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September 10, 2010
I am going to be attending the ‘Writings of Intimacy’ conference at Loughborough University tomorrow and Sunday. Here’s what I’m speaking about:
Intimate Violence and the Femme Fatale: Trauma, Abuse and Gender Politics in the Noir Detective Story
‘Just tell me the truth. I’m not the police. I don’t care what you’ve done. I’m not going to hurt you, but one way or another I’m going to know.’ (Chinatown, Polanski and Towne 1974).
Much has been written about the gender politics of the noir detective story, but the intimate relationship between the detective and the femme fatale deserves greater attention. What is particularly interesting about this relationship is that in the traditions of the genre, the detective is always questing for intimacy, while the femme fatale repels it. Mary Ann Doane confirms this dynamic when she notes that the femme fatale often works as an ‘epistemological trauma’, whose depths must be plumbed or fathomed by the hero. Early versions of the femme fatale are merely another challenge to the hero, but Jack Boozer has pointed out that as the femme fatale developed in movies like Marnie and Chinatown, she becomes associated with the intimate trauma of sexual violence and works to ‘unveil [society’s] brutish aspects through the illumination of her personal disasters’ (Boozer 1999: 24). This paper surveys the development of the femme fatale from classic hard-boiled detective novels to modern day fiction, considering how the relationship of intimacy between the detective and the heroine serves to uncover a more traumatic kind of intimacy – of rape, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. A classic text is Raymond Chandler’s 1942 novel, The High Window, in which, as a knight-protector, Marlowe must delve into the past of the mysterious and man-hating Merle in order to help her to recover from her sexual trauma. Winston Graham’s noir-ish novel, Marnie (1961), also features a male hero who must force the criminal and frigid femme fatale to face her sexual trauma, as does the film version (Allen and Graham 1964). By the end of these narratives, the femme fatale is no longer a mysterious epistemological trauma, but in gaining intimacy with the detective-hero, her secrets are broken open. As sympathetic as such portrayals might be, women are still positioned in such texts as passive victims, incapable of recuperating themselves. There are counterpoints, however, in more modern noir fiction. Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep (2009) is ostensibly a novel about sexual exploitation, but reversing the trends of the genre, Abbott poses the sophisticated noir hero, Joe Lannigan, as a fatal seducer, an epistemological trauma like the femme fatale. Rather than being saved by the knight-detective, Abbott’s heroine must save herself from the fatal intimacies of sexual abuse and exploitation.