Volume VIII, Number 1, Spring 2012


"The Effect of Information Society on the Representation of Femmes Fatales in American Visual Culture" by Zsófia Anna Tóth

Zsófia Anna Tóth is a research fellow at the Department of Library and Human Information Science, University of Szeged, Hungary. She received her PhD in British and American literature and culture from the University of Szeged. Her general research interests are film studies, cultural studies, gender studies, literary theory, American literature and American cinema. Her main research field is concerned with the representation of female aggression and violence in American literature and film. Her other two main fields of interest include Jane Austen and the New Woman. Her first book entitled Merry Murderers: The Farcical (Re)Figuration of the Femme Fatale in Maurine Dallas Watkins’ Chicago (1927) and its Various Adaptations was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (UK) in 2011, which was soon followed by her second one (which she edited) entitled A varázsgyűrűtől az interkonfesszionális kommunikációig: Információtudományi metszéspontok bölcsészeti megközelítésben (Primaware, Szeged, 2011). Email:

In my paper, I intend to examine and discuss how information society affected the representation of femmes fatales in American visual culture, especially in Hollywood films made during the 1990s. The focus will be on the discrepancy between the modes of communication and the techniques of exchanging or withholding information the ‘early and recent’ femme fatale figures employ as well as on how their intellectual/physical/technical (cap)abilities to access and handle information changed. To compare the types of femmes fatales before and after the emergence of (the discourse on) information society is a promising endeavor since it had an immense impact (besides other cultural, political and economic factors) on the great changes in the representation of femmes fatales.

The femmes fatales within information society are much more able, competent, successful, and in effect, more dangerous or apparently even more aggressive than their predecessors. In this paper, I will primarily concentrate on the figures of Catherine in Basic Instinct (1992), Meredith in Disclosure (1994) and Bridget/(Wendy) in The Last Seduction (1994) among many other contemporary, preceding and succeeding instances to shed light on the period when the discourse and debate about information society was in full force. Managing information has always been a significant aspect of femme fatale figures, yet, within information society this aspect got enriched with multi-expertise in various technical and technological fields as well as with intellectual and educational improvement and possibly ensuing physical ‘side effects’ (masculinity, androgyny), as well.

One of the most significant aspects of femme fatale figures has always been the management of information. Generally, these female figures are professional manipulators. The central maneuvers of their operations are the reception or obtainment of information, its (partial or whole) dissemination and the withholding and/or alteration/modification of certain pieces of information. So, it is to be examined what kind of differences lie between femmes fatales before and after the emergence of information society.

Evidently, information has always been part of the functioning of every society and (human) organization. In fact, no (human) cooperation, unity and community can function without the exchange of information, thus, it could be questioned why the current societal formation is called information society. Róbert Pintér argues that

[w]hile undoubtedly true, since all societies necessitate information flow, yet none of them were called ‘informational’ by contemporary critical thinkers or historians. None of the previous societies were so extensively influenced by the communication, reception, processing, recording, decoding, and flow of information as ours are. (22)

Hence, it can be stated that it is the immense centrality of obtaining and providing information as well as the extensive effect and influence of these procedures and activities that label our current form of civilization as information society or ‘informational’ society. In addition, now “the information sector and information oriented jobs dominate the economy” and this evolved out of the preceding phases of agricultural, then, industrial development. (Pintér 23) Although the beginning or the birth of information society could be dated to the late 1950s, early 1960s, it came into full bloom only by the late 1980s and early 1990s (Karvalics 2003, 144-163). That is why in this paper, I will have a look at some outstanding femme fatale figures from the 1990s. László Z. Karvalics also adds that information society is organized around knowledge, and through information and knowledge innovation and change are produced which are also core aspects of this construction of human civilization (2008, 34). Catherine, Meredith and Bridget are all embodiments of this new type of femme fatale, who manages to upgrade the information-juggler/manipulator (relatively static) figure into a technically competent, educated, experienced, dynamic and professional worker within information society. In a great part, these characteristics, abilities and competences make them look more aggressive, arrogant and ambitious, while undoubtedly, more successful and free, as well.

Let us see then how this new type of femme fatale evolved out of its pre-information society form. Although femme fatale figures have always been present in the history/ies, cultures, literatures and arts of mankind the female figure that we call femme fatale per se appeared only in the late nineteenth century (Praz 79, 154). Mary Ann Doane also adds that “[h]er appearance marks the confluence of modernity, urbanization, Freudian psychoanalysis and new technologies of production and reproduction (photography, the cinema) born of the Industrial Revolution” (1). Hence, it is evident that our current image/figure of the femme fatale emerged as a result of innovation, scientific, technological and economic development as well as cultural and societal changes (in addition to the anxieties and fears that these involve). A femme fatale per se is, consequently, a child of industrialization, technology and scientific progress; a cultural construction of these changes and processes. Since information society is also referred to as post-industrial (Karvalics 2008, 30) the femmes fatales within information society are the upgraded versions of these prototypical femmes fatales of industrialization.

