Slithering Stanwyck: The Versatile Femme Fatale Part 3

Parts 1 and 2 of this series can be read here and here.  The last section of this case study of Stanwyck’s varying femme fatales focuses on a very rare role: a femme fatale feeding off of femmes!

Jo Courtney deviates from all the other types of femme fatales: she is out to ensnare a woman, not a man.  Set in the Depression, Jo is the Madame of a brothel and is in love with her young protégée, an artist named Hallie (Capucine).  The film’s themes of “prostitution and lesbianism consistently overlap in the film, cementing the association with both as a threat to domestic femininity” (Filippo, 379).  Domestic and traditional femininity are demolished by Jo’s love for Hallie and Hallie’s need for financial support that drives her to prostituting herself to Jo.  While “Jo…embodies the image of non-traditional womanhood, it is Hallie who articulates its contradictions” when she says “I was born perverse.  Isn’t that a woman’s nature?” (Filippo, 381).  The two men in Jo and Hallie’s lives are feminised.  The name of Hallie’s past lover, Dove (Laurence Harvey), gives the impression of someone who is soft and meek.  “Jo” is a masculine name and is Dove’s name competitor for Hallie’s affections.  The loss of Jo’s husband’s legs is a symbol for his castration and Jo’s disgust and lack of desire for him.  She confronts him about their heterosexual union by angrily asking him, “Can any man love a woman for herself without wanting her body for his own pleasure?  Love is understanding and sharing and enjoying the beauty of life without the reek of lust!  Don’t talk to me about love!  What does any man know [about love]?”  Jo also denies her husband any access to her life by placing Hallie’s bedroom on the top floor of the brothel.  Jo is literally unreachable.

As a femme fatale, Jo “functions…as the agent who…comes to reveal the fragility…of what it means to be human” (Bronfen, 105).  Stanwyck’s career of portraying alternative femininities range through the scale of human experiences: from Phyllis’ doomed attempt to escape her domestic destiny to Jean’s sexual and financial independence to Jo’s desire for a woman’s love.  Taking this role was a risk for Stanwyck’s career, “as co-star Anne Baxter recalls: ‘Most stars who are homosexual will totally steer clear of any role that has even a whiff of lavender.  That’s why it’s odd that she took that role, and that’s what I mean by her tremendous courage’” (Filippo, 376).  Despite her personal life, despite risking her career if her sexual orientation was discovered, “Stanwyck lived out roles on the big screen that ordinary women might have embodied but…cultural constraints prevented them from doing so” (Schackel, 59).  Stanwyck gave women all types of alternative lifestyles to relate to.

stanysweatervest

Although she is jailed for breaking laws – not for her lesbianism – Jo is able to survive in this drama due to the social context in which the film was released.  Walk on the Wild Side arrived “at a time of social and industrial transition, attempted to exploit modernising trends in film narrative and style and to accommodate shifting audience desires while simultaneously relying on the classical Hollywood paradigm” (Filippo, 372).  The film touches on modern themes such as lesbianism but in the same style as classical filmmakers: subtle and up to the viewer’s interpretation.  After an advanced screening, a PCA employee said, “One or two there argued there was no such thing as lesbianism in the picture…let the audience argue.  We can only win such arguments over the existence or non-existence of sexual aberrations!” (Filippo, 376).

This alternative lifestyle for women reflects the anxieties of society of the time.  Through the theme of money, the film ties the Depression era to its contemporary era.  The film measures society’s reaction to women’s increasing power by paralleling the Depression era when “women were often financially obligated to join the workforce and the contemporary period of the film’s production in which women were emerging from a decade that stressed domestic femininity into a time of broader professional possibilities and more relaxed codes on gender behaviour” (Filippo, 379).  Money is the link to female independence which allows women to pursue alternative lifestyles void of commitment to males.  For example, Phyllis was going to break off her relationship to Walter (Fred MacMurray) once she received the insurance money; Jean was going to play Charles for a fool once she won his money; and Jo was financially independent enough to not need her husband for financial or emotional support.

In conclusion, when the femme fatale is placed in another genre, she becomes an example of an alternative lifestyle for women to be inspired by. This in itself is enough to provoke anxiety in patriarchal society.  The purpose of placing femme fatales in other genres is to provide women with more options of female representations.  This purpose is seen in Barbara Stanwyck’s career as her characters escaped their domestic destiny and avoided being typecast herself.  Stanwyck’s portrayals of alternative women outside of film noir has proven to be successful as her career is sprinkled with roles that range greatly on the scale of human experiences.  She also gives characters the opportunity to exercise agency in their alternative femininities.  Stanwyck’s roles have proven the femme fatale archetype is not a doomed tragedy, but a character that women can aspire to be like while blocking the thumbtacks of society as it attempts to pin its anxieties on this liberated woman.

 

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Works Cited

Bronfen, Elisabeth.  “Femme Fatale: Negotiations of Tragic Desire.”  New Literary History 35.1 (2004): 103-116.  JSTOR.  Web.  14 Feb. 2012.

