In Snapshots of Dangerous Women, a charming book of found photographs dating from the first half of the 20th century and assembled by Peter J. Cohen, anonymous young women are pictured doing all the things ladies did not do: riding a motorbike or a bronco, practicing extreme calisthenics, fake wrestling, fake boxing, exposing a thigh to hitch a ride, preparing to shoot an arrow, sporting painted mustaches, wearing men’s clothes, or proudly posing with a rifle next to a large dead alligator. They drink from bottles—beer or booze—and smoke cigarettes, sometimes a cigar. One smokes a pipe.
Sports, hunting, liquor, tobacco: They’re goofing around with men’s toys. The innocence of the images is joyful and bracing. In the introduction to the book, the curator Mia Fineman writes, “She’s vamp, vixen, virago, seductress, enchantress, femme fatale,” but these young women are not trying to seduce anyone.
Today, impudence has been replaced by vulgarity. The 2015 version of goofing around has been codified by Internet porn and reality TV. If the girls in these photographs were doing what ladies don’t do in this century, they’d be acting like minor stars: flashing hairless pudenda; groping one another; mooning; scrapping in a limo while wearing borrowed dresses, borrowed diamonds, hair extensions, and nails so long they can barely hold their ubiquitous champagne glasses. They’d be squawking about boob jobs, taking selfies with the new boobies, getting wrecked, getting really wrecked, throwing up, getting wrecked some more, taking pills from strangers, snorting, shooting up, screaming at their lawyers to up the alimony, making a sex tape.
Around the world, women are still fighting for their rights. Last year, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for going to school, was, at 17, the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. But the sorry fact is that when other girls her age pose for pictures, it’s usually to show their asses.
There’s a crazy role reversal here: The more power women have—consider Hillary Rodham Clinton, Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, and Janet Yellen—the more social pressure there is for young women to be seen as grasping, sexual beings. On Saturday nights, city streets swarm with drunken girls in tight dresses and spikes, on a collective prowl for banker prey.
Truly dangerous women, on the other hand,aren’t looking for dates or husbands, and they do not travel in packs. They rarely have many female friends. Their register is either universal, or intensely personal. They play mind games and make promises. Whether they deliver or not remains a secret, and secrets are essential to seduction. The Web has eroded every notion of privacy and stolen the real power of women: the threat of mystery itself.
“I can see you’re trouble” was once the biggest compliment a man could pay a woman. There was going to be a dark spiral into the whirlpool of sex; there were going to be tears on both sides, secrets and regrets, scandal. Today, everyone is trouble, but mistresses are still forbidden. The divorce lawyers are happy. Andy Cohen is happy. Porn-grade sex has been co-opted by the system, as necessary to social advancement as a good tennis backhand once was—see Tatler’s etiquette advice on threesomes. But porn-grade sex is the bland, repetitive grinding of hairless pistons. It’s not half as much fun as the black and white “smokers” made in the 1920s without sound, the faces indistinct, by directors who knew plot and rhythm.
A woman’s quickest path to mystery has always been to dress like a man, which elicits the question, “What is her game? Is she—or isn’t she? Which side is she on?”
The French novelist George Sand infuriated everyone in the 19th century when she wore trousers to wander freely through Paris, and, in 1930, Marlene Dietrich caused a scandal when she appeared in a tuxedo in the film Morocco. In the ’60s, women in pants caused agitation at debutante balls and five-star restaurants. Nan Kempner famously removed her trousers in the ladies’ room of La Côte Basque because the dress code didn’t allow pants for women.
