Qu'est-ce qu'une vraie femme? - Part 1

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


November 12, 2011

Qu'est-ce qu'une vraie femme? - Part 1

The following is an excerpt from Žižek’s From “Passionate Attachments” to Dis-Identification, an essay that’s mainly about Judith Butler, and Lacan’s concept of the Act, but I’m interested in it for the discussion of the film noir character of the femme fatale and how that relates to my recent blogging on beauty and the girl next door. I wrote my thoughts on these ideas in part 2.

So what is a proper act? Jacques-Alain Miller proposes as the definition of “a true woman” a certain radical act - the act of taking from man, her partner, of obliterating, destroying even, that which is “in him more than himself,” that which “means everything to him” and to which he holds more than his own life, the precious agalma round which his life turns. The exemplary figure of such an act in literature is that of Medea who, upon learning that Jason, her husband, plans to abandon her for a younger woman, kills their two young children, her husband’s most precious possessions. It is in this horrible act of destroying that which matters most to her husband that she acts as une vraie femme, as Lacan put it.

Would it not be possible, along these lines, also to interpret the unique figure of the femme fatale in the new noir of the 90s, as exemplified by Linda Fiorentino in John Dahl’s The Last Seduction? In contrast to the classic noir femme fatale of the 40s, who remains an elusive spectral presence, the new femme fatale is characterized by direct, outspoken sexual aggressivity, verbal and physical, by direct self-commodification and self- manipulation. She has the “mind of a pimp in the body of a whore.” Two dialogues are here indicative - the classic exchange of double entendres about a “speed limit” which finishes the first encounter of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, and the first encounter of Linda Fiorentino with her partner in The Last Seduction. In the latter, Fiorentino directly opens up his fly, reaches into it and inspects his merchandise before accepting him as a lover: “I never buy anything sight unseen,” she says, and later rejects any “warm human contact” with him. How does this brutal “self-commodification,” this reduction of herself and her male partner to an object to be satisfied and exploited, affect the allegedly “subversive” status of the femme fatale with regard to the paternal Law of speech?

According to standard feminist cinema theory, in the classical noir, the femme fatale is punished at the level of the explicit narrative line. She is destroyed for being assertive and undermining the male patriarchal dominance and for presenting a threat to it. Although she is destroyed or domesticated, her image survives her physical destruction as the element which effectively dominates the scene. The subversive character of the noir films is exhibited in the way the texture of the film belies and subverts its explicit narrative line. In contrast to this classic noir, the neo-noir of the 80s and 90s, from Kasdan’s Body Heat to The Last Seduction, at the level of explicit narrative, openly allows the femme fatale to triumph, to reduce her partner to a sucker condemned to death - she survives rich and alone over his dead body. She does not survive as a spectral “undead” threat which libidinally dominates the scene even after her physical and social destruction. She triumphs directly, in social reality itself. How does this affect the subversive edge of the femme fatale figure? Does the fact that her triumph is real not undermine her much stronger spectral/fantasmatic triumph, so that, instead of a spectral all-powerful threat, indestructible in her very physical destruction, she turns out to be just a vulgar, cold, manipulative “bitch” deprived of any aura?

Perhaps what one should do here is change the terms of the debate by, first, pointing out that, far from being simply a threat to the male patriarchal identity, the classic femme fatale functions as the “inherent transgression” of the patriarchal symbolic universe, as the male masochist-paranoiac fantasy of the exploitative and sexually insatiable woman who simultaneously dominates us and enjoys in her suffering, provoking us violently to take her and to abuse her. The threat of the femme fatale is thus a false one. It is effectively a fantasmatic support of patriarchal domination, the figure of the enemy engendered by the patriarchal system itself. In Judith Butler’s terms, femme fatale is the fundamental disavowed “passionate attachment” of the modern male subject, a fantasmatic formation which is needed, but cannot be openly assumed, so that it can only be evoked on the condition that, at the level of the explicit narrative line - standing for the public socio-symbolic sphere - she is punished and the order of male domination is reasserted. Or, to put it in Foucauldian terms, in the same way that the discourse on sexuality creates sex as the mysterious, impenetrable entity to be conquered, the patriarchal erotic discourse creates the femme fatale as the inherent threat against which the male identity should assert itself. And the neo- noir’s achievement is to bring to light this underlying fantasy: the new femme fatale who fully accepts the male game of manipulation, and as it were beats him at his own game, is much more effective in threatening the paternal Law than the classic spectral femme fatale.

One can argue, of course, that this new femme fatale is no less hallucinatory, that her direct approach to a man is no less the realization of a (masochist) male fantasy; what one should not forget, however, is that the new femme fatale subverts the male fantasy precisely by way of directly and brutally realizing it, acting it out in “real life.” It is thus not only that she realizes the male hallucination; she is fully aware that men hallucinate about such a direct approach, and that directly giving them what they hallucinate about is the most effective way to undermine their domination. In other words, what we have in the above-described scene from The Last Seduction is the exact feminine counterpart to the scene from Lynch’s Wild at Heart in which Wilem Defoe verbally abuses Laura Dern, forcing her to utter the words “Fuck me!” And when she finally does respond, i.e. when her fantasy is aroused, he treats this offer as an authentic free offer and politely rejects it - “No, thanks, I’ve got to go, but maybe some other time…” In both scenes, the subject is humiliated when his or her fantasy is brutally externalized. In short, Linda Fiorentino acts here as a true sadist, not only on account of her reduction of her partner to the bearer of partial objects which provide pleasure - thereby depriving the sexual act of its “human and emotional warmth” and transforming it into a cold physiological exercise – but also because of the cruel manipulation of the other’s fantasy which is directly acted out and thus thwarted in its efficiency as the support of desire.

Is this gesture of intentionally and brutally dropping the spectral aura of the traditional femme fatale not another version of the act of une vraie femme? Is not the object which is to her partner “more than himself,” the treasure around which his life turns, the femme fatale herself? By brutally destroying the spectral aura of “feminine mystery,” by acting as a cold manipulating subject interested only in raw sex, reducing her partner to a partial object, the appendix to - and the bearer of - his penis, does she not also violently destroy what is “for him more than himself”? The enigma of this new femme fatale is that although, in contrast to the classic femme fatale, she is totally transparent, openly assuming the role of a calculating bitch, the perfect embodiment of what Baudrillard called the “transparency of Evil,” her enigma persists. Here we encounter the paradox already discerned by Hegel - sometimes, total self-exposure and self-transparency, i.e. the awareness that there is no hidden content, makes the subject even more enigmatic. Sometimes, being totally outspoken is the most effective and cunning way of deceiving the Other. For that reason, the neo-noir femme fatale continues to exert her irresistible seductive power on her poor partner. Her strategy is the one of deceiving him by openly telling the truth. The male partner is unable to accept this, and so, he desperately clings to the conviction that, behind the cold manipulative surface, there must be a heart of gold to be saved, a person of warm human feeling, and that her cold manipulative approach is just a kind of defensive strategy. So, in the vein of Freud’s well-known Jewish joke “Why are you telling me that you are going to Lemberg, when you are actually going to Lemberg?” the basic implicit reproach of the sucker-partner to the new femme fatale could be formulated as “Why do you act if you are just a cold manipulative bitch, when you are really just a cold manipulative bitch?”

Continue to part 2 to read my thoughts on these ideas.