Helen Kokei Bassey
This paper explores representations and interpretations of femme fatale in William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest. It leverages on the debate about why some women are regarded as dangerous and destructive on account of their alluring beauty, for which they are labelled femme fatales. It argues that Femme fatale is a subversive title with which beautiful and alluring women are labelled, thus regarding them as the reason for the destruction of men attracted to them without giving due consideration to the relationship between pleasure and gratification derived from femme fatale, and that such could be choices which are more potent in the consequential tragedy of men than the beauty and love of women. The paper adopts a Visionary Radical Feminism perspective in its examination of the above texts in order to establish and show how ideological undertones of patriarchy underpin the oppression, stereotyping, misrepresentations and misinterpretations of some women because of their beauty.
Keywords: Femme Fatale, Visionary Radical Feminism, Patriarchy.
The origin of the term Femme fatale can be traced back to Helen of Troy, whose beautiful face is said to have ignited the historic Trojan War; ten years of a bloody and ruthless war which left in its trail great pain, sorrow and destruction. It is thus a subversive title with which a beautiful and irresistible woman could be labelled. Helen of Troy, often regarded by many historians and literary critics as the infamous femme fatale, is the quintessence of the inherent strength of a woman’s beauty. It is noteworthy that the concept of femme fatale has been a controversial one. Nevertheless, what is concerning is that the concept has had various aspersions cast on it with little or no consideration given to the complexity of human motives which could lead to tragedy, especially as it relates to the choice of some men for pleasure and the gratification of their burning desires for beauty and love. It is this seeming inability to deconstruct human motives that has led various cultures to construct different images of women at different points in their history; images as wide-ranging as goddess, rebel, warrior, sex object, femme fatale (mine), mother, wife, and “Other”.
Several traditions have also created images of women to represent specific models of male-female relations (Sheena Gillespie, Terezinha Fonseca, & Carol Sanger 280). It will therefore not be out of place to say that the naturalisation and universality of femme fatale in several societal and cultural epochs cannot be seen in isolation from hidden patriarchal configurations. It can be argued that the debased and stereotypical image of beautiful women as cunning, deadly and evil, and their negative representations and interpretations as femme fatales in the texts under study has sexist undertones and strong ideological leanings; a clear indication that the texts reinforce and strengthen the dominant patriarchal ideology and its values. Thus, beautiful women are depicted as bitches, irrational creatures, devils, temptresses, embodiments of cruelty and evil, painted sepulchers, monsters and manipulators responsible for the tragedy that many men experience.
Charles Nnolim notes that from Edenic myth to modern times, beautiful women have been depicted as angels with feet of clay and as purveyors of unhappiness both for themselves and for their male counterparts (169). In Nnolim’s words, the image of women in both Western and African literature is a gloomy one, compounded by the unhelpful hand of tradition and patriarchy (165) as reflected in the texts under study. Nawal El Sadaawi corroborates this view in her article “The Heroine in Arab Literature” where she provides a more illuminating debased image as well as representations and interpretations of the woman in phallocentric texts as a capricious vamp, a playful and beautiful slave, a she-devil imbued with cunning and capable of a thousand artifices, an explosive danger versed in all the arts of deceit and conspiracy, a seductive mistress captivating in her passion. She is as positive and dynamic as Satan and his evil spirits, wherever matters of sex and love are concerned. Woman in all the aspects of the role she is made to play, whether it is that of a queen or a slave bought from the market, remains a slave (521).
Sadaawi’s argument coheres with Zaki Mobarak’s that “women have a greater power to destroy men than Satan and all his devils together” (522). Mary Crawford and Rhoda Unger observe that for Walter Lipman, stereotypes are culturally determined pictures that intrude between an individual’s cognitive faculties and his or her perceptions of the world. Gender stereotypes are therefore consensual beliefs about the different characteristics of men and women (49). It is worthy of note that the representations and interpretations of beautiful women as femme fatales is the same both in Africa and the West (universal), just like men’s desperate inner cravings for beauty and love, and their quest for pleasure and gratification is the same everywhere. According to John Ebimobowei Yeseibo quoting Cheryle Johnson’s “Class and Gender” “Both indigenous patriarchy and imposed colonial patriarchal customs and laws figure in women’s oppression” (78) and this partly accounts for their negative representations and interpretations as femme fatales portrayed in literary texts as evidenced in the two texts selected for this study.
