As part of our Contemporary Media and the Gothic series, Sunderland graduate Sophie Raine explores the femme fatale in American Horror Story. Sophie studied MA English. Her interest in the Gothic is feminism and penny dreadfuls.
Escaping the bonds of housewifery, the femme fatale has proved an enigmatic and seductive force, designed to lead men astray. The femme fatale, translated from the French as ‘deadly woman’, has been flung at our television screens or seeped in literature as a foreboding warning of the dangers of female independence. They are our Whitefells, our Camillas, they are often tools used to expose the cunning of women or the weakness of man. The femme fatale, however, is not restricted to one interpretation as individuals from different cultures, backgrounds or generations would read into this deadly woman either as an immoral manipulator and seducer, or as an independent woman fighting against the holds of patriarchy. Either way, they are a tool used to manipulate how we view gender structures and power struggles within relationships. In this article, I’m going to discuss how the character of the femme fatale crops up into the hit US show ‘American Horror Story’ focusing on series one ‘Murder House’.
I would first like to look at the maid of the Harmon household, the ghostly presence of Moira, who was murdered by Constance after her husband attempted to rape her. Moira is a classic example of the femme fatale, appearing to men as an attractive scantily clad maid and to women as an old woman. Moira claims that she is not naïve to the ways of men and claims that “they see what they want to see” thus explaining why Ben Harmon sees Moira as this irresistible figure determined to lead him astray from his wife. Ben, despite his leering, constantly rebukes her advances feeling guilty over having already been unfaithful to his wife. Moira, being the true femme fatale that she is, can only lead these men into temptation if it is what they desire and whilst they feel a need to blame the seductress, it is ultimately their own vices and their lack of willpower that causes them to yield to her. Her purpose is not to disrupt happy marriages but to teach lessons to those who sexualise her, hence why the taunting of Ben ceases when he starts to finally, as she says, “see things for what they are”. There is a sense of female solidarity between Vivien and Moira; Moira does not seduce Vivien’s husband to try to ruin their marriage. It is in fact the very contrary; she is attempting to deduce if Ben is worthy of the forgiveness of Vivien for his past indiscretions. Looking through the lens of Ben, it is easy to see Moira as a seductress who wishes to ruin his marriage and his last chance with his wife however, I am inclined to view Moira as a more sympathetic femme fatale figure sent to test the will of others and to punish them for the way in which they sexualise her and manipulate her image to suit their needs.
Looking at the characteristics of deadly women do we really need to go any further than Ben’s former student and lover, Hayden McClaine? Let’s be honest, the girl was a bit demonic before she was dead but I find myself sympathising with another calamity in the chaos that is Ben Harmon’s love life. Hayden is an interesting character and arguably does not fit perfectly into the strict characterisation of a femme fatale, for one she’s terribly needy for the affections of Ben, not typical of a character yearning for independence. She also is desperate to raise a family with Ben; a maternal instinct is generally not associated with the femme fatale. However, I find this dynamic between her and Ben to be typical of a deadly woman, she is in fact much more deadly than Moira who simply wants to lead Ben into breaking his vows (again, may I add), Hayden on a semi-regular basis wants to kill Ben. I say semi-regular, as she tends to falter between wanting to murder him and wanting to marry him.
If we see the femme fatale as being in direct juxtaposition with the angel of the house, then it is easy to trace Hayden’s transition between the two. Devastated by her death, and the loss of her child, she gives up all hope of having a family with Ben who has been shown to constantly use and manipulate her. Hayden emerges from death as the femme fatale, she wants to harm all of Ben’s family and take her revenge, however, her end goal is still to have a child with Ben. She takes on this deadly persona so she can have the lifestyle in death that he denied her in life by forcibly taking what it is that she wants. While she is arguably an unconventional femme fatale she does appear as a facet of Ben’s past to lure him away from his family. She takes a different approach as a living femme fatale than as a deceased one. Mainly her tactic to lure him away from his family in death becomes, understandably, more morbid and lethal to Ben. I suppose that’s what you get when you bury your ex under a gazebo.
Then there is the third, and possibly deadliest, femme fatale of this season-Constance. Constance fits every criteria in that she is completely independent, she raises her own children (in a round about way) and while she has a catalogue of husbands and lovers, they all prove disposable. As with the other femme fatales in this series, Constance is given a motive for her, often abhorrent, actions as we are shown she is simply doing what she must to survive, or at least that is how she sees it. She uses Larry to gain access to her home, and to kill her first child when he becomes a nuisance, she schemes to control her last boyfriend, her child Addie and everything that goes on in the Harmon household. Then, why do we love her so much? She is, for multiple reasons, an awful character but we can admire her (even if only a little) for having the gall to behave in whichever way she sees fit. She does not require anything from anyone; she is completely self-sufficient even if the means of achieving what she wants stoop into the unethical. Constance is the ultimate femme fatale as she manipulates others around her to bend to her will and whilst her entire survival is based on this puppetry of everyone else in the show, she still remains a starkly independent force against nature.
American Horror Story provides a very interesting cast of deadly women, all in some way hurt by the world of patriarchy in their grim past and all fiercely determined to get what they want, whether it be justice, independence or revenge.