Document Type


Date of Degree Completion

Spring 2017

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


English Literature

Committee Chair

Liahna Armstrong

Second Committee Member

Christine Sutphin

Third Committee Member

George Drake


The femme fatale, a quasi-eternal figure of female transgression and retributory violence, has gradually entered popular culture’s symbolic lexicon as representative of mainstream feminism and postmodern femininity. Tracing the development of the femme fatale into a feminist pop culture icon necessitates establishing her sociopolitical status in the late modern era through her presence in Victorian sensational literature. The femme’s translation from the Victorian context to the American mediascape presages her evolving presence in three cinematic eras: classic film noir, neo-conservative retro noir, and millennial neo-noir. Feminist film criticism tends to identify the femme fatale as a protofeminist, a productive transgressor of social norms whose worth has only been posteriorly discovered. In opposition to this reading, I propose that the femme’s transgressive, exploitive, and consumerist character has been designed by a media industry eager to retain cathartically satiated female consumers. While traditional noir narratives repair the femme’s social rupture through her death or punishment, post-classic noirs respond to feminist approval by celebrating and prolonging the femme’s extralegal power. This incremental narrative change shows the femme emerging as not only an acceptable model for female social behavior, but a dominant ideal in the postfeminist age, one paradoxically supported by the very system it purports to dismantle. Her transgressive status claims a modicum of effectiveness and authenticity during her deployment in Victorian and post-war texts, when existing barricades to female agency rationalize the figure’s desperate methods. However, as gender politics advance and the femme fatale continues to revenge herself against a bygone world order, the figure begins to bear witness to a problematic nostalgia within feminism for the galvanizing effects of oppression. The continued conflation of the femme’s selfishness and destructivity with social restructure requires contemporary texts to theatrically reinvigorate a paradigm of oppression equal to her crimes. The issue at stake in the popularity of this conflict-based feminism lies in how the postmodern femme fatale makes superficial progress toward female ascendency but comprehends an underlying regression toward female subordination.