You Can Make Him Like You

subversion, exhaustion & “Fatale”

When I saw The Hold Steady last spring with a few friends who weren’t big fans of the band, I could see their eyes roll when they went into “You Can Make Him Like You”. The cringeworthy intro — a male voice reassuring “you don’t have to deal with the dealers, let your boyfriend deal with the dealers”. It’s a gross encouragement that continues through a whole list of things you’ll never have to be & do for yourself as long as your boyfriend is around, until it gets to a refrain that repositions those expectations:

If you get tired of your boyfriend’s things,
there’s always other boys, there’s always other boyfriends.
If you get tired of your boyfriend’s scene,
there’s always other scenes, there’s always other boyfriends.

The “boyfriend” that at first seems to be a specific character is positioned instead as a flexible role. The unnamed girl in the song subsumes her identity behind that of her boyfriend, but her boyfriend isn’t a fixed person — it’s a transient identity. She’s the constant, even as her identity is minimized (but perhaps, this refrain suggests, that’s due to her own agency). The twist is small, a half step, but an interesting one. It’s a catchy song.

The character of Josephine, the titular femme of Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser)’s recently completed Image Comics series Fatale, operates in a similar way. The series blends Lovecraftian horror, historical period pieces, and crime noir. It’s a series that portays brutal misogyny (a mainstay of crime noir, horror fiction and American history) at every turn, but empowers its female lead the same way “You Can Make Him Like You” does—through her unexpected permanence.

The femme fatale is a stock character of a heavily misogynistic genre (noir, or crime, or, unfortunately, just about everything). She’s immensely powerful in the moment, even if her manipulative abilities are largely reliant on sexual appeal to men. Like many of the character archetypes for women with power, she can be played as empowering or a hollow shell. She’s sort of evil — unless she isn’t. She might need saving, or you might need saving from her. Her evil intent might be played as an ambiguity (even an inevitability) throughout the entire work, or as a twist ending. She’s probably in a relationship with some kind of villain who treats her wrong. She’s double-crossed at least one person. She puts her own interests before everyone else’s. She can be yet another tired example of attractive female dishonesty (women, amiright?) but when surrounded by portrayals of exclusively submissive or maternal women, she can also be a breath of fresh air. Women in noir may be overwhelmingly likely to be ‘either evil or dead’, but the men often are too — we’ve just got a cultural blindspot for overidentifying amoral men as admirable heroes. In a culture oversaturated with male antiheroes, female characters are still trapped in the paradigm of “likeability” and amoral women are still all too rare. Noir stories are hopeless worlds populated with desperate people, and the frankness of a woman who only performs “likeability” when it suits her own agenda makes a fighter who fits perfectly in that world.

But the control the femme fatale holds within the story is undone by the meta-narrative. Noir, like any crime genre, is frequently built in the form of a series. And case to case, the investigator stays the same, but the crimes (or victims, who are so often dead women) are new, and the dangerous girls are new. The woman who had figured out how to play the game, that dangerous, unpredictable woman who always had an overarching plan, the one who played the field for every inch of agency the crooked world would give her, is gone. With minimal continuity, it is as if she never existed. Her absence seemingly leaves no mark upon the text. By the omission of any lasting impact, her supposed power is erased. And the detective stays. There’s always other girls, there’s always other girlfriends. There’s always other deadly dames.

And here is Fatale’s biggest reversal—the only one present through every story arc is Josephine (with the partial exception of Volume 3, which collects single-issue one-shots set in different time periods). While men come and go from arc to arc (even Nicholas Lash, narrator of the turn-of-the-century-style frame tale that opens and closes the series), Josephine is permanent.

Her permanence is so extreme, it’s actually something terrible, as her immortality is revealed to be exhausting. And understandably so. Large chunks of the series at once can certainly be exhausting for a reader. The story that in the first arc is exhilarating (especially with its smooth genre mashup and immersive, atmospheric art) gets more draining on each repetition. Reading volumes 2, 3 & 4 in a row on a rainy Saturday afternoon physically made my stomach ache. The recurrence is unrelenting. There’s always other boys, there’s always other boyfriends.

The central tragedy of Fatale is that Josephine’s curse is not especially fantastical. Like any fiction, it’s an exaggerated truth. What if, the series’ premise posits, the femme fatale was not just a beautiful, manipulative woman — what if she couldn’t help it, her pull was actually magic, the enchantment of something older and more than human? Every man around her wants something from her. Every man around her has terrible intentions, eventually. Every man falls in love with her, or at least he thinks so. She can’t show anyone too much attention without danger. They just wants a moment of her time. Every man in the bar just wants to light her cigarette. She inspires loyalty, but it’s the kind that could at any moment turn obsessive, deranged, violent. She can never rely on men. She can’t stop it from happening. Every man wants to possess her. In order to maintain her power, she needs, to some extent, to feed off them. Their fixation on her is unerringly, inevitably, sexual—eventually, and most disturbingly, even in the case of her own son. Almost every man in Fatale fits into a crowded Venn Diagram of those who love Josephine and those who want to kill her (the exceptions, a few interesting cases, probably deserve their own essay-length examination). The way men see & feel about her is unerringly consistent and wholly inescapable. Her sex appeal is a double-edged sword, a power that, no matter how expertly wielded, causes more trouble than advantage.

