Empowered Women in Film Noir
Film Noir is characterized by the use of femme fatale characters who reject conventional gender roles prescribed by society. These female characters do not want to play the role of devoted and submissive wives and caring mothers; on the contrary, they use their sexual attractiveness to deceive and manipulate men for the purpose of gaining power, financial or social independence and being out of control. Film Noir allows women to break out of traditional gender roles, however, always restores patriarchal order within mainstream society by punishing them for the transgression of social boundaries.
Traditionally, Film Noir divides its female characters into three following categories: boring nurturing woman, a woman to marry, who wants to create a family with the hero, and finally, femme fatale, who longs for independence, has ambitions and feels imprisoned in close relationship with a man or within a marriage. Among the above, the femme fatale most directly attacks traditional gender roles and boundaries of all types of noir female characters.
Film Noir empowers women to break free of the roles prescribed to them by male-dominant society. In fact, the image of a conventional woman who obeyed all the rules is rather parodic in film noir. Thus, these films are more sympathetic to the image of an independent and strong woman who is not afraid to stand for her ideas and defend her right to live the way she wants to. The classic femme fatale often chooses murder as the way to set herself free of an oppressive relationship with a man who controls her and views her as his property. In Double Indemnity (1944), Phyllis Dietrichson feels like in a cage in the house of her husband. The woman wants to murder him not only because of money, however, because her husband is indifferent to her and tries to embark control over her. She says, “I feel as if he was watching me. … But he keeps me on a leash so tight I can’t breathe.” Thus, Phyllis refuses to play the traditional role of a submissive wife and powerless woman who can only ask God to help her; on the contrary, she herself decides to make her history. However, the power she gained makes Phyllis a monster who continues to spin a web of lies, greed, jealousy, and death around her. Thus, Film Noir shows that empowered women cannot control themselves and their desires and that their violent behavior should be punished.
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The way in which Film Noir portrays the femme fatale type supports patriarchal social order and the gender roles assigned in it. According to Hollinger, “the freedom of movement and visual dominance of the femme fatale admittedly is presented as inappropriate to a ‘proper’ female role and as igniting sinister forces that are deadly to the male protagonist” (246). Therefore, not only a woman that was daring enough to resist patriarchy is punished, however, the male character whom she led to destruction also pays a high price for his affair with a seductive criminal. For instance, in Detour, both Al and Vera are punished for their criminal affair: the femme fatale is accidentally strangled with the telephone cord and the man is subjected to legal prosecution. Restoration of traditional gender roles by Film Noir also may involve the marriage of a protagonist with a nurturing woman or acceptance of her proper part of femme fatale.
However, the destructive struggle of women for independence presented in Film Noir is simply their response to restrictions obtruded upon them by male-dominant society. In these films, the world is depicted as corrupt, unsafe, immoral and irrational where women’s role is narrowed to being a prize or property of men in it. Therefore, the femme fatale, an empowered woman, is a normal product of the world around her, and it is the fault of society that oppressed her that she led herself and her man to destruction. Despite punishing femme fatale for her disobedience to strict gender roles of male-dominant society, Film Noir expresses sympathy to her. According to Hollinger:
“Narratively, this dangerous, evil woman is damned and ultimately punished, but stylistically she exhibits such an extremely powerful visual presence that the conventional narrative is disoriented and the image of the erotic, strong, unrepressed woman dominates the text, even in the face of narrative repression” (246).
In fact, the image of a powerful, brave, and independent woman sticks in the mind of the viewer due to her unique fearlessness. In contrast to powerful women depicted in other Hollywood movies of the time, femme fatale of Film Noir remains true to her nature, stands for her independence and refuses to obey even under the threat of death.
Thus, Film Noir empowers female characters to break out of traditional gender roles, however, always restores patriarchal order within society in the end by punishing these women for the transgression of social boundaries. Such films depict femme fatale sympathetically and even worship their strong will at the beginning. However, an empowered woman of Film Noir stops seeing the difference between good and evil; she seduces the main male character and leads both of them to destruction. Thus, films noir restore patriarchal order by punishing an independent, strong and disobedient woman. At the same time, Film Noir views women’s violent behavior as a result of their low status in the conventional marriage and in male-dominant society in general. Nevertheless, an image of an empowered woman is an unforgettable and most attractive feature of Film Noir.
