enable a re-imagined reading of Beatrice-Joanna as a femme fatale.

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Item Type: Article (Commonwealth Reporting Category C)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information: Published version made accessible under Creative Commons 3.0 license.
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Australian Digital Futures Institute (8 Dec 2010 - 6 Jul 2016)
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Australian Digital Futures Institute (8 Dec 2010 - 6 Jul 2016)
Date Deposited: 29 Apr 2016 05:59
Last Modified: 25 Jul 2017 02:51
Uncontrolled Keywords: re-imagine; femme fatale; film noir; Renaissance
Fields of Research (2008): 21 History and Archaeology > 2103 Historical Studies > 210399 Historical Studies not elsewhere classified
Fields of Research (2020): 43 HISTORY, HERITAGE AND ARCHAEOLOGY > 4303 Historical studies > 430399 Historical studies not elsewhere classified
Socio-Economic Objectives (2008): E Expanding Knowledge > 97 Expanding Knowledge > 970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology

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