Michael Khan, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., was asked if Henrik Ibsen's character Hedda Gabler would be very different had she lived in 2001 instead of 1890. "Well, I don't know how much different she would be if she had the same neuroses as this Hedda had," Khan replied. "I mean, women are allowed to be more powerful in the 21st century, but there are a whole group of women who are still brought up to be like Hedda and still think like Hedda."
Although many can sympathize with Hedda's longing to transcend the bourgeois life into which she married, who can applaud the indifference she displays toward those who admire and love her? "To be like Hedda" is to be cold, ambitious, restless, and careless of human life. While it is fortunate that few people fit this description, our society remains fascinated by those who do. Indeed, our fascination with the femme fatale dates back in history well past the biblical Eve, who damned humanity by enticing her hapless husband to share a piece of forbidden fruit. The prototype has persisted through Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth and on to Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines. Part of our absorption with these temptresses is that they transgress our most sacredly held notions of womanhood. Instead of being nurturing and supportive, women like Hedda Gabler coldly use their sexual powers to manipulate their husbands and lovers, often toying with life itself.
On May 1, 1990, a modernday Hedda Gabler left for work knowing that her teenage lover would kill her husband, Greg, before the day was through. Twentytwoyear old Pamela Smart had dreams of a career in broadcasting and was stuck in an unhappy marriage. Like Hedda Gabler, who deliberately furnishes Eilert Lovborg with the means to commit suicide, the New Hampshire teacher wanted more than anything "to have power over another human being." That power became deadly as Smart convinced fifteenyearold Billy Flynn that he would have to kill her husband if he wanted to continue their affair. Her only conditions were that Flynn and his teen accomplices not get blood on the furniture or allow her beloved dog to witness the murder. Smart's televised trial was a media circus and the subject of newspaper, tabloid, and talk show obsession. Her story inspired a madefortelevision movie starring Helen Hunt as well the hit film To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman. Although the murder itself was horrifying, the story resonated so powerfully because of its antiheroine, the callous widow. Smart's willingness to exploit her sexuality, manipulate young people, and then boldly proclaim her innocence outraged and intrigued Americans who could not avert their gaze.
America has not lost its fascination with the media's "bad girls." Recently, Fox television placed Bill Clinton's harassment accuser, Paula Jones, in a boxing match against the disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding. The celebrity boxing event, while sneered at by intellectuals and critics, was the toprated show in its time slot, and no wonder: Paula Jones's sordid accusations about the former president, combined with Tonya Harding's ambition and violence, are the perfect combination to satisfy the public's appetite for dangerous women. Now if only we could have a matchup between Hedda Gabler and Lady Macbeth.