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.
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.
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.
Tune in next week for Part 3!