At the primary/surface level of Antony and Cleopatra, it can be read as a tragic love play whose actions basically revolve around two desperately impassioned lovers from two distinct cultures. However, at the secondary/deep level analysis of the play, patriarchal ideology is clearly depicted. A critical look at the play reveals that the privileged status and place of men to that of women as well as the debased image of beautiful women as wicked seductresses, sirens, femme fatales, witches, and whores, is a reinforcement of patriarchy. Cleopatra is called all sorts of names and severely blamed for Antony’s downfall. Antony’s defeat in battle by Octavius Caesar is also attributed to his being enchanted and bewitched by Cleopatra’s alluring beauty. Thus, Cleopatra is referred to as the dangerous woman, the quintessential temptress, the siren, and the femme fatale. She is presented as dangerous to Antony because to them, she distracts him from his duties, weakens his resolve and emasculates him.
Octavius Caesar considers Cleopatra as highly dangerous because he could neither understand nor defeat her. In fact, though he seems to be inured to her charms, he realises his inadequacy in the face of her assumed tactical shrewdness as well as her seeming threatened ridicule of him. Regarded by some as an irrational creature, an embodiment of passion and evil, an enchantress and a promiscuous woman, Cleopatra is believed by Octavius Caesar to have turned Antony into a weakly and an irresponsible person by her association with him (I. iv. 4–11). Cleopatra is also seen as being responsible for the ruin of Antony’s reputation as a war general and one of the triumvirates of the Roman Empire. Philo says that Antony’s dotage overflows the measure…He reneges all temper and is become the bellows and a fan to cool a gypsy’s lust (I. i. 1–10). Philo goes further to say bitterly that the triple pillar of the world is transformed into a strumpet’s fool (I. i. 11–14).
Barbara Everett notes that Antony himself, rather than Cleopatra, is the cause of his own downfall when he turns an exhilarated affirmation of his love into a rejection of the whole Empire (xxv-xxvi). Antony rejects the power politics represented by Rome and the empire as seen in his declaration below:
Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do’t, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless (I. i. 33-40).
Antony, whose good reputation as a great warrior of Rome earned him medals for his breasts, is reported to be in Egyptian fetters surrounded by eunuchs. Cleopatra is accused of being responsible for the change in the leadership of the Roman Empire as well as the political changes in Egypt. She is regarded as an eve figure, that is, a seductress and a woman who causes pain and suffering, and is also the very personification of the fall of man. She is also likened to Helen of Troy, whose face launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium. In fact, Cleopatra is presented as the woman whose face had great rulers/warrior heroes of empires on their knees, with no consideration given to the pleasure and gratification derived at her hands that lead to their destruction.
In a similar way, Wole Soyinka in Kongi’s Harvest, portrays Segi is as a “mysterious woman”, a “femme fatale”, “an inspiration and an enigma”. The lyrics of a song in her honour, establishes the supposed mystery of Segi:
“The being of Segi
Swirls the night
In potions round my head” (15).
Oba Danlola refers to Segi as “a right cannibal of the female species” (51). He also says, “Daodu, that woman of yours, she scares the pepper right up the nostrils of your old man here. She has left victims on her path like sugar cane pulp squeezed dry” (52). He goes further to tell Daodu, “Oh you have chosen to be swallowed whole down the oyster throat of the witch of night clubs. Segi! Son, she’ll shave your skull and lubricate it in oil” (52). Again, Oba Danlola labels Segi as “the strange woman beyond her power to turn grown men to infants” (63). Although Segi is a product of the tyranny, oppression, domination and exploitation of a patriarchal society, yet she is brutally stereotyped and described in so many derogatory terms.
She is depicted as an enchantress; one who is mysterious. Daodu’s description of her in the song below makes this succinct:
A coiled snake
Is beautiful asleep
A velvet bolster
Laid on flowers
If the snake would
Welcome me, I do not wish
A softer pillow than
This lady’s breasts
But do not fool with one
Whose bosom ripples
As a python coiled
In wait for rabbits ( KH 32).
In this song, Daodu portrays Segi as not just a sex goddess with irresistible beauty but also as dangerous as a poisonous snake. Perhaps to buttress Daodu’s assertion, Kongi’s organising secretary enters a club but becomes uncomfortable because of Segi’s presence and seemed compelled to say:
I know I
can remember. Isn’t she the same one
of whom they warn-
Do not stay by the sea
Mammy Watta frolics by the sea
Do not play
With the daughter of the sea (33).
