Femmes Fatale – The ‘Dangerous Woman’ Narrative

Abstract: From as early as his 1982 Billie Jean short film, it has been apparent that Michael Jackson had a distinct fascination with Film Noir, the Classical Hollywood Cinema movement, which was popularized in the post-war era. In this opinion piece, Jan Carlson carries out an in-depth analysis of a range of Michael Jackson songs devoted in their subject matter to women, and clandestine heterosexual relationships. Through her analysis she challenges dominant views of Jackson as misogynistic and rather, draws new conclusions on Jackson’s portrayal and depictions of the ‘femme fatale’.


Opinion Piece by Jan Carlson, author of ‘Case Study: The Caricature’ in Words and Violence (2013).


The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies asks that you acknowledge The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies as the source of our Content; if you use material from The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies online, we request that you link directly to the stable URL provided. If you use our content offline, we ask that you credit the source as follows: “Courtesy of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies.”


REFERENCE AS:

Carlson, Jan,”Femmes Fatale – The Dangerous Woman Narrative.” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/femmes-fatale-the-dangerous-woman-narrative. Published electronically 21/12/16.


Femmes Fatale – The Dangerous Woman Narrative
By Jan Carlson

Almost all of the authors I have read so far have failed, in my opinion, to delve deeply enough into what are fast becoming known as Michael Jackson’s “femmes fatale” songs, including “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” “Dangerous,” and “Blood on the Dancefloor.” Noting that he returns to the subject matter of the dangerous, manipulative woman who is willing to lie about the paternity of her child, make herself available for sexual favors, and even kill to entrap the narrator of the story into her “web of sin,” almost all of them stop short of what I feel Michael was aiming towards.

Dr. Willa Stillwater, in M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance,1 does note that Michael struggles over the ethical response to the situation in which the narrator of the story finds himself embroiled through no fault of his own. Hers is a psychological reading. He recognizes and acknowledges some of the motivations that may be propelling Billie Jean forward in her determination to secure financial or societal support for her out-of-wedlock conception. Similarly, he recognizes some of the reasons he is pursued by Diana as reflected glory and a “life that’s so carefree”2 as well as his ability to make her a star.

Yet through both songs, he still asks, “Why would a woman disrespect herself to that extent?” And the question remains unanswered. He asks us to resolve the issue for ourselves.

I think much of the response to his overarching question lies in the patriarchal culture which has shaped him (and us) that may not have begun with Paul’s Epistles to his followers, but was certainly given religious sanction by this man who knew the historical Jesus not at all and, therefore, could not be presumed to be speaking for him, which resulted in millions of free-thinking women being burned at the stake, hung, and drowned as witches during the church’s reign of terror known as The Inquisition in the Middle Ages. The latest incarnation of this patriarchal view of reality is the President-elect of the United States of America’s spouting rhetoric in support of repealing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United State of America (women’s suffrage) because most of his supporters are men. Yes, indeed, this happened during the week of October 10, 2016!

However, the universally-accepted, repeated ad nauseum, tired narrative of Michael Jackson’s “fear of women” still seeps through in most overall sympathetic analyses. I think that this reading probably stands on the surface, but requires further examination from a more in-depth, informed perspective because of its over-simplicity. While his music may seem simple, almost all of his collaborators have spoken about the hard work they all went through to achieve that appearance and Michael Jackson’s. own work ethic testifies to the fact that the “tapestry” he wove for this appearance of simplicity was multi-layered and dimensional.

Michael Jackson did not fear women; he revered them and his reverence is clearly evidenced in the way he treated them… with respect and over-the-top gallantry reminiscent of the chivalry of Camelot. There are many levels on which Michael Jackson’s body of work can be understood; there is the surface layer and infinite further layers to explore when one has decoded the musical, sonic, technical and lyrical levels, which Susan Fast admits in Dangerous with the words: “Jackson’s femmes fatales songs all have different narratives and are worthy of a good and thorough study, which is more than I can do here.”3

In my opinion, these songs are parables – philosophical tales that use common, everyday words, situations, and people to illustrate a moral point. They are about seduction in its many and varied disguises – the attraction that forbidden or socially unacceptable situations and people hold for us. While they can be interpreted as sexual seduction, and from that perspective, there is much that is cautionary in these songs, there is also a bigger picture here.

So, let’s take a very brief look at the four songs listed and see if we can find some common factor they all share.

“Billie Jean” talks about a woman who claims that the narrator has fathered her child and the moral dilemma in which the narrator finds himself as a result. Viewed from both protagonist and antagonist perspectives (a phenomenal feat all by itself), the lyrics acknowledge that the narrator “has dreamed of being the one,” … “but the kid is not my son.” In other words, he acknowledges the seductive power represented by the woman, but he has not succumbed to it; “Billie Jean is not my lover.”4 He has not capitulated.

