The Toxicity of Traditional Gender Roles As Seen in Wilder’s Double Indemnity and the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple
Gender roles in the United States have often been seen as simple principles of behavior that should be followed because they are assigned to the “natural” inclinations of both men and women. Men have typically been seen as either aggressive and emotionally distant, or self-sacrificial heroes, whereas women have been required to be sexually restrained housewives, while simultaneously remaining satisfying sexual objects for men’s consumption.
However, these characteristics are neither inherent nor innate in people, and the consequences of following such gender roles are more harmful than productive. On the other hand, in film, the genre of film noir has featured certain archetypes that represent the damaging ideas about these gender expectations, which are the male lead, the femme fatale’s husband, and the femme fatale.
In the films Double Indemnity and Blood Simple, the male lead typically acts as the one who wants to save the day and get the girl, albeit the femme fatale. The way this happens is through his act of murdering her abusive or uncaring husband, this being the only way he can be a hero to her.
Through the archetype of the femme fatale, femininity has been portrayed as the hyper-sexuality of women used as an instrument to get what they want, this typically meaning the use of men as pawns to do their dirty work of murdering their husbands. In this manner, both of these films and the archetypes they depict allow us to see that the notions of gender in the U.S. are highly toxic and destructive and cause more harm than good to the people they’ve been set upon.
In the film Blood Simple, adhering to masculine gender roles proves to be fairly destructive, and even deadly to the male characters. In Blood Simple, the portrayals of toxic masculinities are portrayed by the male lead and the femme fatale’s husband, and they come in the forms of a savior, or a mean, violent abuser to women, respectively being Ray and Julian. We can see these representations when Ray acts like what he thinks is a hero when he finds his lover Abby’s husband dead in his office, proceeds to clean up his body and even buries him alive to protect her, assuming that she was the one who killed him. This being, Ray risks his own life for someone who probably does not even care about him, making him a martyr for his lover.
On the other hand, Julian’s obsessive, jealous, possessive, misogynistic attitudes make him not only overly aggressive but also make him become violent towards his wife. This is seen when he breaks into Ray’s house, grabs Abby, and attempts to rape her on the front lawn, which proves that he is trying to subjugate her after she cheated on him, due to the fact that he feels inadequate. He commits this vile act to have the feeling of dominance make him feel better instead of just feeling the sadness, rejection, and abandonment that came from his wife’s infidelity. This is because men are expected to be violent and aggressive instead of feeling their feelings. Although the existence and pressure of these ideals severely affect men, the violent or abusive behavior is not justified at all. This is why it is clear that both of these ideals of the typical male are severely damaging for these two characters and American culture overall.
Similarly, in Double Indemnity, the character of Walter embodies another type of toxic masculinity: being a womanizer. The film’s male lead is not married and seems to be not only overly sexually promiscuous upon first meeting Phyllis but is continuously explicitly romantically pursuing her even though it is clear that she is a married woman, and she declines his advances at first. This behavior demonstrates his possessiveness and objectification of her, since he sees Phyllis as something he wants to have. However, the one way he can “obtain” her is through the murdering of her husband. So, interestingly, this is where it is seen that Walter Neff holds both of the archetypes previously mentioned about Blood Simple. He does like Ray where he “saves” the femme fatale, which in Walter’s case, it was by coming up with a complex murder scheme. Yet, he is also the violent male who eventually kills her when he finds out she lied to him and had her own agenda. This makes us see that while he may believe he was being a hero at some point, there is nothing heroic about murdering someone for love. In this way, the film portrays the embodiment of the man who conquers and fights for their women and murders others, which is glorified in U.S. culture. This is true for example in places like war, which makes us question what we consider to be a hero in the first place, or really, how criminal being an ideal man can really be.
Conversely, the roles of Abby from Blood Simple and Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity as femme fatales successfully portray how dissonant the established gender roles for women actually are. According to American culture, women are expected to be chaste until marriage, and even after they’re married, to be sexually restrained and faithful housewives focused on nothing but raising their children and keeping up housework. At the same time, women are also expected to be seductive, and sexually satisfying for men whenever they want.
Now, many see the open expression of female sexuality as an empowering and socially emancipating act. And although it can be, this is not the case for the archetype of the femme fatale. Instead, the femme fatale works as a sexual exchange for the male lead to consume as currency for murder, if you will. This is seen when Abby and Phyllis seduce their males into having sex with them, and it is then that the men get the impulse to kill (or bury) these women’s husbands, because they believe they have fallen in love with them and would do anything to obtain them or protect them. In fact, they’re so heavily objectified that their bodies are seen as literal currency, as we can see when Ray asks for his last check from his boss Julian, whom he just cuckolded, and he tells him: “No, she’s an expensive piece of ass” (Blood Simple). This shows that women are highly hyper-sexualized and objectified on top of being scrutinized for showing any enjoyment of their own sexuality, which is paradoxical, confusing, and unhealthy in nature, due to the fact that it doesn’t matter whether a woman acts virginal or sexual, she never wins, as she is caught between a double-edged sword.
Additionally, the archetype of the femme fatale is characterized for being a villain, and if we see what attributes Phyllis has, being sensual, wearing heavy makeup, seducing men and using them for her own gain or benefit, we see that it is villainizing female sexuality through this archetype. This is due to the fact that the character’s main concern is using her sexuality to impress, seduce, and then use a man for doing the tasks she needs done. This is seen when Phyllis and Walter first meet, and she is portrayed as naked under some sheets she’s wrapped up in, a scene where she later asks him if she would get money if her husband signed a death insurance claim and died. Later in the film, it is suggested that the two have sex, which then chain reacted in Walter coming up with the whole plan for killing Phyllis’s husband. For Abby, it is seen when she is innocently and shyly telling Ray about her marital problems with Julian, while asking him if he likes her, which led to the two spending the night at a motel. Since it can be argued that it was the union between the femme fatale and the male lead that led them to destruction, the events unfolded thereafter prove that the reason why femme fatales are one type of villain in film noir is because of their magnetic sexuality, even though the ones who actually commit the evil acts in these films were the lovesick men.
In conclusion, following traditional masculinities and femininities has been detrimental to the main characters in these film noirs. This is due to the fact that gender expectations have proven to be destructive rather than productive.
Generally speaking, following hegemonic masculinities, where you are expected to be either a self-sacrificial martyr or a controlling and abusive alpha, can lead to horrible acts violence and lack of emotional and mental health. In the case of the femme fatales, following traditional femininities is a paradox in and of itself, since you must be two completely opposite ideas at the same time. These clashing ideas of needing to be virginal and sexual at once have seeded guilt, shame, and unhealthy ways of relating to sex and pleasure for women, which creates much inner conflict and distress.
This is why it is crucial to observe how gender roles have real-life effects over U.S. culture and around the world, as these happenings and ideas rarely stay just in film. All in all, the toxicity of current traditional masculinities, femininities, genders, and gender roles, point to the ever-growing need of questioning, reimagining, and acting outside of them becoming only more important and urgent in American culture.