Villainesses Revisited

“What about female villains?” an audience member asked the panelists leading a DragonCon discussion about female-character representation in SFF. “Do they hold us back?”

How I wished this question hadn’t come only ten minutes from the end of the discussion. There’s so much to say on the matter that it could easily have supported a panel of its own. I would have welcomed the chance to air my complicated feelings about villainesses, previously expressed on this very blog, and to be challenged in ways that would make me think. But the question by itself was enough to give me pause. Is my feeling that female villains might “hold us back” the root of my ambivalence, and is that really fair? How do I reconcile this ambivalence with the delight I’ve taken in crafting villainesses in my own work, such as the venomous Southern belle Liza Twigg in my radio play The Horseman of the Hollow?

Inspired by this question that didn’t get sufficient consideration, as well as the appearance of female villains in a number of books I’ve enjoyed over the past year, from Ifueko’s Raybearer to Clark’s A Master of Djinn to Gratton’s The Queens of Innis Lear to Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, I’ve decided the time has come for me to revisit my “villainess problem.”

First, where does the question come from? Why might we have the idea that female villains might “hold us back,” when no one to my knowledge has ever wondered if characters like Darth Vader or the Joker or Loki might hold men back? If the world and its popular culture were as they should be, we wouldn’t be asking this question of any gender; the idea that an individual’s behavior might reflect either well or badly on a whole gender or race the individual may be part of is inherently problematic. But sadly, we’re carrying the baggage of centuries of pop culture in which women’s challenges to gender roles have been framed as villainous. In most fiction from years past, as an essay from an old textbook of mine put it, “good women were never powerful, and powerful women were never good enough.” The evil woman either possessed or desired more power — political, magical, and/or intellectual — than was deemed natural for her gender, while the good woman, the passive object of the male hero’s adoration, was content with her subordinate position.

Moreover, the task of defeating and neutralizing female villainy nearly always — with a few exceptions — fell to men. Evil women challenged masculine preeminence, while good women stepped back and let men take care of the problem; this stepping back, this reliance on men to fix things, was depicted as part and parcel of their virtuous natures, the thing that made them “heroines.” An iconic example appears in Disney’s 1959 film Sleeping Beauty: while the damsel sleeps (“Sleeping Beauty, sleep on,” sings a choir), the male hero, with the help of three fairy sidekicks, slays the monstrous witch-dragon and breaks the dread spell with his kiss.

Too often, when villainesses meet their defeat at the hands of men, we see masculine power as a force for good and feminine power as untrustworthy at best, destructive at worst. In another Disney film, The Sword in the Stone, we meet two magic users, one male and another female. The male wizard is wise and good, the witch is spiteful and evil, and when they duel, he shows her who’s boss. It’s not Disney’s fault, since it’s merely drawing on centuries’ worth of Arthurian fiction that has framed its magicians this way; male magic might be evil on occasion, but female magic is always and inevitably so. With this history, some of us might be forgiven for thinking that female villains could “hold women back.”

But popular culture changes with the times, and recent years have seen a growing acceptance of women in heroic roles, women who can be both powerful and good. These days, villainesses are nearly as likely to be defeated by heroines as by male heroes. As female power, drive, and ambition are less often drawn as inherently suspect, the time may have come for the Villainess to rise in all her wicked glory. But it may still behoove us, as we look at villainesses, to question exactly what about them is being painted as evil — specifically, whether their villainy is gender-linked, and in what way.

Elise Ringo’s 2018 essay “Villainesses Required: Why the Dark Side Needs More Women” makes its stance clear in its title: “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.” Yet she also calls out as problematic the way female villainy is often presented even today: “When female villains do appear, they tend to be produced from limited molds: the femme fatale. . . the evil stepmother. . . the older woman desperately chasing youth and beauty. . . All of these types, no matter how much fun they are, share a common thread: villains who are women are villains as women.”

Ringo may have an affection for villains in general that I don’t share, but we have a common hope that in the future, female characters might get the chance to be evil in ways that transcend gender roles. Set free from gender essentialism, such villainesses might just become Darth Vader-level icons.

My husband and I have been making our way through the sixth and final season of Supergirl. After a shaky first half that saw Kara trapped in the Phantom Zone for way too many episodes, the show has regained its footing, and all its major female characters are getting their moments to shine. Since it has so many powerful, active women on Team Good, for the most part I’ve enjoyed its bad-news ladies, from Livewire to Lillian Luthor, but dastardly politician Councilwoman Jean Rankin may be my favorite of all of them. Motivated by a desire to clear the neighborhoods of those she sees as “useless,” demolishing low-income housing to make way for condominiums, Rankin is the embodiment of murderous greed and bigotry, qualities that know no gender. Her role might easily have been played by a man, without much alteration in the story. But here she is a woman, and terrifyingly evil.

But the Councilwoman isn’t the only villainess Kara and her friends must contend with. There’s also Nyxly, a female Imp Kara met in the Phantom Zone, who has now gotten herself transported into the “real” world and is determined to avenge herself on Kara because Kara stopped her from murdering her (Kara’s) father. Such an amoral, evil-for-evil’s-sake demon could be a lot of fun. But unfortunately the writers have chosen to give her a backstory to explain her rage: she was screwed over by her world’s “patriarchy.” That’s right — another villainess rendered evil by sexism, who, in her willingness to hurt innumerable people in order to get her revenge, is shown to be much more dangerous and destructive than the oppressive system she defies. She is a straw feminist, a villain as woman, as opposed to the Councilwoman, a villain who happens to be a woman.

I’d love to see the future belong to the villains who happen to be women, as opposed to the villains as women; the straw feminist, in particular, should be relegated to the past. As long as we continue to see so many of the latter kind, I suspect my feelings about villainesses in general may remain ambivalent.