“Dirty Diana” is the story of a woman “who waits backstage for those who have prestige.” In other words, for the performance to be over. “Every musician’s fan,”5 she is ready to give herself to the “boys in the band” for any number of what could be considered by our current societal benchmarks as perfectly understandable reasons, including “a life that’s so carefree” and “I’ll be your everything if you make me a star.”5 While the narrator of the story is attracted strongly to her, he has a “baby” at home to whom he wants and is trying to remain faithful; the seductive power in his attraction is prominent (reinforced by the heavy sensual beat and Michael’s seductive voice), but it is Diana who tells his “baby” that he is “sleeping with her.” He’s still on the fence until that moment and we are not told how the struggle is resolved.

In “Dangerous,” the narrator of the story is strongly attracted to a dangerous woman just because she is dangerous. This is seduction at its most basic level. He can’t trust her and he knows it. He speaks the words of the lead into the song in a hypnotic, fully male, seductive, sexy voice: “her lips are as sweet as a honeycomb, but her spirit is as sharp as a two-edged sword/And I loved it/’Cuz it’s dangerous.”6 All relationships are based on trust from friendships to romantic relationships and everything in between. So, this relationship is strictly taboo, but he is strongly attracted to it, seduced by it. Once again, we are not privy to the resolution of his dilemma.

In “Blood on the Dance Floor,” the narrator tells the story of a “one night stand” and its results. “It’s not about love and romance” and “every hot man’s out takin’ a chance and now you do regret it.”7 Susie is a retaliatory presence in “Blood on the Dance Floor.” Perhaps she just wants vengeance for being used as an object to satisfy the narrator’s desire; perhaps she has become more possessive than the narrator is comfortable with, wanting to hold on to the narrator. Whatever the situation is, the story turns ugly and she wields a knife, ending up with “blood on the dance floor.” “Seven inches in,” a phrase which is repeated quite frequently within the lyrical content of the song, could refer to a dagger or to a certain part of a man’s anatomy!

Now, call me a crazy, lapsed Roman Catholic girl who was well and truly indoctrinated into the Catholic perception of sexuality during her more than twelve years of good Catholic education, but I see every one of these songs as cautionary tales whose morals deal with the prevalent and all-pervasive promiscuity of the early 21st Century, anything-goes morality. From the relative innocence of “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana,” the caution progresses through “Dangerous” and ends up with “Blood on the Dance Floor.”

Michael Jackson’s upbringing in the Jehovah Witness faith, particularly on the discussion of irresponsible sexual encounters, would have been even less permissive than my own at the hands of the black-draped, white-wimpled nuns who taught me … albeit not terribly different from mine… and his reverence of his mother, who was extremely devout, is a well-known and documented fact. He often holds her up as the “ideal” woman, if such a creature exists. One can imagine young Michael being taught the benefits of abstinence (a word not commonly used in our society) at his mother’s knee, especially with her knowledge of her husband’s and older sons’ very obvious rejection of the concept. His sensitivity to her warnings against such indiscriminate behavior, reinforced by being preached often from the pulpit of his local Kingdom Hall, cannot and should not be underestimated.

It’s not a fear of women, nor is it a fear of sex Michael Jackson points to with these songs (his reticence to discuss it in front of 90 million or so of his closest friends on international television broadcasts notwithstanding); it is a warning about the seduction and inherent dangers of the promiscuity that has developed in our culture over the past approximately 50 years! Prior to the 1950s, sexual discussions were repressed. I remember; I was there! As a result of the 1960s “social revolution” and “women’s liberation” movements, the pendulum has definitely swung in the extreme opposite direction without ever achieving equilibrium.

Michael Jackson, in my humble opinion, is crying out that our moral compass has become askew. It is the moral epidemic from which our society suffers which has resulted in increased teenage pregnancy (“Abortion Papers”), overcrowding prisons (“They Don’t Care About Us”), increased social service requirements and homelessness (the short film for “Man in the Mirror.”). It is our lack of respect for ourselves and our planet that have resulted in global warming, burning “forests despite our pleas” and the imminent disaster that may make the human family extinct not long after our tenure here is over (“Earth Song,” “Heal the World,” “We Are Here to Change the World,” etc.).

