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.


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.