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.