Existential Motives in Film Noir
Dangerousness, alienation, paranoia, mistrust, and despair of Film Noir is a reflection of the atmosphere that existed within American society after World War II and during the Cold War. Violence, misogynistic attitudes and greed of the Film Noir character metaphorically presented evils of the society along with its injustice, conflict of morality, discrimination, and purposelessness. The feelings of disillusionment and cynicism that predominated in the society found their reflection in the dark films of the time. Such existential themes as alienation, loneliness, meaningless, purposelessness, absurd, chaos, violence and paranoia are presented in Gilda, Detour and Gun Crazy through their main characters.
The film Gilda communicates such existential themes as alienation, loneliness, meaningless, purposelessness and absurd. The film’s femme fatale, Gilda, is alienated as she does not feel comfortable within the role prescribed to her by society. By refusing to accept, as given, the gender roles as well as moral codes of the other people she feels incredibly lonely even if she is surrounded by a big number of men who worship her. Gilda feels imprisoned if she plays her role of loving and obedient wife; she chooses rather be alienated than to live in a cage of social norms of behavior. The relationship between Jonny and Gilda is not merely the story of love, but of hate. Their marriage is meaningless and absurd: instead of caring for and respecting each other, Johnny and Gilda feel delighted when hurt and humiliate one another. Jonny’s decision to marry Gilda seems logical as he had a purpose of gaining power, however, the intentions of Gilda to become a wife, but not to perform the role and flirting with other men in order to excite jealousy appear to be purposeless. In general, the film creates an impression of that the main characters are not in charge for their actions but are “subjects to darker, inner impulses – at times they seem driven by some fatal flaw within themselves” (Krutnik, “Film Noir” 47). The film shows that Jonny and Gilda are merely the products of corrupt, unfair, meaningless, purposeless and full of temptations world, and that is how it communicates its absurdity.
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A highly regarded film of the same genre, Detour includes existential motif. The film and its characters serve as a dark mirror to unjust and wicked society. Al is a quintessential existential character, disparate, lost and confused by the illogical and absurd world around him. Roberts leaves New York to hitchhike and find his singer girlfriend; the protagonist ends up being lost and alienated in the unknown place having no chance to return and live the life he lived in New York. Al’s previous life is lost to him forever, his future is uncertain. The protagonist has nowhere to go, no purpose to achieve and no confidence in his fate. After the accidental death of Haskell, Al loses his identity and adopts dead man’s name and clothes. He could have adopted Haskell’s identity if he knew him better. Generally, Al manifests “‘problematized’ masculinity” (Krutnik, “Masculinity” 85). By stealing dead man’s property and participation in Vera’s evil plan, Roberts loses his innocence and identity that made him a unique man, and from then on he is preoccupied with his victimhood and loses hope for redemption. Al confesses his story to strangers which he has been isolating from the others for such a long time under the threat of death for his crimes. By telling his story, Roberts tries to organize the chaos in his head and make fate responsible for the chances he made in the past.
Another example of Film Noir, Gun Crazy, provides a vivid depiction of chaos, violence, and paranoia seizing human lives. The film opens with the early story of the life of Bart Tare, an alienated fourteen-year-old boy obsessive with weapons and depicts him staring at a gun in a display. He breaks the glass and gets what he wanted, however, is caught by a sheriff and sent to a reform school. After recovery from his mania, he gets attracted to femme fatale and marries her. As with any obsession, love for guns and a woman leads Tare to crime. Bart and Laurie have their own motivations that are not limited to unemployment and lack of money, however, some psychological reasons as well. From the time of their first robbery, the chaos between the wife and the husband increases The protagonist becomes lured into violence because of his obsessive love for his wife and weapon, while femme fatale simply likes to manipulate and have power over the others. Bart is inherently harmless and feels guilty for every crime they make while Laurie remains cold-blooded in all circumstances and rather fascinated by violence. Paranoia within the man arises when he realizes that they will not be able to ask anyone for help anymore as they are out of the law; they are alienated and isolated from the society with no right for return without being punished.
Such films as Gilda, Detour and Gun Crazy communicate the number of existential themes including alienation, loneliness, meaningless, purposelessness, absurd, chaos, violence and paranoia among others through their main characters. The protagonists and femme fatales are disappointed by their lives, as their dreams do not come true, human relationships do not fit the ideal of trust and innocence and the society is unjust and favors the people who seem not worth it. Therefore, the evil side of these characters is only a reflection of the cursed world.