Vixens Make the Pulp Go ‘Round
By Sean Taylor
Even though Scooby Doo wasn’t a pulp tale, I still blame Daphne Blake.
I do. That poor, danger-prone mystery solver turned young me on to the joy that is the redhead. Now, that in itself is innocuous enough, but then you must take into account all the vixen redheads that make up the crime movies and the pulp stories.
It’s simply math. A + B = C.
A. The brunettes are the girl next door who chase the hero or wait patiently for him to return.
B. The curvy blondes are the slinky lounge singers the hero chases and who tosses all those classy double entendres at him.
C. That leaves the red heads and the truly raven-haired beauties to play the part of Lilith—the femme fatale who, if not outright gunning for our hero, seeks to coax him (often through sex or the promise of it) to the dark side.
Yes, I know I’m oversimplifying and resorting to the worst, broadest stereotypes, but bear in mind I was still a kid. I didn’t know that women heroes could dye their hair to be any shade. I didn’t know that heroes could come in both genders yet. My world wasn’t ready for that kind of thinking yet. Yes, I’m THAT old.
So, because I liked the redheads (a fact that neither Josie nor that thief from the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon did anything to dissuade), I had no choice but to fall in love with the bad girls. The vixens. The femme fatales. The ones who only led to trouble. Not Eve. Hell, probably not even Lilith now that I think about it. I fell in love with the serpent.
The Slinkiest Monkey Wrench of All
So, to start this whole shindig all over again like a true confession, I suppose it should begin:
Hello. My name is Sean, and I’m a vixen-aholic. I’ve been sober for three days, but that’s only because I haven’t written anything in that long.
If you read my writing at all, you know I’m obsessed with writing femme fatales into my stories. In defense, giving the hero an equal and opposite makes for strong storytelling, but surely I could just give him a straight up villain for that role, right? Yes and no.
To me, you just about can’t write pulp stories without a vixen getting in the way of the hero’s quest. Whether she’s a client and he’s a P.I., or he’s a soldier and she’s a spy, or he’s a copper and she’s a gun moll, she just has to be there to divert his eyes and tempt him to taste the dark side’s cookies, at least a nibble.
While a villain needs to be a fully realized character just as much as the hero, the femme fatales (at least to me) are something different, something special, the proverbial monkey wrench (though drenched in curves and slinky sex appeal) thrown into the machine. For my money, I prefer th3e monkey wrench a femme fatale brings into the world of the crime story. She’s the literary change in time signature to shift the jazz of the tale from Benny Goodman to Miles Davis. Either one is good, and really good, but one has that something special that makes it a lot spicier to the ears.
It’s her role to play Jiminy Cricket in a way, but more for the gray hats and the black, but not completely white hats, maybe not completely evil, but just dark enough to fight dirty and to throw society’s conventions to the wind. She’s the little voice trying to seduce the hero to true independence from being purely good. She’s the test, at least in my mind, that reminds the hero that he (or she) has feet of clay and to never take that for granted.
A Few of My Favorite Femmes
Femme fatales abound in classic films, of course, and many of my favorite actresses played them at one point or another in their careers, such as Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, Lizabeth Scott, Lauren Bacall, Gene Tierney, and Ann Savage, and some, such as Barbara Stanwyck all but made playing them their bread and butter roles.
But many of my favorites exist outside of classic noir films. In comics, particularly, Catwoman has to be the ultimate femme fatale, the temptation for Batman to dirty his cowl and cape by letting her go and subsequently trying to tame her time and time again. In many ways, Poison Ivy serves that role too, but with a darker shade than Selina. Many of today’s comic book heroes got their start that way, from Scarlet Witch to Black Widow. In Christa Faust’s Money Shot, Angel Dare is in effect both the hero and the femme fatale as the same time. Even classic fantasy has its share, including the women who oppose and test and support Thomas Covenant in his adventures written by Stephen Donaldson.
