The Femme Fatale in LGBT Science Fiction
By Sareen Palassian
A popular 20th-century trope turned cliché, the femme fatale embodies a misogynistic fear-driven view of women. This “fatal woman” leads men to ruin through her sexuality and feminine wiles, and despite her being a fictional figure, her prominence has spilled over into real-world anxieties and revulsion against women on the part of men. The femme fatale has made her way into all types of genres, such as action, horror, and film noir; science fiction is no exception. However, sci-fi provides a different literary and filmic foundation than most other genres, given its strong undercurrents of utopianism and escapism, and the fact that an LGBT presence was felt in the sci-fi community early on. This sci-fi exceptionalism brings up the questions: how might lesbianism destabilize the character of the femme fatale, and can LGBT science fiction as a genre in particular salvage this trope? To comprehensively explore these questions, we must first analyze the foundations of the femme fatale, radical lesbianism and science fiction in general, and then bring forth examples spanning the late 1800s to 1900s where these themes intersect.
The femme fatale character is rooted in racist, classist and of course sexist rhetoric, beginning with the popularization of Darwinism in the social sciences nearing the end of the 19th century. By then, members of the scholarly community had embraced the philosophy of social Darwinism, or the idea that “survival of the fittest” should be applied to everyday human life, in order to establish a class hierarchy (Dijkstra 18). Paralleling with this concept was the idea of the liberal subject, or the new “enlightened man” ready to assert his individualism and conquer nature. To create boundaries even further, pseudoscientists dabbled in fields like phrenology and craniometry in order to link liberal subjecthood, morality and success in life with race and skull morphology. Thus, the ideal being valued by American society was the athletic, ethnically pure Aryan male.
As always, the female had to be constructed as a counterpoint using this “scientifically grounded” narrative; in contrast to the male liberal subject, women were seen as obstacles to enlightenment because of their sexuality, sources of social disruption and degeneration, as “nature’s secret weapon against manhood’s valiant efforts to triumph over mortality” and “‘latent vampires’ concealed under respectable womanhood” (3-4). Atypical women were portrayed as more likely to “revert” to bisexuality, considered a primitive practice, and to be appropriating masculinity within their own selves in Freudian penis-envy fashion (Farrimond 142). It was not only evident that women were barred from the status of liberal subject, but also that they were constructed as deserving of misogyny for their inherent succubine nature, always lusting after male power and life force. Of course, not all women were viewed this way– staying in line with the virgin/whore dichotomy, the pseudoscientists saw only two kinds of women: the “good girls” were those who had been properly acculturated to their subservient role in the monogamic monopoly structure of the nuclear family and who were content to be governed… by the superior judgment of their imperial mate. These were the evolved, genetically privileged child-women… The bad women… continued to insist on their independence as human beings… and were easy to identify, for they were invariably lewd, provocative and driven to erotic excess by their bestial need for the male’s vital essence (Dijkstra 42).
Despite their “good girl” status, the women who seemingly benefit from this dichotomy; rather, they fell into a perpetually domestic and protected state, the preservation of their whiteness and chastity at the forefront. The women who weren’t as lucky, just as lower-class Americans who were disadvantaged by social Darwinism and immigrants whose cranial capacity was erroneously declared smaller than that of white men, were singled out as femmes fatales by the turn of the century pseudoscientists who wanted to proliferate a kyriarchical social order.
The societal fears arising from this supposed succubus hidden in every woman were manifested in legends and science-fiction of the time, particularly in vampire myths. Female vampires, unsurprisingly, were said to sustain themselves on men’s semen, which was thought of as an essential life force equated with blood and wealth, and as having life-giving qualities, being the building block of brain, nerve, muscle and bone tissue (56). The analogies between semen and essential life force were nothing new, stemming from ancient Greek philosophers supporting spermist preformation– the idea that a miniature homunculus is contained inside and grown from a sperm cell– and practitioners of Chinese Taoism that valued this “jing energy” as something to retain within the body lest it be depleted of vitality, coupled with the fact that the human ovum was not discovered until 1928. In addition, non-Anglo immigrants, collectivists and deviants were equated with vampires, being of “impure genetic stock,” having a sex vice, and lusting after the wealthy and superior blood of Aryan men (13).
