The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Falling For The Femme Fatale


Before I was a goth, I was a nerd.

I imagine this is a dual transition a lot of young men went through before “geek” was “chic”: when you don’t have particularly good social skills, junior high and high school can be a rough time. The world seems like a cruel place. So after absorbing all that angst, you get the urge to lash out; to externalize.

When I was going through this, in the late ’90s and early ’00s, a lot of this angst had to do with gender. I guess it still does. If we didn’t successfully inhabit our male roles, we were called “faggots”, whether we were actually interested in other boys or not. Gender lines were policed harshly, but more than that, they were used as weapons for other kinds of policing. Gender was the language through which superiority and inferiority were communicated, a patriarchal soup that was forced down our throats until we gagged.

That process of gagging was the process of becoming a goth, for me and I think for many others. Goth didn’t just signal rejection and nihilism; it also, often, involved blurring gender—men wore makeup, women wore aggressive spikes. Goth was both an assertion of violent authority and an assertion of lawlessness, a flat rejection of standards of masculinity we felt we’d never be able to meet.

Many of the figures and idols I drew on for inspiration then were androgynous, skinny males who wore makeup and tight clothing—Marilyn Manson, Trent Reznor, people like that. They were openly hostile toward the bulky, sporty masculinity we’d been led to believe was canon.

This worked well for me when I was skinny and androgynous, at the beginning of puberty, but somewhere along the line I became very much NOT that. I’m large and hairy now. I look very “male.” So along the way, I’ve had to do a lot of adjusting of the relationship between myself and maleness. I didn’t really understand the maleness society offered to me in an intuitive way. I eventually found that I liked sports, and I liked being big and strong and assertive. But this wasn’t my effortless inheritance, like I was told it was supposed to be. I eventually blended this stuff into my goth/geek program by digesting it from the culture, and there was a whole bunch of confusion and experimentation involved in the process.

I suspect that a lot of men experience that confusion.

At some point during this whole process, I made friends with a couple of women who introduced me to feminism.

Feminist theory was the only body of thought I’d found that said that these assumptions and these roles weren’t to be taken for granted. Feminism made an active project of taking apart the masculinity that had given me so many problems, so I took to it like a duckling in water.

Perhaps ironically, I got into feminism for me.

One of the primary remnants of this period of development (really, development that continues to this day) is that I’m constantly watching myself.

It’s been made clear to me by participation in feminism, especially in activism against sexual assault and against sexual commodification and objectification, that I’m potentially dangerous to the lives and agencies of women. So I have to think about my behavior, feelings, and choices, and how they might be amplified by my hegemonic power. I don’t want to be one of “those guys”, one more abrasive male suitor or interloper, hemming in or wounding the women I want to relate to.

This necessitates a certain measured introspection, and my desires often have to take a backseat. If I’m interested in a woman romantically, I have to think about every move I make, and whether or not I’m unconsciously making her feel uncomfortable or marginalized, whether or not I’m taking up too much conversational space… my political “best practice”, according to a whole lot of activist thought, is that of an ally and supporter.

But when I was young, I was sold unrestrained fantasies of male power and heroism—total, dynamic, rebellious releases of energy. He-Man. The Ninja Turtles. Neo in The Matrix. They all had righteous battles to fight, and got to use all their strength fighting them. They seemed to expand unselfconsciously.

This is one of the reasons the femme fatale, as a mythological figure, is so simultaneously seductive and inspiring for me.

See, around the same youthful period I started messing around with these ideological systems, I also started finding that I was attracted to a very particular kind of woman. I liked aggressive, sexual, outspoken women that presented as androgynous or outrageous. These weren’t the virginal, submissive varieties of female partner recommended to me by the patriarchal hegemony. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to be frightened. I didn’t necessarily want to be in control of the situation. This wasn’t just in real life, but in fiction, film, art, and music too. I became fascinated by “strong female characters”, which, in the contemporary, multivariate feminist conversation, presents two problems. First, “strong female character” is an incredibly one-dimensional idea, a sort of flattened media construct designed to fill a political and market niche, and second, this fascination is all filtered through my personal relationship to women. In a way it’s still about the male gaze, the male experience, because I’m the one experiencing it. It’s a sort of button pushed inside me, not a true, empathic sharing of perspective.

So when I say “strong female characters,” what do I mean?

Well, Lisbeth Salander is a great example. And of course, she was written by a man. Probably partially due to my goth phase, reading about her or watching her on the screen is the consummation of some kind of deep fantasy I never thought I’d see realized. But it’s not just some explicitly sexual fantasy either.

