Femme fatale – that's what most people know from movies and TV – a woman who lets her sexuality flourish without a guilty conscience and without feeling ashamed – even uses it to get what she wants – and likely gets to be insulted or attacked for it. Femme fragile – the opposite construction – refers to a slender, gentle, somewhat sickly woman who is beautiful and captivates with her tenderness. There are a number of other images of women, for example the femme-enfant – the childlike woman – to name just one. But what do the attributes fragile and fatale actually mean? Why does this categorization only apply to women* and not to men? Do these women* also exist in reality and, the most essential question: who or what is the femme or the woman* at all?
First of all it should be noted that these typifications of women* do not simply exist detached from place and time; rather, they have come into being or have been created by someone. In Central Europe, and especially in Austria, these designations about women* are associated with the so-called fin de siècle (the turn of the millennium), with a male view of women* that classifies them and reproduces the dual and opposing women* pair of whore and virgin, of evil and good, of wicked and pure, that we are all too familiar with already. While the sexually overt woman* tends to be portrayed as manipulatively acting in the dark, under the covers so to speak, for the slightly sickly and delicate woman* it is accepted to be in the public eye - because she is not constructed as sexual.
Some may already be wondering at that point in which pre-constructed woman form they fit better into, or, if they fit into any category at all. And it is at this point that an interface with contemporary feminist research is identified: It has long been clear that "the one woman" does not exist. Rather, images or realities of women* are created that are mostly stereotypically constructed and reflect social ideas. In addition, our society – the western capitalist society – operates heteronormatively, which means that our system is geared towards a (biologistic) gender and sexuality dualism, that is constructed complementary to one another.
The norm here is (strikingly depicted and for exemplary purposes only): woman/man, female/male, heterosexual/non-heterosexual. If one looks from an intersectional perspective, then also: educated/non-educated, western origin/non-western origin, young/old, beautiful/ugly, young/old, rich/poor, and so on. Fact is that these categorizations would not exist without their respective opposition, since they are always constructed in dependence on each other.
It is also clear by now that, as a result, powerful structures of discrimination arise from that, structures that are bent on standardization, structures, whose goal is exactly that – namely unambiguity in terms of gender and sexual identity.
All those who go along with and live this unambiguity are more likely to be preferred rather than those who live a pluralism – those are considered abnormal, an exception, a deviation from the rule – and this rule is still, even in the 21st century, either woman or man, either heterosexual or not. The "not" is not elaborated on, or it is forced into reductionist categories such as "diverse" which counts for everything else, not worthy to be named itself, in contrast to women* or men*.
But who or what actually tells me that I am a woman*, that I am a man, that I am heterosexual or "not"?
Is it the person, who gives birth to me? Or is it my vulva or my phallus telling me that?
Is it then, for example, inscribed in my body from birth that I, because I have a vulva, deserve more violence than those who carry their powerful phallus in front of themselves?
Or what other explanation would there be for gender-specific violence?
It is recognizable that many questions remain unanswered and open if one only focuses on two expressions. Between these seemingly different designations and categorizations of people, resistance to the "heterosexual matrix," as Judith Butler names this constraint, proliferates. Resistance is not black/white or good/evil, it is colorful, it grows exuberantly subversive wherever it wants and wherever it leads, it breeds especially where it is suppressed. Even femme fragile and femme fatale fall into this heteronormative matrix. For example, it is never questioned that both femme fragile and fatale are heterosexual, or that they are sexual at all!
The femme fatale, as implied by the name, is fatal to the male sex, as she is seemingly sexually liberated. But she still relies and is dependent on manipulating men to get what she wants. Her position is always up for discussion and demonized, is dangerous for men.
The femme fragile is constructed in such a way that the male gender receives positive reinforcement, since she needs the protection of men, protection from the endangering world, which she, as a delicate and fine woman in the patriarchal conception of the world, naturally cannot muster for herself.
Femme fatale and femme fragile can thus only move in a patriarchal space that designates and limits them.
This masculine typification of women* – and therefore limitation – into fatale or fragile, into sexually liberated and passionate, into delicate and needy, flatters the male ego.
Being a woman* itself is seemingly determined by the discursive images that circulate in our society. Women are constructed by certain attributes, behavioral patterns, and, for example, clothing – mostly stereotypical. Items of clothing, actually fabric, are thus gendered: skirts become feminine, pants become masculine. People who act against this gendered norm stand out, have to identify and justify themselves, are labeled as abnormal. In this process, the subjectivity of the human being is completely ignored. People struggle and fight for their identity throughout their entire lives, they are constantly threatened by violence, face discriminations, are being excluded, ridiculed or in many countries of the world imprisoned, tortured and killed.
Conclusion: Whether fragile or fatale, whether enfant or adulte – this refers to all people and not only women*, who are to be made desirable for the male gaze. Being a woman* can be many things, it can also be nothing. In any case, it cannot be defined. Especially not through men.
*Woman: To take into account the fact that "being a woman" can mean many things, the gender asterisk is used. In some places it was deliberately avoided to point out the heteronormativity.