When highlighting roles that women are historically allowed to occupy in fiction, most will break it down into the trinity—mother, maiden, crone. Have we gained ground recently? The characters on offer for actresses keep improving, but it’s telling that so many them still fall into one of those three categories. Male characters get a more diverse set of labels—rogue, villain, lover, fool, antihero—and even though women occasionally nab parts that fall under those banners, these types remain elusive to them.
Especially when it comes to bad guys.
Intriguing villains are some of the hardest roles to come by in this fight—and no, trying to off your young, lovely stepdaughter doesn’t count. How often does a female antagonist have motives that exist outside the realm of beauty or sexuality? Or motives at all? Why do more complex female villains often get the naysay from fans? Can we still have more of them?
When I was a child, I loved The Little Mermaid. Ariel and I were kindred as she was the only princess with red hair, and I also had fiery locks. But Ursula the Sea Witch was some kind of mega-diva guru to my developing brain. Of course, she was bad—but she made it look like so much fun. Most great villains do.
Even so, aside from style, the best song, and a perfect cackle, what was Ursula’s mission? What did she want and why? In the original version of the script, she was meant to be King Triton’s sister, making her plot to take over the ocean an act of revenge on her brother, very similar to Scar’s eventual ploy in The Lion King a few years later. But without an explanation (there is vague talk on her part about living in the palace before, but no elaboration on what she means by it), she’s just evil to be evil. That logic may work just fine for your average short animated film… not so much elsewhere.
But short animated films (plus the fairy tales they often harken from) are one of the easiest places to find female baddies. From the White Queen to Maleficent, the Queen of Hearts to Yzma, Cruella to Mother Gothel, these women are welcome in stories where they are commonly trying to assert their youth and beauty over some teenager, either directly or indirectly. Ursula may not really want to look like Ariel, but she does have to disguise herself similarly to cast a spell on Prince Eric. Mother Gothel is maintaining her youth through Rapunzel’s mane of hair, and Yzma is constantly the butt of “oh, what an ugly creature she is” jokes all through The Emperor’s New Groove even as she primps and preens and curls her eyelashes.
Maleficent, at least, has reason behind her madness; she’s a bad lady, but her wrath comes from a slight by the royal family, one that was virtually guaranteed to cause strife according to fairy lore. It’s not about Aurora’s rosy cheeks or about aging or about taking over the throne because she’s powerful and why not—it’s about etiquette, dammit.
Despite all that, the Disney set tends to fall flat the instant they are given a closer inspection, and they’re not alone. What about Buffy’s season five big bad, Glory? She was all camp, a blast to watch, but no substance whatsoever. Most of the humor surrounding her came down to the fact that she was vampy and sexually frustrating to her gross minions. The Power Rangers regularly faced off against Rita, but her beat was basically screaming at henchman, making monsters, and going through the same tired defeat every episode. (Not that we should view Power Rangers as a place of subtle character development, of course.) Bellatrix Lestrange might be an interesting antagonist, but most of what we want to know about her has to be inferred; why does she love Voldemort so much? Why did she end up such a fervent follower when compared with her sister? How much of her crazy is a result of Azkaban or her life before it? And sure, villainesses in comics can be fun, but they still often play second fiddle to male villains (see: Harley Quinn’s incredibly unhealthy relationship with the Joker), and practically always use sex as their primary weapon.
Which isn’t to say that these characters aren’t still enjoyable or worthy of recount, but nasty people are always more fun when they’ve got some dimension, and it’s villains like those that get all the applause from critics and fans alike. It’s not surprising when we’re are enamored of Moriarty (in nearly every incarnation except Doyle’s) or Gaius Baltar or Captain Barbossa—they are detailed ruminations on what leads people to commit reprehensible acts. We’re all naturally curious on that count, and excited to find “bad people” who are rendered with some nuance, with a palette of colors to work with instead of a monochromatic scale.
Once in a while these characters do emerge for women, but when they do, they are typically derided by fan communities. Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn took to the internet to air her grievances with fans who not only thought her character Skyler White deserved death (mostly for disagreeing with her husband, mind you), but had somehow managed to conflate her and Skyler in the process, condemning her with threats and vitriol as well. Important to note, Skyler isn’t technically a villain at all—she’s just often at odds with the show’s protagonist. Then there’s Supernatural’s Bela Talbot, a wicked thief with a traumatizing past who dealt out one surprise after another to the Winchester boys, but fans didn’t like her, and so Bela was condemned to a horrific death in the very same season she was introduced. Those are just two examples of a pervasive double standard where “evil women” are concerned—they are not given the free passes that their male counterparts often are.
Despite unfavorable reactions to cruel women, when well-rounded lady antagonists emerge, it can be exciting for fans who have been searching for them. Once Upon A Time is getting a lot of kudos for one of its primary villains, the Evil Queen Regina, and it’s true that she is a layered character who has been badly damaged by her past. Regina is also a treat to watch the way many good villains are, full of scathing retorts and lacking in noble nonsense that the heroes around her are chronically spewing. She is also sexy, but never sexualized just for the sake of it. But what’s interesting is how her role on the show has evolved, how her adopted son Henry has become her reason for any and all progress she makes each season. Is it possible that viewers are more tolerant of Regina because she so clearly falls into one of those three preset feminine categories? Could it be that the love for her son makes her appear unselfish, making any evil act that she commits for his sake more palatable?
Fiction can do more and it can do better. It would be nice to have some extra Mrs. Coulters and Mrs. Lovetts out there. More cylon women, more season-three-Faith on Buffy. More Azulas and Irene Adlers. The more women who can exist outside the trio labeling system, the more interesting characters we get as audiences. It’s not fair to let the boys have all the fun as tricksters and mayhem-makers and unstable opposites—we like trouble just as much as everyone else.