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.
I will note that my own books are relatively abundant with female villians. Sundancer from Burn Baby Burn gets the biggest starring role, but Jazz in my Bitterwood novels is no slouch in the villiany department. In my new series, Greatshadow has a slew of bad girls, Infidel, Aurora, and the Black Swan, and Hush introduces Sorrow and Purity to the mix. All these characters are considered villians by the powers that be in this fantasy universe, though obviously I feel differently about Infidel and Sorrow. Still, in Witchbreaker, the third book, Sorrow continues down the path of outright supervilliany.
Doing my part to make sure the world knows that women can be just as destructive as men....
Off the top of my head, the only (non-Disney) female villain from pop culture I could come up with was Glorificus, the "big bad" from season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, I agree Servalan was a great villain.
I love all the information in this post, but I am not persuaded by the thesis here. Maybe I just need a little more explaining though. It seems like the challenge was to come up with powerful female villains in movies or TV (or books?), and yet when the students came up with some their examples are discounted in some way or another (they are either wicked stepmothers or evil queens). I don't understand why these types of villainous women would not count.
I am also tempted to believe that part of the problem is that we are talking about nineteen year old students who haven't much, on average, at their disposal beyond mainstream movie culture. I'll bet, given the time, I could come up with a hundred movies with powerful female villains from all walks of life. I'll include some examples below. Obviously I do not mean to indicate that I believe things are even. For real, there are many dozens of male villains for each female I can think of; but it's better than "nearly none".
V. HANNAH. HELLRAISER 2. SHE. DAUGHTER OF DRACULA. KILL BILL. BLACK SUNDAY. MACBETH. NATURAL BORN KILLERS. GHOSTBUSTERS. LES VAMPIRE. AUDITION. RING. LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM. MONSTER. WILLOW. And nearly every noir film ever made, right?
Mr. Cavin, your mention of noir makes me want to point out that female villians are common enough to have their own stereotype, the femme fatale. I do think that male villianous roles have a bit more diversity and complexity on average.
One villianess I loved was Hatsumono from Memoirs of a Geisha. The book had some problems, but she was just a wonderfully nasty and completely believable antagonist for me.
And am I the only person who'd never heard of Blake's 7?
Eric, yes! Season 5 of Buffy. But as I remember she had an other hald which was sincere young doctor.
She did do a good job of her role.
Cavin, more female villains!
Willow - evil stepmother witch stereoptype again. Bathmorda. I do admit she was a great villain.
Natural Born Killers - she was half of a team.
Macbeth - she wasn't bad she was just misunderstood.
Ghostbusters??? Do you mean Sigourney Weaver's character? She wasn't evil, just possessed.
It doesn't count if they're crazy.
Don't konw the others...
And you're right, the students don't have a lot to draw on.
Shame on you, James. Blake's 7 is a British Sf Institution!
I feel like suggesting some powerful females both factual and fictional. I have trouble choosing them, but here are four.
I have trouble assigning labels like 'hero' or 'villain' to historical figures as it depends whose story you are looking at but these are two powerful historical women I find interesting and inspiring. Both of whom succeeded in powerful roles.
-Theodora of Byzantine
-Hatshepsut, probably the most successful female pharaoh
Here are two of my favourite powerful female villains of sorts (although one is more a morally questionable protagonist). One written by a woman and one by a man. :)
Melisande from Kushiel Trilogy by Jaqueline Carey. I like that she's the central villain of the series who manipulates all the lesser (often male) villains. She's sadistic and twisted but very, very smart. While in some ways she could fit into the femme fatale type (she does use sex as a weapon a fair bit, although always on her own terms) her 'evil' is not based on her sexuality and she doesn't really feel the need to justify her actions and attempts to seize power in any way other than 'I have the ability to do it, so it seemed worth a shot.'
Monza from Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie. I think she is a very interesting character who could be both hero and/or villain depending on how you look at things. A lot of what she does in morally suspect and she's probably not someone you'd aspire to be. However, she is determined, drives the story and refuses to give in despite adversity.
