top of page

The Femme Fatale and the Female Screenwriter: Disrupting the Stereotype

DOI: | Issue 2 | September 2019

Katherine Chediak Putnam

Griffith University, Queensland


‘I am back, you bastards’, declares Tilly (Kate Winslet). She smokes a cigarette and wears an evocative white cartwheel hat in the dead of night. This is the opening line of the film The Dressmaker (2015) written and directed by the Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse, based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham. With a mixture of spaghetti western, noir, comedy and drama genre elements, this film recreates the archetype of the femme fatale with a depth rarely seen in such characters. What also makes Tilly ground-breaking is the fact that she is the protagonist of the story, and instead of luring men, she lures the town’s demure women through the beauty of haute couture to uncover the truth about her past and get revenge on those who wronged her. The Dressmaker thus contributes to a female-centric approach to the femme fatale archetype in the film noir genre.

Using The Dressmaker as a case study, this article will draw a parallel between Tilly’s character and the development of the protagonist in my own creative-practice screenplay, Indecent, an erotic thriller driven by a femme fatale detective. Employing narrative theory developed over several screenwriting texts as well as analysing popular discourses around the femme fatale archetype and their intertextual aspects, the objective is to explore through personal reflections how the film The Dressmaker can inform the development of my screenplay’s protagonist towards creating an authentic feminist portrayal of the femme fatale archetype, whilst preserving some classic femme fatale traits in order to pursue a multifaceted and subversive representation of these characters on screen.


This article will examine and explore the development of femme fatale characters when writing a screenplay. First, I investigate the popular discourses around the femme fatale archetype and its intertextual traits across multiple artistic expressions and psychoanalytical studies. The objective is to understand how the notion of sexually dangerous women is perpetuated in popular culture through widely constructed, generic, formulaic approaches, particularly in cinema and literature. Then, I put theory into practice by exploring my screenwriting process and development of a femme fatale protagonist, drawing on the principles common to screenwriting theories expounded by authors of both genders, including John Truby (2007), Helen Jacey (2017), Linda Seger (1990), Michael Tierno (2002), Aristotle, and Craig Batty (2015). Specifically, I focus on character arc and theme; moral choices; and the deconstruction of gender stereotypes when representing women on screen, as well as personal reflections on my writing process as a screenwriter.

Using Jocelyn Moorhouse’s latest film The Dressmaker (2015) as case study, my aim is to explore how the protagonist of the film – Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage, played by Kate Winslet – can inform the development of the protagonist of my own creative-practice screenplay Indecent, an erotic-thriller following the journey of a voyeur female detective who goes too far to fulfil her subversive sexual desires. Employing narrative theory developed over several screenwriting texts as well as analysing popular discourses around the femme fatale archetype and their intertextual aspects, the objective of the article is to explore through personal reflections how the film The Dressmaker can inform the development of my screenplay’s protagonist towards creating a more authentic feminist portrayal of the femme fatale archetype, one that preserves some classic femme fatale traits in order to pursue a multifaceted and subversive representation of these characters on screen.

The Femme Fatale Across Generations

Especially well known as one of the central archetypes of noir and neo-noir cinema, the depiction of femme fatales has changed and developed over centuries in western popular culture. Historically, controversial biblical figures such as Salome, Eve, Judith and Jezebel, and Greek tragedies such as Euripide’s Medea and Seneca’s Phaedra explored a tragic and destructive portrayal of womanhood. History repeated itself with the advent of cinema. The femme fatale is transported from the pictorial and literary to the cinematic, creating its own set of generic conventions, but not losing the core of its popular and recognizable cultural discourse – the deceitful women responsible for the hero’s downfall. As Robert Stam notes, ‘Film … is a form of writing that borrows from other forms of writing’ (2005: 1). Memorable femme fatales such as Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity, 1944), Gilda Mundson Farrell (Gilda, 1946), and Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct, 1992) permeated several generations of noir and neo-noir films, and are understood through intertextual representation; that is, they only exist through and make sense in relation to their previous depictions in various forms of artistic expressions. According to Stam, ‘The intertextuality theory of Kristeva (rooted in and literally translating Bakhtin’s “dialogism”) and the “transtextuality” theory of Genette, similarly, stressed the endless permutation of textualities’ (2005: 8). Although Genette’s Palimpsestes (1982) does not offer a film analysis, Stam incorporates his ‘transtextuality’ theory into studies of filmic adaptation. The first one relevant for this article is ‘intertextuality’ – or the ‘effective co-presence of two texts’ – in the form of quotation, plagiarism, and allusion. The latest, an ‘allusion and reference in film and novel’ (2005: 27), plays a great role in the use of character archetypes.

