Femmes fatales don’t need to learn to say no. They needn't think about having it all. No, the naughty women of the silver screen are too busy acting like they’re better than everyone else, threatening anyone who questions their god-given authority, and crushing the pesky civilians who happen to stand between them and what they want. Even if it’s just being elected prom queen.
These female archetypes might be cutthroat and, well, fictional, but there’s something to be learned from ladies who don’t take to being told what to do.
Where to begin but with the quintessential childhood villain, the Wicked Witch of the West? She isn't style incarnate — bad skin can ruin any outfit — but she did have those nails. Those nails. So they're painted yellow like winter snow, and the right length to put on your resume if you want to work in a gas station. All I'm saying is a little bit of trashiness can be a good thing. If you're not into gel nails, at the very least use her lines when you're hostessing: "Going so soon? I wouldn't hear of it. Why, my little party's just beginning."
And we mustn't forget Cruella de Vil. Why not put on that oversized fur coat — it doesn’t have to be Siberian tiger — and pair it with a little black dress? Even if some well-meaning NYU undergraduate on a PETA kick douses you in red paint, who’s more qualified than you to attain vengeance? And by all means, drag out your vowels to maxim effect when holding court over your minions, cackle at all your own jokes, and swing that cigarette holder like you’re conducting a symphony, even if you’re just letting the delivery man know where to drop your food. Going full Cruella on your hair might be a bit much, but try the laywoman’s version: the Sontag stripe.
Speaking of fur coats, how about the one short-tempered party girl Elizabeth Taylor steals from her lover’s wife, then hits the streets of Manhattan in with nothing underneath but a slip? In BUtterfield 8, you don’t pull one over on Taylor's Gloria Wandrous — if you leave her alone the morning after, who's to say she won’t find herself justified in scrawling a message in borrowed lipstick in your family’s apartment?
Gloria’s single-mindedness is a close cry to Rita Hayworth’s turn as the titular character in Gilda, a scrappy gold digger who knows that you “make your own luck.” Getting what she wants is an equally grand performance for Gilda. She knows when to play coy, and when to assert that any man is powerless when telling her what to do. Even, of course, if she secretly wants to be with the leading man.
Gilda won’t take her man back until she’s run him through the ringer, though, just like Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story — whose sophistication, tailoring, and wickedly sharp tongue slay anyone who dares get in her way. (Cary Grant, in this case, because strong-willed women attract their match.) Hepburn might be a well-bred lady, but she has no qualms about fighting in front of the guests. In fact, these leading ladies crave an audience for their exploits. So get theatrical, people! And don’t worry about being a bit capricious, it’s hard to know what you want when you’re fighting with your leading man all the time!
There’s nothing quite as badass as the woman who seamlessly manipulates everyone around her. Especially if she’s not quite human, or having trouble, like, being as human as the rest of us. What do we have to learn from Number 6, the sexually liberated cyclon in Battlestar Galactica? Well, you could dye your hair blonde, stock your wardrobe with blood-red get-ups, and start using a rather delicately husky voice, if such a thing exists. I have to say, I prefer Eliza Dushku’s chameleon role-playing on Dollhouse, if only because she spends an inordinate amount of time chilling in fancy yoga gear (like me!) and sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. But her character, Echo, gives us hope that with a simple change of outfit (okay fine, and some reprogramming) we could literally be anyone. Nice to know! Oh, but the most accessible might just be Rachael’s Blade Runner bangs.
Of course when I think of other galaxies, I'm actually thinking about women in their underwear. Kate Moss's pubescent turn as an underwear model for Calvin Klein doesn't hold a finger to Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien. She may look like a sex symbol, but Ripley doesn't pander to the boys' club: "Whenever he says anything, you say 'Right,' Brett. You know that?"
Sandra Bullock played another workaholic loner in Gravity this year. And we all relished the opportunity to see her float around in her spandex shorts as Dr. Ryan Stone. My point is there's just something nice about women who know more than everyone else, can spend a lot of time alone, and, I don't know, work out a lot. There's an undeniable no-nonsense quality to the women who survive all their crew members.
Ah, high school in the movies. Best frenemies don complementary outfits and strut down the hall four-abreast, their chins shooting skyward, parting the pimply-red sea of their lesser peers with their auras alone. If you think of the most popular girls in school as performance artists, then this walk is their magnum opus. Who can forget a braless, spike-chocker-wearing Fairuza Balk blowing a kiss as she cuts through the lunch room with her fellow high school witches in The Craft? Or Lindsay Lohan accidentally flipping into a garbage can in Mean Girls?
I guess what I'm trying to say is every walk from your cubicle to the restroom is a potential performance, and every fellow officemate a future friend (or set piece) to accompany you in flouncing down the carpeted halls to see the men working in the start-up next door. It's an attitude thing. Yes, you're working five days a week in a PR job for a boss from hell. That doesn't mean you can't wear your Jawbreaker-style monochrome outfits and stiletto heels. You can even do your little power walk right out of your boss's office and onto the streets of Manhattan one day, never to return. You were really just saving up for a Rolex anyway, and as Cher says in Clueless: "A watch doesn't really go with this outfit, Daddy."
Image by Michael Erazo-Kase
Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in Manhattan. Her work has appeared in Vice, New York, and n+1.