SCOTT MESLOW OFFERS A BRIEF HISTORICAL ANALYSIS PROMPTED BY NEW 'HAP & LEONARD' TV SERIES
Grappling with the question of whether it is sexist or empowering "to portray a woman who is comfortable with her own sexuality, and willing to use it in pursuit of her own ends," The Week's Scott Meslow uses Trudy, a character on Sundance TV's new series Hap & Leonard which he dubs "the platonic ideal of the femme fatale," as a springboard to look at the history and continual reinvention of the femme fatale. From the story of Adam and Eve, to mythology and folklore, Meslow then jumps to noir as the modern-day root of what we know as the femme fatale. Here are the last few paragraphs of the article:
But while there's an undeniable moralism in the roots of these kinds of stories, a closer look reveals something more complicated. Like horror — another boundary-pushing genre that has long offered a paradoxical balance of regressive and progressive — noir films also offered substantial, multifaceted, and groundbreaking roles to actresses at a time when depicting a flushing toilet on a movie screen was considered too risqué. When else could a woman play the villain? When else could a woman be overtly sexual? And when else could sex be depicted as such a blatant tool of power and pleasure, so utterly divorced from childbirth and motherhood?
And as modern storytellers reinterpreted the archetype with an increasingly sympathetic lens, it shifted. By the 1990s — a watershed era for the erotic thriller — femme fatales were routinely the heroes, not the villains, of their own stories. Take Sharon Stone's infamous leg-crosser in 1992's Basic Instinct, or Linda Fiorentino's should've-been-nominated-for-an-Oscar performance in 1994's The Last Seduction, or Kim Basinger's actually-won-her-an-Oscar performance in 1997's L.A. Confidential. By and large, the men in these stories are still hapless dupes — but this time, we're invited to empathize and cheer on the women who are savvy enough to exploit them.
And as the femme fatale archetype shifted toward female empowerment, some women began owning it outright. In 2002, Brian De Palma simply dubbed his Rebecca Romijn-starring erotic thriller Femme Fatale, confident that audiences would understand the shorthand. By 2011, no smaller a cultural figure than Britney Spears was proudly dubbing herself a femme fatale on the cover of her seventh studio album. "Sexy and Strong. Dangerous yet mysterious. Cool yet confident!" she wrote as she revealed the album's title. It may be oddly punctuated and capitalized — but for a definition of the modern femme fatale, it's as good as any.
And that brings us back to Hap & Leonard, with Trudy, its uber-femme fatale, springing the entire story into motion. In both the small-screen adaptation and its original literary source, Trudy initially feels like a throwback to those Double Indemnity days, when a woman could correctly be identified as "trouble" the second she walked up with those legs that end at the throat.
But the first three episodes of Hap & Leonard reveal Trudy to be something a little more complicated. The sex appeal is key to the character. So is the sex. But while [Christina] Hendricks herself describes Trudy as a "classic femme fatale," she dismissed the suggestion that she was merely "window dressing," and later explained that she was drawn to the role for its complexity. "She’s trying to be a better person," Hendricks told Variety. "She’s self-aware. She knows she’s a bit of a mess up. She’s made a lot of mistakes and she’s trying to fix it."
Today, if you cast a wide enough net, you'll find the basic DNA of the femme fatale being conjured up and subverted all the time. Take Gone Girl, an icy thriller that drops a femme fatale into a modern disintegrating marriage. Or Justified, Hap & Leonard's fellow southern noir, which introduced a femme fatale that ended up being the show's ultimate hero. Or last year's Ex Machina, an indie noir sci-fi thriller with a femme fatale that happens to be a robot. That's the beauty of archetypes; as soon as you feel like they're set in stone, someone comes along to reinvent them all over again.