Femme Fatale and The Female Criminal

When I worked on the Bunyip to Beautiful exhibition for Museums Australia (WA) last year at uni, we spent a lot of time discussing, revising, deliberating, even arguing about how to write the text for the panels. We were concerned with the tension between fact and opinion, being objective but creating atmosphere, being educational but interesting (perhaps not necessarily a dichotomy), showing respect to different parts of the community and being inclusive, being responsible in the information we provided but wanting to pull out the most fascinating. It was tough. Some of the hardest, longest, most exhausting uni classes I’ve been to. Despite all this, when I look at the panels now (you can go to Whiteman’s Park to see them!), I still see things I’d prefer were different.

I imagine that when working on an exhibition for a state museum, the stakes are higher. So when I went to see the fascinating Femme Fatale: the female criminal exhibition that had travelled here from the Police and Justice Museum in Sydney, I was very surprised that some of the text jumped out at me as uncomfortably written given the context. This led to a fairly critical (as in analytical) viewing of the exhibition and I came up with some interesting questions.

The exhibition seemed to have at its core the juxtaposition of the mass culture image of the femme fatale and the reality of Sydney’s female criminals. These two sides were somewhat chronologically mismatched – the femme fatale section used 1940s-60s films mostly, while the criminals were from the 1920s. While I loved the two sections of the exhibition – both were fascinating – it was like being in two different exhibitions at once. Except for some introductory text, there was little connection made between these two ideas. Visitors were left to wander from screen sirens to poverty-stricken women with hardly anything to guide them.

In fact, the only reference I could really find was around beauty (I use that word deliberately, rather than ‘appearance’). The underlying message of the femme fatale part of the exhibition was (as usual) how beautiful women can be dangerous, even deadly. There was an incredible collection of film clips and posters that clearly played on this – this is, after all, the popular idea of the ‘femme fatale’. In the female criminal section there were sometimes – not always – references made to the relative attractiveness of the woman as part of a very small piece of text. Sometimes this was a direct quote from contemporary sources (either police files or newspapers) and sometimes a curator’s observation. This disturbed me. Where they looking for a real femme fatale? What were they trying to do here? In addition, there were many images of women who would not be considered attractive with no mention of their appearance. The conclusion was obviously that these were not beautiful women. But what did that mean? Where they making some comment on reality? On poverty?

“Australian authorities have grappled with how to control wayward women from the moment the first female convicts stepped ashore. The brutal reality faced by notorious female offenders such as ‘the man woman murderer’ Eugenia Falleni, sly grogger Kate Leigh and poisoner Yvonne Fletcher is in stark contrast to the glamour of the noir seductress and pulp novel siren. This exhibition examines these extremes, traversing criminological theory, popular culture and the true stories of some of our most notorious female criminals.” – Introductory text from the exhibition

While this issue was the big one for me, there was a single sentence that I also wanted to highlight.

“Until 1804 there was little separate accommodation for unassigned female convicts [in Sydney], which inevitably led to promiscuity and prostitution.”

This is a messy sentence. I’m sure they didn’t mean that all these convict women without somewhere safe to sleep either slept around (negative connotations intended) or slept around and charged for it, or that this would happen in the general course of things; that it is “inevitable”. I’d like to think that they meant that without somewhere safe to sleep, it was difficult for the convict population to maintain the moral standards expected of them at the time.

This sentence disturbs me because it places the blame for the situation on the women (while acknowledging that the unmentioned colonial government hadn’t done its job properly). I don’t like the way women are held up to be unable to control themselves in this situation and the suggestion that any woman put in this context would inevitably turn to promiscuity (do we really even use that word any more?!) or prostitution.

It is language like this around women’s lives – contemporary and historical – that I think needs to be pounced on, held up and examined. I won’t go into a big rant here about why I think this is necessary. Suffice to say that I think it has lasting impacts on how women’s lives are understood and controlled in Australia. So, this is me saying: I think this sentence should never have made it through the review process.

Even though I had some issues with the exhibition and the way it was presented, I’d much prefer this than a bland exhibition that has everything correct. I was at the exhibition with a bunch of awesome curators and heritage people and we chatted about it then and last night over dinner with two other star heritage ladies we talked about it more. Gotta love an exhibition that does that!

PS. Can someone please explain to me the thinking behind the seemingly blanket ‘no photos’ rule in big Australian museums. I don’t get it. Hence, no cool pics for this post. And I really wanted to show you the monster dildo!


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