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.


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.



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.

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