Deadlier Than The Male: Femme Fatales, from Eve to Amanda Knox
by Tara Moss
Throughout history many – if not most – cultures have perpetuated the myth of the evil woman. In a recent Lunchbox/Soapbox address, Tara Moss discussed evil women, female criminals and the demonisation of the female gender: from Eve and Pandora to Elizabeth Bathory and Paula Broadwell.
Women are a necessary evil, the famous proverb says.
Pandora – the first woman on earth, created by a male god (Hephaestus) on the order of a male god (Zeus), as a wife for a male (Epimetheus) – was perhaps not an ideal first. She famously opened that box - in fact a jar - back in the days of ancient Greece, letting all the evil into the world.
From her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth. – From Hesiod’s Theogony (8th–7th century BC)
Eve – the first woman on earth, created by a male god from a man’s rib as a gift for a male (Adam) – was also not without flaws. She sought the Tree of Knowledge and famously bit into that apple in the Garden of Eden, ending Paradise and letting all the evil into the world.
And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done – Genesis 3:13.
(Perhaps if Adam had met some Greeks, he would have known what was coming.)
Eve and Pandora were the first bad girls, and ever since, women have been linked in the popular consciousness with the concept of sin and their sins with sex.
Mae West once quipped that there are ‘no good girls gone wrong, only bad girls found out.’ And she has a point, if you consider that Eve’s sin was to ‘eat from the Tree of knowledge’. The Good Girl standard then, of passivity, obedience, lack of curiosity about flora and fauna, (including speaking snakes) and a general disinterest in knowledge, would surely make being ‘a good girl’ a near impossibility. And not much fun, by the sounds of it.
If you believe women to be morally weak, as did Freud, who wrote that we possess ‘little sense of justice’, or the Greek philosopher Plato, who in Timaeus offers that women are the reincarnation of men who have lived evil lives, and as such, are morally flawed … well, no wonder women can’t be trusted, and men need to be ashamed of their emotions, as they so often lead them to women and therefore to their own demise.
Sherlock Holmes – that popular fictional character of great logic and high intelligence – was very clear on the matter of that other gender:
’Women are never to be entirely trusted, not the best of them,’ he warned.
Women exist at the peril of men like Holmes. In a perfect world they are best avoided. But as things stand, wise men know that women are a necessary evil, because although a male god reportedly birthed the world, these days women tend to have the monopoly on the birthing of humans.
Women’s evil tendencies have ‘proportionately worse results’
In 1893 famed criminologist Cesare Lombroso wrote in La Donna Delinquente (The Criminal Woman) that women’s ‘evil tendencies are more numerous and more varied than men’s, but usually these remain latent. When awakened and excited, however, these evil tendencies lead to proportionately worse results.’
Just what qualifies as worse is perhaps subjective, as men are 10 times more likely to murder than are women, and among that most extreme and frightening of killers – the serial killer – women are exceedingly rare. Over 91% of serial killers are male, and those who are women are far less likely to torture, rape, beat, mutilate or dismember their victims.
Men not only commit over 90% of homicides, but they are also far more likely to be murdered. In 2010 in Australia, males between the ages of 15 and 24 were more than twice as likely to be murdered as females in the same age group . Overwhelmingly, the killers of these young men were other men.
I guess we could say that men are their own worst enemies – except that they aren’t, of course. Deadly is the female, you see.
The downfall of man is not men. Man must beware the ultimate danger: the evil woman. She brought all the evil into the world and she’s not finished yet. The femme fatale could be lurking around any corner, usually with killer pins, just waiting to put her hooks in.
The fatal femme fatale
Even the most highly trained and experienced military men are not immune. The head of America’s Central Intelligence Agency, Four Star General David Petraeus, was (according to evangelist Pat Robertson) just being ‘a man’ when he had an affair with biographer Paula Broadwell – an affair that ultimately led to his resignation late last year. Though both were married, Broadwell was widely accepted as a predatory femme fatale who ‘got her claws into’ Petraeus. According to the Washington Post, the general, two decades her senior, simply ‘let his guard down’. The femme fatale can be fatal to helpless generals like Petraeus. Or to their careers, at least.
I have a long-standing fascination with the femme fatale, the most popular of evil woman archetypes – that ruthless woman, temptress and female icon of social and criminal rebellion.
I love the bad girls of early detective novels and film noir, so it is perhaps unsurprising that I wanted to believe in the existence of a cool blonde with immaculate Veronica Lake waves and un-smudged red lipstick, reclining glamorously with one leg over the arm of her chair, cigarette held elegantly in one hand, the other one aiming a Saturday Night Special at her surprised male victim.
