I love villains. I really, really do. In all of their sneering, cackling, impeccably dressed glory.
I’m lucky to be a fan of genre fiction, the home of some of the best villains in popular culture. The ultimate villains—supervillains—are the children of genre fiction. The archetypal Dark Lord is most at home glowering down from spectacular towers in blasted fantasy landscapes. An all-powerful emperor of a single country is one thing—but what about an all-powerful emperor of an entire galaxy?
For all this surfeit of excellent antagonists, however, there is a problem with the state of villainy in the year 2018: namely, the gender imbalance on the Dark Side. Evil ought to be an equal opportunity employer, and yet our media is severely lacking in truly memorable female villains. The most iconic—and best—villains are almost entirely men: Darth Vader, Loki, John Milton’s Lucifer, Saruman. When female villains do appear, they tend to be produced from limited molds: the femme fatale, she of the weaponized sexuality and the fantastic hair; the evil stepmother keeping Cinderella from the ball, the older woman desperately chasing youth and beauty.
I don’t want to ignore the gloriously murderous women of genre fiction, and no matter how much I might sigh over the aforementioned femme fatales, I love not a few of them dearly: Mystique, Poison Ivy, Emma Frost. Then there are the iconic Disney villains like Ursula and Maleficent (wouldn’t I love to be able to turn into a dragon—or a kraken, for that matter).
But the trouble is that all of these types, no matter how much fun they are, share a common thread: villains who are women are villains as women.
That is to say, while women may sometimes get to be evil, they tend to be evil in ways that are strictly constrained by or defined by their womanhood: as mothers or wives, angry at a man for spurning them or jealous of other women, especially those who are more attractive to men. Femme fatales trade on their dangerous female sexuality (a trope as old as time), while evil stepmothers resent their stepdaughters for surpassing them as ‘fairest of them all.’ Even in villainy, women are bound by the stereotypical limitations of their gender.
There are some female villains who do break the mold, but they often lack the depth and complexity of their male counterparts: They don’t get the fascinating origin stories, or the moral ambiguity, or the narrative sympathy. Bellatrix Lestrange is a delightfully vicious and cruel character, but she lacks any interiority of her own—unlike that given to Snape, or even to Voldemort. Cate Blanchett’s Hela in Thor: Ragnarok was absolutely iconic, but while we get glimpses of her history, she’s definitely no Loki.
There are, always, exceptions. For all the show’s flaws, I’m a sucker for Katie McGrath’s smirking portrayal of Morgana Pendragon in BBC’s Merlin, seeking the throne she thinks ought to be hers. Aeschylus’s Clytemnestra of the house of Atreus—she who murdered her husband with an axe, who sought to avenge her daughter and seize power for herself—will also always be a favorite. Regina Mills of Once Upon A Time, who has an immensely satisfying redemption arc, and firebending force-of-nature Azula of Avatar: The Last Airbender, also come to mind as villainesses to be reckoned with. But there could certainly be more.
There are a couple of reasons for the lamentable dearth of female villains. One is simply a matter of proportions: there are more well developed male characters on both sides of the morality line in media in general. If there just aren’t as many women, it stands to reason that there just won’t be as many women who are villains.
And then there is the pedestal. More and more media critics and consumers are discussing issues of representation—and not just representation, but “good” representation. This phrase can mean a lot of things, for instance representation that isn’t tokenizing or doesn’t rely on stereotypes, or representation that shows commonly vilified groups in a positive light. But sexism, as any systemic prejudice, is a clever animal, and it has coopted the notion of “good representation” to take a strangely regressive shape, insisting that it is bad for women to show women who are bad.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s nothing new. Biological essentialists have long held that women are naturally kinder, gentler, and more morally upright than men are. They claim that women, as nurturers and child-rearers, must carry the burden of seeing to society’s moral needs, and guiding others to the light.
This model of what womanhood should be is a particularly Victorian construct, and one that emerged in part in reaction to the emerging “New Woman” of the late nineteenth century—women who found independence socially, politically, and economically. The counterimage of “the Angel in the House” portrayed the ideal woman instead as the moral center of the household and indeed civilization, a model of virtue for those around her. Passive, graceful, meek, and self-sacrificing, women and feminine domesticity were seen as providing a counterbalance to the corrupt (masculine) world of industry and politics, due to their supposed purity. In one 1894 editorial in the Victorian journal Review of Reviews, a writer claimed that “it is wickeder for women to be immoral than it is for men, for women are by nature more moral than their brothers.”