When I watch PJ Harvey on stage, I get a specific feeling. Ditto when I watch Anita Sarkeesian take on her haters. And the weird thing is, I even get an (albeit twisted) version of this feeling when I watch Amy Elliott-Dunne in Gone Girl or Taylor Swift’s character in her “Blank Space” video. On one side of the line is a sort of righteous violence, and on the other side, murderous sociopathy. I thrill at them both. All these female characters thrill me.

Maybe more to the point, I don’t get the same thrill out of watching male characters. Different kinds of thrills, to be sure. I can enjoy conventional action movies, watching men blow things up is fun and everything, but the same sort of exultant, visceral triumph isn’t there. Watching Nick Cave or Kanye go HAM onstage, while great, is different that watching Courtney Love or Nicki Minaj.

When I’m most honest with myself, I don’t desire these women sexually. It’s something more complex. On some level, I want to be them, but while I have a really complex and problematic relationship with my socially prescribed maleness, I’ve never hated it. I’ve never not wanted to have a penis. My issues come primarily from the things the culture expects of me as a man, not from the shape of my body; I can’t say I identify as trans. So I don’t think I want to be them in that physical sense.

But these women fire up an engine in me that nothing else does. They make me want to become; to find new powers within myself. They’re better heroes, better mythologies, than any recent males I’ve been able to find.

When I watch fictional characters like Lisbeth Salander, or when I watch real performers like Courtney Love, it’s clear to me that they’re fighting a battle I can never understand completely. They pour all the fire in their being out against the walls of the identity the culture builds for them. They use images of force and violence, or even real force and violence, to protest back against the imposition of violence or stricture on themselves. They let go. They fight with all their strength.

There are men who direct this force outwards too, but the framing is different. There are very few problems in contemporary culture that can be solved or even rhetorically laid open by a man exercising power. Especially a privileged white man. I love Nick Cave’s music and performances, but I don’t know that he’s fighting a revolutionary battle when he sings about how badly he wants to fuck someone. And in the conversations following the Elliot Rodger massacre and Ferguson, white males’ best and most helpful use of energy was to foreground the voices of women and people of color. We must not dominate and we must not attempt to be the heroes.

In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth spends much of the movie as a very quiet, private, and introverted, albeit criminally competent, investigator and researcher. She’s constantly beset and antagonized by the male culture around her, building to the point where she’s repeatedly sexually assaulted by her court-appointed guardian.

So when she strikes back, when she retaliates, everything in the viewer exults. Yes! Demonstrate power! Demonstrate authority! The scene where she ties her rapist up, anally penetrates him with a metal rod, and tattoos his stomach with a scrawled “I AM A RAPIST PIG” satisfies and enthuses so thoroughly that it makes me wonder about my own sociopathic impulses. I especially love the calculated way she executes her plan to free herself from this monster. We cheer for these heroines, even when they employ violence, because what other sane response is there to a lived experience of complete subjugation?

Lisbeth illustrates the electric thrill of the totally unleashed human animal. Watching her allows me to admit how I long to be totally unleashed myself. But I worry I can’t be. That my unleashed animal is too dangerous. Too hurtful. Too male.

Amy Elliot-Dunne, Gone Girl’s femme fatale, has been painted as petty and avenging by certain critics—and the purity of her exercise in power is tainted, just as Salander’s is, by the narrative’s apparent need to subject her to “traditionally female” wounds and subjugations before she can assert control, almost like some sort of ritualistic sadism. We want our women powerful, in other words, but not too powerful—she has to be jealous over adultery, or wounded by sexual assault, before we’ll accept her as powerful, as having a reason to be violent.

But this is also the tradeoff that makes my dubious vicarious fantasy work. As with Salander, the righteous fire under the actions of these female characters allow them a much wider audience-accepted margin of violence in which to play—a pass to be totally and righteously unhinged. It’s been argued that Gone Girl tries weakly and wanly to get us to sympathize with Affleck’s character, and therefore to view Amy as the villain, but I think those criticisms have things switched around—it barely tries to get us to sympathize with Affleck because sympathizing with him is not where the joy of this film lies.

This film is engaging precisely because the identity of the “victim” is deeply problematized. We’re presented, not with a unilaterally evil woman tormenting a series of helpless men, but with a woman who’s had her entire life casually sucked away by men, male culture, and the expectations of others. Gone Girl’s genius is that it plays with that latitude of violence up to the breaking point—Amy goes so far in her machinations that our forgiveness is strained. This thriller is inverted. It’s very uncertain who’s killing who, especially when Neil Patrick Harris’s character stalks Amy and imprisons her in his home, morphing our culture’s dreaded Nice Guy trope into an even more monstrous mutation of itself. Throughout the film there are so many tiny, effective critiques of casual male dominance.