Josephine embodies a sort of misogynist fantasy excuse—I couldn’t help it, she made me do it, I just can’t control myself around her, there’s just something about her, it’s her fault I act this way — but not because of any innate or natural trait. It’s a curse that was place on her by the demonic cultists that chase her and her allies through the eras. Just like any woman about whom those justifications are quoted, she was assigned that role. Men and monsters made her this way, and all she can do now is work within it.

While there are a few moments of revenge fantasy in the series, it would have been interesting to see Josephine with more female allies, more moments of camaraderie. But perhaps the isolation is the point. Just like everything else in noir, it’s exaggerated to the point of hopelessness.

They say you don’t have a problem, until you start to do it alone,
They say you don’t have a problem, until you start bringing it home,
They say you don’t have a problem, until you start sleeping alone.

Both stories walk a tricky line. Both are written by men. Both are consumed by plenty of male fans. (The oft-repeated lack of women who read comics has always been somewhere between a misconception and literal erasure, but there’s no denying that comic book readers include a healthy contingent of male fans. Literary 70s-revival-sounding dadrock bands certainly don’t have a lack of them either.) My personal reading is murky enough gender politics that plenty of people might rightly feel it isn’t worth it. Hatred and dismissal of women is so ingrained in our real lives, let alone our media consumption, that choosing to encounter more of it is overwhelming. Being Josephine, even just for a moment, is exhausting. There’s always other boys. Even if the misogyny is in the villains and the world-building rather than the heroes or the framing of a story, it isn’t always enough to make a difference when you’re that tired. Sometimes you just can’t read one more story with only one real woman in it, no matter how sharp a point it’s making about the things we put women through.

The girl in the song seems to be the tired one herself. Getting a boyfriend to deal with the dealers “only gets inconvenient when you wanna get high alone” and letting your boyfriend direct the cab “only gets kind of weird when you wanna go home alone”. The rest of the time, it’s just easier. She may be less sharp-edged, but like the femme fatale, she’s just using what little she’s given to get what she can. Is it a stereotype? The person who relies on a relationship to shore up their identity, codependent on an idea rather than a person, isn’t a myth. They’re at least somewhat familiar to us.

As Craig Finn introduces it on the band’s live album A Positive Rage, “Someone told me last night this song’s mean, but I just think it’s true. You can make him like you.” The title offers an obvious play — you can make him like you, and then you can make him like you. Like any character in a Hold Steady song, this girlfriend likely occupies a spiral of drug addictions, hardcore bands, and the occasional old-school Catholic resurrection. You could maybe feel bad for him. The men who love Josephine end up dead or consumed by eldritch madness. She certainly harbors more than a little guilt about it. Josephine is not the wholly heartless femme fatale. The curse, to some extent, actually limits her agency to be unlikeable, as she manipulates men solely by walking into a room—she couldn’t choose not to do it. This doesn’t prevent her from still playing the role at times. When we first see her, she appears a classic case (as presented by a married reporter who’s falling for her), complete with an aging crooked cop in the role of her no-good boyfriend. As the arc continues, this initial dynamic is revealed to be only a small piece of the supernatural truth. Jo is not a deadly, heartless girl made of diamonds and pearl handles. She’s humanized, our noir protagonist. Like any desperate lead, just doing what they can to get by.

The final issue of the series.

The series ends with our heroine slowly released from permanence, free in a final way. The only way for a noir lead to find any lasting happiness is for their series to end. Nick, her most recent lover, who offers narration, viewpoint, and initial audience surrogacy, meets a worse fate. Jo is relieved and unafraid, finding she got what she wanted. Growing old, no longer under the curse, she finds herself pleasantly invisible to the panopticon of male gaze that has plagued her for so long. She’s dying on her own terms, something so few women in noir are allowed to do. “You Can Make Him Like You” trails off on the refrain, continuing the cycle in its addiction, its comfort and its limitation. You can only fit so much closure into a two and a half minute song. Just how empowered can you get in a framework that’s totally working against you? Is Fatale enough of a subversion to make something clean out of a messed-up world? The loaded history of all its influences? Are these salvageable ideas? They’re open questions, I think. There’s more success at some points than others. But they both give us a little more than they appear to at first glance.

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