Deconstructing the Biblical Femme Fatale

Henri Robert, Salome

It’s amazing the things you discover on the internet. I recently googled ‘femme fatale + Bible’ [purely for research purposes, I assure you] and was directed to a page on wikiHow, entitled ‘How to be a femme fatale’. Among the list of ‘steps’ for achieving this goal were such helpful tips as ‘wear dark, sexy, retro clothes’, ‘speak in a seductive voice’, and ‘hang out in mysterious places’. In addition, readers were also given the essential piece of advice, ‘read the Bible’, because, the author of this wiki explains, there are ‘loads of iconic femme fatales’ within the pages of the Bible, including Eve, Judith, Salome, and Delilah. Presumably, any femme fatale wannabe should refer to the behaviour of these biblical ladies in order to gain some helpful hints to ensure that their femme fatale status is sufficiently convincing.

Gustav Klimt, Judith

Tongue-in-cheek as this wiki guide may be, it is true that biblical characters such as Eve, Salome, Judith, and Delilah have indeed been labelled on numerous occasions in both biblical interpretation and popular culture with the epithet of femme fatale. As a cultural icon, the femme fatale can be found in texts and traditions dating back millennia; however, this female persona really came into her own during the closing decades of the nineteenth century within artistic and literary movements such as Aestheticism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau. Literally, a ‘fatal woman’, the femme fatale is a woman whose dangerous eroticism and seductive beauty belies her moral corruption and perversities and whose raison d’être appears to be to lure men towards destruction or even death. An antithesis to the traditional roles of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ commonly ascribed to women within androcentrically-oriented cultures, the femme fatale presents instead a figure of female otherness and danger who poses a real threat to patriarchal authority – she is typically independent, self-aware, sexually autonomous, often foreign, ambitious, beautiful, and erotic; and, perhaps because she is all these things, she is also deadly.

Gaston Bussiere, Salome

The dangerous sexuality that so typifies the femme fatale is illustrated in some of the artistic representations of those biblical women mentioned above from the late 19th-early20th centuries. Here, Salome becomes an exotic nightclub dancer and Judith an erotic, proud and self-assured sexual warrior. Delilah, with her bejewelled head decoration and smoky eyes is the quintessence of dangerous foreign sexuality, while Eve positively oozes a sensuality that surely Adam must find impossible to resist. As sexually attractive femme fatales, these women all invite the male gaze, yet at the same time may invoke male fears and anxieties at their obvious revocation of traditional qualities of femininity, such as sexual passivity, modesty, and submissiveness, and the threat that they obviously pose to those men who fall under their dangerous influence.

Franz von Stuck, Judith

What is especially fascinating about these representations of biblical women as femme fatales is the fact that they differ quite significantly from the actual depictions of these same female characters within the biblical traditions. While it’s true that Judith does employ her sexuality to lure Holofernes to his death, the pious Jewish widow we read about in the book of Judith is a far cry from Franz von Stuck’s naked knife-wielding sexual warrior.

Franz von Stuck, Salome

Likewise, in the gospel traditions of Matthew 14.3-11 and Mark 6.17-29, the daughter of Herodias (who is not even named in either text but only later identified by Josephus as Salome) does nothing more salacious than dance for her uncle Herod at his birthday celebrations and appears to be manipulated by her mother to request the head of John the Baptist as a ‘reward’.  Yet, within the artistic representations of von Stuck and Gaston Bussiere, she is transformed into a sultry and erotic dancer, more at home in the Folies Bergère than the Herodian royal court.

John LB Shaw, Adam and Eve

Meanwhile, despite being regarded throughout history as temptress par excellence, the Eve we read about in Genesis 2-3 is no more sexually aware or erotically charged than either Adam or the serpent; nevertheless, John Liston Shaw’s painting of Eve evokes a strong sense of her languid yet powerful sexuality, as she subverts traditional gender roles and completely dominates and transfixes a passive and terrified-looking Adam. And, finally, as discussed in a previous blog post, Delilah’s characterization in the narrative of Judges 16 simply omits any explicit [or implicit, for that] references to her sexuality or sexual appeal; it is therefore up to artists such as Alexandre Cabanel to fill in these narrative ‘gaps’ with their own ideations of her erotic allure, creating her in the image of the sultry, exotic, and overtly sexual ‘fatal woman’.

Alexandre Cabanel, Delilah

While these pictures certainly capture the eye and the imagination, we might nevertheless suggest that, in taking liberties with the biblical traditions, images of biblical women as erotic and exotic femme fatales may also perpetuate harmful myths and misperceptions which equate female sexuality, strength, and autonomy with danger, violence, and a threat to male authority. Contrary to wikiHow, identifying a woman as a femme fatale doesn’t rest solely on recognizing her ability to speak in a husky voice or wear the right clothes; it involves the act of labelling her as dangerously ‘other’; to be objectified, avoided, feared, and ultimately rejected. Women who act independently, who take control of their own sexuality and destiny, and who simply don’t ‘fit’ the stereotyped gender mould allocated to them within their patriarchal milieu are thus branded as something dangerously other than the feminine ideal. Perhaps it is time we deconstructed the femme fatale once and for all and showed her up for what she really is – a projection of male uncertainties and anxieties and a dramatic warning against female sexual autonomy and power.

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