What is a Femme Fatale? How to Make the Character Archetype Your Own

Article Image
Photo Source: “Promising Young Women” Courtesy Focus Feature

She keeps to the shadows, but is impossible to miss. She's smart, tough, and beautiful, with a sultry, entrancing vibe that men are unable to resist. But watch out—she’s also dangerous. 

She's the femme fatale, a character often associated with mysteries and thrillers (but she can pop up in all sorts of genres). Put on your Barbara Stanwyck sunglasses, we’re diving into the tricks and tropes of this classic archetype.

What is a femme fatale?

The femme fatale is a beautiful and enigmatic female character who uses her charms and attractiveness as means to her nefarious ends. Works of 19th-century French criticism first coined the term (which means “deadly woman” or “lethal woman”), but the literary concept of the dangerous temptress dates back far further. Early examples include Judith, a widow who charms and kills a general in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox versions of the Old Testament; and Circe, who ensnares men on her island in Homer’s “The Odyssey.” 

The trope truly rose to prominence thanks to the hard-boiled detective novels of the 1930s and 1940s and the noir films that followed. In these stories, it seemed every gumshoe in a fedora was paid a visit by a beautiful, mysterious woman with skeletons in her closet and a threat on her tail. 

Details may vary from one tale to the next, but most tend to share a few important characteristics: 

  • Never the hero: Femme fatales operate almost exclusively as foils to the (typically male) protagonist, which means they are rarely the main character, and frequently serve as an antagonist or a villain.
  • Sneakily seductive: Using her physical beauty, sex appeal, and psychological manipulation tactics, the femme fatale is an expert in drawing unsuspecting prey into her web. Frequently introduced as an ally, the character will initially charm the protagonist, then deftly wield her feminine wiles to prod him into compromising or even deadly situations, to her own benefit.
  • Shrouded in mystery: Femme fatales tend to move in a cloud of questions that rarely yield significant answers. This layer of intrigue only adds to the protagonist's interest in her. 
  • Conventionally attractive: True beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but femme fatales' physical features closely conform to whatever is considered “beautiful” at the time. Rest assured, they will weaponize this beauty against their targets. 
  • Deceptively dangerous: While the femme fatale may appear externally weak and vulnerable, she’s as strong as iron and knows exactly what she wants. Furthermore, she is willing to go to extreme lengths to get it. 

Examples from film history 

Classic femme fatales
These characters embody the typical femme fatale trope, using their sexuality, vulnerability, and overt femininity to manipulate the men around them. All of them initially feign good intentions and allyship in order to build trust with the protagonist, only to reveal their true colors down the road. Although they don’t all die, they do get their comeuppance by the end. 

  • Mary Astor as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941; dir. John Huston)
  • Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity” (1944; dir. Billy Wilder)
  • Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce in “Mildred Pierce” (1945; dir. Michael Curtiz) 
  • Alison Doody as Dr. Elsa Schneider in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989; dir. Steven Spielberg) 
  • Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle in “Batman Returns” (1992; dir. Tim Burton) 
  • Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell inBasic Instinct” (1992; dir. Paul Verhoeven) 
  • Sarah Michelle Gellar as Kathryn Merteuil in “Cruel Intentions” (1999; dir. Roger Kumble)
  • Hilary Swank as Madeleine Linscott in “The Black Dahlia'' (2006; dir. Brian De Palma)

Subversive femme fatales
While these characters are undoubtedly meant to evoke the archetype, they don't follow the typical script. Some are heroes, some manage to claim victory over the protagonist, and some wind up wagging a finger right back at the audience, shaming us for assuming we knew her just because she resembled someone we'd seen before. 

  • Kathleen Turner (uncredited) as Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988; dir. Robert Zemeckis)
  • Uma Thurman as the Bride/Beatrix in “Kill Bill: Volume 1” and “Kill Bill: Volume 2” (2003/2004; dir. Quentin Tarantino) 
  • Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in “Gone Girl” (2014; dir. David Fincher)
  • Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle in “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012; dir. Christopher Nolan)
  • Alicia Vikander as Ava in “Ex Machina” (2014; dir. Alex Garland) 
  • Jodie Comer as Villanelle in “Killing Eve” (2018–2022; created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge)
  • Carey Mulligan as Cassie Thomas in “Promising Young Woman” (2020; dir. Emerald Fennell)

While many of these subversions are more modern creations, creators have been flipping the trope on its head for ages. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, first had Irene Adler outsmart Sherlock Holmes in the 1891 short story “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The character has since been portrayed by Rachel McAdams in “Sherlock Holmes” (2009),  Lara Pulver in “Sherlock” (2012), and Natalie Dormer in “Elementary” (2013).

Criticisms of the archetype 

Defined by men. Take another look at the list above and you’ll notice that the history of the femme fatale has been overwhelmingly crafted by male writers and directors, despite the fact the character is always a woman. Her appearance, behaviors, and motivations tend to be constructed around stereotypically male ideals of femininity, resulting in someone closer to a beautiful cypher than an actual person.

Punished for agency. Back when the archetype was first gaining traction in the pulp crime novels and films of the 1930s, it was unusual for female characters to act with agency in fiction. Typical roles for women included housewives, secretaries, waitresses, and girlfriends—in other words, roles that were defined by their proximity to more powerful men. But the femme fatale was different in that she had the power to make men do her bidding.

Her agency is undermined, though, by what usually happens to her. These characters tend to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the blame and consequences for the events of the story compared to their male protagonists. Even as the femme fatale type broke barriers, in the stories she is ultimately put in her place, getting what she “deserves” for using her femininity for unapproved purposes.

How to make your femme fatale stand out

If you’re writing or performing a femme fatale role, there are a few things you can do to help differentiate the character from the countless others who came before.

Consider her point of view. Why is she doing what she’s doing? Why are her goals important to her? What happened earlier in her life to bring her to this point? So many femme fatales are characterized solely by how they’re perceived to others, but it’s far more interesting to consider how she perceives herself.

Lean into her humanity. Even a classic femme fatale, in all her sneaky, villainous glory, is still a person. Think through what sets her apart—what she cares about, what she needs to feel comfortable, what she enjoys, what her strengths and weaknesses are. Does she have any mannerisms or quirks that give us a peek into her inner life? All of those little details may not be explicit in the script, but they can still help her to feel like a fully formed human rather than a two-dimensional trope.

Justify her actions. While she may not be reasonable, it can still be helpful to consider what might drive a rational person to make the choices she does. Where are the moral and ethical lines in her story, and what pushes her to cross them? You don’t need your audience to necessarily agree, but you do want them to understand. Provide a more compelling reason for her action than simply “because she’s the bad guy.” 

Turn the trope on its head. Use your audience’s familiarity with the trope to your advantage. Make her the hero, or a red herring, or an innocent bystander caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Call attention to the predictable way the other characters interact with her based on her appearance, and then subvert their expectations. Maybe you can even show that she’s not being manipulative, and that it’s actually her accusers who are twisting things to their liking. Defying presumptions will not only keep viewers on their toes throughout your story but also challenge them to reexamine their own biases along the way.

More From Acting

More From Screenwriter

More From Creators


Now Trending