These characteristics were embodied in the roles played by early 1900s silent film actress Theda Bara, or the original fatal “vamp” character. She played as a foil to virginal “ingénue” character actresses like Lillian Gish, who gained popularity for their good old-fashioned femininity and reserved sexuality. Bara, on the other hand, posed crouched over barren skeletons of supposed ex-lovers she had slain, and would ensnare and deplete her male victims (perhaps liberal subjects in their own right who had sought individualistic success) for her own energy absorption as in the film A Fool There Was, which included one of the most risqué kissing scenes of the time (11). The femme fatale as established by Bara was of ambiguous non-Anglo origin–she had played Cleopatra, her assigned stage name was an anagram for “Arab Death,” and she came from Eastern-European Jewish roots. The conflation of ethnic identities and their association with the femme fatale set a precedent for characters to come, especially during the 1920s and 1930s when the sexual exotification and demonization of Asian women in film was very prominent.
One key element to liberating the femme fatale is to grant her autonomy and liberal subjecthood previously reserved to men. According to certain lesbian feminist scholars, the aspect of female camaraderie and female-identification inherent in lesbianism was the answer. Radicalesbians, a lesbian feminist collective that banded together in solidarity in the face of rejection from the feminist movement at large, published a manifesto titled “The Woman-Identified Woman.” In it, they aired their grievances against the movement, saying it was created in a male-identified image that ultimately derailed it. They argued that a lesbian is “the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. She is the woman who, often beginning at an extremely early age, acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be a more complete and freer human being than her society cares to allow her… if we are male-identified in our heads, we cannot realize our autonomy as human beings” (Radicalesbians). This autonomy they write of evokes the idea of liberal subjecthood, though it is not explicitly mentioned in the manifesto; due to pervasive male-identification, the Radicalesbians believe that the heteronormative, restricting dichotomy women were forced into had rendered female-identification impossible, always pitting women against one another in a male-identified context. Similarly, Adrienne Rich writes about female-identification in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence,” saying, “woman-identification is a source of energy, a potential springhead of female power, violently curtailed and wasted under the institution of heterosexuality. The lie of compulsory female heterosexuality today afflicts not just feminist scholarship, but every profession, every reference work, every curriculum, every organizing attempt, every relationship or conversation over which it hovers” (Rich 657).
Monique Wittig, a French feminist writer, has integrated themes of female-identification in a lesbian context. In her interpretive fiction novel The Lesbian Body, Wittig mitigates the effects of misogyny and homophobia on her characters by narrating the story of two lovers who engage in a chain of reciprocal and exorcistic sexual violence, only to symbolically purify one another’s “lesbian bodies” with feminine secretions, banishing the influence of the patriarchy (Davis 13). Seeing as Wittig is writing very explicitly about lesbianism, readers may not find as overt characters in other literature, especially of the science fiction persuasion. If Radicalesbians and Rich associate lesbianism with defiance and separatism from the limiting social order, we may extend the definition of “lesbian femme fatale” to include women who flout the rules, are female-identified and have traits other than heteronormative sexual allure that make them multidimensional.
It must also be noted that science fiction as a genre has been set up on a foundation that is conducive to salvaging the trope of the femme fatale as well as compatible with the LGBT movement, unlike other genres that may be limited in scope. James Kepner, an early sci-fi community member and gay rights movement leader, addressed his constituency in a speech titled “The Growth of Science Fiction,” where he emphasizes “scientifiction” or STF’s role as an avant-garde, as a norm-setting institution to establish new values, and as an arena for escapism (Kepner 12). In a 1983 feature story with Review magazine, Marion Zimmer Bradley discussed her motivation for writing The Mists of Avalon, a sci-fi fantasy novel about the Arthurian legends told from a female perspective:
…the female characters of Morgan and the Lady of the Lake never did much of anything but were always there as a kind of sinister menace… She always had a bad press, but why? I concluded that villains in literature are not inherently evil– they’re villains only because they end up on the losing side. It’s the winners who end up writing histories and myths… so it occurred to me that perhaps Morgan and the Lady of the Lake had simply been on the losing side… If the story were told from the women’s point of view, would we hear about who won what tournament, or would we hear more about the human realities behind all that? (Madrigal).