Designers, sensing social change, abetted women in their transformation. The first step Coco Chanel took in forever changing women’s wardrobes was to appropriate the jackets, trousers, sweaters, shirts, and hats of her lovers. Fifty years later, when Yves Saint Laurent established the new essential wardrobe for women, its elements were all masculine: trousers, jackets, shirts, trenchcoats, and for night, le smoking, a version of Dietrich’s costume in Morocco, minus the starched shirt.Mary Quant’s mini was for the free-’60s chick; in the ’70s, Diane von Furstenberg gave empowered-yet-sexy women a dress that could hold its own in a boardroom but would dissolve at the tug of a belt. And if Claude Montana’s and Thierry Mugler’s imperious shoulders embodied the ’80s dominatrix, Christian Lacroix’s aggressive ruffles seemed made for her counterpart, the trophy wife. Although each style gave women a new persona that would eventually become absorbed as a collective costume and lose both mystery and danger, some mavericks stand out: the model Veruschka, who liked to go about dressed as Saint Simeon Stylites; and Loulou de la Falaise, Saint Laurent’s giggling, reckless muse, her flat chest bedecked with jeweled ropes, her head wrapped in casual turbans.
The last frontier was nudity. At the same time as he gave women le smoking, Saint Laurent presented chiffon evening blouses through which full breasts and nipples could be seen. The designer may have been looking back to the classic vamp, but the veiled nudity was a sign of things to come.
Vamp mystery relies on the belly dancer exotica of kohl, veils, and cigarettes: Theda Bara in the movies, Mata Hari the spy dancer in real life. The Marchesa Luisa Casati wore so much eye makeup that in his portrait of her, Man Ray gave her four eyes.
The cigarette has always said “bad girl.” In fashion photographs from the ’50s, it told the reader that the model cared more about her own pleasure than she did anyone’s gaze. It remains an outlaw accessory, suggesting, perhaps, a handgun in the handbag or, at the very least, a disregard for the notion of a long life. Cigarettes, now all but banned in movies, have made a comeback on cable and Netflix as shorthand for danger: When Robin Wright smokes in House of Cards, we know she’s bad at heart.
Charlotte Rampling is the most enduring dangerous woman of modern times. It’s the hooded eyes, the disdain for convention, the choice of extreme roles, the mystery. Forty years ago, she posed for Helmut Newton naked on a table, a glass of wine in hand, a pack of cigarettes in front of her. Today, she no longer smokes, but she still poses nude—see Juergen Teller’s 2009 story for the French magazine Paradis—and appears, dressed in a tuxedo, in the new François Nars campaign, a stunning beauty of 68 with an implacable gaze.
A dangerous woman can be friendly and like a good joke, but she can also eat you alive.
The original goddesses were pitiless expressions of nature. Mesopotamian kings had to pledge allegiance to the Neolithic great goddess Astarte, who spent her time creating and destroying. The Hindu goddess Durga had eight or 10 hands, three eyes, and drank the blood of her enemies; Kali devoured the entrails of her consort Shiva. In Greece, the Maenads were devotees of Dionysus, god of wine and frenzy. You see them dancing around Greek vases with ivy on their heads, accessorized with the occasional snake scarf. But at the climax of their orgies, they tore men apart and ate them raw.
This is the way most men see their ex-wives.
Which brings us to the interesting fact that dangerous women are never known as wives. They can be ex-wives, but their identity does not come from their husbands. A husband dissipates the danger, and so does a single overwhelming love story. Elizabeth Taylor is too entwined with Richard Burton to be a dangerous woman, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, in or out of power, will always be, for many, Mrs. Bill Clinton.
On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher was married, but her husband wasn’t the point of her life. Oddly, many of the men in her cabinet admitted to being in sexual thrall to her. Catherine de Medici ruled France from behind the throne in the 16th century, and Catherine the Great ruled Russia in the 18th. You know the names of their counselor sidekicks, Richelieu and Potemkin, but you probably can’t recall the names of their husbands. That’s power.
It’s the same thing with performers. Those who manifested raw female power are known for what they did, not whom they loved: Jeanne Moreau, Janis Joplin, Marianne Faithfull, Aretha Franklin, Faye Dunaway (in Network, Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde), Mae West, who showed she knew it was all a joke. Josephine Baker, who shook up Paris in the ’20s; Patti Smith, who remains untamed. Louise Brooks was a danger onscreen and off, and men exhausted themselves trying to write about her.
