Subverting the Femme Fatale: Gillian Flynn and Petra Hammesfahr challenge and complicate female criminality

John Copenhaver
Author, Book Reviewer

The femme fatale is a long-standing character type in crime fiction, a prominent fixture of the mid-century hard-boiled detective novel. Her overt sexuality is her chief weapon, greed is her underlying desire, and her fate is bleak, without redemption. Feminist critique has exposed this archetype as deeply misogynist, a result of the male crime writer’s anxiety about his diminished standing in Depression Era America or his fraught reintegration into civilian life after World War II. Crime writers, especially women writers, have been subverting this archetype since it existed. Recently Gillian Flynn and Petra Hammesfahr have seen their novels Sharp Objects (2006) and The Sinner (1999) adapted into popular and critically acclaimed limited television series. Both the novels and the series portray narratives that complicate and challenge female criminality. Women and girls commit acts of devastating violence, but when their motivations are traced to their origins, we discover that their actions are a direct result of oppressive patriarchal violence done them, the culprit being a misogynist culture, not the intrinsic evil implicit to femme fatale archetype. In my paper, I conclude that not only are Flynn and Hammesfahr challenging this archetype, but they weren’t the first to do so. Their progenitors Patricia Highsmith in The Price of Salt (1952) and Shirley Jackson in We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), in different narrative modes, from lesbian romance to small-town gothic, examine female criminality with great empathy, a sensibility that Flynn and Hammesfahr would then build on in their crime fiction.

2019 National Conference
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