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Assuming the Role of the Demon Woman: Sarah Bernhardt, Luisa Casati, Theda Bara, Rebellious Roleplay and Satanic Feminism
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Ethnology, History of Religions and Gender Studies, History of Religions.
2013 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

The paper treats three individuals (Sarah Bernhardt, the Italian marchioness Luisa Casati and silent film actress Theda Bara) during the years 1880–193. Both onstage and offstage they actively assumed the role of the demon woman, an endavour which to a varying extent also incorporated satanic motifs. They chose—or, in one case, were chosen—to embody the (more or less supernatural) femme fatale, constructed by male authors and artists, and seemingly felt this was enjoyable, empowering or useful for commercial purposes. My analysis attempts to tease out some of the implications this enacting of a sinister stereotype had on an individual level as well as in a broader cultural context.

Bernhardt wore a bat hat and serpent jewelry, at times derided Christianity and even sculpted a self-portrait of herself as Satan or a demon. Casati practiced magic and threw curses, dressed up as Satan in the Garden of Eden, commissioned a mural of herself as Eve consorting with Lucifer, and organized parties with staff in devil costumes. Bara was presented by the Fox publicity department as a real-life demon woman, and in her films played vampiric femme fatales who punished and tormented males. Many of the films had titles where Satan was mentioned, and in one of them she even turned out to literally be the Devil in disguise.

The choice of demonic imagery for these identity games tells us something about exactly what the taboos and limits these women consciously transgressed and mocked were tied up with: conservative Christian values. Embracing demons, satanic serpent motifs, and the macabre thus functioned as a critique of such values, and was one of the registers of symbolic resistance available for rebellious women to draw on at the time. In Bara’s case, the demonic persona was not devised by herself, but is an example which is of more interest because of the audience response to it and what it says about shifts in use of Satan as a marker of female rebellion. Satanism, or flirting with the satanic, is always a language of resistance to conventions, which may be more or less articulate when it comes to specific cultural criticism. The use of Gothic and Satanic symbolism by fiercly independent women would accordingly have resonated with notions in the wider culture, and, with figures as highly public as these using it, must have created echoes far beyond their intimate sphere. It thus strengthened the ties between such symbolism and female emancipation. Taking all this into account, it is reasonable to see these women as participants in the amorphous fin-de-siècle discourse of satanic feminism.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
Sarah Bernhardt, Luisa Casati, Theda Bara, femme fatale, roleplay, identity, feminism, Satanism, Esotericism
National Category
History of Religions
Research subject
History of Religion
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-99710OAI: diva2:688195
Evil, Women, and the Feminine: 5th Global Conference
Available from: 2014-01-16 Created: 2014-01-16 Last updated: 2014-01-16

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