It started with Superman. Well, it really started with Lois Lane, but the Big Blue Boy Scout was there too because of course he was. So, some exposition first: I grew up on the old Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons. You know, the old, in technicolor, “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” cartoons. The ones made between 1941 and 1943…so you can imagine how Lois Lane was written. Got a solid picture in your head now? Great. Now back to the start.
Imagine five year-old me, shorter and more adorable (though not by much. Ha, ego). My cousin wanted us to play Superman. He would, of course, be Superman and I could be Lois Lane (because there was no other woman to be). I agreed. I thought the Superman cartoons were exciting, as he fought giant robots and stopped speeding trains with his bare hands… Except, Fleischer-era Lois Lane doesn’t do any of that. What does she do? She gets rescued. Like, I’m not sure they even let her do any real reporting. 1941, right? And for the next forty-five minutes (it was probably only ten, but felt like eternity), I sat on my living room floor, waiting for Superman Clarence to come rescue me.
However long I pretended to be tied up alone, that moment stuck with me. When I found Clarence off doing something that was definitely not rescuing me, I swore right then that I would never be the damsel in distress again. But those early days watching weekday and Saturday cartoons of the early 90s didn’t give me many alternatives.
My first glimpse of a lady villain was unconventional because she didn’t start that way. I made my family take me to see Aladdin in theaters twice in 1992 because Jasmine was my favorite Disney princess. She learned quickly, made pragmatic decisions, and understood her power and how and when to wield it. Plus she had a pet tiger that she let loose on people she didn’t like. She wasn’t a villain, unless you count the moment when she kissed Jafar as a distraction (as everyone looked on in horror and completely wasted her sacrifice). The moment that she really locked in her place as my idol was in an episode of the 1994 Aladdin TV series. Jasmine, convinced by a spell that she’s the evil Scourge of the Desert, dons a cute black and blue outfit, a fabulous high ponytail, and a whip, and proceeded to defeat Aladdin and the palace guards and conquer Agrabah. Scourge even double crosses the career bad guy pretending to be her father and takes the throne for herself, because he was incompetent and also fuck that guy.
The series let Jasmine get out of plenty of scrapes on her own, but she still spent too much time getting rescued by Aladdin and, in my opinion, we spent far too much time following his adventures. Plus, that was only one show. All of the other exciting shows (*cough* shows with fighting and explosions *cough*) centered boys more blatantly: Peter Pan and the Pirates, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, SWAT Cats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, TaleSpin, Goof Troop, Darkwing Duck, etc. Usually I was lucky if there was even one female character and, if she was there, she was just like 1940s Lois Lane: a cheerleader and hero bait. Nah, I was good on those ladies, thank you so much. But in the summer of 1995 I met the villainess of my dreams.
Ronin Warriors, the American version of the Japanese anime Yoroiden Samurai Troopers, looked like the usual sausage fest at first glance. A group of teenage boys in color-coded magical armor fight some evil grown men in color-coded magical armor along with a giant ancient evil guy in magical armor. Meanwhile, the only female character, Mia, got to be a fountain of exposition while she ran support with the token mascot-kid and drove the jeep. So while the guys got fancy weapons that shot fire and water and lightning and rocks and…star stuff (the specifics of the last guy’s powers were a bit murky), the sole girl got to play chauffeur, look stuff up on her 80s Macintosh, and scream real good when she got captured. This was…fine but it wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to be anyone’s Girl Friday. I wanted to be in the middle of the fight and I wanted to win.
That’s when she appeared.
A late season two episode featured a teenage girl wielding twin swords quickly enough to block close-range arrow fire. She taunted the heroes and beat the brakes off of all of the boys, good and evil, in a cute outfit with a high ponytail and killer bangs. Lady Kayura was the second strongest character on that show. She actually may have been the strongest because she wasn’t defeated—she switched sides. I was sold. From then on, I was Lady Kayura, even if we weren’t playing Ronin Warriors. It didn’t matter to me: she was awesome and crossovers are a thing. Plus everyone objected less when I swung without mercy just like my idol.
With open eyes and an open heart, I began looking for lady villains everywhere. Dragon Ball Z gave me Android 18 with her cute blonde bob, smacking down Earth’s strongest heroes in a denim miniskirt and gold hoop earrings (the most confrontational of all earrings). Classical literature gave me Euripides’ Medea, a powerful witch descended from Zeus who decimated the ones who wronged her and flew off in a dragon-drawn chariot. Shakespeare gave me Goneril in King Lear, clever and eloquent and a better soldier than her husband.
Each of these women was obviously stronger than the men around her and owned that strength. They were blessedly and brilliantly cocky. They swaggered into battle in a way I’d previously only seen from Bruce Lee, Clint Eastwood, or John Wayne. They took up space and didn’t trade their femininity for power or strength. They were attractive but didn’t use desire as their primary weapon. They knew their worth and strengths and how use them. And the taunting… Glorious! They made sure their words hurt as much as stick and stones (or whips, swords, and energy blasts as the case may be). If you’re going to demolish your opponent, don’t just beat them bloody—crush their spirit as well.
These were the role models I needed. I mostly ignored the whole ruthless murder parts because of, you know, a basic valuing of human life and whatnot. But combine any of these women’s core traits with empathy and kindness and I think you’d end up a pretty well-balanced person. Their evil wasn’t the draw for me, but it gave them the freedom to unabashedly revel in the things that did draw me in: strength, power, confidence, femininity, and the joy of victory. Plus, beating all the boys is fun, especially if you do it in a cute outfit. In a world where we’re taught to make ourselves small and submissive, I think we ladies could use a healthy dose of ruthless confidence.
Top image: Lady Kayura in Ronin Warriors.
Brittany N. Williams is a writer, actress, keeper of 90s theme songs, cartoon historian, unimpressed Shakespearean Blerd, and New Yorker by way of Baltimore, DC, Hong Kong, and London. She regularly slings literary fire for Black Nerd Problems and drops gems as a co-host of the All-Raw Ravenclaw Review podcast. You can find her on Twitter, Tumblr, or at brittanynwilliams.com