Anna May Wong in Daughter of the Dragon (Paramount, 1931). This photo is not featured in “FEMME FATALE. Gaze-Power-Gender.” I chose it as the cover image as a protest against the exhibition’s ignorance of the Asian community. Information on the picture: see footnote [1].
Chenyixue Ma
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October 30, 2023

(In)eligibility for Virtue

A review of “FEMME FATALE. Blick-Macht-Gender (Gaze-Power-Gender)”

Few exhibitions could motivate me to spend Valentine’s Day sitting alone among lovers holding flowers and red balloons for seven hours on a Deutsche Bahn train. “FEMME FATALE. Gaze-Power-Gender” at Hamburger Kunsthalle was one of them. Featuring representative artworks by celebrated artists from the 19th century to today including Edward Munch, John Willem Waterhouse, Gustav Moreau, Nan Goldin, and VALIE EXPORT, the exhibition addresses some of the most topical and controversial themes of today—gender and race. Everything looks so irresistible.  

As expected, the train was delayed, and I entered the museum late. Rushing through the exhibition, I found it satisfying. The display follows a chronological order, first introducing the literary origins of femme fatale with 19th-century paintings, including one of my personal favourites: John William Waterhouse’s La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893). The beautiful barefoot woman in the painting locks eyes with a young knight and ties his neck with her extraordinarily long hair, trapping him into misfortune. Waterhouse’s work is a visual interpretation of John Keats’s poem of the same title:

“I met a lady in the meads,      

Full beautiful, a faery’s child;      

Her hair was long, her foot was light,      

And her eyes were wild.”


The exhibition’s opening works evidence the fact that most early femme fatale paintings were based on works of literature or myths, highlighting the intertextuality of the femme fatale as a cultural figure. The second part of the exhibition explores how femme fatale became increasingly projected onto real women—especially dancers and actresses—from the late 19th century onwards. This section features photographs, posters, and magazines, which disseminated the image of femme fatale to a wider audience and paved its way to popular culture. The last part of the exhibition focuses on how female artists interpret femme fatale. Sylvia Sleigh, for example, depicted the iconic femme fatale Lilith as a hermaphrodite figure. Lilith was Adam’s first wife in Judaic belief, who was transformed into a demon and banished from the Garden of Eden after refusing to be subservient to her husband. Sleigh’s depiction of the primordial femme fatale challenges the male gaze and gender binary inherent to the tradition of the archetype. The exhibition’s self-understood logic is easy to follow: the femme fatale has transformed from a male-constructed fantasy into a tool with which women can express themselves, thus becoming “an instrument for self-empowerment.” [3]

However, when I revisited the exhibition the next day, my opinions changed. The artworks were      still impressive, but I began to notice that their connections, both to each other and to the theme, were loose. According to the exhibition, a femme fatale is “a sensual, erotically seductive woman who puts men in danger and plunges them into their misfortune.”4 However, Judith and the Virgin Mary, two virtuous figures in the Bible, were also featured. If Judith, who beheaded the commander of the invading army to save her people could somehow fit in, the presence of Madonna was incongruent in every respect. It seems that the curators confused femme fatale with powerful women. Indeed, several femme fatale figures imply feminist power—Lilith, who refused to submit to her husband Adam is an example. But the archetype does not always stand for empowerment. A femme fatale is often morally condemned, and frequently ends up punished or killed.5 More importantly, as May Ann Doane points out, a femme fatale’s power is often not contingent on her conscious will; she is merely the carrier rather than the subject of her power. “Hence, it would be a mistake to see her as some kind of heroine of modernity.”6 The assumption that femme fatale equals empowerment impeded the exhibition from shedding light on some important questions: where does the power of a femme fatale come from? Who, in the end, benefits from her power? In my opinion, the exhibition left out a crucial function of the femme fatale archetype: to facilitate and legitimate the exploitation of female sexuality and personhood. If voyeurism and exploitation against a virtuous lady are somewhat disturbing, it seems much more acceptable - even reasonable, to do so to a dangerous, or at least morally flawed, woman. By assigning a pseudo-power to the femme fatale, men could consume the female body and simultaneously deny the exploited women’s dignity and rights. By ignoring the exploiting mechanism that lies right in the intersection of “gaze, gender, power,” the discussion of femme fatale as women’s self-empowerment in the last part of the exhibition seems overly optimistic. The ignorance also reduces the significance of female artists’ reinterpretation of the archetype: only when a femme fatale is the active agent of her power can she really become a symbol of empowerment.