Rowena Cory Daniells:
Ha! No no, I meant the god they face at the end of GHOSTBUSTERS, Gozer the Gozarian, played by Slavitza Jovan. She’s the acrobatic woman who blasts them all with lightning after Ray tell her they are not really gods. She’s the supernatural problem the heroes have to solve to get to the end of the movie.
But on a more serious note: your response doesn’t do anything to allay my burgeoning opinion that you are cherry-picking data to make a point that cannot be made otherwise. You might like to fit female villains into several neat categories—heck, there may even be fewer categories for women than men in pop villainy, but I’m not prepared to buy even that just yet—but you seem to be able to make this point that female villains are scarce only by using discrimination. Why are “stepmother types” discounted again? Why is a wicked witch like the villain of WILLOW a “stepmother” at all? Is the witch in THE WIZARD OF OZ also a “stepmother type”? In your response, you tell me that crazy and possessed people don’t count as villains. I disagree. People who partner up (with men?) are also not counted. People who are misunderstood. (And, really? You think Lady Macbeth isn’t a villain? This is an interpretation of the play I’ve never encountered before. I thought she was the very archetype of wicked ambition who micromanages the bloody murder of nearly every single other character in what is arguably Shakespeare’s only horror story.) So you see, I guess I’m a little unsure how it is you are defining villainy for your argument above, male or female. And without this being logically understood, it seems very much like you are trying to jury-rig the data to express something I don’t think it expresses.
I’m really enjoying this conversation, though. I hope I win a book.
My favourite powerful female hero...
Polgara from the Belgariad. Thousands of years of ruthless devotion to keeping her family safe. A very powerful mother figure.
Rowena said, "It doesn't count if they're crazy." But following that logic, Batman loses his best villian, the Joker. Crazy might keep you from the death sentence in a court of law, but in literature it's a perfectly acceptable attribute for a villain.
Was Hatshepsut the Pharoah who ruled as a man, even though she was a woman, and when she died they obliterated her name and image from almost everywhere?
I'm playing with the whole question.
Crazy is too easy. I keep telling my students, if you're going to create a strong villain, don't make the big reveal ... oh, they were crazy.
I led in with villains, but I was really just looking at powerful women and how they are perceived by their peers (male and female) and how history remembers them.
Is that you, Scott J Robinson?
Any poweful females in your books?
Rowena, I'm glad you wrote this post. The problem frankly hadn't occurred to me before, and I agree that it's a serious one. I liked to it from my blog, where I'm doing a series of interviews on inclusivity and exclusivity; this certainly helps expand a neglected corner of that topic.
the big question is - in fiction if men can't find women really threatening, then does that mean they don't see women as equal, because only an equal or more powerful person can be threatening?
Lots of generalisations there.
The other question is - in real life, how many powerful have there been and how did society and history paint them? If they wielded power on behalf of a son or absent husband it was OK, but anything else and they were considered unnatural.
I think a distinction should be made between powerful women, and women villains, especially if we're looking at facts alongside fiction. 'cause, factually speaking, women are much less likely to commit any kind of violent crime. So, in real life, the bad guys you meet (or fear to meet) are extremely likely to be, well, guys. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, in 2005, men were 10 times as likely as women to commit murder.
Do men not fear women because they don't think they are equals? No. They don't fear them because, in fact, women are much less likely to attack them, even if the woman is holding a gun.
Yes, Hatshepsut was the female pharaoh who ruled for around 22 years. She was known as the 'king' as they didn't have an equivalent female term, but no-one ever thought she was a man (if that is what you meant). :)
She established lots of trade and built a lot of things. Most of her reign was also pretty peaceful and prosperous and she is considered one of the more successful pharaohs male or female.
After she died I believe some attempts were made to erase her image (no-one is quite sure why although some think it was self-promotion by Thutmose III, making room for his own image and accomplishments). However, it wasn't done that well, and only the really visible monuments were actually removed. And because she built so many things there was still a fair bit left for people to find.