But what I found in a decade and a half of research as a crime novelist surprised me – and to be honest, disappointed me as well. Far from the femme fatales of fiction, the case studies of real female outlaws were filled with stories of women who thieved to eat or to feed drug dependencies, or were arrested for bigamy, prostitution, performing illegal abortions, or simply for being pregnant and unmarried, like many of the convict women who were shipped to Australia’s notorious ‘Female Factories’ in the 19th century.
In 1828, for instance, Prudence Clare was sent to the Female Factory in Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land) for ‘being unable from pregnancy to be any longer of service to her Master’. The children of these women were taken away from them once they were weaned and many died.
Inventing the femme fatale
Perhaps, if irresistible femme fatales didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.
And sometimes we do in the form of, say, Joanne Lees, the survivor of a horrific ordeal while traveling through the outback in 2001 when a stranger, Bradley John Murdock, shot her boyfriend, threatened Lees with a gun, tied her up and covered her head. She escaped while Murdock was distracted – apparently moving the body of her boyfriend – and hid for five terrifying hours in the bush before flagging down a truck driver. After surviving something so unthinkable, she was wrongly portrayed by many as a cunning and unfeeling femme fatale who murdered her boyfriend and lied to cover her crime.
The case had shades of Lindy Chamberlain, a woman who famously suffered unspeakable loss in the Australian outback and was also falsely accused of callously killing a loved one, in this case her own baby.
More recently, consider the case of Amanda Knox, also accused of being an unfeeling, bloodthirsty woman, initially convicted of the murder of a flatmate in Italy, and acquitted in 2011 after four years in an Italian jail. Despite what is widely considered to be a profoundly flawed case against her, Knox may now face yet another trial. In the meantime, international media continue to brand her ‘Foxy Knoxy’ and write about her supposedly perverse sexual appetite. British newspaper The Observer wrote in 2011 that ‘Knox knew, it seemed, no boundaries, leaving a vibrator in a transparent wash bag and enjoying one-night stands.’ As if engaging in consensual sex and possessing a vibrator are now obvious signs of having a lack of ‘boundaries’, or by implication, a lack of morals – enough to kill, The Observer’s Tobias Jones seems to suggest. One struggles to imagine how say, possession of lube or condoms might implicate a man as a wanton murderer.
In each of these cases – Chamberlain, Lees and Knox – the suspicious woman was young and attractive. They fit the femme fatale role a little too well, particularly the unmarried Lees and Knox.
Don’t get me wrong, women do kill. Women do commit all kinds of crimes, some of them quite horrific. You could say that evil women do exist, just not quite as we imagine them.
Take Sydney’s own larger-than-life underworld criminals: sly-grogger Kate Leigh and brothel madam Tilly Devine, prominent figures in the razor wars of the 1920s and 30s.
Despite the reality of these women’s lives and the plethora of images and documents we have, when it came time to portray them on television, these notoriously tough women were depicted, once again, as femme fatale style beauties. Kate Leigh was even introduced to viewers of Channel Nine’s Underbelly Razor series nude in the bath, supplying us with a flash of breast as she emerged from her tub.
It went like this: the camera zoomed in on a beautifully pedicured foot and panned up a shapely leg. ‘Hang on to your hats,’ the voiceover said, ‘it’s not going to be pretty’. Oh, but it was.
Had Razor’s Queen Kate looked more like the woman herself – heavy-set, with belly and breasts thrust forward under a pleased grin, seeming to wear her extra weight luxuriously and with pride – that opening sequence in the bath would have been very powerful indeed, though in a very different way.
But the fact is, we prefer to see beautiful people on the screen, and while male crime bosses can safely be depicted as old, brutish men with ravaged faces and pot bellies, we aren’t quite ready to see the female version of this.
‘The criminal woman is a true monster,’ criminologist Cesare Lombroso wrote – and for many, more than a century later, that gut reaction still holds. The hard, criminal woman unsettles us. Softening her edges is all too irresistible.
We soften them physically, giving them eye-pleasing curves and even features. Sometimes we soften their temperaments, too, as was evident in the portrayal of Razor’s pretty Tilly running off quietly into the backyard to have a cry by herself when she catches husband Jim Devine in bed with one of her young prostitutes, Nellie Cameron. A very human response, yes, but arguably improbable from a woman with such a famously vicious temper that she literally shot both of her husbands in quarrels.
We like our female criminals to be beautiful and preferably fit the mold of the seductive femme fatale – an archetype born from Eve and Salome and popularised by glamorous bad girls of 1920s detective novels and the American film noir of the ‘40s and '50s. When women are criminals, we want to make them beautiful, and when a real-life crime unfolds with beautiful women involved, it’s awfully tempting to cast them as the femme fatale, even when they are innocent.
