No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir
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No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir

Women's Anti-Family Function in Film Noir
Women express film noir's skepticism toward the traditional family: Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Women function as an expression film noir's skepticism toward marriage and the traditional family. Murder, My Sweet (1944)

The explicit messages of film noir seem to be clear regarding women and the family: Women who transgress the boundaries of conventional family life meet with and deserve the most extreme punishment, and the men who fall victim to their sexual charms meet a similar fate. Characters who resist or threaten the nuclear family become trapped in the noir world, which is abnormal, dark, dangerous, and incompatible with traditional family values. The family home and the women who choose to live there in their proper place appear as ideals or models of correct behavior.

But beyond the more explicit lessons and images lies a much different interpretation of film noir and the function of women in these films. Women in film noir do not merely provide a variation on the pro-family theme of contemporary Hollywood films — rather, they reveal a distinctly anti-family current running just beneath the surface of noir films. This barely hidden message, according to Sylvia Harvey, never amounts to an all-out attack on the status quo family, but it exists nonetheless: "[T]he kinds of tension characteristic of the portrayal of the family in these films suggests the beginnings of an attack on the dominant social values normally expressed through the representation of the family." 25

Critics tend to classify the women of film noir into two categories identified by Janey Place: the "rejuvenating redeemer" or "good" woman and the "spider woman" or femme fatale. But noir films also feature a third type of female character, the "marrying type" — a woman who poses a threat to the hero by pressuring him to marry her and "settle down" into his traditional role as breadwinner, husband, and father. These women are qualitatively different from the women of classical Hollywood cinema. Perhaps more than any other single element of film noir, the women function as an expression of the films' underlying skepticism toward the traditional family. Indeed, the three types of female characters are so essential to the meaning of these films and so peculiar to this body of films that they can be seen as part of the iconography of film noir.

Pro-Family Messages in Film Noir
The Femme Fatale

First posted: January 1996
Last updated: April 1999

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