Noir Gender Dynamics in Fargo

Curator's Note

To borrow from a different Coen Brothers film, Jerry Lundegaard’s in a tight spot. The opening scene of their film Fargo (1996) establishes Jerry as a man neutered in his own marriage. His harebrained scheme to kidnap his own spouse is an effort to reclaim dominance in a domestic sphere run by Jerry’s father-in-law vis-à-vis his wife. Defenseless male protagonists are often coupled with domineering, hyper-assertive women in Coen films, be it The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man (2009), or Harry Pfarrer in Burn After Reading (2008).  In the clip shown here, we see how his unsure neuroticism manifests when interrogated by Marge.

This dynamic is a variant descended from film noir. In noir, such as the scene featured from Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity, the man is led down a path of destruction after a commanding woman enters his orbit. Against his better judgment, the man falls under the femme fatale’s spell and indulges in these tabooed pleasures. Double Indemnity, however, ends in their mutual ruin. Walter cannot contain Phyllis and so sets out to “bring her down." This is their punishment for societal nonconformity. By contrast, Jerry petulantly rebels against his domestic coupling because it renders him “feminized.” He awoke from the spell, and now wants out.

It is debatable whether the Coens earnestly fear powerful women, or instead skewer men who quake at enduring a subservient role. Since they work in pastiche forms, the noir dynamic of disdainful awe for the powerful, domineering woman could be a parody of the neurotic male psyche. The haziness of their intentions opens a debate over pastiche filmmaking tactics more generally. The varying degrees of audience recognition leave the Coens vulnerable to charges of genuine sexism and patriarchal bias even if their intent is the opposite. The question remains, then, whether an artist can dismantle (without reinforcing) gender stereotypes by employing those very generalizations.


The femme fatale is such a debatable figure from noir and popular culture more broadly that she really seems an appropriate type of character to employ in such pastiche-driven neo-noir narratives. Your post really speaks to how we can recognize the familiar contours of the femme but that she also sparks debate about her meaning – there seems to be an inherent ambiguity in the degree and type of power that she wields for herself and ‘over’ other characters. I wonder though if there is a difference in the type of power Marge and Jean wield in comparison to the type of femme we see with Phyllis in Double Indemnity? Conventionally the femme is usually regarded through a straight male gaze – Walter’s desire for Phyllis is his undoing (though he’s cognizant of that undoing and plans to ‘bring her down.’) In addition to Phyllis’ actions, it seems it is also her sexually desirable body that weakens and challenges Walter. If we read some of the Coens’ female characters as femmes fatales then, could their narratives be interpreted as a means of troubling the typical sexualized nature of the femme of film noir?

Thanks for your response, Emily. I think you are spot-on to differentiate Marge/Jean, and Phyllis. Marge and Jean's power both seem to derive from their success in their respective spheres (Marge at the workplace, Jean at home). Their success triggers Jerry's anxiety because it inversely diminishes his power: if Jean runs a tight ship at home, she becomes its de facto leader at Jerry's expense; if Marge succeeds in her job, Jerry will endure significant legal hardship. I think it's fair to say that ultimately their self-actualization (as opposed to any physical allure they may possess) is the greatest threat to Jerry's sense of self. I think you are absolutely right that the femme fatale of neo-noir disrupts the traditional conception of that archetype. The neurotic concern is still present, just now sourced by different characteristics.

I hadn't considered Marge/Jean as lethal women before so bringing that figure in is a really unique angle to both the theory of femmes fatales and interpretations of Fargo. I agree with you here as well, thanks for parsing out some of the differences. Perhaps the Fargo women provoke a neurotic anxiety in Jerry that's based on perceived financial (Jean) and professional/legal (Marge) power. Perhaps Jean's financial power is actually paternal though, since Jean's 'value' (in Jerry's eyes) is directly tied to her father's wealth. Jean's relative actualization seems to be connected to the men in her life. Another point: Marge too seems so completely in control and calm in this scene, making Jerry seem even more comical and neurotic - perhaps there's an inversion of stereotypes there that's being played with. Perhaps!

Good comments so far. This is certainly a large looming question ripe for discussion, and a topic that I've struggled with for some time now. In terms of female roles in the Coen Bros' films, on one side I applaud Julianne Moore's character in The Big Lebowski, an independent feminist artist who wants to have a child, but not necessarily a partner. One the other side, I would also bring up the Coen's No Country for Old Men (2008), another film with troubling gender dynamics, as the role of women in the film is quite minimal, and the question of female agency within the film is certainly debatable. For now, I find that the Coen bros are always more interested in dissecting various aspect of masculinity (castration and family dynamics in The Big Lebowski, the notions of family in Raising Arizona, masculine violence of No Country for Old Men). The question of femininity is bundled deep inside these explorations, making them tough to suss out.

I'm on side with you, Jacqueline, that the Coens seem to focus on violent masculinity in many of their films. No Country for Old Men is a prime example, and I would suggest, is also related to the Western genre they're drawing on there, which is conventionally hyper-masculine (True Grit also comes to mind). Your comment reminds me that the killer's actions (Anton) in No Country are very much motivated by a desire to mete out possible competition, and to spare others who he feels are not worth his time (e.g. violent efforts). While there are lots of examples of Anton victimizing other men, it's not clear how Carla Jean fares for instance. We're not sure if she is spared or killed in this scene; not sure whether Anton sees her as a threat to his killer image for instance, if he spares her. Female agency in the film is pretty debatable, as you say.

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