In reality, a life of crime and violence isn’t pretty … for men or for women.
Arguably the most terrifying of all killers is the serial killer – that stranger who kills for pleasure, again and again. In popular culture the female serial killer was perhaps most famously portrayed by Sharon Stone in 1992 blockbuster Basic Instinct, as Catherine Tramell, a bisexual beauty who beds her male victims and then stabs them to death with an ice pick.
Her real-life equivalent would be Australian Katherine Knight, a victim of appalling sexual abuse as a minor who grew into a violent woman and, in 2000, at the age of 44, had sex with her partner, John Price, then stabbed him repeatedly in bed, skinned him, decapitated him, hung his hide on a hook and put slices of his buttocks in a pot in the oven to cook. Katherine was found asleep at the blood-soaked crime scene and never had the opportunity to kill again.
American prostitute Aileen Wuornos, on the other hand, did. She murdered seven men and was put to death by lethal injection, aged 46. Like Knight, Wuornos was not rich or dangerously alluring like Stone’s Catherine Tramell. She was raised in an atmosphere of grinding poverty and abuse and ultimately became the monster of Cesare Lombroso’s description, as the title of the Oscar-winning 2003 film based on her life suggests. Screen beauty Charlize Theron played Wuornos, albeit with significant weight gain and unflattering make-up.
And as far back as the 16th century we find a tale of female serial killer, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, dubbed ‘The Blood Countess’, who was charged with torturing and killing hundreds of her servant girls and was walled into her castle as punishment.
Her actual guilt is debated – as royalty she was not allowed to stand trial, but she could nonetheless be convicted without a defense, and her accusers stood to gain her vast wealth and properties of strategic military significance. But that hasn’t stopped her from becoming a legendary femme fatale.
She is often depicted as a lesbian or bisexual sexual sadist, bathing in the blood of her virgin servants to maintain her great beauty. We just can’t help attributing beauty, vanity and an intriguing sexual appetite to even our most terrifying historical female killers, where they do exist.
For centuries female criminality was primarily equated with sexual immorality: women who led men astray with their feminine wiles, a danger to the fabric of a good and functioning society. While the evil men in history are generally associated with violent war and tyranny – say Vlad the Impaler, Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot – evil women, both in real life and as fictional creations, are almost invariably associated with emotion, sexual sin and perversity and of course, physical vanity. In this way, we take the criminal actions of women and again tie them back to those early suspicions – that women’s sexuality and desires are fundamentally dangerous.
And for every Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh, Katherine Knight or Aileen Wuornos, we have many more examples of equally vicious (or worse) deeds committed by male criminals and killers. Take Ted Bundy. For the purposes of this talk, I’ll call him an homme fatale – a term I’ve never otherwise heard used, despite how well it fits. Bundy decapitated at least 12 women and confessed to murdering at least 30. He used his charm, good looks and sex appeal, along with feigning injury and pleading for assistance, donning a fake arm cast, to lure the women he then kidnapped, raped and killed.
But perhaps the idea of a woman committing a crime at all shocks us as much as the crimes themselves. It challenges our perceptions of women as innocent daughters, loving wives and nurturing mothers – the ‘fairer’ and ‘weaker’ sex – while simultaneously fitting neatly into those long standing parables about the temptations of evil women.
Sherlock Holmes would only shrug and say ‘I told you so’.
What did Jim Morrison sing? Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted.
Perhaps it is inevitably human, when our hearts are broken, to talk about love itself as evil, along with those who represent love to us. For most of the storytellers throughout history, the focus of those particular emotions have been attractive women, because those storytellers of the past were primarily males and primarily heterosexual. Even today an estimated 93% of working directors in film and TV in the US are male, as are 87% of the writers . Of the list of the 50 Most Influential People in Television, published by the Sydney Morning Herald recently, nearly 75% were men. That happens to be roughly the same percentage of front page newspaper articles in the UK to have been written by men .
But women now write about half of the novels published each year and after only 82 years, a woman even won an Oscar for Best Director – that coveted mark of acceptance in the notoriously male-dominated Hollywood system. Increasingly, women are making headway in film and television around the world, particularly in the indie film industry. More women are becoming accomplished journalists, playwrights, producers and novelists. More and more, women are participating in the storytelling that shapes our perceptions of the world.
Perhaps in time, with a different balance of storytellers, we will be less reliant on the old sexual stereotypes – less prone to exaggerate the wickedness of ordinary women, and less tempted to dress up the truly wicked in the form of the archetypal alluring femme fatale.