A closer analysis of film history – particularly noir and neo-noir genres – shows the use and reuse of the femme fatale. One of the best examples is Matty Walker in Body Heat (1982), which alludes to the iconic Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity, which is based on James M. Cain’s novel of the same name. Another is the recent Amy Dunne (Gone Girl, 2014) who kills her victim Desi Collings in a similar way to Catherine Tramell’s act in the opening scene of Basic Instinct, during sex and using a sharp object hidden on the bed as the crime weapon. Thus, this context suggests the perpetuation of this archetype is only possible through the repetition of formulaic generic qualities that are easily identifiable and consequently marketable from the screenwriting and industry perspective due to familiarly. As Linda Williams notes, there is an interplay between generic conventions and the audience that functions as a ‘social currency’ (2005: 18). The film ‘knows’ what the audience wants: familiarity and innovation. American film theorist Vivian C. Sobchack claims that, ‘There is a pattern these movies follow, and the pleasure we get from them is the pleasure of re-experiencing the familiar’ (1974: 59). Yet, innovation maintains its relevance and entertaining quality. For example, at the end of Body Heat, instead of dying like Phyllis, Matty survives and runs away with the money, and like Catherine Tramell, Amy Dunne gets away with murder and instead returns home as the victim. Some of the generic qualities of the femme fatale that fascinated me as a writer simultaneously made me aware of the impact this archetype has in popular culture in perpetuating certain gender stereotypes about female sexuality. Still, from a young age these characters attracted me like no others, in a way that has inspired me in my journey as a screenwriter to create my own version of the fatal woman.

My deep passion and fascination with femme fatale characters’ surfaces amongst memories of my childhood when I watched Fatal Attraction (1987) for the first-time, rented by my mother, who claimed it as one of her favourite films. The plot follows the journey of Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), a happily married lawyer who engages in a casual fling with the accomplished Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), an editor for a publishing company. After being jilted by Dan, Alex’s unstable behaviour escalates from stalking to obsession, putting his family’s life in danger. In the end, Alex is shot dead, not by Dan but by his loyal wife, Betty (Anne Archer). If the main focus of criticism of the film is related to the male gaze – that is, the idea that female characters exist primarily as an object of the male desire (see Mulvey, 1975; Sherwin, 2008) – my interest is in the emotional impact Alex Forrest had on me after watching the film. At the time, I was a 12-year-old girl in the midst of puberty, watching all of my girlfriends making out with boys while I was still trying to come to terms with the fact that I was not as attractive nor as desirable as them. Meanwhile, at home, my relationship with my devoted Catholic and single mother was problematic. Sex was a forbidden word and became a subject of profound fascination and guilt. The transgressive and monstrous Alex Forrest – independent, sexually awakened but dangerous – was a reflection of my psyche as a girl who craved to be a woman that freely desired and was desired and yet, who should be punished for turning my back on God’s will of virtue and purity. Trapped in this still unresolved predicament, Indecent, my creative-practice screenplay, is a cathartic expression of my subjective reality in being a woman torn between desire and shame, and the birth of my own version of a femme fatale archetype.

Deconstructing the Femme Fatale

According to the film theorist Mary Ann Doane in her 1991 canonical text Femme Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, the femme fatale is ‘not the subject of feminism, but a symptom of male fears about feminism’ (1-2). Femme fatales are never what they seem to be; they are threatening and unpredictable characters who carry a secret that ‘must be aggressively revealed, unmasked, discovered’ (Doane, 1991: 1). Frida Beckman (2012: 1) notes that, ‘The unmasking of the “truth” of the narrative is also the unmasking, and the disarming, of the (sexual) power of the woman’. The feminist social critic Camille Paglia (2017: 19-20) has argued that the inhospitality of tragedy to woman is related to the inhospitality of nature to man:

Demonic archetypes of woman, filling world mythology, represent the uncontrollable nearness of nature … the primary image is the femme fatale, the woman fatal to man. The more nature is beaten back in the West, the more the femme fatale reappears, as a return of the repressed.

