It is an interesting lens to look through having watched weeks of Westerns and then switching to Film Noir. Specifically with a film like Double Identity and a femme fatale like Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis. Women in noir are such a contrast to women in Westerns. Even if they are treated less than, they are still central to the story and are a key characteristic without which the story would be nonexistent. Their actions matter unlike in Westerns. They are not treated like obstacles. They are not treated like they are in the way because they are the way. Western female characters were there to try to stop the male protagonists from going on the adventure, from being the hero like Laurie trying to convince Ethan in The Searchers to stay home and marry her.
Of course this treatment of women in noir can be attributed to Modernism and how, at the time, people in the art world had become self-reflexive. This meant that Americanism started to be criticized. Its traditional standards and values that were once held so highly are now doubted for their unjustifiable consequences.
One difference I noticed is that Noir treats femininity like it matters and is as strong as masculinity. It is not a weakness like it can be depicted in Westerns. Whether it is a strength used for the good or bad is another discussion all on it’s own. However, it should be acknowledged that this was the first step to treating femininity as equal to masculinity in a way. It can twist a plot if not as much then more as an act of masculinity can. We see this right away in the beginning of Double Indemnity. Walter, an insurance salesman, just doing his job, drives to a house to discuss an auto-renewal with a man named Mr. Dietrichson. Once he enters the house though and sees Mrs. Dietrichson, a blonde young woman covered only with a bath towel, he forgets entirely about the auto-renewal and Mr. Dietrichson. He only has one thing in mind now and it is Phyllis Dietrichson and she realizes this power she has almost instantly once she sits with him. By just deciding to cross her legs and show off her tightly worn anklet, she has him under her influence. From then on, every action she makes, everything she says counts to get him to do what she wants, which is to kill her husband – the plot goal.
There is something undeniably fascinating about how women are depicted in film noirs. Even when Walter annoyingly refers to Phyllis with pet names repeatedly like ‘baby,’ she is unfazed by it, even the audience, because we know that she ultimately has the power over him. She still affects him and what is around him even after her death and it is only with her feminine wiles that she does this, proving that she could do so much by just being stereotypically a woman. The only difference is she is not objectified for it, and she does not symbolize only that. She has a story and reasons. She is not there for someone to get back home to something waiting for him because she would not wait. She has her own needs and desires, whether it be money, or revenge. Interestingly enough these two things are masculine pursuits.
To conclude this, it seems that Hollywood, at the time of film noir, had gone from one extreme to the other. When at one time, it celebrated what American stood for and its “purity” and then at another time it criticized exactly with how fake it was. It showed it for what it was; a consumerist, sexist culture.