The Name of the Rose (with Thorns)
In the documentary Becoming Mike Nichols, the late motion picture director explained why he filmed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in monochrome (“black and white” in the States). “A movie is a metaphor,” he said. The lack of color, he continued, declares in itself, “No, this is not life; this is something about life.”
So, I’ve followed his thinking to illustrate this blog. My CAD drawing depicts the kind of woman the Rolling Stones identified in “Ride on Baby” with this zinger: “I could pick your face out from the front or behind. You may look pretty, but I can’t say the same for your mind.” She projects malice and cynical control.
In the details, however, my metaphorical drawing of—let’s call her Rose—can be interpreted multiple ways while falling short of becoming an ink blot test. Different viewers will reach varying conclusions about her, but even the most optimistic among us would not mistake her for a saint.
The Eye of the Beholder
If you’re a censor, you may think she’s fondling her breasts. But that’s an optical illusion. Move along. Nothing to see here.
She comes on to the rest of us by offering her gambit, cupping her eye-candy and expecting greater gifts in return—chocolates, a dozen roses, perhaps a necklace, or if she beds us, a fur coat. Ultimately, if she has her way, she will play us until we sacrifice our self-respect at the altar of her vanity—both her ego and her dressing-table.
Then she’ll move on to her next victim.
What should we call a woman of such cruelty? I mean, aside from the obvious. Let’s not slander female dogs.
Actually, Bitch, Slut, and other derogatory words demean the user—declaring that however lowly the seductive Tramp may be, she rules her submissive. What does that make him?
Shakespeare compared his love to a rose. FDC aficionados, on the other hand, dote on roses with thorns that make us bleed from our souls, if not our flesh. We may call them femme fatales, but that term is a vague catchall for the variety of women who cajole us into self-destructive worship at the shrine of flesh.
(First, let’s be thankful that femme fatale means “dangerous woman,” not “fatal woman.” Then, if you want to quibble over the plural—it should be femmes fatales—I confess I’m about as French as apple strudel, and my use of that language borders on linguistic manslaughter.)
The Upper Echelon
Our first impulse is to refer to a woman who rules our emotions as a Goddess. But this word suggests kind wisdom—not a shrew nasty enough to enslave us with our own lust and trample our heart for sport. “Goddess” is so divine it can actually become comical, as when Niles kept calling Daphne, the housekeeper, a Goddess on the TV show Frazier. Besides, unless we practice the faith of ancient Greeks and Romans, we can accommodate only so many goddesses in our lives.
So, perhaps we could refer to dominant women by the titles of monarchs. Out of respect for living rulers, we tend to avoid calling a femme fatale a Queen. Considering the life of Catherine the Great, Empress fits the Alpha Woman perfectly. But Empress, Sovereign, and other sycophantic terms should still be used sparingly if they are to retain any meaning.
Sometimes Diva fits a certain kind of dominant woman as snugly as her opera-length gloves. Technically, the term applies to a female singer. (No, Devo is not the male form of Diva.) But Diva also loosely applies to a woman who imposes her will on us because her aura demands obedience. Such a lofty title, however, serves poorly for the thorny rose who morphs into an alley cat, transforming her luscious petals into sleek, kinky attire and her thorns into claws.
Siren is another description of an alluring creature with a beautiful voice. In mythology the original Sirens sang so beautifully they enticed sailors to their deaths. In trying to draw near to the dulcet sounds, the navigators crashed their ships on the rocky shores of the island where the sorceress Circe lived. But so many singers have been tagged Sirens that the term has lost its luster.
How about Domina and Dominatrix, even though they differ subtly? Dominatrix suggests a woman who binds and lashes her submissive. Domina flows with nuance, identifying the slippery enchantress who lures us into doing her bidding more through manipulation than physicality. Although she’s disinclined to resort to whips and chains, she may reserve them as her nuclear option. But Dominas and Dominatrices engage in role-playing, not real-life behaviour.
Stuck in the Middle
Vamp, meaning either the seductress (noun) or how she acts (verb) to beguile her slave, sounds archly over-the-top—perhaps because it rhymes with “camp.” Vamp, of course, is short for Vampire, which vividly describes a predator who sucks the very soul out of her victim. The blood in vampire movies is more the medium of exchange, or the coin of the realm, than the actual prize. The vampire’s real quest is to steal her victim’s spirit and free will, to own him absolutely.
Except for the Underworld series and the Twilight books and movies, Vampire seems to have gone out of fashion, and that’s a pity. No other word but Vampire conjures up the dark eroticism, the rush of co-mingled fear and lust that propels us into the frightening/secure captivity of a seductively dominant woman.
But even outside the supernatural, the real animal kingdom is rich in terms for the femme fatale. In addition to the female canine and feline alley-stalker mentioned above, Vixen describes feral aggression quite well. The literal meaning, “a female fox,” has been so thoroughly lost in usage that we’re apt to hear the redundant phrase “foxy Vixen.” But let’s preserve this gem of a word because the sound and the meaning of Vixen insinuate a vicious, slinky, and aggressive woman.
Rudyard Kipling famously noted, “The female of the species is deadlier than the male.”
But the late Robert Ruark, a North Carolina native who died in London, may have had the last word on ferocious females. The ratel, or honey badger, is a wild animal that, when cornered, directly attacks its would-be captor’s genitals. Ruark titled his final novel The Honey Badger.
Let’s hope he spoke as metaphorically as Mike Nichols.