A red lip. A bared leg. A slinky black dress with a very long slit. A high heel. Higher. A voice that sounds like sex. A smoky eye.
She wants, but what she wants is ulterior. Indirect. She gets there by playing on his weakness. Coy. Curling. She is deception, steel inside softness, a lie.
He is just a boy. No. He’s a man with a boy’s interior. He’s an average man. The guy you notice, and then forget. She gleans her power by proxy to him, to men, to any man. She whispers in his ear and he loses himself. He becomes her puppet, and she the conniving puppet master.
She is not real.
In high school, I was in an art and film club. We met on the weekends at a gallery or museum, looked at art with our adult mentors, and then stopped for lunch. After lunch, we saw a matinee of an arthouse film. The goal, I think, was both exposure and critical thinking. The adults listened to our opinions, but often challenged them. Sometimes we were gifted tickets to other cultural events—the symphony, the ballet, and a few times, the opera.
It was with the art and film club that I saw Salome, the opera based on the New Testament story. Salome is the preteen step-daughter of the King, who, predictably, lusts after her. He begs Salome to dance for him and his dinner companions, offering anything in the world (remember: King) if she’ll do it. Eventually, Salome agrees, but in return asks for the head of Jochanaan, a Christian prophet, who has been slandering Salome’s mother. At the end of the opera, Jochanaan head is served to Salome on a platter, and she dances the dance of the seven veils for her stepfather. The King is “ruined” for killing the prophet, cursed. Of course, blame falls to Salome, for asking so much of the King.
Scene: one schlubby middle-aged English professor with a receding hairline and glasses. Bored with his life, his wife, his whole thing. He used to fancy himself quite the up-and-comer and now he feels his brain leaking out his ears at the end of the day. He checks his pillows at night, but they’re never wet by morning. Still, the nothing of it all, the endless semesters, the smallness of himself, his life, his grandiose once-upon-a-time imaginings. Instead, this middling college. Instead, this middling life.
Enter: one college freshman. Her wit is young and sparkly. He thinks she’s beautiful in that new beginnings way. She wants to destroy his life. She wants to ace his class. She wants his attention. She wants to feel powerful.
Are you filling in the blank yet? You already know how this ends.
Around the same time as the art and film club, I got my first real job, working at Starbucks. They sent every new employee through an extensive training. I learned the differences between light and dark roasts, and how to make a latte. They also told me about how Starbucks began.
The cafe was named after Starbuck, the first mate in Moby Dick. He was the voice of dissent, advocating that Ahab, the captain, cease his quest for the white whale, and return to their regular business.
“But why is a mermaid the logo?” I wanted to know. I was reading Moby Dick; there were no mermaids in the book at all, let alone with Starbuck.
“That’s the siren,” my trainer told me.
Sirens, of ancient Greek mythology, are feathered, and have two fins, not one like a mermaid. They lured sailors with their song to the rocks, where the ships would wreck. But what did the Sirens get out of the shipwreck, I wondered? And why would they be the face of a coffee house?
Twenty years ago, Francine Prose wrote The Blue Angel, a novel about an aspiring young woman writer and her college writing professor. The book has been made into a film, Submission, which was released at the beginning of March.
Both the film and the novel are anchored by questions of agency and victimization. Only in this story, the professor is the victim. Prose is known for inverting expectations, so this is supposed to be a flipped script. But is it?
The timing is terrible for a film about a sexualized power differential where the older man is a victim to a student at least a decade or two his junior. Prose wrote a critical essay for the Paris Review, defending her feminism and her hapless professor/victim. She doubled down that this was novel, unexpected, for a young student to cause a professor’s downfall. But this idea isn’t new at all, and it wasn’t twenty years ago, either; it’s the same tired story of the femme fatale, whose mythological power comes not from within her, but from her ability to manipulate men (and the patriarchy) into giving her what she wants.
