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Should I go out of my way to write certain female archetypes out of my stories? I think some archetypes for female characters are offensive. For example, there's the femme fatale archetype. The femme fatale generally reduces women to just their sexuality, and results in one-dimensional female characters that appeal to the male fantasies.

Should I write them out of my stories, or are there ways to make the femme fatale archetype more women friendly by modifying some of the characteristics of the archetype?

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The main problem with archetypical characters (regardless of gender) is, as you mentioned, their one-dimensionality.

You can avoid one-dimensional characters by giving them:

  1. A motivation which is if not ethically justifiable then at least understandable for the audience
  2. A more fleshed out personality with quirks and flaws
  3. A more nuanced and adaptive approach to how they act in different situations and what methods they use to reach their objectives
  4. An inner conflict about what they do and how they do it
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  • I would say the problem isn't a both gender, but all archetypes. After all, most of Star Wars is character archetypes, but the characters are not one dimensional in their role.
    – hszmv
    Jan 11, 2023 at 17:23
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A character archetype is just another trope used in fiction that is specific to a character role in the story. Like all tropes, the mere existence is not an inherit flaw and it's important to know why the femme fatal is a widely used archtype for a female character. The character is normally not initially motivated to assist the hero, though will typically come around to the heroes side by the climax (but not necessarily for the same reason as the hero). In truth, the femme fatal in it's most basic version is a very pro-feminist character: While they typically aren't the stories main villain, or even aligned with them, they are almost universally the character that threatens the hero more than the villains, because they are the female foil of the male hero. Both are jaded to life, motivated out of self-interests instead of noble intent, and exude confidence.

In many stories, the male protaganist is written to appeal to the audience in the same way: Guys want to be him, girls want to be with him. The Femme Fatal was introduced not only to make the female lead something more than the prize for the hero to win... but to appeal to women who want to be more than just a prize. In effect, women want to be her, men want to be with her.

One of the other reasons the femme fatal is more pro-woman is that she doesn't sacrafice female beauty but is able to use it to her advantage. Afterall, if James Bond can be a badass in a tux or a spy suit, why can't a woman be a badass both in evening wear and a cat suit. Also, while she normally will fall for the hero in the story, the hero's attraction is typically not because she is attractive. The typical hero of noir and spy thriller settings, when they encounter a woman who throws herself to his feat, will step over them. The reason for the fatal's attraction isn't that she's attractive... but that she's actually playing his own game just as well as he plays it, if not better.

Now, that's the archtype in theory. In practice... well... I mean... some of the early Bond girls had some names that made the subtext rapidly become text (Looking at you, Pussy Galore). But just as James Bond is not a realistic depiction of espionage, but based on a glorification of real life espionage, the femme fatal Bond girl is not the most realistic depection of women in espionage, it's not without a basis in real life.

Because there were some pretty badass female spies who did their jobs and looked good doing it. The fallacy of this, however, is if a spy does their job right, then nobody would know they did it at all. Most real life "famous" spies are the ones that got exposed... aka... the bad one. The others are usually confined to document releases decades after the fact. Marlene Dietrich, a well known icon of beauty and considered one of the most attractive women in Hollywood, worked with the OSS to demoralize the troops in her Native Germany by incorperating her iconic status with her knowledge of German to create recordings that were intended to be heard by German troops on the front lines. Julia Child was also famously employed by the OSS at the same time as a chemist and devised a shark repellent that is still in use to this day (the repellent was used to keep sharks from getting too close underwater mines meant to take out U-Boats... which, lets face it, if you had a nickel for every famous person who was associated with a combination of the words "exploding", "shark", "repellant" and "submarine filled with bad guys" you'd have two nickels, which is not a lot, but it's weird that it happened twice... and she's the one who actually did it.).

More consistently, on of the most consistent tools used for espionage has been the "honey trap" which entices a potential informant by having a person who they find sexually attractive start a relationship with the potential informant, and then using the compromise of sleeping with someone who is an enemy spy to blackmail them into slipping classified documents to her and her handler. Although this is not a game played just by women, as men can perform the role just as well (as espionage is an industry that benefits from being an equal opportunity employer, and not all men are into women.). The honey trap is typically run by a woman who is using her physical beauty against an informant is a thing that definitely happens in real life, and during the time where the character was rising to prominence, the relationship between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had deteriorated into a cold war where the major battles were fought in intelligence gathering. By their own admission, Russia was a notorious user of the honey trap (though they insisted East Germany was better at running same sex honey traps than they were).

But even then, there are feminine fatals in fiction that are plenty wholesome and latch on to the archtype because of their skill sets. The modern poster girl for the archtype is the Black Widow from the MCU movies, who's deception skills put her in positions where she's not suspected to be an action hero who is capable of having an upper hand (in Iron Man II, she poses as an assistent to Tony Stark and makes it clear that Tony may have a reputation as a man whore, but she want's no part in that (given she was trying to discreetly watch Tony, the surest way to get around with out Tony's notice is to specifically tell him she will not be another notch in his belt. In Avenger's she hints that her capture by the thugs in her intro scene was all part of the plan and that she's been manipulating them through out "their" interrogation and has all she wants to know and is presently humoring them. We next see her in action, she's trying to take in Bruce Banner and is being completely straight forward with him because she wants him specifically to know he's being brought in to be Bruce, not the Hulk and she has no interest in meeting the big guy.