Doane claims that due to these (early) processes and changes the sexualized figure of the femme fatale was turned into a place of “imbrication of knowledge and sexuality, of epistemophilia and scopophilia” in order to acquire truth and knowledge (1). Through the intertwining of scopophilia and epistemophilia the visuality of the femme fatale became a supposed source of information and knowledge while her appearance and body seemed to be a gateway to these, of which the femme fatale was clearly aware and capitalized on it. Evidently, with the help of technical development and the improvement of the modes and techniques of visual representation the femmes fatales of the pages, canvasses and the stage invaded the screen, as well: “[a]lthough her origins are literary and pictorial, the femme fatale has a special relevance in cinematic representation, particularly that of Hollywood insofar as it appeals to the visible as the ground of its production of truth” (ibid). This way, the textual as well as the visual femmes fatales (in and outside Hollywood) were/are considered to be visible signposts that lead to truth and knowledge (although usually as negative examples) (ibid), in the meanwhile, all the fears and anxieties generated by ‘the unknown and unknowable’ were projected onto their body thus turning them into dual sources of knowledge and non-knowledge.

Doane also suggests that a femme fatale is generally a ‘non-conscious wrong-doer,’ (2) which would imply that she is a passive figure who does not or cannot control the flow of information and the management of knowledge which is otherwise the source of her power. Doane’s supposition is not correct since a femme fatale (either during the 1940s or the 1990s) is always fully aware of her abilities, she is entirely capable of recognizing the possibilities and opportunities that can facilitate her success and is very apt at obtaining the information and knowledge that help her achieve her aims. Thus, a femme fatale is not only active, conscious and knowledgeable but also knows how to control the revelation and/or concealment of information concerning herself and any other source or piece of information outside of herself that lies in her interest. All this is enriched by the achievements, improvements and advantages of information society in the case of Catherine, Meredith and Bridget since technology and information management as prosthetic devices only heighten their productivity and effectiveness.

The pre-information society femmes fatales could mostly rely ‘only’ on their body as a tool in achieving their aims since, at that time, the technological development was not that advanced as, for example, in the 1990s. In their schemes of information management, or rather manipulation, the technical devices used were mostly only telephones and cars but nothing more, so, instead of technology they had to capitalize on their corporeality with great emphasis. However, by the 1990s, this got enhanced by the possibilities provided by technology and information science. This does not mean that the body and the materiality of ‘high-tech’ femmes fatales descended into oblivion or their corporeal specificities lost their ‘charm;’ it just means that by that time, their intellectual and mental capabilities gained greater prominence. A femme fatale such as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944) or Elsa Bannister in The Lady from Shanghai (1947) could mostly rely on their physical attractiveness and conceal that they have brains. By contrast, Catherine, Meredith and Bridget can and do use their brains without hiding this, what is more, they are paid for it. They also use their attractive appearance and body in their fatal machinations but they can achieve more than their predecessors who could only use a telephone as a mode of (tele)communication or an information conveying device.

By using computers and other various technical devices, searching on the internet or in data bases etc. Catherine, Meredith and Bridget surpass their forerunners. What is more, except for Catherine, who is a writer (and her own boss in every sense), both Meredith and Bridget are in leader positions (executive, vice president and lead manager) at companies that are in information sectors: a computer and an insurance company: “Digicom Corporation” and “Interstate Insurance Company.” They work with computers, databases, write emails etc., there are also early types of mobile phones (wireless phones) used in these films (although by today’s standards these technical devices are outdated and slightly ridiculous, at that time, these – also the computers and their operational systems – were latest developments), and Meredith even appears in a computer game-like animation. Although Catherine is still not so technically-adept and professional as the other two femmes fatales, she is also a master of information and contemporary technology as she is able to get any kind of data and even personal information about people (computers are also present in this film but newspapers are more strongly presented as sources of information), and for example, she is able to cheat the lie detector.

