Vintage Sexism: The Femme Fatales of Pulp Fiction

 Image via Retronaut

There’s no doubt that the pulp fiction era spawned a wealth of escapist genres known for over-the-top exaggeration and off beat characters. At it’s height in the early half of the 20th century, pulp fiction earned it’s name from the low-budget paper, or “pulp”, the stories were printed on. These days, the term is more likely to bring to mind the movie of the same name, after all, who could forget when Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace went toe-to-toe at the campy caricature haven, Jack Rabbit Slim’s?

Over the years, pulp fiction’s resurgence into entertainment and fashion reminds us of its cultural significance, but while the depictions of women may seem varied, it’s the lasting impression of pulp’s portrait of what’s feminine that’s worth a closer look. When pulp’s heroines find empowerment, it’s often through manipulation or seduction, and a typical narrative leaves the female lead in need of rescue, in peril at the hands of a suitor, or as little more than an object of desire. In honor of National Novel Writing Month, we’re exploring the subtle, and not-so-subtle, sexism of pulp book art in this month’s Vintage Sexism.

Image via Flickr

Above we have the cover of Richard Deming’s 1960 novel, Hit and Run, about a detective who offers to cover up evidence of a couple’s involvement in a hit-and-run accident. As he falls deeper under the spell of our main vixen, its revealed that she’s not as innocent as she seems, and is willing to go to great lengths to cover up her involvement in the accident, hence the semi-nude sunbathing and nonchalant brandishing of a firearm.


Image via Tumblr
The Girl in the Black Chemise is Les Scott’s answer to 1952’s percolating ambivalence over questions related to marriage, intimacy, and traditional roles. The novel is a sordid love triangle between Tom, his wife Bertha, and Iris, his lover. While the storyline alone is worth consideration for a Daytime Emmy, the themes explored exemplify the power of pulp and its influence on an audience of young women and men.


Image via Pulp International
Writer John Flagg isn’t shy with his subtitles. In 1953, he published Woman of Cairo with the addition, “Men said Gina had beauty, but they didn’t know she had brains.” Following the exploits of Gina Ferelli, a socialite of sorts who happens to be smarter than she looks, Woman of Cairo, illustrates the vixen archetype, though to claim this role, she must be calculating, always alluring, and devoid of compassion.

when-she-was Image via The Dusty Loft

The title truly says it all. Richard Starnes published the above whodunit in 1951 and the implication is clearly that good behavior merits reward, while objection, or anyone else’s definition of “bad” behavior leads to arson and first degree manslaughter. Such an outlandish scene is certainly part and parcel of pulp’s hyperbolic nature, and while it’s fair to assume that flashy covers helped to sell these books, it’s important to always consider intent. 

When we think of the major forms of entertainment in the 50s and 60s, pulp is one of the ways people were introduced to cultural changes taking place in society. How do you think the history of pulp has shaped modern femininity? — By Amy, Customer Care Assistant Lead


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  1. Avatar
    swiveltam 11/23/2013 at 8:00 am #

    Being a collector and vintage lifestyle enthusiasts I often find myself at odds with the overt sexism of my favorite eras and it’s fashions. This was an interesting intro to pulp fiction, but I’m not sure I saw the connection with fashion and sexism. Certainly you touched on aspects of the psychology of what was considered “good” and “Bad” but I was hoping for a little more depth and comparison. An actual review of the novels would not go amiss either. Great pictures and good start on this interesting subject.

  2. Avatar
    Eden 05/03/2019 at 7:04 am #

    Dangerous dames have long been a staple of pulp fiction, with the classic femme fatale luring foolhardy men to dire fates on almost a weekly basis during the film noir boom of the 19 and ‘. The phrase alone conjures black-and-white visions of Venetian blinds and countless cigarettes, allegorically exposing male anxieties of powerlessness in a changing post-war world. But the Museum of Fine Arts’ “ Femmes Fatales ” series (running March 2 to 18) makes a case for the archetype evolving through the decades into the present day.

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