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The eternal appeal of the femme fatale Add to ...

It was an afternoon in 1982 when I first heard a song that would change the way I viewed women forever.

The submerged family room where I played was as dark as the inside of a grave that day, the day that my still literal-minded five-year-old psyche was informed by Daryl Hall and John Oates that there were some women who not only roamed at night, but who liked to eat men. A chill passed through me then and I wondered if, when I grew up, I would be able to run fast enough to avoid being caught in the clutches of these cannibalistic females.

I was reminded of this formative moment recently. Reminded by Angelina Jolie, of course, who, employing once again her full lips and cunning grin, continues her serialized performance as Hollywood's premiere femme fatale in The Tourist. Her male dupe is Johnny Depp. "I don't regret kissing you," he insists passionately in the film's trailer, ironically implying that he probably will.

But despite the ominous foreshadowing, I think men everywhere can relate to this protagonist naïf. But why - even if it takes place only in our fantasies - run after women we should be running from?

By the time I was a teenager, the killer sexpot had become less panic-inducing. In fact, it was a turn-on. My first encounter with her wasn't the classic model, but Molly in William Gibson's sci-fi hit Neuromancer could definitely be considered the Femme Fatale 2.0.

"Nobody wants to hurt you," Molly tells the male protagonist while collecting him for her boss. "'Cept I do hurt people sometimes, Case." She shows him the four-inch scalpel blades that slide out from beneath her burgundy fingernails and then, in the following chapter, hastily peels off her black leather pants and has her way atop him, Basic Instinct-style. That page in my paperback copy of the book is a little more worn than the others.

When I asked Mr. Gibson what he thought of Molly's allure, he replied, "I've always assumed that it operates somewhere between the appeal of the tomboy and the role of the dominatrix." At the time, he told me, many female characters in genre fiction had been "grotesquely feminized in order to keep them on their side of the fence." He called it one of the ways the patriarchal structure was maintained. "I felt what I was doing with the character of Molly was shifting it back the other way," he says. "And having fun doing it."

Mr. Gibson's political subtext makes me wonder whether my attraction to Molly was a consequence of being raised in an era in which women began to hold more power. But if the strong-willed woman had become desirable, the culture's insistence on continuing to depict her as a death trap definitely shows it remains a conflicted desire.

Melanie Griffith, who plays a Lone Rangeress like Molly but with a Marilyn Monroe voice in a very bad sci-fi film called Cherry 2000, was the next femme fatale to capture my teenage attention. A sort of Lara Croft-light, her character E. Johnson takes a whiny city guy in her souped-up Mustang to the wastelands of their dystopian future to help him find a replacement body for his broken robot girlfriend. In the process, he learns how to love a real woman instead - Ms. Griffith. In the last scene, the two end up together, turning the same woman who pulls a gun on him when they first meet into relationship material.

In university, I tried that. I actually dated a real-life femme fatale. She was more of the 1940s noir stock: She wore only black, was playfully seductive and yet emotionally uncommitted enough to have me in constant pursuit. I must have liked it for the perpetual chase but also, it would have been the ultimate conquest to gain entrance into the soft heart of a woman who was warm to only a few - the gender reversal of the woman who wants to tend to and fix the bad boy.

When I ran into this ex-girlfriend years later, I realized it had all been a case of post-adolescents playing with their identities to create a self-involved drama for an audience of two.

A close female friend of mine in her late 20s says she'll still put on that vamp persona on occasion. "I think girls do that act to give themselves power and confidence," she said, adding that the fact that it attracts guys is just a side effect.

From the men's side, I'd be remiss to overlook the construction of the femme fatale as a sort of cloaked misogyny. I chatted with Russell Smith on the topic, whose latest novel Girl Crazy features a wily young woman who ensnares a professor into a dangerous plot with her sexual charms. Before getting to what he thought was this archetype's appeal - a spontaneous and unconventional sexual appetite, notably - he tipped me off on the sexist side of it: "The femme fatale plays into the notion of the vagina dentata," Mr. Smith says. "Women are dangerous and the only way to resist making yourself unhappy is to resist your sex drive," he told me, psychoanalyzing the fantasy. "It's bound up with ancient religious prohibitions of sex."

Which brings me back to Hall and Oates. I listened to Maneater last week for the first time in years and laughed at my terrified child self, the same way I laughed when The Tourist ended. At least, until I found myself alone in the city after midnight, its streets decked out in black.

Because you never know.

Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks.

 

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