An Introduction

April 27, 2010

My research topic is the analysis of the function of dangerous ladies in nineteenth century literature and 20th century film—both as representations of the popular culture of each respective era. Dangerous women in both centuries are a source of instability and fear for those who subscribe to the notion of female passionlessness, submissiveness, and meekness. Dangerous and alluring women subvert patriarchy and cause a panic (and desire) in men repeatedly throughout history. By analyzing the continuation of the dangerous woman in literature in film, I hope, through this website, to show how she is a reflection of her culture’s view on the nature of women. Lastly, I will show how this perilous woman can actually be a source of admiration for her strength in rejecting prescribed gender roles.

Ancient Dangerous and Sexual Females

“the femme fatale [or dangerous women in general] is mythically rooted and derives power from her association with figures such as Cleopatra, Salome, Judith, Helen, mermaids and sirens” (Stott viii).

Although my topic only analyzes deviant women in two centuries, it is worthy to note that the same sort of ideas on the nature of women stem from hundreds of years ago and can be found in fields such as mythology, the Bible, and ancient history. These figures that are derived from oral history and artifacts of historical texts have definitely pervaded modern culture’s society, as they make a marked reappearance in the centuries I am presenting.

Goddess Inanna/Ishtar (fourth millennium B.C.):

Innana, deity that originated in Sumer and was later renamed Ishtar by the Babylonians, was goddess of sexual allure and desire. She was the embodiment of erotic desire, beyond human societal sanctions. Innana outranked the tribune of ruler gods she shared power with.

Innana/Ishtar: Queen of Heaven
Innana/Ishtar: Queen of Heaven

Innana looked alluring, powerful, and menacing at the same time. This winged goddess wore a horned headdress, jewels, had a subjugated pet lion, and donned a staff of serpents. Her many roles are encompassed in her various titles including “Totality of What Is,” “The Lady of Blazing Dominion,” “Bearer of Happiness,” and “Lady of Raging Battle.”

Babylonian Goddess Ishtar
Babylonian Goddess Ishtar

Innana is mythology’s ultimate femme fatale. Known as Ishtar in The Epic of Gilgamesh, she declared war on Gilgamesh for refusing her advances and then utterly destroyed him. Through this story, Ishtar became a symbol of predatory womanhood and malicious sexuality.

Innana
Innana

However, Innana/Ishtar also represented female sexual empowerment. She insisted on taking no part of woman’s work and had an equal place at the table. Not only that, she consistently was able to overcome gender divisions. She could pursue “masculine” goals such as war and had liaisons with females. She also took pleasure in reversing the sexes, meaning turning women into men and vice versa, and often cast the spell of androgyny. (Information found in Prioleau’s Seductress 34-38)

Inanna/Ishtar depicted on the "Ishtar vase", Larsa, early 2. millennium BCE, Louvre
Inanna/Ishtar depicted on the “Ishtar vase”, Larsa, early 2. millennium BCE, Louvre

Lilith (accurate time of origin unknown, possibly 4000 B.C. but named in 700 B.C.)

The story of Lilith has been far reaching in Western culture. “Until the nineteenth century people wore amulets to ward off her infernal machinations; her legends circulated for four thousand years, and her demonic stereotype still rears up in films and fiction or wherever a woman takes her sex power too far” (Prioleau 46)

Lilith (1892), by John Collier in Southport Atkinson Art Gallery.
Lilith (1892), by John Collier in Southport Atkinson Art Gallery.

According to Jewish folklore, this goddess was Adam’s first wife before Eve. She upheld women’s empowerment and fled from Adam after he refused her equality and wanted her to perform sex through solely the missionary position. Lilith is said to have replied to Adam ‘Why should I lie beneath you when I am your equal.’ Later she is said in another myth to torment her ex-husband Adam with wet dreams.

Lilith, Kenyon Cox (ca. 1892)
Lilith, Kenyon Cox (ca. 1892)

Through many myths, Lilith as a femme fatale figure is clearly central to her character. In one myth, she copulated constantly giving birth to hundreds of monsters each day and was only stopped by three angels who offered her the chance to plague mankind for eternity instead. She willingly took the role and infested men’s dreams, made them impotent, and killed them through her kisses during her sexual encounters with them.

Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In another story, Lilith is able to conquer God Himself. She is said to have cast such a passionate trance on God that He abandoned Israel and set Lilith up in her place. After this, the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem is said to have taken place. Folk beliefs hold that only the coming of the Messiah will be able to stop Lilith’s power. (Information from Prioleau’s Seductress 42-46)

Lilith as Temptress for Adam and Eve
Lilith as Temptress for Adam and Eve

Salome

Originally found in the New Testament of the Bible (Mark 6:17-29 and Matthew 14:3-11), Salome is said to have been the daughter of Herodias, a Jewish Princess, and the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, ruler of a client state of the Roman Empire.

Ella Ferris Pell's Salome (1890)
Ella Ferris Pell’s Salome (1890)

According to Mark, Herodias wanted vengeance on John the Baptist because he had claimed that Herodias’ marriage to Herod was unlawful because Herod left another woman for Herodias, who had actually previously been his brother’s wife. Thus, Herodias told Salome to dance provocatively in front of Herod on his birthday and ask for John the Baptist’s head.

Gustav Klint's Salome (1901)
Gustav Klint’s Salome (1901)

Other writers have taken up the story of Salome, but have changed it to present Salome as even more of a dangerous femme fatale figure. In Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (1896), he writes that Salome had fallen in love with John the Baptist, but that he rejected her affections. Only after this, does she actively look for his execution. In the end of the play, she takes the severed head and kisses it.

Lovis Corith's Salome (1896)
Lovis Corith’s Salome (1896)

In popular culture, she is regarded as a dangerous figure of seduction and has been portrayed in various films as such by actors such as Theda Bara and Rita Hayworth. (Information from Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity 380-398) (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Salome Triumphant by Edouard Toudouze (1886)
Salome Triumphant by Edouard Toudouze (1886)

“Long before straight-to-video thrillers cornered the market on seductive killer babes, the deadly [woman] was a staple of literature and legend. Lilith, Judith, Circe, the Sirens, the Fates, Medusa, Cleopatra, Delilah, Mata Hari, and Lolita—the list is lengthy and constitutes a “who’s who” of castration anxiety.” (Brown If Looks Could Kill Reel Knockouts 54)