Although they are not devices of information I would like to mention cars because they facilitate movement and ensure mobility as well as freedom (and evidently can contribute to the acquisition of information). It is true that some femmes fatales of previous times also drove cars, for example, Phyllis Dietrichson, yet, this ability or competence is not highlighted in the case of ‘early’ femmes fatales. The femmes fatales of the 1990s are usually good drivers (as well), what is more, Bridget even drives a car that has an air bag (which helps her out of trouble once) – all this also proves their independence and their technical affiliation or skill. And it is also to be noted that these modern technical devices they are shown with or shown to operate on screen are never household devices or appliances (such as a new washing machine, a vacuum cleaner or a mixer, the only exception is a refrigerator) but almost always working devices such as type writers, telephones, computers etc., which also highlight their non-domesticity and professional side. Additionally, they are mostly shown out of private spheres and houses, homes, family surroundings; except when it is necessary minimally or concretely to present the disfunctionality of these. Catherine, Meredith and Bridget are all mostly shown outdoors (in the street, in front of buildings, on the road etc.), at an/the office (their own or somebody else’s place of work or a legal setting), in an office building or in any other public place (pubs, bars, dancing places etc.) but not at home. The femmes fatales of earlier times were still mostly confined to their homes, their marriages and their ‘family’ (mostly represented within walls, generally, in their homes) – from which they usually tried to escape.

Another significant feature of location (but it is generally valid in the case of femmes fatales) is that everything happens in an urban setting, what is more, in a major city or even a metropolis. Even when they are at home, they eat, drink, get dressed etc. – evidently these are all functional activities; it is not about going home for rest, shelter or a homely feeling – or they go home to have sex (but not necessarily because, for example, Bridget has sex with Mike behind the bar where anybody can see them). In addition, for example, Catherine being a writer evidently has a ‘room of her own,’ a room for work at her house/home. Actually, none of these women has a home per se. Traditional femininity and the domestic sphere are detached from these women; certainly, it still can be found in the film but in relation to other minor women who are counterparts of these leading female figures, as opposites of the femme fatale: as the (post-) modern ingénues of the late twentieth century. Additionally, all three women – Catherine, Meredith and Bridget – display certain masculinity. They are not explicitly masculine or muscular but quite athletic and androgynous (and Catherine is also bisexual). They are not typical feminine females in their looks or behavior either. They are stylish and wear some feminine accessories (such us long hair, earrings, high heels etc.) but they are not typical and ideal feminine ladies, they are professional working women.

Thus, it is evident that by the 1990s, the femme fatale figures managed to break out of the ‘institution of the home.’ Dawn B. Sova calls the 1980s a limitless decade that opened up the cinematic representational realm of women immensely and made it possible (again) to allow women to work on both sides of the camera while also making female characters more versatile and complex. This developed further during the following decade, as well. (Sova 168, 181-196) The 1990s turned out to be a significant time for women in general, and a great change occurred in their visual representation likewise. After Thelma & Louise (1991), the genie was out of the bottle. Barbara L. Miller states about this film that it “portrayed a type of female empowerment that was possible only then. This type of empowerment simultaneously speaks to the limits of Hollywood conventions and the changing political and social attitudes of the early 1990s.” (Miller 203) While reflecting on Sharon Stone’s two major violent woman roles – in Basic Instinct (1992) and Diabolique (1996) – Susan Knobloch declares that her star image often works in two opposing ways (even at the same time), on the one hand, in a feminist way, while on the other hand, as an antifeminist “backlash” (125). She also adds that “[i]n Stone’s work we can investigate the intersections of thirty years of recent feminism with the archetypal Hollywood figure of female violence, the ‘spider woman,’ or femme fatale” (Knobloch 126).

According to Yvonne Tasker, in some outstanding films during the late 1980s and early 1990s that featured violent women (such as Ripley in Alien (1979), Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) etc.) there was a great attempt to create strong, skillful, successful and professional women who were, at the same time, feminine (maybe, even in the traditional sense) and sexually attractive thus presenting full and real female characters (67-69). Tasker also claims about the neo-noir femme fatale that although this new femme fatale is still defined by “her seductive sexuality […] the deceptions, disguises and confusion” she is always “an independent woman,” (120-121) who is also often a professional in some field, for example, in the films under discussion: computer technology in Disclosure, insurance and financing in The Last Seduction or being a successful writer in Basic Instinct. These working women – Catherine, Meredith and Bridget – are all financially independent and successful while being good at their jobs. However, it is also true that the new noir femmes fatales usually follow the trajectory and conventions of the 1940s film noir femmes fatales, yet, there are certain changes such as the explicit presentation of sexual activity or sometimes it occurs that the femme fatale figure can “be successful in her schemes,” for example, in Body Heat (1981) (Tasker 122-125), in which Matty Walker manages to get rid of her husband, her lover and her alter-ego while inheriting all of the money and living happily ever after incognito.

