Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: the Side Effects of the Femme Fatale

Note: this piece contains a spoiler
I went to see the well-reviewed Steven Soderbergh film Side Effects last week, and came out of the screening profoundly depressed by how little has changed in the way in which older women are depicted on screen in mainstream films despite three decades of feminist challenges to stereotypes and standard generic tropes.  While it may sometimes seem as though we are encountering a broader, more complex range of female characters on screen, too often these are confined to women under 40, and representations of women who are 50 or over are both infrequent and limited in range.  For every Meryl Streep led romantic comedy or drama (and it is always Meryl Streep) we can find ten thrillers in which older women appear only as supportive or suspicious housewives and mothers; for each feisty investigating District Attorney a hundred dead hookers litter the mean streets of crime thrillers – and the older the hooker the less likely her death will be the main focus of the narrative’s investigation. Older women are largely depicted as domestically focused, economically dependent, as ‘related to’ the central characters rather than interesting individuals in their own right, and overwhelmingly as secondary or minor figures in somebody else’s story.   And for each The Kids Are All Right (2010) with its sympathetic and human depiction of a lesbian relationship between two ‘older’ women, we are presented with its opposite, the slick and well-made Side Effects – a film that reworks the familiar conventions of film noir, including the figure of the ‘femme fatale’ who threatens male psychological stability and the fabric of society at one and the same time.

The story is ostensibly about the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry and the consequences of addiction to prescription drugs, but it turns into a conspiracy thriller halfway through, and – surprise, surprise – it’s the powerful older woman who done it.  In Side Effects once again female characters are split between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women, with sexuality the key to their status and, most dispiritingly, a predatory and tough older lesbian cast as the villain, Dr Victoria Siebert, played by Catherine Zeta Jones.  Such depictions are so prevalent they often go unremarked or even celebrated (think of the equally well-received Notes on a Scandal, 2006, with Judi Dench as a lesbian spinster stalker); not one of the reviews of the film I read had interrogated, let alone found a problem with, the way Zeta Jones’s character was represented. Yet the character is both central to the film plot and profoundly disturbing.  Even the fact that the talented Zeta Jones at 43 is now being cast in secondary, ‘older woman’ roles rather than as the heroine in such films, while her male peers continue to take leading roles, was not commented on – presumably because this too seemed perfectly ‘natural’. For example, while Jones is effectively ‘playing older’ in this role, Jude Law, the central protagonist of the film (Dr Jonathan Banks) and just three years her junior at 40, is cast ‘young’ as a newly-married husband and step-father. Furthermore, as the plot shifts its focus from prescription addiction to sex the Law character increasingly assumes the investigative powers of the film noir detective seeking out the ‘truth’ about female sexuality and untrustworthiness.

Furthermore, if it is surprising to see Jones cast here as an ‘older woman’ we have only to remind ourselves of Hollywood’s habitual and institutionalised double standards: men acquire maturity, wisdom and authority as they age – women just get old (and ‘old’ starts at 40) and then disappear from the screen.  Indeed, this skewed perspective shapes both the casting and the story itself for, even though Law’s character as a psychiatrist prepared to sell his knowledge for the perks offered by big pharma is as morally bankrupt as Jones’s, the narrative is told from his point of view and we are positioned to sympathise with him as a victim of a monstrous conspiracy between two women.

But it was primarily that Jones’s character is portrayed as a manipulative, hard-edged lesbian who conspires with her younger lover to defraud and then murder an ‘innocent’ banker that took my breath away. In the midst of the deepest economic recession we have experienced in recent memory, a recession precipitated by the recklessness and greed of (mainly) young male bankers, and at a time when older women are bearing the brunt of that recession, Hollywood movies can still present us with a story in which a middle-aged lesbian masterminds an evil plot against men, and in which her primary motivation is a perverted desire for power and money (perverted because that’s not what women are supposed to want).

This is not, however, an exceptional case. Indeed, it is all too common. When older women are represented as having power outside or beyond the family and domesticity in films and on television it is nearly always in implicitly negative ways. Women’s social power is presented as inherently tied into their sexual desirability and availability to men rather than any other characteristic, but this is always depicted as a direct threat to male power within the workplace unless it can be harnessed to heteronormativity and the re-subordination of the female character – perhaps as she accepts her natural inferiority in the career she has chosen (women always ask the questions in thrillers, while men give the answers). In Side Effects, the Zeta Jones character, with her elegant monochrome wardrobe, black-framed glasses and hair styled in a sleek chignon, is the epitome of the controlling and repressed ‘career woman’, so that the film’s revelation of her as pathologically criminal comes as little surprise, infuriating though it is. Not only does she have a successful career as a psychiatrist (but one evidently built on exploiting her patients), she is a lesbian to boot! The film’s naturalisation of her as both pathological and as in need of incarceration because of this chimes with a long tradition of mainstream thrillers in which the femme fatale is ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’, and ends up dead or defused or both – ‘made safe’ because she threatens too much.  The femme fatale always wants, not the hero for himself, but what the hero has access to – money, specialised knowledge, connections, power.  Exactly the things that men want, in fact, but which in a woman are cast as profoundly unnatural.