The repressed can be understood through the castration anxiety found in Freud’s essay Medusa’s Head. The terror of Medusa is the terror of castration that is linked to the sight of something (Freud, 1922: 273). Freud notes that the castration occurs when a boy sees the female genitals surrounded by hair, ‘essentially those of his mother’ (ibid., 273). The absence of the penis is the cause of horror, which the boy believes has been cut off. Yet Paul Gordon (2014: 119) argues that Freud’s theory is a ‘false completion that covers up the real story, which is the denial of the female/mother’s vagina as the original object of desire’. The ambivalence toward the mother figure, not only as a goddess of life and fertility and death, but also the object of desire and the forbidden (see Gordon, 2014: 117-118) can be understood by the ambivalent depiction of the femme fatale, sexually empowered but inherently dangerous. The sexual empowerment, then, is perceived as a threat to societal norms to be discouraged by any means. Consequently, the femme fatale is often punished toward the end of the film, either through her death, such as Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity, 1944), Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction, 1984); her condemnation, such as Kathryn Merteuil (Cruel Intentions, 1999), Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones, 2011-2019); her moral ‘rescue’ by man, such as Lynn Bracken (L.A. Confidential, 1997), Gilda Mundson Farrell (Gilda, 1946), and so on. The perpetuation of an ambivalent attitude to female sexuality is not necessarily malign from a storytelling viewpoint, yet its cultural impact reinforces hegemonic perceptions of women’s desire, constraining the complexity of female subjectivity.

The Symbiosis Between the Character Arc and the Theme

According to John Truby in his 2007 book The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, theme is the author’s moral vision, ‘whenever you present a character using means to reach an end, you are presenting a moral predicament, exploring the question of right action, and making moral argument about how best to live’ (108). As Braga (2017: 68) notes, ‘the theme of a story is intimately connected to the protagonist’s change in relation to the values at stake … theme is the root of a central, specific moral emotion’. Theme is perceived as the core of the screenplay, the ‘brain of the story body’ (Truby, 2007: 109), and the protagonist’s action and their emotional journey during the course of the narrative are ultimately to serve the theme of the screenplay (Batty, 2015: 116-117). According to Craig Batty (2015: 116), ‘How an audience emotionally connects with and feels for a story results in degrees of thematic resonance.’ When watching a film, the audience expects to feel, to experience the emotional journey of the protagonist (ibid., 117).

According to Andrew Dickos (2002: 162), similarly, ‘the femme fatale is motivated by a lust for exciting sex, a desire for wealth and the power it brings, and a need to control everything and everyone around her.’ Usually framed in relation to the male protagonist of the film (Lindop, 2016: 135), the femme fatale archetypes most commonly relate to themes of female desire. Yet, the desire is often portrayed as destructive and responsible for the hero’s downfall. Thus, when presenting a theme, the writer is making a moral argument which informs the journey of the character, and the recurrent negative representation of female desire ultimately impacts on how the audience feel and perceive women on and off screen.

As a screenwriter, establishing the central theme of the story I wanted to tell has always been my primary concern. When initially developing my theme and protagonist, the preoccupation toward creating a feminist version of a femme fatale was non-existent, since my creative process is mostly intuitive, driven by personal feelings and experiences. As the screenwriter Paul Schrader notes, ‘To be a writer you should first examine and confront your most pressing personal problems. We are in the dirty laundry business. The arts are about the forbidden, the unspoken and often the unspeakable’ (see McGrath and Felim, 2003: 13). Exploring the ambivalent attitude toward women’s desire from a female perspective was more a self-reflective practice than a sociocultural concern. Truby (2007) argues that the theme should be condensed in early stages of the writing process in one line. As he notes, the line is ‘your view about right and wrong actions and what those actions do to a person’s life’ (2007: 110). Even though it is impossible to summarise your character’s moral vision and nuances in few words, this process helps the writer to focus on one central moral idea that will drive your character’s actions throughout the screenplay. Using Truby’s advice, I developed a specific summary of the theme for the Indecent screenplay: When fate unmasks your subversive desires, you must choose between preserving the values you have or embracing the dark side that inhabits your soul.

