Analyzing patriarchal gender relations within “Double Indemnity” (1944)

Term Paper, 2012

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Table of contents

1. Introduction ... 2

2. Establishing the concept of Patriarchy ... 3

3. The femme fatale as a female archetype in Film Noir ... 5
3.1 Characteristics ... 5
3.2 The femme fatale in relation to men ... 5
3.3 Socio-cultural background ... 6

4. Analysis of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944) ... 7
4.1 A typical femme fatale in the Noir sense ... 7
4.2 Phyllis in relation to men ... 7
4.2.1 Relationship with husband and family ... 8
4.2.2 Relationship with Walter ... 10

5. Male relationships as a patriarchal safe haven: Walter and Barton ... 13

6. Conclusion ... 14

7. Bibliography ... 17

1. Introduction

It is broadly agreed that “noir’s sexual politics” (Fay & Nieland 148) and “construction of gender is one of its most distinctive features” (Spicer 84). The power relations between men and women and the dangerous consequences male-female relationships bring along, are a characteristic trait of Film noir. Thus, noir provides a perfect basis for analyzing the patriarchal gender relations of the mid 20th century.

The most distinct female character emerging from the noir world is the femme fatale, an “evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction” (Place 47). The femme fatale is a symbol of male anxieties of the time. One of noir’s most infamous femme fatales is Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity” (1944), portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck. The character of Phyllis Dietrichson challenges patriarchal gender stereotypes and is “defined in relation to men” (Place 47). For this reason, I chose her as the main focus of this research paper.

In the course of my paper, I want to explore how “Double Indemnity” (1944) depicts patriarchal gender relations and why Phyllis Dietrichson’s character is socially relevant and a testament to those patriarchal structures of her time.

I will start by establishing the concept of Patriarchy in chapter 2. The chapter is important to clarify basic ideas that emerged from gender studies and lay a foundation. Chapter 3 introduces the femme fatale as a female archetype in Film noir. Here, I will point out what characterizes the showpiece-femme fatale, with reference to the socio-cultural background. The following Chapter is the main focus of my paper: The analysis of Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity” (1944). After a short introduction to her character, I will examine Phyllis in relation to men. This is pivotal for the success of this paper. How is she affected by patriarchal gender relations and why is her womanhood threatening to men? And since we are dealing with a filmy analysis, how is this cinematically staged? Chapter 5 will concentrate on the relationship between Walter Neff and Barton Keyes. I decided to add this chapter because their male-male bond reinforces patriarchal ideas and is a perfect contrast to the relationships of Phyllis with Walter and her husband. By tradition, the conclusion is the finishing part of my paper.

In sum, the research paper deals with the patriarchal gender relations in “Double Indemnity” (1944) and aims at exploring why the character of Phyllis is so fundamentally important in initiating a critical, gender-based discussion.

2. Establishing the concept of Patriarchy

Film Noir is frequently referred to as a patriarchal and “male-dominated form of film” (Spicer 85). In the course of this research paper, it is essential to establish the concept of patriarchy, which is crucial for the analysis the gender relations in “Double Indemnity” (1944).

In an article published in Feminist Review in 1979, Veronica Beechey describes that the concept of patriarchy “has been used within the women’s movement to analyse the principles underlying women’s oppression” (66). Beechey continues by quoting Kate Millett, according to whom “patriarchy refers to a society which is organized according to two sets of principles: (i) that male shall dominate female; and (ii) that older male shall dominated younger male” (68).

Cranny-Francis, Waring, Stavropoulos & Kirkby in line with Beechey, fittingly outline: “Patriarchy is a social system in which structural differences on privilege, power and authority are invested in masculinity and the cultural, economic and/or social positions of men” (15). It describes, according to Cranny-Francis et al., a social system “in which maleness and masculinity confer a privileged position of power and authority” (14) and in which women are “excluded from positions of power and authority” (15). Thus, patriarchy is a social order that puts men in a superior position and subordinates women to them. Male superiority is predominantly directed at women, but also applies to younger people, children and other men (Meuser 96).

