My thesis, “She Had to Be Bad: The Femme Fatale as Serial Killer in 1950s American Pulp Fiction,” considers the femme fatale in light of popular fiction and the characterization of female criminals in popular culture. It does not address the role of the femme fatale in film, as that has been covered extensively in many critical texts. Instead, it reviews select pulp novels of the hard-boiled genre from the 1950s in order to understand the femme fatale’s role in U.S. popular fiction. Dashiell Hammett’s, The Maltese Falcon (1929), Cornel Woolrich’s, The Bride Wore Black (1940), Mickey Spillane’s, I, the Jury (1947), and Raymond Chandler’s, The Long Goodbye (1953), are examined specifically because pulp fiction and American literature in general changed drastically after World War II. Ultimately, the goal of this project is to investigate the femme fatale, who has now become a standard figure in popular culture, and to note how she begins to trouble the categories of gender and sexuality according to the new science of crime and the modern discourse of psychopathology.
The femme fatale, who committed homicide, primarily for monetary gain, became the symbol of female criminality and evil. The representations of women in popular culture show criminals as antithetical to the image of female domesticity, and murderous crimes became an index for that departure. The act of committing a crime placed the perpetrator at odds with organized and lawful society. Not satisfied with simply living up to the expectations of her gender as wife and mother, the femme fatale does not disrupt contemporary expectations: she destroys. She is not different; she is deviant. This act of transgression, while against social codes, becomes sensationalized through mass media, creating a sense of pleasure through the fetishization of crime. The media obsession with killers, especially serial killers, is heightened when a woman commits homicide. The femme fatales who graced the covers of the hard-boiled fiction acted as both fantasy and nightmare to the predominately male-reading population.
Ultimately, the goal of this thesis is to redeem the femme fatale from her status as a sexual object who is simply a tool of patriarchy. The significance of the femme fatale is that she occupies the role of a serial killer while cunningly concealing her criminality through the mask of domesticity. The femme fatale manipulates, maneuvers and ultimately forces her way into America’s consciousness without giving up her image as a sexually independent woman. Many would say that because the femme fatale is a murderer, she cannot be a redeemable figure and offers a negative image for feminists. However, because the crimes of the femme fatale indicate her as a cold and calculating serial killer rather than as a hysteric subject that one would find in Freud, the murderous vixen actually creates a newly imagined space that had not been previous occupied by women because of outdated notions of science and criminology.