Cat And Mouse: On Killing Eve, The Lesbian Femme Fatale And Straight Audiences

Cat And Mouse: On Killing Eve, The Lesbian Femme Fatale And Straight Audiences

The BBC hit a goldmine with spy thriller Killing Eve, but one of its greatest and most unexpected successes comes from the way heterosexual audiences, specifically women, fell for Villanelle’s reworking of the lesbian femme fatale trope. On sadomasochistic queer desire, fringe communities and a global triumph, Hannah Ryan explores the singular alchemy of the show.

In 1996, the Wachowski siblings released Bound, a lesbian love story concerning a mobster’s bored girlfriend and a charming former convict made on a modest budget. In the decades since, Bound has earnt itself a cult status; often sidelined in mainstream conversations of the Wachowskis’ back catalogue, the film is now widely considered a fundamental part of the queer cinema canon. One aspect of the film that got audiences talking and captured the attention of queer cinemagoers was its deployment of the lesbian femme fatale trope, in which an alluring lesbian character entices lovers and audiences alike precisely because of her dangerous nature. It is a trope once confined solely to the world of independent LGBTQ+ cinema – where it is also found in D.E.B.S and Heavenly Creatures – but has recently become an intriguing fixation for heterosexual audiences, all thanks to Killing Eve.


The BBC’s juggernaut spy thriller, a perpetual cat-and-mouse game played by Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh, has been an almighty success. Now in its third season, the series enjoys a primetime slot on Sunday evenings on both sides of the Atlantic and is discussed like clockwork by viewers with fervour over the figurative watercooler in the (remote) office on a Monday morning. Glossy, filled with glamorous fashion and locations, and with Phoebe Waller-Bridge often working either in production or scripting, there are plenty of reasons explaining the popularity of Killing Eve. What indicates that the show is actually changing its viewers, though, is the fact that  its heart is rooted in a sadomasochistic lesbian relationship, and the breakout character audiences have grasped onto is Comer’s Villanelle – the most obvious and explicit example of the lesbian femme fatale in recent television history. Since the show’s premiere in 2018, unflinching assassin Villanelle (and her persistent teasing of the eponymous Eve) has become the object of obsession and desire for many a fan, including heterosexual women. 

In the cases of Bound and Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By the Lake – a simmering and sexy French offering that applies this queer danger trope to gay men relaxing at a cruising spot – the figures that symbolise the treacherous, distinctly queer allure mostly attract fellow LGBTQ+ people. Villanelle, however, occupies a space in which she is fawned over by straight women. She is not restricted to existing merely within a queer world where her status as a lesbian femme fatale has already proven popular. There is no sanitisation surrounding Villanelle’s sexual orientation nor her bloodlust. Her identity is not watered down for the easy digestion of heterosexual audiences – Villanelle is repeatedly shown romancing and obsessing over women. Time and time again, she walks a tremulous tightrope between sex and violence. In one scene, she’ll hold a knife to Eve’s throat, unafraid to press against her skin to the point of near-rupture, but will simultaneously lean in intimately to get just a slight whiff of the perfume she bought for her. Villanelle’s queerness is infused with her penchant for brutality, and put on display for audiences. 


Heterosexual audiences find themselves in the same position as Eve herself. They are drawn to the ‘other’ that Villanelle represents, the kind of seductive danger usually only afforded to her male counterparts – where men like James Bond or Tyler Durden are considered all the more attractive precisely for their hypermasculine violent natures. In her position as a lesbian femme fatale, she represents almost total freedom. It is, however, important to remember the fact remains that even though Villanelle is unbridled by the restrictions of heteronormativity or patriarchy, she never quite manages to get what she really wants: Eve. She may be liberated in a way that appeals specifically to heterosexual women but her true desire is always just out of reach and suggests that, still, queerness meets limitations even in its freest form. 

Killing Eve has enjoyed unprecedented success and, on its journey to mainstream acclaim, has brought another offbeat queer subject from the periphery and into the spotlight: lesbian sadomasochism. More often than not, this is theme mostly found nestled in unorthodox queer cinema such as Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, an understated erotic study of two isolated women which forces viewers to ask themselves just who is deriving pleasure from whose pain. Rarely is this same question, of who truly holds the power in sadomasochistic games carried out by women, posed on the BBC for millions of viewers at 9pm. Yet, the very fabric of Eve and Villanelle’s relationship posits a power play that sees the two almost constantly torturing each other and – in the case of both receiving and inflicting pain – enjoying it. The two find great satisfaction in allowing one to taunt and toy with the other and violence is threaded all the way through their dynamic. In the season one finale, when it looks as though the two might finally consummate their relationship, Eve punctures the sexual tension with violence, by stabbing Villanelle. Although Eve later shows remorse for this act, there is no denying the utter sadism of this moment.


Just as Villanelle represents dangerous womanhood to Eve, the relationship between the two of them indicates to heterosexual viewers a world that exists beyond their own; where the usual expectations thrust onto dynamics between men and women in spy thrillers are not even considered, let alone present. In typical spy fare, a trusty formula is followed. An arrogant man meets his match in a woman far smarter than him, they fall in love, she dies or disappears, and he enjoys character development as a result. Rarely are audiences given even a hint of anything darker or more complex. Killing Eve offers something completely unprecedented in its depiction of a romantic duo at the centre of a spy web. It offers a multifaceted relationship between Villanelle and Eve that sees neither of them become a better person because of the other and, in fact, places emphasis on the fact that they encourage one another to descend deeper into their capacity for cruelty. 

The show does away with all formulaic conventions, and refuses to suggest that the two will find salvation in one another. As the marketing, at least for the first season, made no indication that Killing Eve would delve so deeply into queerness, many viewers went in expecting the usual entanglements of a spy drama, including all of the usual romantic tropes, and instead found a central relationship that hinges on sadomaoschistic lesbian desire – hooking heterosexual viewers that, like Eve, had no idea they even wanted a change. The tasters of a life lived outside of the parameters of tired, heteronormative dynamics seen before are as addictive to audiences exhausted by the same rigid narratives in the world of thrillers as they are to Eve herself. Villanelle and all she symbolises exist on the fringes no more; Killing Eve has given her and a former underground kind of queerness a brand new playground. 

Hannah Ryan is a Birmingham-based culture journalist, due to complete a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism this September. She has a particular interest in all things queer across film, television, music and video games. The greatest loves of her life are Spurs, Céline Sciamma's filmography and Taylor Swift. In that order.

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