In this way, Zimmer Bradley uses speculative fiction as a vehicle for exploring the oft-neglected female point of view and reclaiming the role of the perceived “evil woman,” granting her a form of posthumous liberal subjecthood. As for the LGBT movement, her membership in the lesbian activist group Daughters of Bilitis trickled down into her work; in letters to her publisher, she expressed her drive for “providing good [lesbian] role models” in her novels, and even lambasted him for releasing press under the real name of one of her gay colleagues, saying “you don’t want– scandal?–destroyed career?–suicide? W. has been under psych. care for years, intermittently” in a hand-scrawled note at the end of her typed letter (Zimmer Bradley).
Sci-fi has also been used in more explicit activism in recent years. In early 2000, Bruce Sterling published his “Viridian Manifesto” calling for clean energy, a rethinking of labor and consumerism, and reform in multiple sectors, including gender issues. He denounced fundamentalist misogyny and the “sunk costs” that came with being female, and instead proposed reduced births and birth defects, promoting a decrease in consumption (Sterling). Even more activism was inspired by sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, upon whose works “Octavia’s Brood” drew to publish their own anthology of social-justice-driven radical science fiction in 2014 (“Growing”). Indeed, we have seen Kepner’s forecast of the future of science fiction proven true. In his book Alien Constructions, Melzer argues that the body in sci-fi is “reiterated as an image or representation… In effect, virtual systems spatialize the repeated performance of gender norms over time and thereby reveal the gap between embodiment and the performance of it, which allows for subversion, intervention, and the critical rearticulation of that relationship” (Melzer 164). Thus, we can see the connections between speculative fiction and activism, including body politics, breaking of tropes and gender roles, and shifting the narrative to the marginalized voices, which provides the ideal context for reclaiming the femme fatale.
Of course, not all science fiction has been empowering of the femme fatale character, or women who dissent. It has been theorized that much of LGBT representation in film and television has been negative, casting “the gay man as a murderous psychopath and the lesbian [as] predatory and heartless,” and some sci-fi has been no exception (Huston). Many early pulp magazines and novels, such as Amazing Stories, sensationalized their works with sexually stylized cover art, featuring scantily-clad women as underwater giantesses, human-animal hybrids, and warrior queens. Many of these representations exploited the idea of primitive bisexuality or the wrathful and uncivilized Mother Nature seeking vengeance from men who dared defy her– both tropes being mired in the aforementioned racist and classist schools of thought. One story from the Weird Tales pulp publication titled “Bindings Deluxe” opens with the line, “’I don’t like women!’” and proceeds to justify the speaker’s misogyny via an anecdote about a woman spurned from a book club, who then skinned its members one by one to make encyclopedia book bindings, until the final man did the same to her (Keller).
On a slightly different note, the characters of the Unwomen in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, who are lesbians, feminists, nuns and other dissenting, rebellious, non-procreative or non-submissive women who are sent to work until their deaths at the “colonies,” are not quite portrayed as subjects of evil and deserving of hate, but rather pity. One feminist scholar, Anita Sarkeesian, claims that the collision of femme fatale and science fiction has resulted in the “evil demon seductress,” who in addition to her supernatural powers, uses her sexuality as a crutch and a weapon, and gives credence to the “maneater” stereotype while drawing a male audience in literature, visual media and gaming through her sex appeal (Sarkeesian). However, in her analysis, Sarkeesian fails to explore the ways in which science fiction may shape stories differently or allow for different outcomes, treating the “evil demon seductress” as she would with any different genre.
