‘You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.’
Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride, p.392
As Barbara Creed argues, ‘All human societies have a concept of the monstrous-feminine, of what it is about women that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject.’ Throughout both late Victorian and neo-Victorian literature, concepts of the monstrous-feminine are inextricably linked with masculine fears of unveiled female sexual agency. More specifically, the characterisation of the female as dangerous and horrifying is intimately linked to notions of the sexually-independent female. This is the fear internalised by the femme fatale figure, a monstrous woman who refuses to remain subordinate to androcentric notions of the ‘ideal woman’, as presented in such works as Coventry Patmore’s 1854 narrative poem Angel in the House. This typecasting of the femme fatale as monstrous proliferates throughout Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Despite the femme fatales continual shapeshifting’ in representation throughout the texts, the femme fatale remains a persistent figure of monstrosity; the femme fatale embodies, amongst others, fears of devolution, emasculation and decadence. Despite this, however, she remains a figure that evokes ‘dread’ desire’ and irresistible longing in her victims.  This monstrous power is evoked by the femme fatale’s subversion and monopolisation of the male gaze.  Through this, her fatality is achieved. The femme fatale, through this subversion, uses the gaze on her victims to ensnare them. Whilst the femme fatale gains power and influence through this subversion, ordained societal codes of masculine superiority come to be entirely obliterated; this results in the representation of the femme as fatale. Through a discussion of The Robber Bride, it becomes apparent that the femme fatale’s success at internalising the male gaze correlates with her level of monstrosity. Those that entirely refute and overpower the male gaze and, in turn, androcentric ideals are proven to be far more monstrous in their entirety than those who remain trapped in patriarchy.
In stark contrast to Victorian conceptions of the fatal woman, Atwood’s contemporary femme fatale bears no fatal flaw or hamartia. Zenia, a fin-de-millennial reworking of the femme fatale, is a creation of total monstrosity; she is described by Atwood herself as a horrific ‘Lady Macbeth’ figure who harbours no morally redeeming features. Unlike Victorian femme fatales such as H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, whose passion results in her demise before she can truly be fatal, Zenia is a femme fatale that proves entirely deadly to the men and women she encounters. Unlike her Victorian counterpart, she never falls victim to the male gaze she attempts to monopolise. Instead, Zenia garners complete control over the male gaze, ensnaring her victims in their own perceptions of femininity. The power embodied in this gaze is made paramount by Roz, who declares that ‘you are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.’ This is the gaze of patriarchal domination and oppression, which acts to reduce and ‘mould’ women into positions of inferiority and subordination at the hands of superior masculinity. Through Roz’s declaration, Atwood essentially suggests that women are ‘moulded’ into figures of the ‘proper feminine’ by the patriarchally oppressive gaze of androcentric society. As Jean Noble observes, male power ‘lies at the heart of an unequal gendering gaze directed from men towards women’; women thus become ‘defined and constituted by that male gaze.’ Noble’s argument is clearly corroborated by Atwood, who continues to ponder ‘male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies?’; ‘even pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own […] unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole’ (p.392). In this sense, it becomes apparent that the women of the novel are under the continual scrutiny of male driven society; this continual examination appears to be not too dissimilar from Panopticism. As theorised by Jeremy Bentham and later expanded by Foucault, the theory is based on the notion of ‘all-seeing’ architectural buildings. Bentham argued that these buildings would result in behavioural changes, as the individual censors their behaviour accordingly under the ever-watchful gaze. Tony, Charis and Roz are all victims of this Panopticism, continually monitoring and changing themselves to please their respective partners.
However, Zenia successfully evades this Panoptic gaze through her refusal to remain trapped in these constructed ‘male fantasies’ (p.392). It is through evasion of the Panoptical gaze of patriarchy that Zenia becomes so monstrous. Zenia essentially subverts societal norms through mimicry and subversion, trapping her victims in reflections of the male fantasies that preoccupy their lives. Through mimicry and subversion, Zenia takes possession of the male gaze in a manner that proves entirely fatal to those surrounding her. As observed by Barbara Creed, ‘the femme fatale performs in order to capture and control the male gaze’. Upon capturing this gaze Zenia, like Ayesha, becomes a figure of monstrosity through her unbalancing of patriarchal society. However, Zenia is never placed up ‘on a pedestal’ (p.392) by her creator in the same way as Ayesha; Ayesha’s power is hampered by her creator, Haggard, who destroys Ayesha’s monstrous power through unbridled passion. In contrast, Zenia is never hampered by such passion. She is instead a figure of unstoppable monstrosity, using the male gaze to act independently on her own immoral desires. It is this power that gives Zenia the ability to monstrously destroy her victims. In this sense, Zenia embodies Luce Irigaray’s theory of mimicry. Irigaray suggests that ‘there is […] perhaps only one ‘path’, the one historically assigned to the feminine: that of mimicry. One must assume the feminine role deliberately. Which means […] to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it.’ The only way to deconstruct patriarchal conceptualisations of femininity, Irigaray suggests, is to adopt these male fantasies of the feminine ideal and overplay them. Only through this overplaying is subversion reached. Acting on Irigaray’s discourse, Zenia becomes a figure of gross monstrosity through her successful mimicry of male fantasies. As Roz declares, ‘The Zenia’s of this world have studied this situation and turned it to their own advantage; they haven’t let themselves by moulded into male fantasies, they’ve done it themselves’ (p.392). This mimicry not only affects the men she manipulates, but also the women she targets along the way. In fabricating personal histories and personas designed purposely to speak to the innermost desires and traumas of the three women, Zenia deploys her destruction. In doing, Zenia entirely refutes the subordinate patriarchal position that Ayesha ultimately falls victim of; she instead subverts and mimics male perceptions of the feminine ideal to enact and destroy their lives. Once these fantasies are performed to the men she ensnares the result is complete emasculation and a shattering of male superiority. Mitch is suggested to have committed suicide over the loss of Zenia whilst Billy disappears entirely. Like Holly and Leo, none of the men are the same after meeting her. Atwood thus portrays a far deadlier version of the femme fatale. Zenia is a femme fatale whose monstrosity lies in her successful mimicry of each individual victim’s respective fantasy of the ideal woman.
 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 2012), p.1.
 See Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1858).
 Heather Braun, The Rise and Fall of the Femme Fatale in British Literature, 1790-1910 (Lanham, MD: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2012), p.109.
 H. Rider Haggard, She (London: Vintage, 2013), p.204. All further references to Haggard’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.
 In feminist theory, the male gaze is defined as the act of depicting the world and women from a masculine and heterosexual point of view; this is apparent throughout both visual art and literary history. Under this gaze, women are often presented as objects of male desire, deriving the construction of their identity from these male fantasies. This is the concept of the male gaze, as first developed by the feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, that my essay will focus on and expand in relation to the supposedly ‘monstrous’ power possessed by the femme fatale. For more information on the male gaze, see Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp.833-44.
 Margaret Atwood, Interview for South Bank Show, interviewed by Gillian Greenwood (ITV, 1993).
 Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (London: Virago Press, 1994), p.392. All further references to Atwood’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.
 For more information on the notion of the ‘proper feminine’ as opposed to the ‘improper’, see Lyn Pykett, The ‘Improper Feminine’: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing (London: Taylor and Francis, 1992).
 Jean Bobby Noble, Masculinities without Men?: Female Masculinity in Twentieth-Century Fictions (Vancouver, BC :University of British Columbia Press, 2010), p.47.
 See Michael Foucault, ‘The Means of Correct Training’ and ‘Complete and Austere Institutions’ [from Discipline and Punish], in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (London: Penguin, 1991), pp.188-204, 214-24.
 Barbara Creed, Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2009), p.122.
 Luce Irigaray, ‘The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine’ in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), pp.118-32, p.124.
Written by Steph Reeves.
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