Note on Nana and femmes fatales
In this entertaining episode of her web series, film writer Lianne Spiderbaby discusses the connection between film noirs, with their nefarious and inscrutable femmes fatales slinking about in the shadows, and shifting gender roles brought about by the Second World War. This got me thinking about Zola’s Nana, who we recently discussed, and whether that particular soft trap should be labelled (with a Skull and Crossbones) “Femme Fatale”.
First, let’s try to define the “femme fatale”, in order to better understand her mating habits. To some extent, I think every woman is understood by men, or at least by a great many men, in terms of the fantasies they have projected upon her. The chasm separating the genders is roughly as wide as the gap between fantasy and reality. The femme fatale is, thus, all at once: a particularly fertile ground for fantasies, in reality, nearly the precise opposite of those fantasies, and actively a conscious manipulator of those dreaming men for her own ends.
So, I think Nana does fit the bill. The men who are enraptured by her beauty are destroyed in ways social and psychological, although interestingly not venereal, because she is nothing like they imagine her to be; and while she is not actively trying to destroy them, she does see them as essentially meal tickets, an understanding of others that is the unavoidable result of her being brought up in dire poverty.
A theory: the femme fatale character has little power or resonance outside of a structurally patriarchal society. A society that seeks, through laws and social norms, to regulate female sexuality will, paradoxically and unwittingly, invest a surprisingly great deal of power in women who transgress those regulations. A man in a patriarchal society may be well-heeled, wealthy, politically connected, and powerful; but, if she strays, he’s a cuckold and humiliated in the eyes of his society. Even Napoleon met his
But patriarchy is another fantasy about female sexuality that western civilization has gradually woken up from; the paradox is that individual sexuality is now another personal quirk or a Facebook interest a harmless hobby, while it was once a highly magnified source of illicit power under societies that feared it so intensely that they built entire structures and systems to regulate it. The femme fatale is no more because she banked on a coin that has been devalued.