The Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman started it all. Or maybe it was Lilith or the lamia. Or the bride of Frankenstein.
Actually, it’s probably impossible to say just which female character became the world’s first female monster, but the ladies have proven that she can be the deadlier of the species when she’s of a mind to be. In fact, in Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia argues that civilization is a result of men’s attempt to resist the overwhelming influence and control of humanity’s chthonian nature, as represented by woman as Mother Nature (which is roughly the same, one might add, as that which Biblical writers are pleased to refer to as the “flesh,” which is eternally opposed to the spirit and often calls one to take a nasty fall. It should be understood that the “flesh” does not mean simply the sexual aspects of men and women but, rather, all that is implied by their immanent and temporal nature or their mortality.)
As we have argued in a previous post, horror fiction is all about significant loss and our attempts to survive it. There are many, many such types of such loss, some personal, some psychological, some social, and some theological. The greatest loss of all, perhaps, is that of life itself. Can death be survived? Most religions insist that it can, and some horror stories suggest the same. Of course, one’s position on such a matter, whether pro or con, is one of faith, for the world, if any, that lies beyond this earthly, mortal realm is an “undiscovered country from whose borne no one has returned.”
One type of loss of which horror fiction treats is the loss of order. Order can be the result of a formal political process in which laws are codified and enforced by a police or military force or, less often, of an informal social process in which unwritten laws are transmitted from one generation to the next and enforced by the stigma of the tribe. In other words, order among men and women is a product, so to speak, of law or of tradition. In many horror stories, such social control, such regulation of behavior, such organization of society, including the roles that men and women play within their larger groups, is either set aside or, more frequently, cast down, as Moses, in a fit of rage, cast down the stone tables upon which God had carved the Ten Commandments. Sometimes, horror fiction inverts order; it turns insides out and upsides down.
In the animal world, the males are the pretty ones. This state of affairs is inverted among humans, where men are not only stronger than women but are also smart enough to know it and to use their superior physical strength to their advantage, one effect of which is to make women compete among themselves for their attention. It may be argued that, ultimately, women gain control of the situation, in marriages at least, although most societies are now patriarchic and are likely to remain so, at least for the foreseeable future. Therefore, to assert themselves, women have had to adopt stratagems that allow men the pretense, at least, of being in charge and in control. Allowing men the ego salve of being the dominant “partners” in the marital relationship, women rule, largely because they are pretty (or, more crassly, but accurately, sexy), and they take great pains and spend small fortunes to stay that way.
Men, it may be suggested, symbolize strength, whereas women represent beauty. What if women’s figurative significance were inverted, though, some horror stories have asked, and they were understood, even if for but a moment, as suggesting strength rather, or more, than beauty? The answer, in a word, writers of such literature imply, is a monster.
Equipped with the strength to subject men to their will and to dominate them individually and collectively, woman would become not seductive Eve but demonic Lilith. She’d become Pandora, the lamia, the gorgon, a fury, a she-mantis, a reptilian thing covered in scales, a female Frankenstein’s monster, a fifty-foot woman on an estrogen-fueled rampage, a blood-sucking fiend, la belle sans merci. She would become a femme fatale.
Some movies and books depict women as monsters, females as femme fatales. Such movies and books suggest their creators’ reasons (or lack thereof) for fearing the women whom they depict as monsters. Most such creators are men. Whether their fears are representative of their whole sex is debatable, but their qualms and uncertainties, at least, reflect how some members of the male sex have viewed the opposite sex. (The classics of Western literature that feature female monsters, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible, The Metamorphoses and other sources of Greek and Roman mythology, European fairy tales, Beowulf, Christabel, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and others, are worthy of even more consideration, but they are not the topics of this post; here, we are concerned more with movies.)
What, then, do movies that feature female creatures suggest about women (or the moviemakers’ ideas about women)? Let’s consider a few of the more notable films to have threatened audiences with the dangerous doings of femme fatales:
- The Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
In the original movie’s remake (1993), the femme fatale has come a long way, baby, and her growth represents her emancipation from chauvinistic and patriarchal dominance, and the aliens who increase her size also imprison her husband until he can be convinced of the errors of his sexist ways.
Read from a male’s point of view, Species (1995) seems to depict women, in the guise of sexual predator (a role more often associated with men than with women). As such, women dehumanize men, seeing them (as men too often view women) as merely sex objects upon whom their own sexual needs may be satisfied. The product of an alien human hybridization experiment, Sil is both extraterrestrial and human. She’s also bent upon motherhood, and there are no candy or flowers in her courtship designs. There is just her beguiling appearance, with which she lures her prey, and her superior physical strength, which she uses to force herself upon them. Procreation is her purpose, and rape is her means to this end. Men are nothing to her but walking, talking sperm banks, and she can do without the walking and the talking very well, thank you. She rejects by killing those whom she finds unworthy of, or threatening, to her, and, after she finally mates successfully, she and her offspring are killed by the team of government scientists and military personnel who have been tracking her. The patriarchy, although threatened by their Galatea, resume the upper hand.
