The female character who rebels against the restrictions her society places on women is a stock (and in my opinion, regrettably overused) figure in fantasy fiction. Most of the time, the rebellious girl or woman is a heroine whose struggle we are meant to support. Even though I find myself weary of the genre’s perpetual reiteration of this same conflict, it can still be rewarding to read about if the writing and characterization are strong. In Zen Cho’s charming Sorcerer to the Crown, for example, half-caste heroine Prunella Gentleman fights with wit and cunning for a measure of independence in an alternate-Regency England that holds women lack the physical and mental fortitude to practice magic. (So you see, women are kept from practicing magic “for their own good.”) Prunella, a unique and unpredictable creation, makes the book. In the end she emerges victorious in a battle different from the one she set out to fight, and despite other characters’ description of her as “unscrupulous,” we root for her all the way.
But what if the rebel against oppressive patriarchy isn’t a heroine at all? In that case, where are our sympathies meant to lie — with the girl or woman willing to overthrow male privilege at any cost including her very soul, or with the patriarchy under attack?
A couple of months ago, I listened to the audiobook of Mercedes Lackey’s The Wizard of London, which I’d liked very much when I read it in print. I still like it. It has much to recommend it. Lackey employs a solidly readable style for a retelling of Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” centering on a misanthropic leader of an all-male Elemental Masters’ (magicians’) Circle, his old flame now happily married to another, and two little girls with psychic abilities. I appreciate the central place given to the girls’ staunch friendship, as well as the fact that the adult heroine is mature and already married, so that the story is heavy on magical adventure and light on romance — a rare and welcome thing when female characters are central.
Yet I’d forgotten the depths of evil in the story’s villainess. A very powerful Master (and in this novel, the only female Master), she rages at the limits her gender places on the authority to which she might aspire, and in order to breach those barriers, she’s willing to sink to any depravity. Most notably, she is a serial killer of children, trapping and enslaving their ghosts — the ultimate perversion of the maternal, nurturing Feminine Ideal. This monster has to fall, and we’re relieved when she does. Yet when she falls, the challenge to gender roles and male power falls with her. The heroine offers no similar challenge, being quite content and successful in the traditional female roles of schoolmistress and child-minder. Gender restrictions are left comfortably in place, and we’re meant to think, “Whew!” This is the typical conclusion to stories that feature the “sexism-made-me-evil” villainess, which is why I can’t find any satisfying feminist message in such stories. Drawing a clear line between feminism and toxic misandry does real feminists no favors whatsoever.
Showtime’s Penny Dreadful is a favorite series of mine, thanks to its complex and well-developed collection of characters, most of them culled from two centuries of famous horror stories. One original figure is the female lead, Vanessa, a tormented but surprisingly kind soul whose struggle with the dark forces seeking to possess her forms the heart of the show. Penny Dreadful has just returned for a third season, and I’m happy to have it back (especially since I’m worried about Supergirl and miffed about Agent Carter).
But my delight is mixed, as the trailers for the new season make it clear that the depravity of a “sexism-made-me-evil” villainess is on the menu. We see the petite blonde “bride of Frankenstein” gathering a circle of abused women around her and whipping them into a homicidal frenzy against their male oppressors with no regard for consequences or collateral damage. We know the threat she represents will have to be neutralized, but who will do it? If she’s taken down by men, the challenge she presents to male power will amount to nothing. I can think of only one possible satisfying conclusion to this plotline: one of her female recruits realizes she’s being led down a path of no return and rises up against her, having come to understand that there are better and more constructive ways to battle sexism. I wish I could have some faith that’s what will happen. I’ll just have to buckle in and find out.
Fellow writers: when you create a villainess who turns to murder and mayhem to avenge herself on the patriarchy, you may think you’re making some sort of feminist point. But are you really, especially if a righteous male hero must topple her and restore order? Wouldn’t such a character serve to confirm patriarchal assumptions (particularly the assumption that feminism is rooted in misandry) rather than subvert them, and render the threatened patriarchy stronger than ever at the end? Think about that. I’m looking at you, Steven Moffatt.