There was another element of the exhibition, or rather, an element missing, that struck me. As an Asian woman, I was shocked by how the Asian community and other people of colour are brutally ignored in the exhibition. Although 10 of the 32 items in the exhibition booklet’s glossary are race-related, the contents of the exhibition are primarily white with the inclusion of a few Black artists and subjects. The exhibition highlights women of colour in the publications and champions its inclusivity, but our stories are untold, and our voices are omitted and ignored. I was also shocked by how the exhibition downplays the role of racism, inherent to the femme fatale. Women of certain races have to be reduced to femme fatales simply because they are considered to be ineligible for virtue. A telling example is the American-Chinese actress Anna May Wong (1905-1961). Due to her copious performances as a femme fatale in American and European movies, she was criticised by her Chinese peers for bringing shame to her race. But Wong had no choice; because of her race, she was never allowed to play the romantic lead despite her talent and popularity.7 Wong, and many women of colour of that time, were shoehorned into the role of the femme fatale. They were only allowed to seduce and destroy, not to love and create. As one contemporary film critic observed, “[Wong’s] dark beauty appeared sinister by contrast with Nordic fairness of Laura La Plante in The Chinese Parrot and Dolores Gatella in Old San Francisco. She has been a villainess and a vampire, but her appearance will never let her be a heroine.”8 Attractive-yet-sinful characteristics were imposed on women of colour to contrast with the supposed virtuosity of their white co-stars and audiences. The structural racism against women of colour and the representation of them as femme fatales in cultural products influence and reinforce each other, trapping those women deeper inside the archetype. By downplaying the ongoing racist history of the femme fatale, by ignoring the oppression and suffering behind her figure, as well as  by casting her solely as a figure of empowerment, the exhibition reveals itself to be superficial and untenable, if not outrightly offensive.

The narrative of “Femme fatale: Gaze-Gender-Power” fails to sustain its feminist ambition. The ignorance of the exploitative and racist mechanisms of the femme fatale archetype undermines the exhibition’s critical power, making it yet another display of half-naked women. Nevertheless, the exhibition demonstrates the admirable courage of the museum and the curators to touch upon sensitive themes and sets an exemplary model for art organisations to reflect upon the underlying patriarchal perspective towards their collections. I sincerely wish to see more exhibitions with the same courage and self-critical spirit, but with more carefully thought through and optimised narratives.     


[1] Image by Movie-Fan. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this licence, visit Cropped by this author. Image from:

[2] Keats. This version is cited from The Poetry Society. 

[3] Hamburger Kunsthalle. Doing feminism-with art!, 7

[4] Ibid.

[5] On the definition of the femme fatale, see Doane, 1-3; Hanson and O’Rawe, 1-8.

[6] Doane, 2. 

[7] On Hollywood’s and Europe’s racial logic in the early 20th century and the consequent depiction of Wong solely as a femme fatale, see Leong, 64-71; Hodges, 65-98.

[8] Clipping. Cited from Leong, 68.

Works Cited

Doane, Mary Ann. Femmes fatales Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. New York, Routledge, 2013. 

Hamburger Kunsthalle. “FEMME FATALE. Gaze-Power-Gender: Glossary”. 2023.

Hamburger Kunsthalle. Doing feminism-with art! Booklet of the exhibition “FEMME FATALE. Gaze-Power-Gender.” 2023.

Hanson, Helen, and Catherine O’Rawe. The femme fatale: images, histories, contexts. Springer, 2010.

Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. Chicago Review Press, 2023. Accessed 8 Mar. 2023.

Keats, John. “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” Originally published in 1820. The Poetry Society. Accessed on 5 Oct. 2023.

Leong, Karen J. The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Song, And the Transformation of American Orientalism. U of California P, 2001.


Yixue is a researcher, writer, and event organizer in visual arts. She obtained her Master’s in Art, Cognition, and Criticism and Research Master’s in Art, Media, and Literary Studies from the University of Groningen. Born and raised in China, she started to reflect on and write about Chinese art and diaspora during her studies in Europe. She is interested in dislocated and marginalised things. She is currently conducting her PhD research project on hospital art collections. Contact: 

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