After summarising my theme, I needed a protagonist that could go through an emotional journey in service of the theme of the screenplay. Drawing from my own experience as a young adult and my passion to crime thrillers, I created an early thirties female homicide detective named Robin Freeman. She is not a femme fatale at the outset of the story, but rather becomes one. Her arc as a character develops through the moral dilemma between justice and transgression. Slowly, her dark side grows, overpowering the values she once held dearly and putting at stake the thing she loves most – her job.

When the theme and the character arc of Indecent were clear, I began to reflect on cinema and literature for inspiration and references to further develop my screenplay. As already noted, intertextuality is a major device for connecting the audience to a literary work, but is also employed in cinema. Yet, the more I watched films, the more I realised how important it was to take into consideration gender stereotypes when portraying women’s desire on screen. At the end of this process, my main concern was to explore the femme fatale archetype from a different perspective than the usual trope. That was when I came across the film The Dressmaker, which became a starting point to further develop my own protagonist.

Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage: A XXI Century Femme Fatale

Described by Jocelyn Moorhouse as ‘Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven with a sewing machine’ (Naglazas, 2015), the protagonist of The Dressmaker, Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage, played by Kate Winslet, is a strong example of how a femme fatale can translate the plurality of being a woman. When Tilly was a child, she was branded as the murderer of a schoolboy and exiled from the town by the boy’s father and town councillor, Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne). After spending years in Paris where she became a haute couture designer, Tilly comes back to the town to unveil the truth about her past and get revenge on those who wronged her.

Instead of desire, revenge is the underlying theme of the story, and it drives Tilly’s character arc and journey. The couture, which have many layers of significance, communicate Tilly’s achievement and status, her exotic outsider femininity, her power, and the threat of her presence. But above all, couture is her weapon to achieve her main goal in the story, discovering the truth about her past. In exchange for information, Tilly sews beautiful dresses for the town’s women, putting together the missing pieces of the boy’s death and unmasking the truth about the real criminals in the story.

The relation between the characters and the truth can be argued as Tilly’s central moral problem. Everyone in the story is searching or hiding the truth about themselves: the local police sergeant Horatio Farrat (Hugo Weaving) is secretly a cross-dresser; Tilly’s mother Molly (Judy Davis) is mentally ill and secretly holds the truth about Tilly’s father; the schoolteacher who accused Tilly of murder lied in her statement to the police, and so on. Tilly comes to the town to reveal the hidden truths of its residents while searching for her own.

However, there are two pivotal characters who are inherently honest in the film: the first is her love interest Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth) and the second, his disabled brother Barney (Gyton Grantley). Both play a major role in the story. Teddy believes in Tilly’s innocence and loves her unconditionally. With him, she learns that she is worthy of love and she can be herself without being judged. He is the exception and arouses her hopes of settling down and building a life she never imagined she was capable of. With him, she is not a femme fatale, she is just a woman in love. Barney, the disabled man who nobody trusts, is the one person who knows the truth about her past, revealing it toward the end of the film.

Writing a Femme Fatale While Breaking Gender Stereotypes

When exploring the female perspective and the specificity of their experience, such as a woman using her sexuality as a weapon, arguably the writer should be aware of the cultural and social significance that this may have to the audience. As Linda Seger (1990: 196) notes, ‘As a writer creating dimensional characters, understanding stereotyping and breaking stereotypes is essential’. Helen Jacey (2017: 4) goes further: ‘Every dramatic and creative step you take in developing your character will be shaped by your attitudes, values, and beliefs about her gender.’ Stereotypical characters are one-dimensional, and often reactive, rather than active. They serve other characters in the story without moving the action, or their values are limited to a dualistic – good or bad; light or dark – portrayal of humanity. Consequently, the writer misses a unique opportunity to explore the complexity of the human psyche, and the social reality that revolves around each individual. ‘Breaking a stereotype means humanizing the person to show the depth and breadth of the character’ (Seger, 1990: 204).

Tilly has classical traits of the femme fatale archetype from the noir era: she is an unreliable narrator, unable to remember her own past; she uses her sexuality, expressed by couture, to lure the people in town to achieve her main goal; and she is ultimately seeking revenge against those who have wronged her. Furthermore, it is impossible to ignore her physical traits and idiosyncrasies: protuberant curves shaped by sensual dresses, strong red lipstick, cigarettes, and a mysterious countenance. Yet, she is a multifaceted depiction of this archetype.

