Where Have All the Villainesses Gone?

“Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side? I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some. The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.”

-Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl

I have to be honest. As much as I wanted to enjoy it, I found the plot of Gone Girl to be surprisingly ludicrous — a parade of pointless twists and hand-waving that defied basic sense — but the premise and the characters (Amy more than Nick) were compelling, and I give Ms. Flynn mad props for taking on a challenge.

But I really dig this quote. She is spot-on.

I love action stories — I stopped reading literature and watching arthouse films years ago — and I love women in action stories as something other than a damsel. It’s fun when the 110-lb. girl roundhouses the 250-lb., muscle-bound bad guy into the wall. It’s not at all believable, but it’s waaaaay better than her screaming in the corner with her polished nails to her lips, waiting for her hero to save her.

While we certainly need more female leads, that spunky, Kewpie doll-heroine is only going to take us so far. On some level, we’re all still subtly aware that she’s in a Title IX role (Gillian’s “parodic girl-powering”). She’s a woman doing man-things, just with a low-cut top and model-perfect hair.

To understand why that matters, we have to understand a very important fact about fiction: heroes must follow the rules. Only villains are free to make their own.

To be clear, “the rules” don’t have to be the law. Or anything like it. They could simply be the hero’s own moral code, her sense of what’s right. Nor does the villain need to be missing such things. In fact, some of the best villains are overzealous legalists. But when pressed to the limit, the hero does what’s right. He may waver, but in the end, he lives how we wish we had the courage to. This may be as simple as sticking with his life’s dream of owning a farm after some financial trouble and a year of bad weather.

The villain, on the other hand, is anyone who gives up or sacrifices what’s right to achieve an aim, even where that aim might once have been good, such as returning order to a galaxy in chaos. Our villains, then, more so than our heroes, reflect — in the literal sense of that word, in reverse — our moral autonomy.

We’ll know sexism is gasping when people don’t think twice about female villains, when it doesn’t bother them like it does now. And I’m not talking about the manipulative bitch or jilted vixen, which are mere perversions of the two traditional feminine roles: mother and sex object. I mean straight up inventive, devious, cunning, ruthless, potent villains. Not Harley Quinn, but the Joker. Not Clarice Starling, but Hannibal Lecter. Not Princess Leia, but Darth Vader. Can you image Alex DeLarge, the protagonist from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, as a woman? How much would that change our feelings about the rape scene? Or her anti-violence “treatment”?

That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a good sultry villainess, like Catwoman. Personally, I have a very sick fascination with The Baroness from the G.I. Joe franchise. (Google her.) On their own, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those characters, just as there’s nothing wrong with Thor as a variant of the stock, hypermasculine hero whose battles always seem to end with him partially shirtless and flaunting buns of steel.

The problem is that we see gender as a spectrum with fixed poles. In such a system, which doesn’t seem to be changing, women are only free to occupy new roles when men get out of the way, when we change our attitudes about masculinity. What if 50 Shades of Gray were about an older, wealthy woman who sexually manipulates and sadomasochistically abuses a younger, naive man? It’s been done, and it always seems more sinister somehow — straight-up thriller rather than soccer-mom-erotica.

I would argue that’s not because women can’t be dominatrixes, clearly, but because men are not free to be weak and submissive, which comes across less sympathetic than simply pathetic, so if a woman makes them so, it is a genuine normative transgression (versus slightly deviant hobby). A male protagonist can be flawed: pathologically shy, for example. Damaged characters are interesting in any role. But if he’s passive, if he’s the object, we have no sympathy. We’ll think he had it coming and side with the abusive woman.

Of course, there are a handful of great female villains out there. It’s been easy for later writers to re-imagine the Wicked Witch and Maleficent as heroes because the original villains were so robust. But those are fairy tales. And Nurse Ratched (from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates’s character in Misery) are both nurses. However well-executed, these are all still perversions of traditional feminine roles: the witches are the dark antithesis of the hero’s princess/sex object, and the nurses the opposite of the caretaker/mother.

I’m with Gillian. Gimme more.

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