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What is a Femme Fatale?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A femme fatale is a woman who is extremely attractive and quite mysterious, with a hint of danger. The role in society has shifted as a result of changing attitudes towards women, with modern femme fatales being a far cry from their historical counterparts, but the myth is quite enduring. Perhaps the best single word to use when describing this woman is “alluring;” she classically has a deep, sultry voice, a provocative body, and a complex character, for those who delve beneath the surface.

Several qualities distinguish a femme fatale from other women. She tends to be extremely intelligent in addition to being quite beautiful, and she often speaks, behaves, or dresses in an unusual and striking manner that is designed to get attention, without being too flashy. Most importantly, she is extremely dangerous; historically, an entanglement with he could have dangerous or even devastating consequences, especially for a man.

The term translates as “fatal woman” in French, emphasizing the danger which is classically associated with the femme fatale. The archetype appears in many cultures, and she is often linked with witchcraft, especially in cultures where strong, powerful women are feared. Some oft-cited historical examples include Cleopatra, Theda Bara, and Mata Hari; in fiction, women like the brides of Dracula were often considered to be “fatal women” as well, in that particular case in the literal sense.

The idea is closely bound up with cultural attitudes about the use of feminine wiles to deceive, mislead, or seduce. A classic femme fatale hides her true nature with seductive attitudes, ensnaring her prey so thoroughly that by the time he realizes what has happened, it is too late. Many people now feel that this attitude is rather antiquated and misogynist, and they prefer to think of he simply as a mysterious attractive woman rather than a vixen with sinister motives.

Well through the 20th century, any story about a femme fatale typically ended with a moment in which she was either defeated, or turned, becoming remorseful for her past. In the modern era, however, where strong women are much more valued, she may become a powerful force in her own right, becoming a heroine of sorts.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Fa5t3r — On Nov 04, 2013

@Iluviaporos - It's nice to read a positive account of a femme fatale. I do wonder if there is a male version of the same kind of person.

I know that there are definitely stories of men who seduced the wives of high level officers in order to get information. I mean, that's half of what James Bond does in those films.

By lluviaporos — On Nov 03, 2013

The person who springs to mind for me when someone says "femme fatale" was one of my great heroines and basically used her wiles for good.

She's known as the White Mouse and was a spy and soldier against the Nazis in the second world war. Apparently she was so pretty they would just assume she was harmless and let her go into secure facilities. She did all kinds of amazing things, like parachuting into enemy territory and, when necessary, killing sentries with her bare hands.

I don't think she ever outright seduced someone (that I know of) for information, but it wouldn't surprise me, since she seemed to be willing to do whatever it took to get information to protect her own people. I think she was amazing.

By pleonasm — On Nov 02, 2013

It kind of annoys me that Cleopatra is considered to be a femme fatale. I mean she was a great ruler who used whatever means were at her disposal to continue ruling. If she was a guy, her biggest accomplishment wouldn't be considered to be her good looks, and ability to seduce people.

I suppose at least people still think of her in a positive way, while many other so-called femme fatales have been vilified.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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