The femme fatale is two-faced. She uses the desires of men to achieve her own desires. She doesn’t feel badly; she has no compunction. She’s so different, you see, because she has some agency. Or at least, that’s what Prose seems to be saying. She never imagined that this gorgeous, seductive young woman (Prose based the character on Marlene Dietrich) could also be the victim of the hapless old professor she’s destroyed. This story is meant to turn stereotypes on their head, but instead just repeats other stereotypes. Even the title of Prose’s Paris Review piece, “When Women Aren’t Angels,” echoes musty Madonna/whore ideology. What are women if they aren’t angels? Who has the power and who is the victim? Can a person with some agency ever claim victimization, or are agency and victimhood a binary? Whose fault is it when a middle-aged professor “ruins his life” over the erotic machinations of his wily young student temptress?
While I didn’t understand why the King’s downfall was supposed to be Salome’s fault, I fell in love with her. Of course I did. And sirens, and Jessica Rabbit, and Marilyn Monroe. I fell in love with the idea of power by proxy because it seemed obtainable. I could be the woman whispering in the ear of the powerful man. The idea of access intoxicated me.
I thought the femme fatale was something I could achieve. I imagined myself with scales on my spine and blood in the corner of my mouth. Voracious. I imagined taking a man down to pieces and then refusing to stitch him together again. Better his destruction than my own. If one of us had to go down—and that was how the world seemed to work—it wasn’t going to be me.
I don’t think her power was real.
Why did I ever think it was real?
When women trade their sex appeal for money or power, there’s always a shame-and-blame chaser. Just ask Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, whose machinations have embarrassed the disgraceful President of the United States, but who the press insists on referring to as simply “porn star.” As though her profession has consumed her identity completely. Just ask any stripper or sex worker. No matter how much money they make (and some make a lot), there is no buying their way out of stigma. Sex work is the only field in which women are consistently paid more than men, and yet the social cost for the women who perform it is giant, and can follow them long after their career in sex work is over.
“Can I even talk to a woman at work anymore, or is that sexual harassment?” Where is the new line, and how come it’s changed? And when can we go back to the good ol’ days when men were men and women were objects? Well, I haven’t heard anyone say that last one aloud, but it’s subtext.
I have watched successful women wring their hands over the careers of men they liked or admired. The author Elissa Wald, lamenting the Sherman Alexie allegations on social media, put it this way, “Are you saying a very successful author shouldn’t ever hit on less successful writers because of the power differential?”
Underneath all this worrying about where, exactly, the line is, and how, exactly, we’ll learn to toe it, remember: the line between harassment and seduction has never been all that clear, and has always been somewhat subjective. The greater the power differential between the parties, the less clear the line becomes. Is she smiling because she’s trying to appease him, or because she’s trying to encourage him? Both are possible, and the only way to figure it out is to establish a trusting and open dialogue. It’s harder to do that with strangers. Perhaps successful authors (or businessmen, or producers) should think harder about how they’re leveraging their success. Power can make its recipients oblivious, as Rebecca Solnit recently pointed out in Harpers.
We are asking for the more powerful party to be held accountable for that obliviousness, and lack of restraint. We are asking for professionalism.
What I do know is that it’s possible—and, actually, very likely—to have agency and be victimized at the same time. Both college professors and their students are adults, and in being so, have some agency, at least legally. I don’t think advocating for better boundaries and communication, less coercion, and more appropriate/respectful treatment voids the basic idea of adult agency. What’s missing is usually empathy. What’s missing is the more powerful party paying close attention, and focusing on controlling their own behavior more than controlling others.
Your morning siren song: coffee. It’s addictive. Just ask anyone who’s missed their first cup for the day: you get foggy-headed and slow, irritable, and eventually, headache-y. I brew my coffee first thing in the morning, before I can even consider anything else. I do understand how the song of a siren, the luring, decadent, trilling voices of the women on the rocks, could be associated with the draw of a drug like caffeine.
But where coffee and caffeine have side effects, and a verifiable set of withdrawal symptoms, women (mythological or otherwise) do not. What, then, makes it so difficult for a man to control himself? What is the cost of withdrawing from even the world’s most beautiful woman?
