Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2009


Department of English and Film Studies


Feminist critics tend to disagree whether the parachuting of women into traditionally male roles—for example, that of detective—results in a feminist representation. The female detective of the 1930s, however, can be seen to offer a decidedly positive feminist hero in that she defies the stereotype of the “masculine” (i.e. unnatural) woman—especially when one considers the time in which she appeared and representations of female detectives in contemporary film. Despite popular conceptions of classical film, Hollywood did offer progressive representations of working women, ironically in the decade characterized by economic and social upheaval during the Depression. The prolific female detective of 1930s B-films and series is an independent woman who puts her career ahead of the traditional female pursuits of marriage and a family, and who chases a mystery as actively and with greater success than the men who populate the police department or a rival newspaper’s staff. However, during World War II and especially its aftermath, the representation of the female detective began to change, and the independent woman came to be depicted as all but the criminal herself.

In this paper, I explore the representation of the female detective in film noir of the 1940s and the shift from the celebration of the independent and career-oriented woman to her demonization. Critics of film noir have discussed at length the figure of the femme fatale as dangerous femininity but noir’s female investigative protagonists have been ignored. In this paper, I will discuss how the sex of the investigating protagonist complicates the traditionally male noir detective narrative. The result is a hybridization of generic conventions: the narrative is driven forward as much by the female protagonist’s personal desires as with many types of melodrama (specifically the woman’s film) as by her investigation as with a detective film; however, at the same time, the heroine’s independence as a detective poses an undesirable challenge to the masculinity of her husband (or husband-to-be) as with film noir. Just as the maternal melodrama demanded a woman make personal sacrifices to facilitate her daughter’s success in the world, so too do these noir films demand the sacrifice on the part of the female protagonist to see the man she loves returned to his “proper” place as head of the household. Thus, I term these films “maritorious melodramas” as opposed to maternal as they see the female protagonist “excessively devoted” to her husband in the noir films Phantom Lady (Siodmak 1944), Black Angel (Neill 1946), and Woman on the Run (Foster 1950), the heroine is offered simultaneously as a progressive image of femininity—because she occupies the center of, and drives forward, the investigative narrative—and as a contained one—because ultimately she is proven incompetent as a detective and is returned to the prescribed social role of devoted and sacrificing wife.


This article was originally published in Journal of Film and Video, 61(3), Fall 2009, pp. 24-39. © 2009 by Philippa Gates. Reproduced with permission.