While reading the novel Nana by Émile Zola, an amusing choice of words comes up in Chapter 13. When talking about the titular main character, Zola (depending on which translation you read) describes her man-eating as: “gobbl[ing] them up, one after the other. The growing needs of her life of luxury sharpened her appetite, and she would clean a man out with one snap of her teeth.” The author later goes on to talk about all the men Nana had “gobbled” up and left them penniless. In the same paragraph the author continues, “Like a huge fire, she devoured everything, the profits from financial swindles no less than the fruits of labour.” Nana used her beauty and seduction skills to drain these gullible men of all their money. What started this change from a fashion icon to a man-eater was when Nana saw Queen Pomaré who was once like her but became “an old rag-and-bone woman who was raking about in the gutters.” Nana saw this as a future for herself. She decided that if this was her fate, she would turn the tables and become a weapon against her oppressors.
This thought of a man-eater is by no means an original idea. Throughout time, women were regarded as “baby eaters” and “vampires”. Popular examples include Lillith (Adam’s first wife before Eve) who refused to lie beneath Adam and was forced to cause sickness to infants and seduce men in their dreams. We also have the myth of the Lamia who, in Greek mythology, was originally described as a serpent who eats babies and later evolves into a seductress that enticed and devoured men in female form.
In Philostratus’s story of the Lamia, Apollonius tells the young bridegroom, Menippus, his hastily married wife is really a Lamia, planning to devour him. He describes the Lamia as a serpent when he says, “You are a fine youth and are hunted by fine women, but in this case, you are cherishing a serpent, and a serpent cherishes you.” He also refers to her as a blood sucking vampire. “This fine bride is one of the vampires, that is to say of those beings whom the many regard as lamias and hobgoblins.”
And then of course we get into the modern culture of music. I’m sure when you think of a man-eater many people recall the song Maneater by Hall and Oates released in 1982. In the song, they describe a woman who is the “lean and hungry type” and warns “If you’re in it for love, you ain’t gonna get too far”. They focus on the bestial aspect of how dangerous the man-eater is. In the 2000’s we had the song of the same name by Nelly Furtado. The music video employs an alternative sexual approach that kind of redefines a man-eater into a more feminist icon. She makes men “work hard” and “spend hard”. Billie Eilish’s song Bad Guy references a more modern version of a man-eater who is the “bad guy” and “might seduce your dad.” In her interviews about the song, Billie talks about how the song is meant to question the way women are stereotypically portrayed and pokes fun at the men who call themselves “bad guys.”
Another view of the man-eater is the “vagina denata” myth or in layman’s terms, vagina with teeth. The most famous example is the horror-comedy movie Teeth starring Jess Weixler. In the movie, the main character gets raped by a man named Toby. As she fights back, she inadvertently bites his penis off with her vagina. She finds out that she has “vagina denata” and uses this to her advantage to repel the males that attempt to sexually assault her.
Not all man-eaters are gold diggers or women with teeth in their vagina. Some can also be considered badass superheros (or villians) such as Catwoman. In Batman Returns, she starts out as an underpaid assistant to an evil businessman where she gets laughed at for her ideas. She gets murdered for finding out how evil her boss truly is. He throws her out a window and is brought to life by her cats. When she returns to her apartment, a woman on her answering machine talks about getting ahead at work with her sexuality. This proves to be a breaking point for her and she reacts by creating her signature black latex catsuit. The first thing she does is rescue a woman from being raped. After she saves the woman, she berates her for acting like a victim. In this instance, we see how Catwoman is furious with our patriarchal society and angry with both the men who continue to preserve it and with the women who allow it to continue by being weak.
So how do you exactly define a man-eater? It was usually described as a woman who used her body to get what she wants. She may not bode well with other women and is both greedy and lonely. However, this concept has changed recently to instead critique the male desire to maintain power and control over women. It’s almost as if they fear what women could accomplish if they actually have the power that men do now.