The adultery, really, was a red herring—in her former life, before her husband Nick sucked her existentially dry, she would never have felt compelled to compete with an uneducated twenty-year-old. But we see Amy, for the most part, in her latter state—dragged into the culture’s reductive scripts of woman-on-woman infighting because Nick has left her with nothing else.

Andrea Dworkin once wrote, “The genius of any slave system is found in the dynamics which isolate slaves from each other, obscure the reality of a common condition, and make united rebellion against the oppressor inconceivable.” She also claimed, “Men are distinguished from women by their commitment to do violence rather than to be victimized by it.”


In a world where Dworkin’s words are true, where male physical and ideological violence is embedded into daily female experience, a woman who decides to do Amy’s kind of violence out of repression, frustration, and hopelessness becomes a symbol of something else entirely, neither culturally male nor culturally female, a black iron butterfly that devours our categories and leaves us in awe. She is not an ethical creature, true, but she is a creature that demands the reexamination of ethics.

Amy also employs methods of control and power—feigning being raped, playing with pregnancy—that many men deeply and viscerally fear. In this way, Gone Girl is an almost dangerous film to make. There’s a chance that men who watch it, who don’t understand that they’re watching a psycho in the vein of Patrick Bateman, might exclaim “I knew it! Bitches be crazy! I knew women did stuff like that!” But these men don’t have to be subjected to culturally enforced paranoia on a daily basis the way women do. Traditional slasher flicks think nothing of placing the woman in the role of the screaming victim.

As a male, I’m a member of a privileged group that’s potentially the target of all this rage, all this counter-assertion of power and dominance. My hegemonic legacy is the dark backdrop against which the white light flares; the horror that makes necessary a rebellion.

As an individual, I see that rebellion and I feel a warm glow inside. I feel the urge to curl up at the feet of these women. I feel, not some sort of patriarchal pride or ownership, but almost the opposite. A comfort. The desire to rub my head up against their hand like a kitten.

Does all this mean it’s possible for me to love being powerless? Or at least less powerful?

In this age of politically charged conversation, spaces of fantasy, horror, conjecture and cinema are the spawning-grounds for a thousand think pieces (like this one). Gone Girl was framed at the center of a debate we frequently have; a debate about whether or not the literal events in a narrative are “properly feminist.” I think we sometimes forget that the entire point of art like this is to experiment with scenarios, sensations, fears, and power-trips we never would in real life.

This kind of artistic experimentation, in fact, points toward a future where power-relations are negotiated and explored in a sort of BDSM safe-space instead of being inflicted with impunity. I’m not convinced we’ll ever lose our fascinations with power and violence—I think the success of art like this is evidence of that. If traditionally marginalized people are going to transition into a position of equality or power, there should be space where they can explore the enacting of that power, even if it isn’t enacted responsibly.

If power is going to shift toward equality, men have to see power less as an inherent right and more as something we can be incentivized to relinquish. There’s potential pleasure in stepping aside.

Maybe this is why I’ve always been obsessed with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, especially that scene when Lisbeth decides to fuck Mikael in that freezing cabin in Hedestad, when Lisbeth decides to have sex because the two of them have created a safe space, a space of agreed-upon and understood relations that gifts them both with renewed freedom. In that space, she takes aggressive charge of the situation. The dragon is free, rears its head, spreads its wings, and roars, in a way it can’t outside that space. Outside, where the patriarchy hems in on every side and threatens with its lances.

That dragon should be free all the time.

I find myself wondering about my own dragon, my own desire to dominate, to glory in the unrestrained fire of my personal power. How long does it sleep? Is my paranoiac relationship with my own power wrong-headed? Is there power in stepping down, in submitting, or is thinking about gender relations in terms of power problematic in general? Is this raw exercise of female power the right kind of rebalancing? In this project of restructuring the hegemony, can we avoid it?

Maybe it’s simply that we all need heroes. Maybe mythic heroes aren’t always bright or chipper or uncomplicated. Maybe sometimes they’re pioneers of complication.

These days, I’m much more social, and my teenage anxieties are in many ways a fading memory. I’m puttering along in my career, writing and creating culture.

One night a year ago, when I was cold and alone in a large house, on break from work and from love, and feeling introverted, I watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo four times in a row. It was deep winter, and the only light besides my laptop screen was a fire in the fireplace across from my recliner. I still have no rational explanation for this obsessive midnight marathon, except that when I see Lisbeth on the screen, somewhere deep inside myself, I spread my wings unhindered.


Feature photo provided by author.

Devin O'Neill likes to tell brand new stories, and sees all our social, commercial, and cultural experiences as fit media for creative exploration, sometimes to a fault. He listens to too much pop music. You can be his friend at More from this author →