I tried to ask my Starbucks trainers: Why a woman? Starbucks was founded by three men, after all. And Starbuck himself was a man. Would the company be worth less if its logo were a seafaring first mate? Does the split-finned siren have anything to do with anything, or is she just another object, another convenient woman to blame for our inability to get through a day without a latte?
Femmes fatale have less power than we think. Because everything the seductress accomplishes is hinged on her desirability to the target. It is too simple to take all her “power” away.
Seduction only works as leverage when the person who holds the power wants you. Ask any aging woman. At some point, no matter how beautiful, thoughtful, or well-maintained, women in America simply age out of mass desirability. When she is invisible, her wants become irrelevant. She loses her leverage.
When we offer the illusion of power to the youngest, softest, dewiest girl in the room, what do we expect besides disaster? It can’t possibly be an accident that so many of us, angels and devils, lambs and wolves, fall into this trap at some point. It is the rare girl that makes it to twenty-five without realizing that using her sexuality has consequences.
And yet are we to believe that these grown men with all the experience, education, and respect that our society can endow, are just reckless children on the inside? That men are too weak, and unable to control themselves? That beauty makes them vulnerable? That her parted lips, her unlined skin, her firm body, are all it takes to undo his decades of education, experience, and knowledge?
That’s a lie.
Either men are incapable of controlling themselves, and cannot be held responsible for their own decisions—in which case, they should hold no power of any kind—or they are responsible, self-governing adults, worthy of their status as men and not boys. I don’t care how beautiful, how irresistible, how bold a seductress may seem; if he wants to take her power away, it’s as simple as saying no.
Whose fault is it when grown men don’t say no?
Part of the reason I worked at Starbucks was to be able to afford to drive. My grandparents offered me their hand-me-down station wagon: a 1989 Buick Electra. But in order to take it, I had to be able to pay for my gas and insurance.
I also had to be licensed, of course, and for that, I had to take driving lessons. It wasn’t enough for my parents to let me practice in empty parking lots; I had to log six hours of live instruction, which meant I spent a few Saturdays driving around with an instructor in a specially rigged car.
It was a not-new, little sedan. My instructor, Luis, sat in the passenger’s seat. But on the floor he had a brake pedal, and accelerator. And in front of him he had a steering wheel. What this meant was that he could correct me, live, while he told me what I was doing wrong. I also had an accelerator, brake, and wheel. But when I wasn’t going fast enough, or braking when I should, Luis would take care of it. I can still feel the odd sensation of the gas pedal plunging beneath my foot as if a poltergeist had taken over. It was strange, and comforting, both.
I had control over the car, but only as much as Luis allowed me to have. His controls could override mine, and that was by design. After all, I was just a sixteen-year-old girl. I had barely driven a car before. He was supposed to teach me, and keep us both safe.
I never crashed Luis’s car. But if I had, whose fault would that have been?
Look what you made me do. It’s the chorus of rapists and abusers. Your beauty made me do it. Your smart mouth. Your anger. What else did you expect?
Kelly Sundberg’s forthcoming memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl, tells the story of her relationship with an abusive man, and how she left him. At one point, as things escalate between them, he complains that she “made him” punch her in the face, and “now everyone will know.” Kelly and her husband are both college professors at the same school. They live in campus housing. They both believe that her visible bruises will cause concern, and possibly lead to them losing their jobs.
Considering that we’ll blame a rape victim for not fighting, and a domestic violence victim for staying, it’s not surprising at all that the mythic femme fatale exists. She’s another version of the same: blaming women for their abuse by holding them accountable for provoking it. It’s rape culture.
No matter how she vamped, or what she wore. No matter if she danced the dance of the seven veils. No matter if her skirts were short or her jeans were roomy. No matter if she sang like Jessica Rabbit, slinking her way into the arms of married, slack-jawed men. No matter how beautiful, young, or tempting. The problem isn’t that women aren’t held accountable for their mistakes.
The problem is that men so rarely are.
Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.
The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.