Grossman, Julie.  “Film Noir’s ‘Femme Fatales’ Hard-Boiled Women: Moving Beyond the Gender   Fantasies” Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for her Close-Up.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.  Print.

—. “Well, Aren’t We Ambitious, or ‘You’ve Made Up Your Mind I’m Guilty:’ Reading Women       as Wicked in American Film Noir” Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for   her Close-Up.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.  Print.

Kendall, Elizabeth.  Runaway Bride.  New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002.  Print.

Maltby, Richard.  Hollywood Cinema.  Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.  Print.

San Filippo, Maria.  “Controversy and Compromise in the Code’s Waning Years: Hollywood Takes a Walk on the Wild Side.”  Quarterly Review of Film and Video 32 (2009): 372-384. Scholar’s Portal.  Web. 29 Feb. 2012.

Schackel, Sandra.  “Barbara Stanwyck: an Uncommon Heroine.” California History 72.1 (1993): 40-55.  JSTOR.  Web.  14 Feb. 2012.

Slithering Stanwyck: The Versatile Femme Fatale Part 2

Part 1 of this series can be read here.  Now we continue our journey on how Barbara Stanwyck allows the femme fatale to exist in non-noir genres.

Barbara Stanwyck’s progressive roles spanned across varying genres and allowed women to imagine themselves as a strong, independent ranch owner, a scheming heiress, an empowered housewife, or other images Stanwyck embodied throughout her career.  As a “femme fatale” in non-noir films, she “lived out roles on the big screen that eluded ordinary women because society was not yet ready to allow women those kinds of freedoms” (Schackel, 41).  By studying her career, it is clear she strove to “give female roles alternatives to being saloon singer, prostitute, spunky ranchwoman, pioneer wife, or some other variation of the good woman / bad woman dichotomy” (Schackel, 52).  Unlike some actresses such as Lisabeth Scott, Lauren Bacall, and Veronica Lake, Stanwyck was able to escape from another form of entrapment often suffered by actresses: typecasting.  She is known for her femme fatale roles but she was able to apply that role to other genres as an example of an alternative lifestyle for women.  As a result, “Stanwyck is remembered for her portrayals of strong, determined women who met men on even terms or dominated them from the onset” (Schackel, 41).  Her provision of an assertive femininity is the anxiety for which patriarchy attempts to punish her characters.  Stanwyck refused to be smothered with passive female roles, and was angered by the way certain genres treated women: “They want action shows and have a theory that women don’t do action…The fact is, I’m the best action actress in the world.  I can do horse drags and jump off buildings, and I have the scars to prove it” (Schackel, 51).  Stanwyck’s determination to evade cultural and genre constraints is proven by the roles she portrays.

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The character of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity is the prototype for the following femme fatales and is the character Stanwyck is associated with most.  Some aspects of Phyllis’ femme fatale role – such as shirking patriarchy and attaining agency – can be found in Stanwyck’s performances of Jean and Jo.  As the femme fatale in the noir world, Phyllis “successfully undermines the hegemonic morality of family values” (Bronfen, 113).  She marries a widower for his money and soon after starts to despise him.  Phyllis’ predicament is an inspirational foundation for Jean and Jo.  Jean initially tricks Charles for his money and Jo is committed in a homosexual relationship while married to her husband.  Phyllis, along with Jean and Jo, will “not allow herself to be dominated by the men who fall for her charms” (Bronfen, 113).  While these women insist on having the advantage and power of their relationships, the genre in which they are placed in determines their success.  Phyllis’ location in the film noir world causes her to be the least successful of the three characters to be an alternative of traditional femininity.  Film noir concerns itself with the problems of men.  It too often blames women for the downfall of men and punishes the female character.  Film noir is not a safe space for these kinds of women because they are read as “a stereotype of feminine evil, as a symptom of male anxiety, or as a catchphrase for the danger of sexual difference…that…treats this tragic feminine heroine as an encoded figure who exists only as the phantasmic emanation of others…rather than treating her as a separate subject who has agency and is responsible for her decisions” (Bronfen, 114).  Noir dooms women for their biological gender and their desire to be something other than the passive female.  Noir does not often credit women with agency or the capability to think.  Other narratives and genres can “be used…to complicate or even undermine [the stereotype of the femme fatale]” (Neal, 188).  The type of women labelled as “femme fatale” succeeds in female-friendly genres such as comedy and drama.

