Women on Film: How to be a Femme Fatale

Rita Hayworth’s Gilda was the ultimate femme fatale, but do we want to emulate her?

Becoming a classic Hollywood femme fatale is very simple. Start with the basics. Lean back in your posture at all times. Lead with your breasts. Work your eyelashes vigorously as if live tarantulas are in fact affixed to your lids. Keep your arms akimbo with your hands on your hips. Make direct eye contact a lot, but don’t look too alert. Then start slapping everyone you see. (*Don’t slap everyone you see.) You’re out for revenge.

Becoming a new Hollywood femme fatale is simpler. You flash your crotch at the camera and then take an ice pick to anyone who gets in your way. Luckily, you sometimes get to wear flats.

But back to the old school way of femme fatale thinking.

Rita Hayworth used to say “They go to bed with Gilda, and they wake up with me.” Her 1946 turn as Gilda was made iconic by her one-glove striptease, placing Hayworth permanently into the American cultural brain as the ultimate femme fatale. She played such havoc on the zeitgeist that her “bombshell” image was affixed to the first nuclear bomb tested after World War II. You know you’re sexy in America when your cinematic image evokes mass destruction.

We enjoy ourselves a femme fatale, but we’re not sure we ought to. Like a George Clooney girlfriend, they seem interchangeable. Sure, she might have red hair, or blonde ringlets, or sleek black bangs, but doesn’t it just seem like she’s there to make the man look good? We covet their style, their hair, their ability to work an evening glove. But the femme fatale is often a non-entity, a woman who doesn’t seem to be in control of her own life. Her central theme is inevitably a man’s downfall or redemption. And really, where’s the fun in that?

So let’s reclaim our femme fatales. Gilda does not have to be anti-feminist. She’s like a lollipop. They aren’t inherently sexist, until you place one in the hands of a greased-up 24-year-old woman on the cover of a men’s magazine. Instead, let’s see Gilda as a window of empowerment. We can all vamp in red lipstick, corsets, and elbow-length gloves, but we’re doing it for ourselves and carefully, in heels.

Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.