Monday 16 September 2019

Mary Kenny: When sirens called the shots

The femme fatale was the active seductress, not the passive victim

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

I have before me a picture of Marlene Dietrich in her prime, sent by a friend in Berlin. It's taken soon after her 1930s debut in The Blue Angel, an erotic tale about a sedate professor who falls under the spell of a night-club singer. Dietrich played the role of femme fatale in many a film, when as a woman whose power is in her beauty and her compelling personality, she calls the shots.

As a teenager I formed an ambition to be a bad-girl (sometimes achieved) after seeing Marlene Dietrich's languid courtesan in Shanghai Express. There's a key moment when an old flame, played by the rather stuffed-shirt British actor Clive Brooks, places a jodhpurred boot on a stool and asks Marlene meaningfully: "Are you married yet?" Through a cloud of cigarette smoke, she replies with self-assurance: "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lil!" Ah, what a gal!

The 1940s were marked by movies with women as strong characters, sexy sirens and femmes fatales. Bette Davis swaggered in dominatrix style through All About Eve, Joan Crawford was a driven single mother in Mildred Pierce and Barbara Stanwyck was a darkly active protagonist in film noir.

Then came the influence of Hitchcock: his thrillers were thrilling but they often had a theme prevalent in screen drama right up to our day - the woman as vulnerable victim. Set up a scenario in which a woman is menaced, and take it from there. A contemporary version in screen drama - in cinema and TV today - is a pregnant woman in danger of rape, violence or murder.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal brought out an avalanche of accusations of sexual harassment, sexual abuse and alleged rape in the culture of Hollywood, and no doubt it was all true. The "casting couch", where starlets were expected to perform sexual acts in exchange for promotion, disgusted Ronnie Reagan as a studio star back in the 1950s. It is evident that this odious behaviour has always occurred. The actresses who have spoken out about the way they were victimised are admirable - and right: and many women in other industries and professions speak of parallel experiences.

It's evident that when women have complained about sexual harassment in the past, it was often they who were blamed. The novelist Kingsley Amis used to harrumph: "Women are trouble! They complain if you make a pass at them and they complain if you don't! They're like the Russians - they tell lies all the time!" And thus, because he was both a misogynist and a womaniser, he always voted to keep females out of clubs and institutions.

There's a long tradition of men projecting their own feelings of lust onto the woman who arouses the lust. St Jerome, who conjured up images of dancing girls while fasting in the desert, blamed the imaginary dancers for his desires. The fallout from the Weinstein story has dwelt on the theme of women as victims of men's desires and it prompts the thought that the femme fatale has now been almost obliterated from view. The Weinstein narrative emphasises the power of successful men over helpless women: the femme fatale narrative stressed the power that a commanding woman could have over men. The femme fatale was the seductress, not the seduced.

It is implied, in the comments around Weinstein, that no woman ever, under any circumstances, exploited her sexual powers, or chose to use sex as a weapon for self-advancement. But some women have done, and have freely chosen to do so. A woman could also exploit her sexual powers by withholding her favours, and some have done that, too.

Sometimes the femme fatale's power came from beauty, as with Maud Gonne: men would lay down their lives for her - it was Maud as Kathleen Ní Houlihan who stirred so many men to join the Nationalist cause. Lillie Langtry, the Edwardian pin-up, also exercised power over powerful men through the force of her beauty. But the femme fatale wasn't necessarily a beauty: Coco Chanel looked like an engaging monkey, but she was in command. Coco used her sexuality to further her business, although her business judgment was often better than her choice of lovers - sleeping with a German officer during World War II was a bit off, though she got away with it. Wallis Simpson, who had a reputation for reducing men to poodles in the bedroom, was outstandingly plain, and had bad skin. Yet a contemporary diarist, Chips Channon, noted that she dominated every room she entered with her whip-smart intelligence and caustic wisecracks.

The femme fatale was rebuffed by feminism because she was seen as manipulative - and because not everyone can be that kind of woman. But her type does exist. And because she exercises power, she is seldom the victim of sexual exploitation: she may be its perpetrator.

I never was a femme fatale, but seldom, if ever, was I the victim of sexual harassment, either, as a young woman. If anyone was doing the harassing, it was more likely to be me. And I hitch-hiked, alone, all through France, aged 19, without ever a bother. A psychic once explained to me that every individual has a body "aura" which is picked up by the unconscious, and that my "aura" says "I can look after myself". Or maybe it was just copying the swagger and self-assurance of those 1940s movie stars.


Weekend Magazine

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss