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smoking hot: why we find self-destructive women so sexy

Image by Maurizio

Image by Maurizio

At Paris Fashion Week in 2011, supermodel Kate Moss walked down the Louis Vuitton runway while languorously smoking a cigarette. It was No Smoking Day, and Moss, who rose to fame on the back of the heroin-chic trend, was dressed in dark lace, fur and hot pants. Images of her captured on the day reek not only of tobacco, but of an insouciant rebellion that excited a media frenzy. According to newspapers in the UK, Moss had stolen Vuitton’s show.

Over at The Guardian, Fashion Editor Jess Cartner-Morley attributed the intensity of the degree to which watching Moss smoke and strut compelled her audience to the fact that the world loves nothing more than a ‘beautiful girl who’s a little bad’. It’s a plausible hypothesis, but new research conducted by University of Adelaide media academic, Dr Peter Pugsley, suggests that more complex factors may be at work. According to Pugsley, smoking has been portrayed as both glamorous and sexy in French and Chinese cinema in recent years and is consistently used as a prop, signaling that a female character is a ‘femme fatale’. If this is the case, then it follows that the reason Moss was so magnetic on the runway was not just that she is a beautiful girl with a bad streak, but that her badness lends her a mysterious sense of power, a seductive aura that bewitches both men and women.

Pugsley thinks ‘smoking on screen can be viewed as a sign of potential change towards empowerment, individualism and increased risk taking for young women’. I can appreciate his point of view: smoking is certainly seen as louche and unfeminine these days, the kind of behaviour that a ‘responsible’ and ‘mature’ young woman (the 21st Century code words for a ‘good girl’) would never engage in, and on that level, truly can be read as an act of empowerment or an expression of individualism. However, I’m not sure that my own opinion dovetails with Pugsley’s given that his research also reveals that femme fatales’ smoking is consistently sexualised, with cinematic imagery becoming suggestive as heroines engage in behavior that’s widely considered self-destructive.

Men who smoke are also sometimes portrayed as alluring (see: sex symbol, James Dean), but they’re just as often portrayed as bumbling fools (see: Seinfeld’s George Costanza). Our culture, on the whole, seems less obsessed with and enamored by men’s subterranean darknesses, their tendencies to turn their distresses inward and become careless or hateful towards their own bodies. This begs the question: why is women’s self-destruction so sexually compelling, while men’s self-destruction is interpreted in keeping with the rest of their character?

An examination of the other self-destructive behaviours often associated with ‘femme fatale’ characters proved revelatory for me in terms of answering this question. If we take Moss – and by extension, the heroin-chic movement that she was at the forefront of popularising – as our first case study, these behaviours include: drug and substance abuse, anorexia, and a manner (or at the very least, a public persona) that constantly borders on both nonchalance and belligerence. All of these behaviours have one thing in common: they increase an individual’s frailty. Long term abuse of drugs and alcohol weaken the body and mind, as does anorexia, and while a belligerent manner might initially come across as powerful, it also carries a high likelihood of being distancing, isolating ‘femme fatales’ from their community in a way that is probably not conducive to the maintenance of their mental health.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Lana Del Rey’s fictionalised persona. Del Rey is the embodiment of a melancholic femme fatale and her titles – including Pretty When I Cry, Ride and Fucked my Way Up to the Top – point, with a languorousness that manages to rival Moss’ cigarette-puffing, to the fact that, for women, weakness (particularly weakness achieved via self-destruction or self-flagellation) and sexual attractiveness are all too often intertwined. An uncomfortable awareness of this seems to motivate the sadness that permeates Del Rey’s music. It doesn’t matter that she’s crying, because she’s pretty when she does it and it doesn’t matter that Kate Moss and all the other femme fatales are destroying their lungs because they’re sexy when they do it.

The façade of the femme fatale might be all power and raw sex appeal, but interestingly enough it would seem that the archetype has more in common with the Damsel in Distress than might first appear to meet the eye. Both characters are magnetic not for their strength, but for their weakness. It’s the way that frailty is curated and performed, however, in the case of the femme fatale that gives her a deceptive power, a dangerous allure that makes young women want to transform themselves into her by wreathing themselves in cigarette smoke.

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