On TV, there’s of course, Mrs. Peel. While she was most certainly on the side of right and good, even Emma Peel was clearly built (pun intended) on the model of the classic femme fatale, as if dressing up the heroine from the bad girl’s closet would engender the show to a greater demographic—which it did. Even Doctor Who got into the act with the addition of River Song, who is clearly the Doctor’s equal, and clearly less concerned about society’s moral impositions than the stodgy Doc. If anything, she’s a modern creation, the femme fatale with the heart of gold (somewhere underneath all the shooting and jail-breaking).
Modern films and TV are full of them too, including the Indiana Jones series, Decker’s obsession with Rachael in Blade Runner, Angel’s Drusilla, Darla, and later Illyria, and one of my favorites, Captain Mal’s “wife” of multiple names played by gorgeous Christina Hendrix.
My Own Twist
I’ll admit it. I hated the movie Pretty Woman. I just can’t buy into the hooker with a heart of gold theme. Maybe it’s my fascination with noir. Everything should be dirty, tainted with original (and some new and unique) sin.
All well and good, of course, but the one who interests me is the bad girl with the heart of… well, let’s go with bronze instead of gold. She may ultimately fight on the side of right and good, but doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty or playing a game of “seduce the hero” while fighting the good fight.
Let’s face it, women are far more interesting than men. It’s just a truth that we need to accept. Both genders of characters have their stereotypes to break out of, but both also have so much fun to be had while playing fast and loose with those stereotypes. Female characters to me have so many more depths to explore. Perhaps that’s just because I’m a man, and to a female writer, writing male characters would be the same. I don’t know. But for me, that’s how it goes.
Part of why I believe that, I think, stems from that fact then when I was a beginning writer, I couldn’t write the female voice at all, well, not without sucking big time anyway. I took a creative writing glass in college and was told in no uncertain terms that I sucked at it. I failed time after time to write a believable female character. The only clues I could provide that a character was female were the physical ones, such as references to wearing a bra or pantyhose.
Always have ever since.
Whoa. So talented! I know. (Yes, that’s sarcasm.)
So I dusted off my wounded pride and hit the delete button on my pre-Word Perfect copy of some long-forgotten shareware word processor. Okay, I hit the delete button a lot.
I drove myself hard to learn to write the female voice. If I’m going to be a real writer, I figured, I needed to learn to write anyone’s voice, red or yellow, black or white, man or woman, boy or girl or two-headed Beeezlesnord from Planet X (they are precious in his sight). Anyone.
Strong Female Characters for the Win
For me, a strong female character is a woman who has embraced most, if not all, of the things that make her, well, herself. She is multi-layered, filled with emotional searching, psychological depths, and sexual power. She owns both her failures and her successes.
I think Janey Place probably best describes them and their role in story for me.
“Critics tend to classify the women of film noir into two categories identified by Janey Place: the “rejuvenating redeemer” or “good” woman and the “spider woman” or femme fatale.” (www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/noir/np05ff.html)
I really like that term “spider woman” and not because it makes me think of a certain friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. To me it really defines the type of woman I’m addressing here—she spins a web and the hero will get caught in it if he gets too close. And chances are, she will eat him up, whether literally or symbolically, before the tale has come to an end.
Or as Marlene Dietrich sang in The Blue Angel in the song “Fallling in Love Again”:
“Men cluster to me like moths around a flame
And if their wings burn, I know I’m not to blame”
She does her thing simply because it’s her thing to do. No one can tell her differently and no man (or no woman) can tame her.
As for my time at the word processor, eyes deep in a book, I just can’t get enough of that kind of character. So, call me obsessed. Call me shallow. Call me what you will. Just as she does it because it’s her thing to do, I’ll keep writing it because it’s my thing to do.
And there you have it, and all because of Daphne.
For those who still want to punish yourselves more even after reading this, you can find me all over the place online. For you best chances, just put a /seanhtaylor behind just about any social media url, and you’ll find me, but for those who prefer a list, start here:
My official website: www.taylorverse.com
My writers blog (Bad Girls, Good Guys, and Two-Fisted Action): seanhtaylor.blogspot.com
Hey, I’m a musician too: seanhtaylor.wix.com/stmusic
That’s a wrap for our first edition of the resurrected Writer’s Ramble. If you know others with a femme fatale addiction, feel free to suggest Sean’s books!