In her role as sexual predator, Sil is somewhat like Faith, a character in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). A sort of female Nietzschean superman, Faith has physical strength that far exceeds that of any man, and she uses it to satisfy her desires, sexual and otherwise, without regard to their effects, emotional or otherwise, on her victims. A love-him-and-leave-him sort of girl, she summarizes her philosophy succinctly, saying, “Get some, and get gone.” In “getting some,” she nearly kills Xander Harris, an ordinary teenage boy, after fornicating with him, but she is stopped by the timely arrival of Angel, a male vampire with a soul. That her views are horrible to the patriarchic society in which she lives is indicated by the more traditional, if rather liberated, lifestyle of her counterpart, the titular Buffy Summers, who is also possessed of superhuman strength but prefers to nail her lovers according to the much more traditional, socially acceptable rules that lesser women have been taught to use in the mating game. Buffy’s manner of dating and courtship highlight the aberrance of Faith’s sexual behavior and Faith’s nature as both a rogue vampire slayer and a femme fatale.
Teeth (2007) confronts viewers with an age-old fear among men--that of the castrating woman. In this film, the vagina of Dawn, the teenage cannibalistic protagonist, is equipped with teeth that respond to her anger or rage, biting off the genitals of a would-be rapist; those of a boy who had seemed to care about her but bedded her only so that he could brag about having done so to his adolescent friends, having bet with them that he could seduce Dawn; and those of her stepbrother, who’d hoped to have sex with her before their father ruined his hopes by marrying Dawn‘s mother. After these snacks, Dawn leaves town, finding self-confidence in her power to defend herself, and smiles at the elderly man who has stopped to give her a ride when, locking her inside his car, he insists that she have sex with him.
In the context of this film, the femme fatale is not a predator, but, rather, a young woman who is uniquely able to protect herself. She evens the playing field, so to speak, by being more than merely able to fend off unwanted advances or even intended sexual assaults. The organ which, in feminist thought, allows men to dominate women, becomes, in Teeth, the instrument, so to speak, of both liberation and vengeance. Talk about poetic justice! Women, who have been sexually assaulted by men, now have a means of defending themselves and of exacting a suitably ironic revenge upon would-be rapists or boyfriends who won’t take no for an answer. No doubt, some feminists believe that the makers of this movie corrected an error in nature’s or God’s work, equipping women with the very weapon they needed--a sort of dental chastity belt with (real) teeth--to be employed or not at the owner’s discretion.
The femme fatales we have considered in this post are not so much scary in themselves as they are scary to the men who watch them, for they represent what women would be like were they to act as men behave, as sexual predators who seek men only as a means to satisfy their own lusts. By turning the tables, as it were, on men, these movies’ femme fatales show men what it is like to be considered sex objects who are accounted as nothing more than things to be brutalized at will and discarded thereafter as having had their only value depleted.
To deny one his or her humanity is a horrible and monstrous thing, these films suggest, and the one who does so is a monster. Monsters may rampage for a time (every monster has its day), but, sooner or later, it will be exposed, understood, and, usually, terminated. Are these studies in feminine angst and rage reflections of men’s guilty consciences? Are they symbolic projections of rape fantasies? Are they nothing more than reinforcements--or, possibly, reassurances--of men’s superior status in nature and in society (as understood by the men who write and produce such films, of course)? All of the above? None of the above?
By turning the tables on men as sexual predators, movies like The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman show that sexual betrayal not only hurts the victim but also can have repercussions for the victimizer, since infidelity is destructive to both parties and to the marital relationship itself; Species and Buffy the Vampire Slayer show what it’s like, from the female’s perspective, to be the prey of such attackers; and Teeth, portraying women as able protectors of their own virtue, suggests that women are not irreducible to their body parts and that any man who attempts to dehumanize women by regarding them as mere sex objects may learn that he, as much as she, can be reduced to mere objectivity--in his case, by being deprived of the very type of organs that he insists are the only parts of women that are desirable by, and valuable to, men. After all, if he has no genitals of his own, hers are likely to become a lot less important to him. Femme fatales convey the message that women are not merely sex objects whose purpose it is to serve--or service--men and that they deserve dignity and respect. If they are ill treated, these movies suggest further, vengeance, of a poetically just sort, is sure to follow. After all, “hell hath no vengeance like a woman scorned,” and the disrespect of a person’s humanity is, perhaps, the very zenith (or nadir) of disdain.