“It’s an important message I have to give,” he claims in the filmed rehearsals for his O2 concerts entitled This Is It.8 “A message that as yet they haven’t heard,” he sings in “Privacy.”9

I know that this, too, is an over-simplification, but I believe the tentacles do reach further than most of us think and, in my admittedly biased opinion, Michael Jackson was alerting us to that fact in these songs. Our cavalier attitude toward sexual union (among several other prominent issues) has become the prevailing meme to the point at which a “gentleman” is castigated on public television for not revealing every detail of his sexual encounters and his virginity, or lack thereof. [See the Oprah Winfrey interview entitled 90 Prime Time Minutes with the King of Pop10, 1993]

As a result of the prevalence of that meme, such a man is considered almost universally as “unnatural” and public outcry against this particular brand of “unnaturalness” is given worldwide press, escalating, in this case, to rumors and double entendres of criminal trespass against children with absolutely no corroborative evidence to support such claims. “Gentlemen” have become an endangered species in our technologically-advanced society.

Miriam-Webster defines promiscuous as: 1) Having or involving many sexual partners; 2) Including or involving too many people or things: not limited in a careful or proper way. One of the synonyms listed for the word is indiscriminate; another is profligate, which has the definition: 1) Recklessly extravagant or wasteful in the use of resources, 2) Licentious, dissolute… and which lists promiscuous as a synonym.

Bingo!

If one searched for decades for a word to describe the early 21st Century, it would be difficult to find a more apt description than indiscriminate. As a matter of fact, I would like to propose that the term “Generation X” as a moniker for our cultural and societal afflictions be changed to “Generation I” with “I” being derived from the word indiscriminate while also describing our ego-based culture… or “Generation P” for promiscuous.

Let’s face it: We are a promiscuous society and culture. Many of our world’s problems, which are reaching (if they have not already surpassed) the critical stage, stem from our indiscriminate, profligate behavior. Many of Michael Jackson’s songs point to this definition of promiscuous.

We are promiscuous users of the earth’s natural resources, rather than being careful, responsible stewards, which has led us to the brink of disaster he warns us about in “Earth Song” and “Heal the World” and “Planet Earth,” his beautiful love sonnet to the planet from which we all spring. Instead of finding ways to feed our hungry, we send millions of tons of unused food to the bottom of the ocean, thereby harming those we could feed as well as polluting the ocean with our unwanted surplus. Portion sizes in the United States, alone, are enough to feed two or three and what is not eaten is thrown away.

We are promiscuous, indiscriminate consumers of all manner of things from violence to food to drugs to sex to mind numbing video games, to media propaganda, all of which he warns us against in “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” through “Blood on the Dance Floor;” (the femmes fatale songs already treated) from “Tabloid Junkie,” “Privacy,” “Scream,” “Why You Wanna Trip on Me” to “Is It Scary; ”from “Morphine” to “Superfly Sister,” from “Money” to “They Don’t Care About Us.

When we do use our powers of discrimination, we use them irresponsibly against fellow members of our human family who aren’t like “us” for whatever reason – race, phenomenal talent or ability, creed, otherness, geographical location, economic viability, sexual orientation or difference. Michael Jackson does not back away from asking us to look at these issues with depth and sincerity toward “making that change” in “Man in the Mirror,” “Black or White,” “Will You Be There” and “Keep the Faith.”

As a matter of fact, this promiscuous, indiscriminate, profligate consumption forms the backbone of much of Jackson’s later work and he does not shy away from calling it what it is in his creative repertoire – promiscuity – although that fact seems to have escaped much of the world’s attention by an almost universal over-simplification of his work as displaying “paranoia,” “fear of women,” “childish rants and tantrums,” “sappy sentimentality,” “naïve idealism,” or “megalomaniacal tirades.”

In my opinion, those ill-considered readings are interpretations which have long outworn their usefulness, if they ever had any relevance in the first place. When viewed from a slightly different perspective all of the songs listed in the above paragraphs (and possibly many others) have a basis in warning us about our society’s indiscriminate waste and consumption… its promiscuity.

On yet another level, all of the femmes fatale songs are about seduction. There are myriads of things, situations and people that are seductive in our culture. Enticements abound. We can be seduced by sex (which is the application by which the word is most often understood), by drugs, by video games, by drama, by alcohol, by sensationalism, by cigarettes, by acquisition, by power, by upward mobility, by money, by fame, by following every move made by our favorite celebrities, by habit, by propaganda, by media, by fear, by adrenaline rushes. The list is endless.

Seduction infers that there are possible negative effects to these attractions, which overwhelm us, keeping us docile and mindless and preventing us from thinking deeply about the situations in our world that scream for our ingenuity in the hopes of satisfying our attractions. Like the drug addict, we can’t help ourselves; we are seduced.

Now, I am admittedly in thrall, having been totally seduced by Michael Jackson almost twenty-five years ago. I haven’t yet found the negative effect in that seduction, if there is one. When I do, I will inform my readers as quickly and efficiently as possible. At present, I have only gained by this seduction and am entirely grateful for it.