This study finds that the inability of other characters in the play to understand Segi, causes them to see her as a strange woman who possesses supernatural qualities. She is also regarded as a sex-symbol endowed with a beauty that destroys men who are attracted to her. Because of these perceptions about Segi, she is not wanted in public arenas of the society, even though the reality is that she is the one being oppressed and exploited by the men. Kongi’s organising secretary asks her “What do you want here? You should not even dream of coming here” (74). In response, Segi makes him to understand that she belongs to the Women’s Corps and thus has every right to be present at the occasion of the New Yam Festival (74–75). This in itself is a repudiation of the patriarchal constructs which permit her to function just within the strict confines of traditional institutions. Consequently, her attempt to go into public arena is greeted with severe opposition (74). However, in spite of Segi’s disadvantaged position, she breaks patriarchal barriers to challenge the repressive and autocratic rule of Kongi who dominates, oppresses and exploits the people of Isma.
The distorted representations and interpretations of beautiful women as femme fatales in the two texts vividly reflect the social reality of how women are treated in male dominated societies. The consistent and systematic manner in these distorted images of women as reinforced in these literary texts is a product of the dominant ideology of patriarchy that assigns negative roles to women because of their sexuality. Consequently, in the texts under study, Shakespeare and Soyinka maintain the status quo by upholding and accommodating patriarchal ideologies in their works. It can thus be safely argued that the playwrights’ gender and their submission to patriarchal ideology might have played a role in their depiction of beautiful and irresistible women as femme fatales.
This is evidenced in the manner in which they create patriarchal societies in their texts where the male characters are depicted as superior, dominating, powerful, rational, and also in charge of all activities in contrast to the female characters, who are portrayed as seductresses, sirens, whores, evil, destructive, docile, weak, passive, unintelligent, deceivers, irrational to mention but a few. Thus, although at the surface level, the texts seem to be structured to deal with great and complex issues of human nature and existence like love, hatred, honour, beauty, jealousy, deceit, betrayal, intrigues, war, human frailties, and others, at a deeper level, they accommodate and propagate patriarchal ideology, as a result of which they disseminate and project both the historical and conventional perceptions and conceptions of beautiful women as femme fatales.
Clearly, in both Shakespeare’s and Soyinka’s plays under study, women act as loyal supporters of tradition/cultural mores. Thus, when the authors represent women as active, strong, bold, courageous and wise in contradiction of patriarchal assumptions of passivity, weakness, fear, docility, inferiority and foolishness ascribed to women, it actually functions to use these women to perpetuate cultural mores that marginalise, oppress, stereotype, misrepresent, misinterpret and relegate them to the background. For instance, in Kongi’s Harvest, though Segi is portrayed as active, as a catalyst for the revolutionary socio-political change, and one who plays an active and supportive role in the overthrow of Kongi’s dictatorial regime by mobilising some ‘rehabilitated’ prostitutes and others disgruntled with Kongi’s leadership, her dominant negative image remains that of the voluptuary (Yeseibo 79). In Antony and Cleopatra, despite the fact that the plot revolves around Antony, Cleopatra is portrayed as the cause of his downfall/destruction because of her beauty. Enobarbus describes Cleopatra as one whose charms lie in “her infinite variety”. He asserts:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes
hungry where most she satisfies; for
vilest things become themselves in her,
that the holy priests bless her when she
is riggish (II. ii. 241–46).
The statement above reveals the wide range of attributes ascribed to Cleopatra –alluring beauty, love, power, manipulation, seduction, intelligence, eloquence, jealousy, lust, vanity, betrayal and so on. Cleopatra is represented as the Egyptian whore who seduces and captivates the strong and mighty Antony, and lures him to his destruction. Little wonder, Pompey advises Cleopatra to prevent Antony from participating in the war by using her charms to distract him. Hear what he says:
He dreams: I know they are in
Rome together, Looking for Antony.
But all the charms of love, salt Cleopatra,
soften thy waned lip! Let witchcraft join
with beauty, lust with both! Tie up the
libertine in a field of feasts, keep his
brain fuming (II. i. 21–26).
Cleopatra is also depicted as an evil manipulator and a cunning adulteress. To some, she is a nag, a strumpet, and a serpent. Her power is presented as one of enchantment. She is also called a witch who is both magical and poisonous. The plight of beautiful women is such that, apart from being labelled femme fatales with its attendant oppression, stereotyping, stigmatisation and marginalisation, the men who pursue their beauty and cling to them for pleasure and gratification are not condemned. The question now is who should be blamed for a woman’s beauty and attraction? Is it the woman, God who created her beautiful, or the men who choose to pursue her beauty?