Firstly, Tilly is the protagonist of the story, therefore it is through her perspective that we follow the narrative. According to Linda Williams (2005), in contemporary cinema, femme fatales are reactive rather than active and determined by the male point of view that usually frames the film (100). Yet, in the film The Dressmaker, Tilly is fully active and every decision and action she takes moves the story forward.

Secondly, at the outset of the film, her introductory line – ‘I am back, you bastards’ –confronts the audience with several texts and subtexts of who she is and her goal in the narrative: Tilly is probably an outcast in the town, yet we can assume that she has personal reasons to be back that do not make her happy, and the anger that she expresses when delivering the line translates a sense of honesty in the way she deals with the situation (a lack of honesty is a common trope in femme fatale characters). Tilly, throughout the film, searches for the truth about her past and we are constantly confronted by the deceptions of the people around her. The hypocrisy of the town’s people contrasts with Tilly’s character and therefore, when she commits a hideous revenge in the end, burning down the town, her action is understandable. John Truby (2007) argues that the hero does not need to be likable for the audience to empathise with them and their choices. Instead, to empathise with someone means to care about and understand them. That is why the trick to keeping the audience’s interest in a character, even when the character is not likable or is taking immoral actions, is to show the audience the hero’s motive (Truby, 2007: 77)

Furthermore, Tilly’s plurality as a character develops throughout the narrative. In one of the most memorable scenes, Tilly’s love-interest, Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), takes off his clothes so she can measure his size to prepare an haute couture suit for a wedding. In the scene, we experience Tilly’s and her mother’s gaze toward his half-naked body, and the sexual desire they feel when looking at it. The dialogue between the mother and Tilly underpin the idea of female desire. Molly is explicit and calls herself a ‘hag’ for doing so, while Tilly is self-conscious for objectifying Teddy’s body. The self-reflexive dialogue between the two women explores the ambivalence of the female gaze, and their awareness of inverting the usual objectification – the male gaze. Therefore, Tilly is very identifiably a character designed to appeal to a female audience. The producer of the film, Sue Maslin, a fierce advocate for the representation of women in cinema, stated in an interview that The Dressmaker is ‘unashamedly target towards a female audience’ (Lindorff, 2017: 4), which from a market perspective is very relevant, since women over the age of fifty are a key audience for feature films at the cinema, especially in Australia (Screen Australia, 2015: 3).

Tilly is what I call ‘The 21st Century Femme Fatale’: she is not afraid to use her femininity and sensuality to achieve her goals, and she understands that socially her body and beauty is a weapon to be used. Yet, unlike her forerunners, Tilly has full agency over her actions. She is desirable but also desires, her gaze exists, and it is explored on-screen. Tilly is not the other; she is the centre of the narrative, and the driving force of the plot.

Developing the Femme Fatale for my Creative-Practice Screenplay

Before drawing parallels and contrasts between Tilly and the protagonist of Indecent, it is important to clarify the development stage I am at, and the plot of the screenplay. After writing three drafts of the outline and two treatments, I completed the first draft of the script, which currently sits at 150 pages. The story follows the journey of Robin Freeman, an uptight homicide detective in her early 30s struggling to be taken seriously in the male-dominated police force. While investigating a sexual trafficking ring, she discovers her politician husband is having an extra-marital affair. Instead of breaking up, Robin embarks on a destructive and dangerous path of erotic, voyeuristic experiences as she begins watching her husband’s sexual encounters and choosing his partners. Consequently, a growing sense of empowerment reflects positively on her career with an unexpected promotion at work. However, what initially seemed positive for Robin and her husband slowly devolves into a psychological battle between them, involving violence, sex and a murder scandal that could put Robin behind bars and end her husband’s political career.

It is a trope in screenwriting that the protagonist gradually reveals a positive moral change – inner maturation – reflected by their actions over the course of the narrative (Braga, 2017: 68). As John Truby (2007: 114) notes, ‘In the hero’s moral development, the endpoints are your hero’s moral need at the beginning of the story and his moral self-revelation, followed by his moral decision, at the end.’ This concept, called the character arc, reflects the inner transformation of the protagonist as the story unfolds. Usually, in the beginning of a film, the character lacks specific skills or values which are necessary for them to achieve their goal. Yet, after encountering a series of obstacles and learning from them, the protagonist changes and completes their arc toward the end of the film, usually transforming into a more self-aware and fulfilled person.

