In fiction, the femme fatale is a stock character—a beautiful, charismatic, and mysterious woman who turns you on and then turns on you. Her ability to enchant men and get what she wants borders on the supernatural. While not exactly a villain, they’re often women of questionable morals and ethics.
The term is French for “fatal woman,” owing to the fact that her actions almost always sets off a man’s downfall. A younger version of this character is called fille fatale, or “fatal girl.”
Examples of Femme Fatales
The femme fatale character is evident in many cultures and mythologies, but the version commonly known today was popularized in the Film Noir era.
A major reason why the femme fatale is so popular is because these characters were the first to depict strong, independent women on screen. It also helps that they’re mostly portrayed as a combination of sexy and deadly—something that works for both sexes.
Over the years, books, movies, and TV series have put out unforgettable characters who can be classified as femme fatales. Here are just a few excellent examples.
Many of the examples below go into detail about why they are femme fatales, which may include important details from the story.
1. Amy Dunne from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Where do we start with Amy? She sets her husband up for her disappearance and possible murder, decides not to go through with it, and never sees an ounce of punishment for her deeds. Not to mention that during her short adventure, she uses her sex appeal to manipulate men to do what she wants, and then kills them when they’re distracted.
2. Milady de Winter from The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Milady de Winter is a young, uncommonly beautiful woman with a bewitching voice. Underneath her pleasant exterior though, is a cunning, ruthless, and manipulative person who prefers making men do her dirty work. This includes seducing her jail guard into not only freeing her but also assassinating the Duke of Buckingham.
3. Carmilla from Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
Carmilla is a femme fatale of the supernatural sort. She moves into a castle where she befriends a lonely, young woman. Not only does she prey on her during the night, but a mysterious sickness begins killing young women in the surrounding countryside.
4. Circe from The Odyssey by Homer
On the way back from the Trojan War, Odysseus and his crew happen upon Circe’s island. Circe invites them for a feast where she turns the crew into swine. Thanks to a timely intervention by Hermes, Odysseus is able to resist Circe’s charms and persuade her to turn his crew back into men.
5. Delilah from The Bible
In the bible, Delilah is a woman loved by Samson, the final judge of Israel who possesses great strength. The Philistines manage to bribe her to discover Samson’s source of strength.
After three failed attempts, she successfully learns it’s his hair and orders a servant to cut them off while he’s sleeping. She then turns him over to his enemies, where they gouge out his eyes and force him to work in a mill.
6. Lady Macbeth from Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Spurred to action by his wife, the brave general Macbeth murders the king and takes the throne for himself. It’s frightening to read how much control Lady Macbeth has over her husband. She always has the final say and always manages to convince him that every atrocity they commit is necessary.
7. Brigid O’Shaughnessy from The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Brigid hires protagonist Sam Spade and goes so far as seduce him into bed. While she acts innocently throughout the novel, she’s actually directly involved in various thefts, betrayals, and murders, all in the search for the eponymous artifact.
8. Annie Wilkes from Misery by Stephen King
Annie Wilkes happens on the best gift of her life when she finds her favorite author injured in an accident. She takes him home, patches him up, and imprisons him when she learns he’s killed off her favorite character. She then proceeds to torture him until he revives the character.
While she’s not the typical seductress that femme fatales are popularly seen as, she poses as an angel who turns out to be the devil, leading the protagonist to peril.
9. Nikita from La Femme Nikita
Nikita is a nihilist who murders a police officer in a robbery gone awry. She is arrested and sentenced to life in prison, where she disappears from the world. She’s turned into a talented and beautiful killer, able to turn heads and blow them in one breath.
10. Selina Kyle from Batman
Selina Kyle is a cat burglar who goes by the name of Catwoman. Much of the comics and movies portray her as villainous, though she has also been depicted as an anti-heroine with a complicated relationship with Batman.
In true femme fatale style, no one’s really sure what side she’s on, and she’s not afraid to play coy if it means advancing her goals.
11. Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct
Catherine Tramell is one of the most iconic femme fatales in film history. She’s not just a femme fatale, but a psycho killer on the level of Hannibal Lecter. In the film, while people treat her with suspicion, she’s able to manipulate events by seducing the lead detective who’s investigating her and pinning the murder on someone else.
12. Various from Naked Weapon
Naked Weapon‘s premise is about an organization that kidnaps girls and trains them as assassins who seduce and kill their male targets. Their favorite methods are to seduce the target to bed, give them a back massage, and then rip out their spinal cords.
13. Jennifer Check from Jennifer’s Body
While it received negative reviews during its initial release, this movie has since become a cult film appreciated for its feminist themes. In it, the titular character is sacrificed to Satan by a local band in exchange for fame and fortune. She then goes on a killing spree, seducing men and disemboweling them after.
14. Hayley Stark from Hard Candy
Fourteen-year-old Hayley Stark engages with a sexual predator in a flirtatious online chat. They meet up, and the predator takes her home, where she drugs and restrains him in a chair. She then proceeds to torture him until he confesses to the rape and murder of another girl.
15. Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones
Cersei Lannister is cruel, cunning, and is always in the process of building a scheme. Not only does she manipulate events to make sure she’s always on top, but she also makes sure to punish anyone who goes against her.
Criticism of the Femme Fatale
This character type has its fair share of problems, the largest being that it reduces women to just their sexuality. In early fiction, they were shallow characters that represented everything that men were supposed to fear in women.
Those who are romantically forward or sexually open are dangerous, and sensible men should pursue women who are “pure.” Of course, people will always go for the things prohibited to them, and so began the fascination for these characters.
But while the concept started out as sexist, modern writers and filmmakers have worked hard to subvert this kind of character. Now you’ll find characters from books, TV series, and movies who exhibit traits of the femme fatale, but are far more complex.
The Allure of the Femme Fatale
In modern fiction, femme fatales are characters who no longer exist in the narrative as subordinates to men. They are their own characters, with motivations and actions of their own.
They’re women who don’t apologize for who they are. They’re comfortable with their sexuality and are not afraid of getting things done themselves.