These images frequently suggest, too, that for women a desire to exercise any kind of meaningful power beyond the family is both unnatural and dangerous.  In the stock portrayals of the female boss who exploits her younger female colleagues (as in Working Girl, 1988) or the tough female politician whose entry into the ‘man’s world’ of politics has produced a hardening of her natural womanliness, the steely career woman whose ambition predominates over human feeling remains a disturbing and familiar figure. The recent spate of biopics of Margaret Thatcher (including the Meryl Streep vehicle, The Iron Lady, 2011) have tended to emphasise exactly these characteristics, so that Thatcher’s remarkable achievement is recast as a matter of pathology not politics.  Before we celebrate these narratives as simply ‘telling the truth’ about the former Prime Minister’s career or character (and regardless of our own party politics or views about her policies) we should pause to consider the extent to which these representations are driven by pernicious stereotypes about women and power that have more to do with ideology than to real events. Most women work for a living out of necessity, and many have demanding and exhausting professional careers which they combine with caring for families and with a whole range of social and voluntary activities, yet the stereotype of the single-minded, selfish or threatening ‘career woman’ persists. It helps to perpetuate the idea that a professional career or even a plain old job beyond the domestic sphere is something women, unlike men, are not entitled to, and too often also suggests that women in the workplace are interested only in competing with each other for male attention rather than co-operating with each other to achieve a worthwhile task.

Why does this matter? Because there is a relationship between the two ways in which ‘representation’ is commonly understood – as the process within the public realm which brings about legislative and democratic change and as the means by which we are depicted within the media – and it is only by addressing both of these that real transformations can be achieved.  If older women are consistently under-represented or represented in negative, demeaning or problematic ways within media, that will affect their ability to take part in the ‘real world’ of the public realm or to participate in democratic structures. Not only are such damaging stereotypes frequently internalised or struggled with by women themselves as they attempt to reconcile their experiences with such tropes, they also shape the perceptions of others.  If the villain of conspiracy thrillers continues to be cast as a ‘predatory lesbian’ (indeed, if lesbianism continues to be depicted as a component of criminality), a whole range of powerful myths, unsupported assumptions and taken for granted beliefs about who and what women can be will underpin the way social and economic power continues to be portrayed as belonging ‘naturally’ to men, regardless of our real world experiences of the economic crash and its consequences.

Of course, the femme fatale is a fantasy figure. And she is often so seductive that both male and female viewers are attracted by the power she wields. Zeta Jones’s Dr Siebert is both fascinating and threatening precisely because of her power over the desires of others. But because she is a woman in a patriarchal society that power must be represented as a problem to be erased rather than a quality to be emulated. Here the connection between those two kinds of representation becomes most dangerous: as long as the fantasy of the economically independent, socially active woman is that she represents a threat to society or is unimaginably omniscient in disturbing ways, real women’s access to real world power structures and meaningful agency will be restricted. And that is a fantasy we can’t afford – in any sense.

Estella Tincknell is Associate Professor in Film and Culture at the University of the West of England.  Her most recent book is a collection of essays on representations of older women within contemporary culture, Aging Femininities, Troubling Representations (Cambridge Scholars, 2012), co-edited with her colleague, Josephine Dolan.  She has written widely about aging on film and television, including work on the comedienne Goldie Hawn and on the cultural significance of the television makeover show. She will be contributing a regular blog page to Age Immaterial commenting on current (and favourite) films and popular culture.

Posted on March 27th, 2013 by Estella Tincknell filed under: Blog

One Response to The View From the Stalls: Notes on Film

  1. Comment made by Frosoulla Kofterou on Mar 28th 2013 at 3:00 pm:

    It is indeed frightening that with such movies, Hollywood seems to imagine that it is breaking the cycle of such representations with their so called ‘alternative’ approaches to women rather than realising/admitting that they are inversely feeding the stereotype with the tropes you mentioned.Furthermore, by displaying such hesitancy in terms of breaking away with the tradition of these power relations, in these examples of reinvigoration, there is most definitely a rather sad outlook on what the audience is thought to find acceptable. Thus I completely agree that this age old parallel emerges in that such limited ideas of acceptance go hand in hand with accordingly limited representations of women. Very interesting read!