I teach a unit on film and TV to university students. One of the things we discuss is characterisation and character archetypes. I can find examples of female heroes, (Ripley, it always comes back to Ripley!), but the hardest thing to find is a female villain. When I ask the students to name some, they come up with women who are the sidekicks to male villains, or they come up with Disney villains.
‘Stand alone’ female villains tend to be from children’s stories. (Does this mean that inside the home is the only place where a woman can be truly powerful?). The evil step-mother trope is probably based on truth. In the past, when many women died in childbirth, their children would be raised by a step-mother who, when resources were scarce, would favour her own genetic off-spring over the older children of another woman.
So why can’t the students name a female villain? These young males (average age 19) have told me it’s because they aren’t afraid of women due to females being physically weaker. The obvious response is, but what if you put a gun in her hand, surely this would negate the physical differences?
While a gun will kill in anyone’s hands, you come back to the person behind the trigger. You have to believe they are a threat to you and these young men couldn’t take a female villain seriously. Judging from the lack of female villains in mainstream media, it would seem most men can’t take a female villain seriously. (Does this mean they don’t feel threatened by women and, if so, does it mean deep-down they don’t regard women as equals?)
You could base a doctoral thesis on the questions this raises, but since I’m writing a light-hearted blog post I’ll move on and talk about the late 70s SF show, Blake’s 7.
Supreme Commander Servalan...
This character had to be the sexiest and most menacing villain in any TV show. She made a deep impression on my young mind. Why? Because she was smart, powerful, ruthless and... feminine.
I understand it is possible to watch the Blake’s 7 episodes on you tube. I should really go back and re-watch them to see if she still has the same presence, thirty years later.
Why do we see so few powerful female characters in drama? If a woman is powerful she is often divorced from her femininity or crazed (and therefore pitiable).
In real life, there were women who wielded power but they were often born into aristocracy and they wielded power on behalf of an absent husband or son, or an under-age son, such as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was smart, but it helped that she was born into power, married two kings, produced many children — three sons who became kings, among them Richard the Lionheart — and lived to be eighty-two. (It is hard to make an impact on the world when you spend the majority of your adult life pregnant and die in childbirth at twenty-five).
When Richard the Lionheart inherited his throne from his father, he authorised his mother to rule England until he was ready to take over. Yet, when Eleanor was married to her first husband, the weak king of France, and she attempted to play a part in politics she was put in her place by the powerful men of the French court. *
This pattern of accepting a powerful woman if she is acting on behalf of son, but resenting her if she attempts to wield power on her own behalf or that of a weak husband can be seen in the Byzantium Empire, specifically during the hundred years between 1150 to 1250. Although empresses who ruled for their sons were still criticised by their male peers, the most severe criticism was reserved for Irene Doukaina and Euphrosyne Doukaina, who were ruling as wives rather than mothers.**
From this you can make the assumption that powerful men, feel threatened by a woman who ‘usurps’ their power, but will accept a powerful woman who is wielding power on behalf of a son.
Could it be that powerful men, resent powerful women?
There are always exceptions to the rule and not all powerful women came from privileged backgrounds. According to Hiskey, Ching Shih, the Pirate Queen started out as a prostitute and by the time she was thirty, she commanded a fleet of around 1,800 ships with: ‘70,000-80,000 pirates (about 17,000 male pirates directly under her control, the rest being other pirate groups who agreed to work with her group, then female pirates, children, spies, farmers enlisted to supply food, etc.); controlled nearly the entire Guangdong province directly; held a vast spy network within the Qing Dynasty; and dominated the South Chinese Sea.’
With such a vast network of people under her command, she formed a government and established laws. She defeated the Chinese Emperor’s armada, and evaded capture by the combined British and Portuguese navies. Then she negotiated with the Governor General of Canton and struck a deal. Most of her people received amnesty, while she walked away with a noble title and retired at the age of thirty-five. She must be one of the few pirates, male or female, to live out her days in wealth and security.
But Ching Shih would have to be an outlier, which brings us back to women and power, and powerful women in fiction.
In my new trilogy, The Outcast Chronicles, the pure-blood mystics all have a gift of some kind, but the women are more powerful than the men. Not only are the females more powerful, but their power is expressed in a different way and the nature of male-female power means they are drawn to each other. The mystics live in brotherhoods and sisterhoods, united for their own protection. Their society balances on a knife edge because the men resent the women and the women fear the men.
With this trilogy, I wanted to explore the ramifications of gifted people living amongst the non-gifted, True-men as they call themselves. Would those without power resent those with the gifts? We see the results of this discrimination and persecution through Sorne, the unwanted half-blood son of the True-man king.
I also wanted to explore how power would affect the individual mystic. There had to be limitations and consequences for using power. The gifts affect the way the mystics see the world and each other. Their society evolved rituals to recognise and contain power.
Most powerful of this generation is Imoshen, who has the gift of reading people’s motivations. The males hate her and even the women of her own sisterhood are wary of her. It is not until the True-man king besieges their city, that her gift makes Imoshen the natural choice to lead their people.
In this trilogy I explore the consequences of power for those with it and those without. I also explore the impact of the gender divide because I’m fascinated by these questions.
Rowena has a copy of Besieged to give-away. To enter, on the comments section, tell us who is your favourite powerful female (villain or hero) and why?
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** For more information on these women see Women, Men, and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium, edited by Liz James. It contains a series of essays on the topic. This section is drawn from Barbara Hill’s essay Imperial Women and the Ideology of Womanhood in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.