"The Lady Eve"

“The Lady Eve”

It is easier for the femme fatale to survive in the genre of comedy.  According to Richard Maltby, “Hollywood’s politics are…always mediated by the systems of convention” (269).  Comedy’s light tone can easily subvert from and undermine these “systems of convention.”  In The Lady Eve, Jean lives an unconventional, alternative lifestyle as a gambler on a cruise ship, conning men into losing large amounts of money.  Jean is assertive, intelligent, and can survive without a husband.  The Screwball comedy in particular valorises feminine traits and encourages the inversion of gender roles (Kendall, 15). The femme fatale, who struggles to escape societal confines, can thrive in this genre of subversion.  Pairing Stanwyck’s Jean with Fonda’s “charming but psychologically underdeveloped young man” enhances Jean’s agency and further highlights the untraditional nature of their relationship – an “unnaturalness” film noir would not approve (Kendall, 14).  Charles’ immaturity is seen in his constant discomfort towards an attractive woman teasing him with her feminine wiles.  Stanwyck’s alternative woman in this film puts men in a compromising position.  She is causing men to appear weak and immature.  In a film noir, Jean would be punished for this attempt of “castration.”  Jean’s assertiveness as an alternative woman is also her attractiveness because “she offers him the chance to be an adult man, to be the partner of an adult woman” (Edwards, 43).  Charles’ and other men’s “immaturity makes the woman attractive to them, but it also causes them to see her as a femme fatale rather than what she really is, a femme vitale, a woman who offers the chance to live an adult life” (Edwards, 43).  The immature man needs this alternative woman, this femme fatale, in order to help him develop and grow.  Jean successfully lives her alternative lifestyle and matures Charles by her own choice.  In the traditional world of film noir, meeting a female gambler on a cruise ship would make her suspicious enough as her independence is threatening to the “dominant male culture” (“Moving Beyond Gender Fantasies”, 23).  The Lady Eve’s portrayal of a man as weak and immature is already daring, but Jo Courtney’s preference for women in Walk on the Wild Side is a major threat to masculinity and traditional femininity.  Jo embodies the ultimate alternative for women to relate to.

Fierce, fabulous, flawless.

Dressed for an evening of castration.

Tune in next week for Part 3!

Slithering Stanwyck: The Versatile Femme Fatale Part 1

The focus of this series on Barabara Stanwyck is to prove how she made the femme fatale role durable for all genres and to reveal how the consequence for the femme fatale differs in each genre.  We hope you enjoy our showcase of the one, the only, Barbara Stanwyck.

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The femme fatale is the bulletin board for society to pin its worries on.  Film noir uses the femme fatale as a scapegoat, but she can also survive in other genres friendlier to women such as comedy and drama.  The purpose of placing the femme fatale in non-noir genres is to give women an alternative role to identify with which may be either a threat to traditional femininity and masculinity or empowerment – depending on the beliefs of the individual viewer.  Barbara Stanwyck is proof this role can thrive in genres outside of film noir.  Her specific roles in Double Indemnity (1944, Wilder), The Lady Eve (1941, Sturges), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962, Dmytryck) are choice examples of femme fatales within and beyond genres outside of film noir.  Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity is the prototype to compare variations of the femme fatale role.  Although her characteristics can be applied to Stanwyck’s other roles, Phyllis fails as an alternative view for women due to her placement in the misogynistic world of film noir.  Jean in The Lady Eve thrives in her alternative lifestyle because of comedy’s trait of ridiculing social norms.  She can also come across as a threat by dominating the psychologically immature Charles (Henry Fonda).  The character of Jo Courtney in Walk on the Wild Side is a complete alternative and threat to traditional femininity as she is a femme fatale over a woman’s life.  Even though Jo’s fate is somewhat typical of a femme fatale, she is allowed to have some successes as a result of the social context in which the drama was released.  Barbara Stanwyck demonstrates the elastic definition of the femme fatale and the social anxiety she personifies in films of other genres such as comedy and drama.  In comparison to Double Indemnity, the femme fatale character also exists in Stanwyck’s films The Lady Eve and Walk on the Wild Side to exhibit alternative lifestyles for women as well as measure social anxieties of the time.

You know a woman is powerful in film when she can freely smoke cigarettes.

You know a woman is powerful in film when she can freely smoke cigarettes.

In terms of gender, film noir is concerned “with the ideal versus the real, leaving out the complexity of the actual experiences of individuals that inform or complicate their gender roles” (“Moving Beyond Gender Fantasies”, 21).  The males in film noir look for the ideal woman in the femme fatales.  Any deviation from these ideal images causes the woman to be suspect, proving her to be the “construction of male anxiety” (“Moving Beyond Gender Fantasies”, 25-26). This reflects the state of the “male fantasy” which also affects the social anxieties of the time the plot takes place (Bronfen, 107).  This anxiety “projects images onto women that perpetuate a binary opposition of good girl versus femme fatale” (“Moving Beyond Gender Fantasies”, 20).  What defines a woman as a femme fatale is her “ambition for fulfillment” and “freedom from convention” which ultimately labels her as a “severe threat to dominant male culture” (“Well, Aren’t We Ambitious,” 44-45; “Moving Beyond Gender Fantasies,” 23).  Julie Grossman argues the femme fatale is relied on too often to define a film noir which could lead to the mislabelling of some films because femme fatales can also be found in non-noir films.  Femme fatales found in non-noir genres are alternative images for female viewers to identify with but can also be symptoms of social anxieties.  These women are unrestricted to certain roles in their genre’s world.  This can come across as empowering to some viewers or frightening to others.  The fact a femme fatale is simply a woman resisting the roles society provides for her is proven in the career of Barbara Stanwyck.