Studies have shown that the representations and interpretations of beautiful women in literary texts, with particular reference to the ones under study, are largely influenced by tradition and patriarchy which hold women in low esteem and relegate them to the background. Moreover, femme fatale is a patriarchal construction of both Western and African societies. The constructions, representations and interpretations of beautiful women as femme fatales vividly reflect the patriarchal image of women in general. Again, the representations and interpretations of some women as femme fatales suggest that Shakespeare and Soyinka support and uphold patriarchy and its stereotypes, oppression, misrepresentations and misinterpretations of women. Essentially, the influence of tradition and culture on these playwrights’ visions manifest in the negative attributes assigned to their female characters and their stereotypical images of women because of their sexuality. Also, the negative representations and interpretations of women in the two plays reveal the oppressively chauvinistic world of the texts which causes the female characters under study to have warped and distorted personalities since their sexuality is regarded as a dangerous temptation that leads to perversion. As Angela Carter rightly observes, society paints women only as passive instruments of vice, thereby failing to see beyond the stereotype (249). In Joy Ramirez’s words, the woman’s fatality is not just thematic but it has to do with the ineluctability of her representations and even the inevitably fixed set of meanings connected to her image. Indeed, negative images of women are connected to their sexuality (189–20).
A deep level analysis of the plays further reveals that the representations and interpretations of beautiful women as femme fatales is also a vivid reflection of how society treats women since literary works mirror the society. Even the catalogues of the distorted images of women consistently and systematically portrayed in literary works is a reinforcement of the dominant ideology of patriarchy that assigns negative roles to women because of their sexuality. It will therefore not be out of place to say that the representations and interpretations of beautiful women as femme fatales is society’s vilification of beautiful women to accommodate patriarchal needs. Yeseibo, while quoting Banham et al states that in a raft of mainly male-authored plays, women are seen as either angelically virtuous or more often, as dangerous, duplicitous and rapaciously greedy (77).
Thus, the debased image of some women as femme fatales and their negative portrayal in literary works is a vivid and accurate reflection of the dominant patriarchal nature of both Western and African societies. According to Yeseibo, Ahmed Yerima further explains the supercilious nature of patriarchy and its subjugation of the woman when he says that:
The masculine traditional canon has always dominated both
the Western (mine) and African consciousness concerning
beliefs and existence. The culture, the tradition, the languages,
the names, the types of vocation, even the biological and
physiological structure of human as determined by this
environment and nature, have always re-emphasised the
dominance of the male. Man grew with such cultural beliefs,
believing in it, guided through life by the society, and
practicing such beliefs even in later stories he created to his
death. The female counterpart was made to accept it as the
only way… woman was indeed a stereotype, a symbol of
life, cocooned by cultural beliefs (80).
Yerima’s assertion thus lends credence to the fact that femme fatale is an ingrained negative image of a beautiful woman that is well established in both Western and African societies. And, of course, it also leads to the objectification of women as reflected in the texts under study.
In Kongi’s Harvest, Segi is labelled a femme fatale, “a right cannibal of the female species” who sucks the vigour and vitality from men like “sugar cane pulp squeezed dry”. In Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus calls Cleopatra an “Egyptian dish” (II. Vi. 126), and Maecenas refers to her as “a trull” (III. vi. 95). Enobarbus’ negative description of women and their presence on the war front as the worst liability is seen in his use of crude animal imagery. To him, women are like mares that will attract soldiers towards them. For Clown, a woman is “a dish for the gods” (V. ii. 274). Various unpleasant perceptions and conceptions of Cleopatra are such that Pompey refers to her as “witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both” (II. i. 22). Antony says “I must from this enchanting queen break off” (I. ii. 129). He refers to her as a cunning woman beyond human thought (I. ii.146).
He also calls her a “boggler”, a “morsel”, a “fragment”, who is sure to produce horns on the head of her husband because of her habit of changing partners (III. Xiii. 110–118). Surprisingly, this comes from the mouth of a man, who, though already married to Fulvia, abandons her to seek for pleasure and satisfaction at the hands of Cleopatra. It is also discovered that Antony gets up casually from Cleopatra’s bed to the chamber of his new wife, Octavia. But later in the play, the same Antony blames Cleopatra for his defeat in battle and calls her a “foul Egyptian, triple-turned whore, and a false soul of Egypt…who, like a right gypsy hath at fast and loose beguiled him to the very heart of loss” (IV. Xii. 10–29). In fact, there is no mention of Antony’s morals in the text except the incident after Octavia returns to Octavius Caesar, her brother, when Maecenas calls Antony adulterous, yet Cleopatra is severely condemned and criticised for her frailty in the strongest terms.