The most memorable onscreen seductress of late is the voice of Scarlett Johansson as the operating system in Her. Though not human, her character exhibits the primary trait of a dangerous woman: unfaithfulness. When Joaquin Phoenix asks her how many other people she’s currently involved with, she answers—because operating systems and dangerous women are truthful—“8,316.”
Writers, if they’re any good, also tell the truth, break rules, cause chaos: Colette wrote about sex with men and women—and went onstage bare-breasted to earn extra cash. Edith Wharton, despite looking and dressing like a stiff dowager, perfectly described the system that kept women subservient to husbands and fathers, and wrote shocking incest pornography. In her 1973 novel Fear of Flying, Erica Jong excited the imagination of women with the idea of the Zipless Fuck. And 40 years on, Toni Bentley caused just as much of a stir with The Surrender, her memoir about anal sex—which is odd, given the prevalence of porn and the banality of hookups.
To be dangerous, a woman needs to have something more behind her smile than sexual prowess.
Comedians are dangerous because irreverence always threatens the status quo, but not all women comedians are dangerous; some are just very funny: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are too relatable, Joan Rivers was too firmly ensconced in the society that she mocked. Amy Schumer relies a little too much on the word “pussy” to be any kind of threat, though she would like very much to be a bad person. On the other hand, Sarah Silverman and Margaret Cho know no boundaries and inspire palpable fear anytime they begin one of their riffs.
So what do all these dangerous women have in common?A refusal to join the collective prowl, a taste for bucking the system. Their magnetism seduces everyone, not just the chosen mark. They’d rather spend their life kicking ass than kissing it, and they don’t stalk or sext. They charm without seeking to please, and have an autonomy that inspires both desire and dread. There’s a word the Jungians use to describe this charge: “chthonic.” It means of the earth, of the underworld, unafraid of the dark side.
They can be seductresses or saints; in both cases there’s something inviolable about them. Their mission is their own pleasure, whether it’s carnal or mystical.
Dangerous women set out to do the impossible, be it fulfilling a mission or wreaking havoc. They don’t always win. Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, and Boudicca, warrior queen of Britain, suffered defeat; and Cleopatra, despite Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, ended up committing suicide by asp. Joan of Arc was 16 when she gathered an army, chased the English out of France, and got the dauphin crowned king. Three years later, she was burned at the stake for heresy.
“Witch” was the medieval and Renaissance word for “bitch.”
Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen of India, ravaged the states of Uttar and Madhya in the 1980s before laying down her rifle at a picture of Gandhi and another of Durga. Once she became a politician—and a legitimate part of the system—she was assassinated.
Dangerous women don’t get much sympathy from fate.
In 2012, three girls from the Russian art collective Pussy Riot jumped onto the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, wearing short dresses, bright tights, and balaclavas, and pranced around in an anti-Putin “Punk Prayer.” All three were arrested; two of them, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were held in prison for more than a year, where they were subjected to a series of ignominies.
I met them when they came to New York for the Women in the World Summit. Prison, it seemed, had snuffed much of their spark. But standing near them was another woman who seemed to draw all the light in the room. About 40, muscular and curvy, she had long black hair and wore tight pants and boots. She had bits of things hanging off her vest—I imagined them to be totems, but they might have only been fringe. Her handshake was firm, her eyes intense. She seemed aglow. Everyone around her faded away, as if all the color and life had gone to her, though she was dressed in black. This is the real thing, I thought.
I asked someone who she was: Ruslana Lyzhychko, the Ukrainian singer who won the Eurovision contest in 2004 with a Ural techno-pop song called “Wild Dances.” When I watched the video for “Wild Dances,” I saw that it was three quarters of the way to a full-on Maenad revel, held back only by show business and kitsch. During the protests in Kiev that spanned the autumn of 2013 and the early part of 2014, it was Ruslana who sang the Ukrainian national anthem in Maidan Square for 100 days and nights. She has, of course, received innumerable death threats.
When you meet a woman so connected to a raging beam of life force, you understand exactly the measure of that power. A dangerous woman should summon the furies of talent in the service of a cause.
Women’s power is too potent to waste on selfies.