According to Helen Jacey (2017: 7), when writing a female character ‘as her creator, her identity and worldview, and ultimately, what she learns and how she changes, will be pretty strong indicators of your own values.’ Yet in Aristotle’s Poetics, the philosopher suggests one of the biggest flaws a writer could commit is letting their own agenda seep into the story: ‘Orestes himself says what the poet wants, not what the plot needs’ (1996: 89). This suggests that the writer should only write what the story demands, and that should not necessarily mean the writer’s own values. Following Aristotle, author and screenwriter Micheal Tierno (2002: 1) argues that ‘good writers serve their story; bad writers serve their own agenda’.

The question of morality is especially problematic when writing a character like Robin. In contrast to Tilly, who is inherently honest throughout the film, Robin chooses the path of immorality. She is an antihero – someone displaying traits of both heroes and villains, a morally ambiguous figure acting primarily out of self-interest (see Shafe and Raney, 2012: 1029) – rather than a hero. Robin starts her journey as a homicide detective searching for justice and as a devoted wife of a politician. Yet, after the inciting incident – which is ‘the first cause of action’ (Tierno, 2002: 11) – her story takes a big turn. The discovery of her husband’s infidelity awakens her sexual perversion. Consequently, she blackmails him, as he cannot afford a marital scandal during an election campaign, to fulfil her sexual voyeuristic desires. If Robin embodies a masochistic spirit at the outset of the narrative, she shifts into the sadistic in her relationship with her husband by the story’s end. Therefore, her journey is from morality to immorality. Yet, like Tilly in The Dressmaker, her action is understandable and helps the audience to empathise with her as a character. Being betrayed by the person you love is a relatable feeling and a common experience. As Truby (2007: 77) notes, ‘If you show the audience why the character chooses to do what he does, they understand the cause of the action (empathy) without necessarily approving the action itself (sympathy).’

Tilly begins the film as a fully active character – she goes back to the town she hates to discover the truth about her past. In contrast, Robin’s journey, especially in the first act of the story, is the opposite. I chose her to be deliberately reactive as part of her arc – the crime she investigates was assigned to her; she is manipulated by her husband to play the ‘good wife’ in front of the cameras for his political agenda, and more importantly she is cheated on. This choice is informed by Aristotle’s methodology in his seminal book Poetics, in which the philosopher examines the fundamentals of dramatic story structure. According to Aristotle, there are four kinds of tragedy, ‘complex tragedy, depending entirely on reversal and recognition; tragedy of suffering … tragedy of character … simple tragedy’ (1996: 29). I am employing in my screenplay the complex tragedy.

The complex tragedy contains a reversal of fortune/discovery, which is when the hero’s fortune goes from extremely good to extremely bad or the opposite, based on discovery or recognition. Robin begins as a virtuous character but feels ostracized in her work place and extremely lonely in her relationship with her husband. Yet, when she discovers the truth about his affair, she uses it to her advantage, and this reversal of fortune changes her from a reactive to an active character through the story. She slowly embodies femme fatale traits, empowering her to achieve her goals, solving the crime she is investigating, and achieving sexual fulfilment. In contrast, in The Dressmaker the reversal of fortune occurs toward the end of the story when Tilly, after finding out the truth about her past, embraces her love relationship with Teddy, and the film seems to be leading toward a happy ending. Yet, the everything changes when he accidentally dies, and Tilly has to face another unexpected obstacle in her character’s journey.

The underlying theme of desire follows Robin’s journey and it is explored mostly through the voyeuristic female gaze. However, unlike Tilly who gazes and desires Teddy, Robin has a unique and arguably homosexual relationship with the gaze. She desires the women she watches and at the same time, she wants to be them. The desire through the look explores more the realm of fetish and fantasy than action. Robin does not have sexual intercourse with the women, she just watches and imagines how it would be if she was one of them, or if she was her husband, the one with the empowered phallus.

Therefore, Robin is empowered by the look and by the power of desiring, and this is enough to take her to places she never imagined she would. She is not subdued at the end of the story. Robin achieves her goal and finds success in her career. This was a deliberate choice. Since the theme revolves around sexual desire I wanted to portray a positive ending for the protagonist, therefore breaking the trope of punishment for femme fatales who desire and are sexually empowered.