We are seduced by the world that surrounds us or our perceptions of it. Our senses tell us that the physical, material, scientifically-provable world is the only reality; sight, sound, touch, smell and taste are the arbiters of our lives based in the logical, the provable, the measurable, the weigh-able. Yet, we are also endowed with other, less tangible senses: insight, intuition, imagination, intention, inspiration, and creativity. These more spiritually attuned senses we are taught to ignore as we are seduced away from our childhood certainty in the truth of fairy tales by our teenage years. These more spiritually-attuned senses can only be developed through introspection and self-reflection, which are the artist’s purview and to which Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections11 by Michael Jackson provides more than sufficient testimony that he was no stranger.

As the penultimate artist in several genres (including musical composition, innovative film production, massive public spectacle and all the smaller fields that combined to create them), Michael Jackson sings to us about seduction – the seduction of the senses. He warns us that these are magnetic attractions with powers over us we find difficult to resist because of the prevalent view of the physical world as the only reality. Yes, he couches these warnings in the form of woman, but it is the hypnotic effect of seduction he sings about in each of these songs. Most parables use simple, everyday words, events and circumstances that most people can relate to, regardless of age, demographic or cultural allegiance. That is their power.

Yet, within each one of us beats a heart that knows that this cannot be all there is, that this world of greed and consumerism, of power plays and braggadocio, of political upheaval and war and of orphaned and starving children is not the only reality. We search for something to “fill that place in our hearts” that we all know is love and compassion in the many seductions offered to us for our pacification as a baby seeks its mother’s breast, but we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Our cultural seductions just don’t fit.

Michael Jackson demonstrated that place in his heart in every way humanly possible – in his music and lyrical content, in his over-the-top dramatic performances, in his short films and allegories and parables, in his published literary works, in visiting sick and dying children, in contributing huge sums of money to alleviate suffering on a massive scale, in offering a place of refuge and safety to children from inner-city schools, in airlifting medical supplies and toys into war-torn regions, in gathering resources to cut the number of people starving in the world in half (literally), and in musical compositions to accompany his actions – and he is not shy about asking us to help him in his cause.

In his pleas, he is joined by all of our spiritual scriptures from Hindu to Buddhist – Muslim to Christian, and everything in between, which promote love and compassion and tell us that we can be inhabitants of both the world of physical, provable reality and eternal, spiritual reality at the same time. It is not an “either/or” scenario; it is a “both/and” choice. He demonstrated that fact … and at the very highest level imaginable … with every breath he breathed on this planet and continues to do so throughout the ensuing years. He navigated both realities with grace, humor, ingenuity, and dignity, holding to principles long antiquated against nearly insurmountable odds despite unprecedented fame, prolific achievement, wealth, and adversity. In doing so, he showed us that we can do it, too!

After all, as he so succinctly put it, “You’re just another part of me.”12


Jan Carlson, author of ‘Case Study: The Caricature’ in Words and Violence (2013), is a retired Administrative Professional. She is a lifelong observer of music and its relevance to human emotion, and an avid reader of philosophy, history, mythology and ancient cultures. She lives in a rural community in the Midwestern United States where she continues her interminable search for meaning. Find out more about Jan here.


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References:

1. Stillwater, Willa. M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance, Kindle Edition

2. Jackson, Michael. “Dirty Diana” BAD Epic/Sony 1987

3. Fast, Susan. Dangerous, Bloomsbury Academic, p. 129

4. Jackson, Michael. “Billie Jean” Thriller Epic/Sony 1982

5. Jackson, Michael. “Dirty Diana” 2

6. Jackson, Michael. “Dangerous” Dangerous Epic/Sony 1991

7. Jackson, Michael. “Blood on the Dance Floor” Blood on the Dance Floor Epic/Sony 1995

8. Jackson, Michael. This Is It Documentary 2010

9. Jackson, Michael. “Privacy” Invincible Epic/Sony 2001

10. Winfrey, Oprah. Ninety Prime Time Minutes with the King of Pop 1993

11. Jackson, Michael. Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections Doubleday 1991

12. Jackson, Michael. “Another Part of Me” BAD Epic/Sony 1987


REFERENCE AS:

Carlson, Jan,”Femmes Fatale – The Dangerous Woman Narrative.” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/femmes-fatale-the-dangerous-woman-narrative. Published electronically 21/12/16.


The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies asks that you acknowledge The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies as the source of our Content; if you use material from The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies online, we request that you link directly to the stable URL provided. If you use our content offline, we ask that you credit the source as follows: “Courtesy of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies.”

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