Aside from the acceptance/lack thereof of the concept of “collateral damage,” a key distinction between heroes and villains in traditional fantasy involves power. The villain has power, of some shape or form, from the story’s beginning; said villain’s gross abuse of this power motivates the hero to act. The hero, however, has to discover his or her power as the story progresses. That power may or may not be magical, or equal to the villain’s. But in the end, the power to save and protect must triumph over the power to destroy and exploit. In traditional fantasy, that is. We’re not talking about grimdark now.
In the Reddit discussion thread I’ve cited before, asking male readers if they would read a book with a female protagonist, one poster said he wouldn’t because he could never imagine a female character powerful enough to fill the role of hero — but then he added that female sidekicks were always welcome, and he positively loved to read about female villains. So evidently a woman with the power to destroy and exploit is well within the scope of this poster’s imagination, yet a woman with the power to save and protect is not? Just how common is this imaginative limit?
More common, I’m afraid, than I want to believe. I have only to think of issues I’ve covered previously here. Why are female villains so often described as tall? Why do we see so few heroic female dragons? The answer to both questions may well be the same: an instinctive distrust of female power. If a woman is physically large, she skews our perceptions of bigness as masculine and smallness as feminine, and her power is evident the moment we look at her. We’re not quite at ease with the idea that a woman might be so obvious a match for a man in physical strength; even when a heroine can overcome a male opponent in a fight, somehow we still feel better if she’s tiny, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Melinda May. As for dragons, what fantasy creature has more raw power? What could do more damage if it weren’t somehow on our side? If we imagine such a powerful being as Good, our tendency would be to imagine it as male. It’s easier for some reason to think of that power in a female as destructive.
The groundwork for our suspicion of female power has been laid by early tales in which sorceresses are scheming villains and goddesses are dangerous femme fatales and, despite progress, we can still see the effects. Nowadays female mages are a little more likely to be presented as good, but we still get stories in which magical power automatically renders female characters evil (e.g. Robert Newcomb’s The Fifth Sorceress) or at least more prone to corruption than a man would be (e.g. Joseph Delaney’s Spook’s Apprentice series). Female authority figures still tend to be written in the “God Save Us From the Queen!” mold. One of the most notable signs of our willingness to accept women with a great deal of power as villains rather than as heroes is the debate over whether we should see a female Doctor Who. (Outgoing) show runner Steven Moffat and a massive number of the classic Sci-Fi show’s fans are dead set against the idea that the Doctor, an incredibly powerful and complex hero, might regenerate into a woman. But the Master, the Doctor’s evil-to-the-core nemesis, can become a woman without any objections. “Woman + Power = Evil” — that’s still the equation we’re comfortable with.
The news is not all bad. Ursula LeGuin’s “weak is women’s magic/ wicked is women’s magic” ethos from A Wizard of Earthsea is moving further and further out of date (LeGuin herself has rejected it) thanks to the popularity of such heroic female magic users as Granny Weatherwax (Pratchett’s Discworld), Vin (Sanderson’s Mistborn), and Hermione (Harry Potter). On a lighter note, superhero teams are likelier to include female members even on the big screen and, after a cancellation scare, Supergirl, in all her Kryptonian awesomeness, will be soaring across our television screens for a second season (albeit on another network).
I want to take heart from these positive signs. Yet when 2016 gives nasty psychopath Harley Quinn a major big-screen role while a nobly heroic Wonder Woman gets only a cameo in a movie that, reportedly, nobody liked, the first solo films for female superheroes are over a year away, and the DC Animated Universe hasn’t released a heroine-positive movie since Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (a Supergirl story, though you’d never know it by the title) while in a more recent offering Wonder Woman and the Amazons are evil villains for most of the running time, I can’t help seeing how much further we have to go.
I feel like villainesses tend to be much more stereotypical than villains. They’re always the Mean Girl, the Evil Queen, the Wicked Witch or the Seductress. They rarely get to have the sort of complexity and nuance that male villains get.
I’d suggest The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. She’s initially presented as an Evil Queen figure, but the book is a slow unveiling of who she is and what her motives are, gradually building up sympathy for her. There’s also another ruling Queen in the novel, so she’s never the only representation of female power.
Maybe the “fear women with power” thing is also why it feels so rare to find female mentors? The older, experienced mentor figure is almost always male, like Gandalf or Dumbledoor. The only female examples that immediately come to mind are Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites and Elayne Kevarian in Gladstone’s Craft Sequence.
I not up on the DC comics, but from what my friends tell me Harley Quinn’s an interesting case. Her relationship with the Joker is clearly abusive in the comics (although it may not have been portrayed so in the new movie?) and currently in the comics she’s split up with the Joker, become semi-reformed, and transitioned to more of an anti-heroine than a villainess.
I’m currently on the second season of Young Justice, a DC animated show now on Netflix. Have you seen it? It’s got some really great female characters, although it takes a while for them to really arrive.
Female villains do tend to lack complexity, even though they get to be powerful in ways often denied heroines. (For one thing, female villains almost never have issues with confidence or self-esteem.)
“The Queen of Attolia” is on my To-Read list. That one is already on my shelf, though I still need to acquire the sequels. I appreciate that Turner gives us two different female authority figures with different ways of handling power.
I would agree that the lack of female mentor figures is connected to the suspicion of female power. It’s not coincidental that the exceptions you cite (both wonderful characters) are mentors to female characters. In fantasy, for a woman to serve as sympathetic, trustworthy mentor to a rising young hero is virtually unheard of. If Professor MacGonagall’s role in the Harry Potter series had been a bit bigger, she might count as an exception, but they don’t really interact enough. The mentors with whom Harry spends substantial time are all male. I guess men and boys aren’t supposed to learn much of anything from women.
I admit my experience with Harley Quinn is limited to Batman: The Animated Series. I was never a fan of the character, though I appreciated Eileen Sorkin’s tour de force voicework.
Young Justice was one of my favorite shows while it was on the air. Loved the girls on this show; loved that there were many of them, with a variety of strengths, and I always appreciated their day-saving moments. Yet the show’s cancellation, and the reason thereof, still sends me into a seething rage:
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Hearing that Young Justice was canceled because of girls liking it was actually the reason I started watching. I figured if a show was canceled for that reason, it must be pretty good. I’ve heard there’s some hope of Netflix picking up a season 3? I don’t know if this is a real possibility or only wishful thinking.