Central to this article has been the development of a multifaceted and complex femme fatale archetype in my screenplay Indecent, without losing the traits that make this trope still relevant and popular in cinema. Femme fatales are presented for their intertextual merits, their existence only makes sense on a referential level, through various forms of text and films that are easily identifiable due to their generic, formulaic qualities, and marketable from a screenwriting and industry perspective due to familiarity. However, some of these qualities are problematic and perpetuate certain stereotypes of women’s desire. To address this issue in my screenplay, I utilised Tilly from The Dressmaker as a case study, alongside lessons from screenwriting theorists such as Linda Seger and Helen Jacey. I have argued that breaking gender stereotypes for this archetype is possible and necessary, and has become a central concern during the development of my script. Typical femme fatales are subjects of the male-hero viewpoint, in which she seduces mostly for power, money and/or sexual fulfilment. However, as presented above, there are several screenwriting techniques that can be employed in the writing process that disrupts this stereotype, such as making femme fatales the protagonist of the story as well as developing a character arc that aligns with the theme of the screenplay. Furthermore, creating active rather than reactive characters, building empathy to justify their hideous crimes, and exploring desire without punishment are simple and effective methods to construct a humanised and dimensional version of the femme fatale that will not only do justice to the representation of female antiheroes, but will also contribute to exploring the plurality of being a woman on screen.


This article was first presented at the 2018 Australian Screen Production, Education & Research Association (ASPERA) conference, Melbourne, 27-29 June.



  • Aristotle (1996) Poetics. Translated by Malcolm Heath. London: Penguin Group (c. 335 BC).

  • Batty, C (2015) A Screenwriter’s Journey Into Theme, and How Creative Writing Research Might Help Us To Define Screen Production Research. Studies in Australasian Cinema 9(2): 110-121.

  • Beckman, F (2012) From Irony to Narrative Crisis: Reconsidering the Femme Fatale in the Films of David Lynch. Cinema Journal 52(1): 25-44.

  • Braga, P (2017) Dramatic tone as the emotional core of a screenplay: The case of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). Journal of Screenwriting 8(1): 67-81.

  • Bronfen, E (2004) Femme Fatale: Negotiations of Tragic Desire. New Literary History 35(1): 103-116.

  • Creed, B (1993) The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Dickos, A (2002) Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.

  • Doane, MA (1991) Femme Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.

  • Freud, S (1922) Medusa’s Head. London: Hogarth Press.

  • Genette, G (1982) Palimpsestes. Paris: Seuil.

  • Gordon, P (2014) Medusa Recapit(ul)ated: Freud, Female Genitalia and the “Cunt-roversy” at CU. Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society 19(2): 113-126.

  • Horsley, L (2001) The Noir Thriller. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Jacey, H (2017) The Women in the Story: Writing Memorable Female Characters. Michael Wise Productions.

  • Lindop, S (2016) Female Subjectivity, Sexuality, and the Femme Fatale in Born to Kill, Quarterly Review of Film and Video 33(4): 322-331.

  • Lindorff, A (2017) The Dressmaker and the Filmmaker. Blank Gold Coast (30 March)

  • McGrath, D and Felim, M (2003) Paul Schrader. Screencraft: Screenwriting. Rotovision.

  • Naglazas, M (2015) All dressed up and nowhere to go. The West Australian (30 October)

  • Paglia, C (2017) Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism. London: Pantheon.

  • Gender Matters: Women in the Australian Screen Industry (2015) Screen Australia.

  • Seger, L (1990) Creating Unforgettable Characters. Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

  • Sobchack, V (1974) Tradition and Cinematic Allusion. Literature/Film Quarterly 2(1): 59-65.

  • Shafer, M and Raney, A (2012) Exploring How We Enjoy Antihero Narratives. Journal of Communications 62(6): 1028-1046.

  • Sherwin, M (2008) Deconstructing the Male Gaze: Masochism, Female Spectatorship, and the Femme Fatale in Fatal Attraction, Body of Evidence, and Basic Instinct. Journal of Popular Film and Television 35(4): 174-182.

  • Stam, R and Raengo, A (2005) Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

  • The Bible: The New Oxford Annotated Version (2001). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Tierno, M (2002) Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters. London: Hachette.

  • Truby, J (2007) The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. London: Faber and Faber.

  • Williams, LR (2005) The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

bottom of page