What Does the Femme Fatale Want?; or How I Wrote, “The Mermaid Illusion”

double indemnity barbara stanwyck

If there’s one quote that consistently rubs me wrong, it’s Freud’s, “Was will das Weib?”

It’s usually translated as, “What does woman want?” Once I learned German, it bothered me even more. A more literal translation would be, “What does the female want?”

And I hate the use of “female” as a noun in everyday speech. (Cops, doctors, forensic specialists and ethologists can use it all they want). It’s a losing battle, I know, but I will hate it for as long as I can, well past the day when “woman” is used only as an adjective and “female” as only a noun.

I hate the distancing from subjectivity, agency and humanity in Freud’s quote. I hate the idea that just asking any given woman what she wants is not enough. It’s what bothers me with muses and Galatea figures like the Bride of Frankenstein. Woman as object of study. Woman as inspiration. Woman as Via Negativa. Unknowable, even when she’s standing right there.

gilda rita

I should add that part of the reason I was thinking about this was I had recently read and written about Frankenstein, rewatched Bride of Frankenstein a couple of times, and had been reading Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ comic, Fatale. Fatale hadn’t been sitting right with me. My response kind of perplexed me because the book has been so well-received. It seemed like a weird noir comic book focusing on a femme fatale from the makers of Criminal should be exactly what I wanted. But after reading a letters column dedicated to stories about encounters with femmes fatale in the readers lives–mostly bad girlfriends or girls who rejected the male reader–I sat and thought on it a while. And I realized my problem was that even Brubaker seemed to be struggling with taking a femme fatale’s perspective.

jane greer

And so, when I saw K.A. Laity’s call for submissions to Noir Carnival, I thought I might write something about a femme fatale, but try to write from her perspective. In a way, I wondered if I would be able to at all, because as much as I love them, as much as they’ve been the ones I rooted for in classic movies, the femmes fatale are hard to get at. Even in the best-intentioned art, femmes fatale, and maybe generally women, are often just something that happens to a protagonist or antagonist. If I had been smart, I would’ve researched what Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon), Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity), Mary Astor (Out of the Past) Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Rita Hayworth (Gilda; The Lady From Shanghai) had to say about playing their iconic characters.

1842_mermaid_exhibitionBut, as usual, I wasn’t smart; I just started writing. I had been reading about gaffs, The White City, P.T. Barnum and humbugs, and so at first, I constructed a story around a Feejee Mermaid. I cut the last remnants of that story after taking the wise advice of Fox Spirit’s copyeditor, Daz Pulsford. And, because I was trying to get at a femme fatale as a character, I decided to write it relatively straight. Well, at least compared to the Godzilla detective fiction in Weird Noir (2012) and the various “chapters” in my zine, Monstress. I don’t know if I’ll ever become a straight fiction writer like the ones I admire. I think there’s too much poetry in me and the virtues of poetry are often sins in fiction. Actually, that’s pretty exciting. It means I get to sit backstage with the bad girls and fallen women and maybe show a little femme fatale myself.

(Noir Carnival is available on Amazon.com).

mermaid show japan(via Atlas Obscura)


7 thoughts on “What Does the Femme Fatale Want?; or How I Wrote, “The Mermaid Illusion”

  1. What a beautiful story. Mind-blowing really. So much that I love (dark fic, Chi-town, unique storytelling perspective – femme fatale) all wrapped up in one concise package of noiry goodness. Brilliant work, Carol. Just brilliant.

    1. wow, thank you. i really appreciate your kinds words. “The Mermaid Illusion” is my first piece of straight fiction in a long, long time and i am still kind of nervous about it. and who doesn’t love chicago?

  2. Pingback: Monstrous Industry

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