Stella Bruzzi, similarly to Tasker, also opines that in many of the films produced during the 1980s and 1990s “subjectivity resides more with the woman than the man” in spite of the also present “backlash” during this time, and that the scheming and alluring professional women of this era did/do not lose their “castrating potential” while more and more of these “cool, phlegmatic heroines out-smart all the men and get away with it” (127). Bruzzi also emphasizes that these (post-)modern lethal women are “professionally successful,” and while they “usurp the traditional social male role” they are still not entirely and merely defined on the basis of their looks (ibid). As an outstanding example, both Bruzzi and Tasker mention The Last Seduction (1994) as Bridget is able to combine femininity, glamour, style and professionalism with ease while she is a “knowing dominatrix” and is fully competent (Tasker 130-131), what is more, she is the professional person in focus while the men are the ones who want to get married (to her) and are presented as the homemakers (Tasker 134). In addition, she also manages to achieve everything she wants: she gets rid of her husband as well as her lover, destroys all evidence against her, gets all the money and can live freely and independently ever after, probably in New York that she loves.

In Disclosure, as Yvonne Tasker opines, instead of the suggested message of the film (on the posters and in advertising): ‘Sex is Power,’ what we find is that technology is power (131). And in this film it is the high-tech female who is in the power position much rather through her technical competence than her sexuality, which is quite ironic since the scheme was that she seduces her former lover and destroys him through their sexual encounter but she fails and manages to threaten him ‘only’ through technology and her professional skills. She is quite an information society femme fatale whose sexuality and body are secondary to her informational and technical skills, a real ‘info femme fatale.’ In my opinion, it can also be considered a cultural backlash of the film that a female boss is charged with sexual harassment (although rightfully and duly) at a time when in the US sexual harassment charges were becoming more and more frequent and these were usually women employees who sued their male bosses (probably rightfully and duly). Meredith thus tries to destroy and ‘delete’ Tom by technical-informational means instead of the physical-sexual scenario. Among the three films that I discuss in this paper, this film and this female figure target most directly and treat most fully the issue of information society and the question of gender relations within this. The film seems to suggest that within information society the combination of technology and women produce indestructible feminine power.

Though it is technology rather than sex that is power in the high-tech world of Disclosre, the film does its best to conflate the two, operating a gendering of technology in which the two forces are seemingly aligned to displace the ‘average white male’. This conflation is literalised in the image of a virtual Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore) deleting files in cyberspace as Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas) looks on powerless, having been ‘locked out’ of the system. […] The film makes little of the location of production outside the States, highlighting instead the rise of women professionals and new technologies as the defining features of a changing American capitalism that leaves Sanders vulnerable. (Tasker 131)

Nonetheless, in spite of the seeming triumph of the high-tech femme fatale Meredith eventually fails and is fired because it is still men’s world. I think it is rather significant that during their last conversation Meredith tells Tom that it was actually the men’s game at the company (the bosses and Tom), they were the ones quarreling, and it is her who is punished for it (the bosses,’ and primarily the CEO’s, incompetence and losing their/his nerve), and eventually she is the one who is fired (Levinson 2 h 00 min); and I would add that an elderly mother figure replaces Meredith at the company (who is, by the way, a competent and professional person). Nevertheless, Meredith does not seem to be bothered by all this and states that “I’ve had calls from ten head-hunters with job offers in the last hour. Don’t be surprised if I’m back in ten years to buy this place” (Levinson 2 h 01 min). In conclusion, Tasker calls her a “hybrid stereotype produced from a femme fatale defined by sexual power and an independent woman defined largely by professional success” (131) slightly suggesting a negative opinion that these types cannot be reconciled. However, previously she argues – with which I absolutely agree – that by the 1990s a new type of cinematic female type emerged that was the combination of “the independent woman and the femme fatale” as these types “complexly informed each other, transmuting into a new version of the femme fatale which comes to situate her as a powerful woman whose threat quite overtly lies in the context of work” (121), and who is “often cast as career woman” (135). These women are all this type, the new femme fatale, who stepped out of the dysfunctional domestic sphere (typical of film noirs, for example) into the public sphere and the job market: an independent professional woman, a sexually confident person and a complex female/feminine subject. They are phallic women who possess “professional and sexual power” (Bruzzi 132), and are the outcome of information society. Thus, the femmes fatales within information society – especially Catherine in Basic Instinct (1992), Meredith in Disclosure (1994) and Bridget/(Wendy) in The Last Seduction (1994) – are much more able, competent, successful, and in effect, more dangerous or apparently even more aggressive than their predecessors.

 

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