The source of the male power is the annexation of women’s reproductive capacities (Meuser 96), which men strive to control. According to feminist views, hierarchical, heterosexual sexuality establishes the dominance of men over women’s sexuality and their right to control it (Meuser according to Hearn 97).

At the root of patriarchy is the affiliation of each person to a gender since patriarchy means the socialization of gender (Meuser 80). Cranny-Francis argues, “Gender divides the human race into two categories” and “privileges the male over the female” (1). Meuser states based on Cockburn that the biological affiliation to a certain gender defines our social position within society (83). At this point, one could argue to what extent gender roles are biologically determined or socially constructed. Such a discussion would go beyond the mold of this paper. It is important to realize though that gender refers to a “set of hierarchically arranged roles” that make “the masculine half of the equation positive and the feminine negative” (Cranny-Francis et al. 1-2).

Hence, gender roles are the basis of patriarchy. They favor the male over the female and put men in a superior position, as they benefit socially and economically in a patriarchal culture.

Gender roles go hand in hand with gender stereotypes. A stereotype can be explained as “a radically reductive way of representing whole communities of people by identifying them with a few key characteristics” (Cranny-Francis et al. 141). This means that certain attributes and characteristics are ascribed to men and others to women. A typical gender stereotype would be that women are emotional, sensitive, nurturing, strive to be mothers (Cranny-Francis et al. 143) and are “happy raising their children” (Cranny-Francis et al. 144). The reversal of gender stereotypes plays an important role when analyzing the role of the femme fatale in Film noir, a point to which I will return to at a later point. In contrast to the ‘happy housewife’, men are traditionally working to support their family financially.

Beechey quotes Millet by saying that the family is “a patriarchal unit within a patriarchal whole” (68). The nuclear family is the most important institution within the patriarchal culture. An institution is “a set of relationships and/or practices which are expressions of mainstream social values and beliefs” (Cranny Francis et al. 14). In accordance with feminist views, the family and especially marriage are institutions, where men further dominate and exert power over women.

In sum, patriarchy is a system of social structures and practices, in which men dominate, suppress and exploit women (Meuser 82). This domination systematically occurs in private and public spheres. According to radical feminist views, men are considered the “gender of oppression” (Meuser 96) as their affiliation to the male gender favors them socially and economically over women. In addition to that, men seek to take control over women’s sexuality.

3. The femme fatale as a female archetype in Film Noir

As Spicer points out, the “construction of gender (in Film noir) is one of its most distinctive features“ (84). Film noir presents two extreme types of female characters: The femme fatale and the nurturing woman (Spicer 90-93). These character types are polar opposites. In the course of this paper, I will focus on the character of the femme fatale and her social relevance.

3.1 Characteristics

The femme fatale is an infamous, recurring character in 1940s Film noir movies. She is desirable, duplicitous, dangerous, enigmatic and, most of all, extremely sexual (Spicer 90-91). As Janey Place puts it, the femme fatale has “access to her own sexuality” (49) and takes strength in it. On top of that, her behavior is ambiguous and “she never really is what she seems to be” (Spicer 90). Her ambiguity of character is mirrored in her appearance: she looks good, but she is evil (Werner 143). Her distinct looks are usually characterized by long hair, jewelry, sensuous legs and heavy make-up (Spicer 90). The femme fatale strives for freedom and independence (Place 56-57) and rejects marriage and family.

3.2 The femme fatale in relation to men

The femme fatale’s “lethal sexuality” (Fay & Nieland 148) imposes a threat on men in noir films. Her behavior makes her “ungovernable and threatening” (Spicer 90) and “men desire to understand her motivations” (Spicer 91). According to Fay & Nieland, the femme fatale is “desired and feared” by men and they “must either resist her advances or risk death” (Fay & Nieland 148-149). Place’s thoughts concur with that: “her desire for freedom, wealth or independence ignites the forces which threaten the hero” (57).


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Analyzing patriarchal gender relations within “Double Indemnity” (1944)
University of Mannheim
Film Noir
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Anonymous, 2012, Analyzing patriarchal gender relations within “Double Indemnity” (1944), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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