I find my attention turning again to villainesses, since of late they seem to be on the rise. So far this year, we’ve seen Charlize Theron’s character in The Fate of the Furious, Wonder Woman‘s Doctor Poison, the would-be-homicidal High Priestess of the Sovereigns in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and the titular Mummy; coming up, we have Julianne Moore’s “evil Martha Stewart” type in Kingsman: The Golden Circle and Cate Blanchett’s Goddess of Death in Thor: Ragnarok. On the small screen we have Evil Business Suit Lady in the reboot of The Tick, the ultimate villains of Iron Fist, and Sigourney Weaver in The Defenders, while we’ve recently gotten word that Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff has been hired to play a recurring baddie on The Flash. We can look forward to more female villainy in the near future, with X-Men: Dark Phoenix depicting a heroine’s devolution into a villainess who must be destroyed because redemption isn’t an option, the upcoming Flashpoint presenting us with an alternate timeline in which the Joker is a woman, and psycho-bunny Harley Quinn being absolutely everywhere and showing no signs of going away anytime soon.
This wouldn’t be such bad news, if we saw a rise in female heroism accompanying the glut of female villainy. But as far as I’ve been able to discover, in all the examples I’ve mentioned above, only Wonder Woman, The Defenders, and possibly Thor: Ragnarok feature female heroes brave and confident enough to go up against the bad ladies. (My disappointment in Gamora’s limited role in Guardians 2 is already documented.) The other villainesses either destroy themselves or are thwarted by men. Despite the glimmer of progress we see in movies like Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde, men still get to do the bulk of the hero-ing, and we who relish seeing female heroes in action have to take what we can get. This recent article on Tor.com shines a light on what can happen when female villains significantly outnumber female heroes.
My main hope is that as few of these female baddies as possible will emerge as the type of villainess I detest most deeply — the “straw feminist,” the woman whose rebellion against real or perceived gender prejudice is painted in a negative light. The straw feminist’s rebellion is shown to be either unreasonable or simply unnecessary, and whether she’s misguided or downright evil, she makes feminists look bad, as she affirms all the worst assumptions about us.
The “straw feminist” villainess has a signature line: “You men have been in charge for long enough!” By the end of the story we’re meant to wipe our nervous brows and think, “See what happens when you let women take charge?”
The first thing to understand about straw feminists is that they are obsessed with MEN. Not men, but MEN, the evil monolithic hivemind to which they assume all males of the species belong. For them, feminism is not about broadening women’s opportunities or encouraging women’s achievements. It’s all about MEN — hating them, turning the tables on them, gaining mastery over them by any means necessary. Straw feminists might initially have a reasonable point to make about men’s status as compared with women’s, but in the end they go so far beyond the reach of reason that the point disappears, the original complaint goes unaddressed, and by the end of the story men are restored to their proper positions of control and authority.
A perfect example of straw feminism in action is found in “Turnabout Intruder,” the swan song episode of the original Star Trek, from 1969. One of Captain Kirk’s legion of former flames is resentful of the fact that a woman can never become the captain of a Federation starship, so she switches minds and bodies with Kirk so that she can seize control of his ship and he can learn what being a woman feels like. He learns nothing at all, her evil plans are thwarted, and when she meets her end, Kirk and Mr. Spock express regret that she couldn’t be content with being a woman. If anyone is tempted to question the inequity of a system that won’t allow women to attain the highest ranks in the otherwise egalitarian Federation, this episode settles that question by making the straw-feminist villainess such a nutjob that we’re persuaded women shouldn’t hold authority. Thank God men are in charge. Case closed.
But that was the ’60s, right? What can we expect? I might accept that, if we didn’t see examples of the straw feminists appearing in subsequent decades when gender equality has supposedly been more widely accepted as a positive good. An even more cringe-worthy example occurs in the otherwise excellent sci-fi drama Farscape. The female regular characters on this show are often more actively heroic than those on Star Trek got a chance to be, but in the show’s worst episode by far, “Coup by Clam,” their agency is stripped from them for the sake of cheap humor. The crew of the liveship Moya visits a planet with an oppressive patriarchal government that makes the Taliban look enlightened. A group of women have risen up to demand change. We might expect these women to be the episode’s guest heroes, but soon we learn that the rebels are so vicious in their desire for revenge on MEN that the patriarchy actually seems like a better alternative. Farscape‘s female regulars try to infiltrate their ranks, but they’re soon captured and about to be killed, so their male comrades must disguise themselves as women (presented as a laugh riot) and sweep in to save them in what’s meant to be a laugh riot. The rebels are ruined, and Moya sails away without the smallest dent having been made in the patriarchy. Indeed, the women of that planet will probably be worse off than before, yet thanks to straw feminism, we’re not meant to care.
I hate most when straw feminists cast a dark cloud over stories I otherwise love, not only Star Trek and Farscape but the DC animated universe, which in the past has offered some of the best-written depictions of superheroes and their conflicts. In a Christmas episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “Holiday Nights,” Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy use poor hypnotized Bruce Wayne as their pack mule while they shop ’til they drop — a scenario straight from a lot of men’s nightmares — and then plan to kill him because as a man, he’s served his purpose. Even my beloved Justice League puts us through the straw-feminist wringer with “Fury,” in which an evil Amazon concocts a poisonous germ that will kill every man and boy on the planet; the fact that Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, and Hippolyta are the ones to oppose her does offset the effect somewhat, but it’s still probably my least favorite two-parter. Now we have Flashpoint in the offing, a story that turns Wonder Woman herself and all her Amazon sisters into a raging homicidal coterie of straw feminists. I tried to watch the animated version, The Flashpoint Paradox, and couldn’t make it past the first fifteen minutes, especially once it became apparent that the Flash’s only superhero allies would be male. How the whole thing turns out I don’t know, but I’m not keen to sit through more than an hour of murderous straw-feminist antics in order to find out.
The straw feminist isn’t just a villain who happens to be female. Like her sexy cousin the femme fatale, she’s a villain because she is female. The first kind of female villain, the one whose evil isn’t specifically linked to gender, could actually represent a step forward (as long as there’s an awesome heroine somewhere in the picture). But the straw feminist sends us into full-speed retreat to the Stone Age, and every time I see a movie or TV show in which she appears, I have to cleanse my palate with a few chapters from a Kate Elliott or Barbara Hambly novel. I guess that’s one silver lining…