I was wondering whether the reason the characters fitting the 'evil stepmother' stereotype were not considered true female villains was because (you could argue) that most of their monstrousness is derived from the fact they are the antithesis of the traditional 'good woman/mother.' The virtuous woman is a nurturing mother figure who puts her children and husband first while the 'evil stepmother' is a self-motivated seductress who subverts her 'natural role' usually by seeking to harm the child or other innocent. Thus, they are just based on traditional gender roles.
I might be wrong but I think people are possibly looking for powerful female characters who are fleshed out and heroic/villainous in their own right, not just as representations of an idea (ie. sexualised women/powerful women are evil or unnatural). For instance, I wouldn't call the White Witch from Narnia a great female character or villain as she is pretty much exactly that stereotype being used by C. S. Lewis to make a point.
This discussion is fun. :)
I saw Dark Knight Rises last night, and it's interesting the contrast between the male and female villians. The female villians are both portrayed as deceptively wicked. They each at times earn a man's trust only to betray him at a crucial moment. Bane is allowed to be openly (and stupidly) evil throughout.
I think there's a "coolness" gap between male and female villians. Men can be Darth Vader or the Joker, flamboyant villians who are dangerous to even look at, while female villians are less often intimidating on the surface. The plans of male villians are often rather direct, menacing the world with guns and bombs as they state what they want, while female villians often work indirectly to manipulate the protagonist into harm. Again, exceptions all around, but still fairly common patterns.
Oh, and one more female villian cliche: The bad girl who is redeemed by her love of the hero. I can think of several stories where the female villian switches side because she falls for the good guy, but I can't think of any where the male villain abandons his plans half way through the plot because he's fallen for a female hero. (Wait! Yes I can! The Submariner in his early Fantastic Four appearances often calls off his invasions of the surface world because he's hoping to win the heart of Sue Richards.)
James: This trend is much more apparent in the golden Age Submariner comics, where the villainous protagonist does some begrudging good deed for the girl in nearly every seven-page story. Plus, SPOILER ALERT, you must look no further than your own Dark Knight example for the reverse: an unknown quantity who decides to go evil because of his love for a woman.
Michelle Goldsmith: Excellent points! Also, Rowena Cory Daniells’ very first point--that she excluded particularly Disney-type villains from the list of baddies meant to scare an audience of (primarily) children simply because subverting domestic norms is an easy avenue to great effect over kids--is also a good one. However, are we going to include the very fact that someone is a woman on the list of things that make her ineligible for villainy? It seems to kinda counter the spirit of feminist progress if she has to set aside gender distinctions just to compete in this field. Lord knows male villains act preposterously male often enough.
You say that the White Witch isn’t necessarily a great example because she fulfills a plot device based on subverting normal female roles; but that just seems like good storytelling to me. I would not want to read a book where the antagonist is simply a cypher. I also would not want to run into the White Witch in a dark alley; and I’m pretty sure she wreaks significant havoc on the protagonists of her tale--who, just as notably, also fulfill particular storytelling needs in service of Lewis’ ulterior motive. (Are they still to be considered heroes? I’m on board if you say no.) Because of this, I’m very comfortable calling the White Witch a villain, even though she trips both of the alarms that warn us, above, of her simple subversion of friendly domesticity. Returning to James’ comment even farther above: I feel like the White Witch fits nearly every part of his second paragraph’s description of a male villain. So does the Wicked Witch of the West. So does the angry god at the end of GHOSTBUSTERS. None of these are particularly subtle baddies and all of them are flamboyantly striking looking. As a bonus, they all shoot fire out of their hands.
So, before we go any further, I think it would behoove us to establish a good working definition for villain. While we are at it, it might be helpful to me if we came up with a male villain that somehow fits the bill: sane, unpossessed, operating alone in service to his own designs, no mere subversion or extreme example of everyday male gender stereotypes, not a father figure, not meant to only frighten children, etc. Sitting here thinking about it I have no doubt that it can be done, but it’s turning out to be harder than I expected.
This makes me feel much better about writing so many female villains.
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