My lack of enthusiasm for female villains is already well documented here. I’ve written a few in my time, both in my novels and in my plays for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, and I admit to a measure of pride when I’ve felt they were working well within the context of the stories I was telling. But while a female villain may earn my interest, my curiosity, she will never win my heart. The fact that female villains are absolutely everywhere these days, from Harley Quinn to Hela, from Miss Lint to the mysterious robed woman in Solo: A Star Wars Story, not to mention good-girl-gone-bad Dark Phoenix, offers evidence that many people love these kinds of characters, and some of their biggest fans are women. I feel sometimes like the odd woman out, because I don’t share their enthusiasm.
Two good articles I’ve read in the past week have made me reflect that others’ love for female villains and my discomfort with them might spring from the very same place.
The first is a blog review of Ursula K. LeGuin’s fantasy classic A Wizard of Earthsea, written by one of my friends on Goodreads. I’ve mentioned before that I tried to read this book immediately after finishing The Lord of the Rings. I’d imprinted on Eowyn’s character, and I’d hoped to find a fantasy novel that would feature some heroine like her in a larger, more central role. (Why, oh, why was there no one around who could have pointed me toward Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley?) I hadn’t read up to fifty pages of LeGuin’s novel before I realized it wasn’t going to give me what I was looking for, and I returned it to the library unfinished. None of the glowing reviews I’ve read since then have given me cause to regret my decision. There are no Eowyns here. Instead, there’s a Morgan le Fay.
Yet this is the character on whom my friend imprinted, and she notes that her delight in villains has its roots in the many stories she grew up with where Villain was the only role that capable, active women were allowed to play. Villainy demands capability. A female villain has to be a badass, if she is to be a credible threat. If you’re hungry for female badassery, the villainess rarely lets you down. In that light, it’s little wonder that people are drawn to her.
The other article, published on the website Fantasy Cafe as part of its “Women in SFF Month,” was written by R. F. Kuang, author of the new fantasy novel The Poppy War. Entitled “Be a Bitch, Eat the Peach,” it describes how legends have been used to teach Asian girls about the dangers of ambition and the trouble they’ll cause if they try to ask or take too much for themselves. Kuang cites the famous Asian damsels whose defining feature is their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the men in their lives. As a girl, she found an antidote to all this female self-abnegation in Azula, the primary villain of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. Azula captured her imagination and her heart because she took what she wanted without hesitation, precisely as a “good girl” would never do.
I can imagine myself in Kuang’s place, told again and again in story after story that feminine virtue is characterized by the denial of all ambition and desire and that anything you do for yourself is not worth doing. I too would have found Azula captivating. She would certainly have outshone the series’ principal “good girl,” the one we’re supposed to like, who serves as the “Heart” of Team Good and uses what capability she has to facilitate the achievements of the male hero rather than achieve anything of her own or win anything for herself.
But this contrast between the “good girl” who moves more often than not in the shadow of a male hero and the “bad girl” who leads rather than follows is the very root of my own dissatisfaction. Too often, it seems, the fascination of the female villain rises from a false choice that too many writers offer their female characters: you can be the passive damsel, the embodiment of self-denying womanly virtue, or you can be the ruthless vixen who looks out for Number One. You can be good, or you can be powerful. You can’t be both. This dichotomy is the habit of centuries, and while progress has been made, it still persists.
When writers have this false choice in the back, or the front, of their minds, it isn’t the characterization of female villains that suffers. Their power, as well as their allure, remains undiminished. The problem lies instead with the female characters presented to us as “good,” and the limits placed on them. We still see comparatively few female characters who are heroes in their own right, and even fewer who are written to be as fascinating, as charismatic, as the typical female villain. As long as the female characters we’re meant to like are served to us as docile sacrificial lambs who, if they have any capabilities of their own, never quite manage to measure up to male heroes, readers/viewers are going to prefer the evil ones.
But what if we could manage to consign this dichotomy to the fires of history where it belongs?
What if we saw more female heroes who achieve rather than merely enabling the achievements of male Chosen Ones?
What if we saw more powerful women who use their power to build worlds rather than burn them?
What if we saw more female heroes who have messy lives and sometimes make bad decisions, rather than being visions of pristine purity?
What if ambition and empathy were not portrayed as incompatible in female characters?
If we could see such things more often, those who love female villains wouldn’t love them any less. But maybe, just maybe, I could enjoy them too.