Despite the presence of failed femmes fatales in works of science fiction, many examples of successful characters exist. In Joanna Russ’s 1970 novel The Female Man, four different parallel worlds are explored, one of which is an all-female utopia where all men (supposedly) perished in an ancient plague, and inhabitants procreate by egg-merging parthenogenesis. This ideal society, embodying Radicalesbians’ and Rich’s theory of female-identification as liberation, is juxtaposed with another world where men and women are locked into a violent decades-long battle of the sexes, a cautionary tale.
Wittig’s second novel Les Guérrillères (blending the words for “healer” and “female warrior”) tells a similar story of a polyandrous matriarchal tribal society that wages a victorious war against dissident men, while simultaneously denouncing the men’s creation of a race hierarchy and a protected status for women. Like The Lesbian Body, Les Guérrillères contains Wittig’s trademark “linguistic warfare” in order to free womanhood from association with manhood and liberate the female body from its position as locus for attack: “[Wittig] forges new discursive acts that had no similarity to patriarchal narrative… she opted to use the pronoun[s] “elles” … and “ils” to represent [women and men], banishing sex-related words (Davis 12). Wittig also makes the semantic jump from la belle femme to la femme belliqueuese– the beautiful woman to the bellicose woman– to fully eschew the male gaze from her work and to absorb beauty and other trappings of femininity within the construct of female rage and war.
The 1995 film Tank Girl, based on a British comic strip, is also based on female warriorhood, this time in a dystopian context. The eponymous Tank Girl lives in a commune on the fringes of a society controlled by a resource-hoarding monopolistic patriarch (not unlike in the 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road), whom she takes down with the help of her female companions, a genetically modified group of soldiers who were rejected from the government force, and her jerry-rigged war tank and weapons. Other successful femmes fatales include Molly Millions in William Gibson’s short story “Johnny Mnemonic,” who exhibits weaponized femininity in her morphology– blades underneath her fingernails, for example– and acts as the savior character for Johnny who has taken on the role of damsel in distress, and T’Gatoi and the Tlic race in Butler’s “Bloodchild,” a female alien race that uses human males as incubators for their offspring, thereby appropriating the impregnatory power that pseudoscientists extrapolated on during the late 1800s to early 1900s. A common thread of lesbian, or lesbian-influenced female identification runs through each of these works, as the heteronormative quest of attracting a man for later consumption and energy drainage is no longer in play.
Using these examples of women– warriors, dissidents, lesbians– in science fiction, we can conclude that the femme fatale is ultimately reclaimed within the genre. Even though some depictions have echoed archaic stereotypes such as woman as primitive/bisexual and woman as masculinized vampire, we have witnessed a shift over the years that may be credited to lesbian feminist advocacy for female-identification, leading to more empowered and multi-dimensional femmes fatales that no longer depend on sexuality alone as a weapon. As Kepner predicted in his speech, speculative fiction by nature normalizes nonconforming characters (including those of fluid sexuality and gender expression) so that there is no need to justify their existence within a literary or filmic space, and thus aids in their normalization in real life. By setting characters in alien contexts or histories that do not reflect our own, science fiction divorces the femme fatale from her problematic origins based in American and anglocentric racism, classism and sexism. Above all, sci-fi writers’ granting of liberal subjecthood and lesbian female-identification to their characters, especially those that have been clichéd and disenfranchised in other genres, destabilizes the entire framework on which the trope of the man eating femme fatale is built so that she is no longer just an “evil demon seductress,” salvaging the character for use in purposes of social justice, explorations of gender expression and more.
Sareen Palassian graduated from USC in May 2016 with a B.A. in International Relations and French and a minor in Gender Studies. Her interdisciplinary education provides her with pop culture cues from film, music and literature that put contemporary issues in context. Her passion for language learning and foreign cultures has taken her throughout Europe during her study in Paris, and Japan where she currently teaches English. She plans to earn further degrees and pursue a career that merges diplomacy, activism, research and academia.
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