Additionally, the only abuse she suffered was at the hands of the Red Room training she was given as part of the Black Widow program and she is not confident in her ability to sexually satisfy a man, given she's infertile, but she's pefectly capable of playing that in the short term, but it prevents her personal relationships.

Another example of a femme fatal with a positive outlook in the MCU is Peggy Carter in the Agent Carter series, who again never resorts to sex and also tells Tony's father that they are never getting together despite his womanizing reputation and how uncomfortable it makes her feel... but she does treat him as a platonic friend and he returns the relationship. Much of the show revolves around her using her position as the one female agent in the SSO office to gather to her advantage by playing to expectations. This results in her actually making some progress in her cases that elude her male co-workers, but because of the off the books nature, also gets her in some trouble for her actions that she has to take.

Turning to the noir and away from superheroes, Jessica Rabbit, actually comes out and tells the person she's manipulating that it's an act while she's doing that ("I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way" It turns out that she's 100% telling the truth. Not only is she not the guilty party, she is in fact a victim in the matter and the line has multiple layers to it beyond that.). It's implied that for Toons like Jessica, physical attraction is not as important as the ability to make someone laugh. Jessica is conventionally attractive to humans but any toon who's asked about the matter strongly imply that Rodger is settling for Jessica and not the other way around as the humans believe. Much of her Femme Fatal coding is an act on her part because she knows humans find her very attractive, even if toons do not, as they are the only men other than Rodger who show her any kind of attention. The only reason her Femme Fatal character is played up is that, from her point of view, she can't trust Eddy and for all she knows, Eddy's in on the conspiracy. It's only after each other confirm that they are on the same side does she drop the Femme Fatal act around Eddy and talk more like a normal person (she figured it out first, but was still aware of Eddy not trusting her.). Up until the end of the Toon Town sequence, the audience is only shown half of Jessica's side, which makes her come off as someone different the the wife in the rare Hollywood marriage where both partners are deeply truly in love, faithful, and committed to each other. Hell, both show knowledge of the other that would only come from years of devotion. All of her appearances are motivated for us to assume the worst of her. Her first scene, her mannerisms are part of her act, which is a major draw to toon run club that strictly caters to humans. She knows her audience and is doing her part to put butts in seats. The Patty Cake scene was manipulated to deliberatly look like she was cheating on Rodger. As she explains, had she not done it, Rodger's employer would have fired Rodger and use his clout to blacklist him from working for antother studio, and it was only because she knew Rodger took his career seriously (as serious as one can when your a comedian at least.) and never mentions maintaining the perks of being the wife of a A-List cartoon star. We next seeing her slap Eddy at the crime scene and yelling at him, but this is given a new light in the context of her motives. She's genuinely pissed off that Eddy would assume of her the worst motives and the evil that Eddy brought into her and Rodger's life because of his pictures. And when we see her in Eddy's office, in her most riskee interaction, she isn't hiding the ball, but she isn't giving it away either. Again, she's trying to feel out Eddy's role in the mystery to see if he's someone who she should work with or work against. It's only in the Toon Town sequence do we learn that she's a good person when she saves Eddy, who would have been shot in the back by Doom had she not been there. Again, nothing she does is inconsistent with her motives (Knocking Rodger out with a frying pan makes sense to her because, well, no one ever accused her of not being a toon.). Her femme fatal persona, for the audience to hide in plain site and deliberately hide some obvious hints at her real role in the noir story.

Going back to the layers of her iconic line "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way" there is a double meaning. The more obvious one is a subtle nod that as a toon, she was delibertaly drawn (as in animated) to look the way she does for a certain purpose but that isn't who she is. This works because the central premise of the film is that all cartoons are made by toon actors playing a part on a set and like in real life, their public and private persona may be different. For whatever reason Jessica looks the way she does, there is more too her than what we see. The second meaning is one of two hints to her true role in the story... drawn here is a play on how people can "Draw conclusions". That is, Jessica is telling Eddy that she's not involved or a part of the grand conspiracy... but she understands why Eddy might have her on his suspect list. There is a character achtype that covers it and by now, it should be as obvious as her second clue, her iconic dress: Jessica isn't the femme fatal, but the Red Herring... a character who's purpose is to look suspicious in a mystery story, but be totally innocent of the crime. The love between Jessica and Rodger is real and she will do anything to protect her husband. But she also knows how people sees her, and is not ashamed to use her sex appeal if it was to keep Rodger safe, but at the end of the day, she knows that what she is doing looks wrong, but she doesn't care because she knows why she is doing it and it's for nothing but the purest of motives.

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The issue when writing archetypical characters into your story is making sure they aren't just that. hszmv's answer points out a whole bunch of characters and real people who possess all the traits of a femme fatale but crucially are all far more than just a list of traits.

You're right that a trap people fall into when using archetypes is that they "reduce" people into just being just a hollow shell wholly defined by whatever role they've been given in the story, and it's often that that puts people's backs up (particularly if from a section of the population that exist infrequently in certain genres of fiction not all possessing some prescribed attributes with little else to those characters). So instead, why not expand on their character instead. Why do they do what they do? Where do they come from? What do they want out of life? What are their thoughts and feelings? Their hobbies? What do they do when they're on their own or in a social setting that doesn't allow them to fill that role? All these questions (and many more) can give you a greater insight into who the character is than simply the general role their archetypical traits fulfil.

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