Fueling this pedestalizing of women was the perception of “the weaker sex” as delicate creatures in need of protection from the harsh realities of the world at large—a perception that was legally enforced and justified by their presumed fragility. William Gladstone, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1868 to 1894, argued against giving women the vote because it would compromise “their delicacy, their purity, their refinement, the elevation of their whole nature.” Women lost all property upon marriage, essentially becoming property of their husbands. Physical exercise was seen as dangerous for women’s health, a potential threat to their ability to produce healthy children. The role of women as homemakers and mothers was a cornerstone of Victorian social stability, viewed as absolutely vital for the healthy functioning of British society.
While distinctly Victorian in origin, these particular archetypes of biological essentialism and their associated tropes haven’t left us. Furthermore, this relegation of women to a passive role in the private and domestic spheres—a calm, quiet presence in the house, the home, but never public life—doesn’t just describe how people perceive women, but rather represents a prescriptive set of rules for defining women’s lives and behavior.
Those rules are defined and enacted in a number of ways. Control of contraceptives is one—denying women the opportunity to choose whether or when they have children can severely limit their autonomy and social mobility. Historically, women could be fired from their jobs when they married or had children, with the assumption that, having achieved their primary purpose, they no longer belonged in the workforce. Even now, lack of maternity leave prevents many women from taking career paths they might otherwise choose, while women who choose not to have children can find themselves under suspicion and criticized as somehow unfeminine. Women are not only expected to fit the mold—they’re penalized if they don’t.
Thanks, but no thanks.
Not only does conceptualizing women as “naturally” nurturing and designed for motherhood narrowly define the category of “woman” in a way that excludes trans women and other women who cannot have children, this kind of essentialism also denies women the human complexity and depth permitted men. It’s the reason female anti-heroes are so rare, and why female villains are so often defined by their sexuality. If women aren’t good, nurturing, and pure, then they have to fall into other sexist tropes, the only other possible roles for a woman to fulfill: the model of woman as dangerous seductress and sexual demon, or the woman who is bad at being a woman (unnuturing, sterile, or ugly) and so jealous of other women. In either case, their perceived “badness” is a result of either overperforming or underperforming this deeply-entrenched femininity.
Limiting the type of character who counts as “good representation” doesn’t, in the end, serve anyone. The answer, like in improv, is yes, and. The more variety there is, the less weight rests on any one character to be the end-all be-all of whomever it is they represent. The more “types” that people see, the less any one of those “types” becomes the only possible one for those of us desperately seeking convincing, complex, fascinating villainesses.
The question may in fairness be asked: why so invested in female villains, anyway? Do you really want to see yourself on the side of evil?
One of the reasons I relate to villains is because they’re not great people. Often it’s easier for me to connect with a character who isn’t good, because I, like most people, am not entirely good.
The villains I like most are the transgressors who push the boundaries of right and wrong, whose darkness has layers. There’s a certain power fantasy involved, not just in watching a great villain behaving badly but in seeing someone who challenges conventional morality, who defies easy categorization and invites sympathy for the devil. Among the ranks of male villains, Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger comes to mind, or Magneto. Sure, murmurs a little voice, he’s a bit of an extremist, but he had some valid points… The Dark Side doesn’t have a monopoly on moral ambiguity, but they exalt it to an art form. Watching their transgressions forces an examination of just where the line is: what divides a villain, for instance, from an antihero?
This is what I crave from female villains: women who are extended the same complexity and depth—and, potentially, sympathy—as their male counterparts, and also women who are really, truly, bad. Women who are willing to burn the world down—maybe because it wronged them, maybe just because. Women who are ambitious, who crave power, who are willing to crush people on the way to the top.
Dark Lords are all very well, but the world needs more Dark Ladies.
Elise Ringo is an enthusiastic nerd putting her English degree to good use by writing about anything other than the literary canon and thinking far too much about pop-culture. She runs a blog at Becoming the Villainess and tweets as @veliseraptor.