Essentially, the different debased and stereotypical images of women and their negative representations and interpretations as femme fatales in the texts as evidenced in the experiences of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra and Segi in Kongi’s Harvest attest to the fact that the major female characters under study, on account of their beauty, suffered oppression, subjugation, stereotyping misrepresentation and misinterpretation from the underlying bias of a patriarchal society and its values. Theresa Njoku as quoted by Yeseibo seems to agree with the above assertion when she states that these experiences by beautiful women or femme fatales are “aimed at affirming sexist values, boosting male ego and psychology and strengthening sexist political ideology”. The result is a further subordination of the woman” (79). Luce Irigaray in her book Speculums de L’autre Femme also cited by Yeseibo notes and explains the tendency for male authors to assign mostly negative attributes to female characters as products of patriarchal discourse situating the woman outside representation where she is absent, negative or at best a lesser human (79).
It is worthy of note that, the several ways in which beautiful and alluring women are represented and interpreted as femme fatales in different cultural contexts and historical eras, even to contemporary society, seem to be a vivid display of the several ways in which the inner cravings of men and their quest for pleasure and gratification is the same everywhere in the world, and has continued to exist even to this day, and most likely will continue in the future. Women are so oppressed that even their sexuality and feminine charms are regarded as a great evil which must be resisted by men. Andrea Dworkin notes that the nature of women’s oppression is unique: women are oppressed as women, regardless of class or race; they are to be found everywhere, but own or control no appreciable territory; women live with those who oppress and exploit them, sleep with them, have their children-they are tangled, hopelessly it seems, in the gut of the machinery and way of life which is ruinous to them. And perhaps most importantly, most women have little sense of dignity or self-respect or strength, since those qualities are directly related to a sense of manhood. Thus, when women eventually find the courage to defend themselves, to take a stand against brutality and abuse, they are seen to be violating every notion of womanhood they have ever been taught (23).
In the two texts studied for this paper, the subjugation, marginalisation, misrepresentations and misinterpretations of women as femme fatales is clearly seen in the portrayal of beautiful women in debased and negative images. Indeed, evidence from anthropology, religious and literary myth all attest to the politically expedient nature of patriarchal characterisation of women. Patriarchy, rather than the female herself developed the symbols by which a woman is described. Since both the primitive and the civilised worlds could be regarded as male worlds, the ideas which shaped culture with regard to the female were also male in design. Consequently, the image of women created by men is fashioned to suit their needs; a need which is a product of the fear of the “otherness” nature of a woman. Yet this notion itself presupposes that patriarchy has already been established and the male has already set himself as the human norm, the subject and referent to which the female is “other” or alien.
The mythic idea that beautiful women are generally evil, seductive, destructive, and the reason men fall is ingrained in all cultures. It is a conception of femme fatale that refuses to understand and acknowledge that women have natural endowments which make them targets/objects of admiration and adoration for men. This paper, having examined the various representations and interpretations of femme fatale in the two plays, submits like Simone de Beauvoir that femme fatale is a myth that represents and interprets women according to patriarchy’s needs by holding women responsible for the sins of the flesh and for tempting men (Elizabeth Fallaize 90) without taking into account the relationship between pleasure and gratification derived from femme fatale, and that such could be choices more potent in the formation of femme fatale tragedy than the beauty and love of women. The paper shows that even though both Western and African playwrights have persistently, obsessively, and viscerally dramatised the alluring beauty of some women as seductive, evil, dangerous, and destructive, there is no scientific basis to believe that a beautiful woman can destroy a man. Arguably, the idea of the destructiveness of beauty tends to be more likely attributed to perceptions and conceptions of beauty rather than beauty itself or the beautiful person. This is because, on its own, beauty is not destructive and the beautiful person is not destructive just because he/she is beautiful. Instead, the perceptions, conceptions, interpretations, readings and values placed on beauty might be what make beauty destructive and not beauty itself. To this end, the myth of femme fatale is unable to meet the current/contemporary standards of factual reality, and it cannot withstand rational scrutiny in the face of present critical ambience where various interpretive tools abound.
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