One of the reasons Darth Vader is a timeless villain is because he’s Luke’s father. Luke, as the hero, represents us — either indirectly in that he fights for us, or directly as a stand-in, a power-projection of the self. Vader, then, in perverting his role as father, inverts it and becomes the antithesis of protector, and his betrayal of Luke becomes the betrayal of all of us. As proof, consider how ready we are to forgive him, despite all the people he’s tortured and killed, when, at the end of Return of the Jedi, he finally accepts the role he denied and casts the Emperor into the pit.
Gender figures into these kinds of things considerably. The villain, as perversion, has to pervert something not only recognizable, but deeply felt by the audience-reader. Anything less is weak. I’ve lamented before the lack of genuinely despicable women in books and film. This is a reflection of our deeply felt gender norms, which still place women predominantly in two roles: lover/spouse, or caretaker/mother. That means, because a truly effective villain perverts deeply held norms (not just of gender, but that especially), most female villains are either some version of the jilted lover/spouse, or the false caretaker/mother.
Consider the story of Lamia: “In the myth, Lamia is a mistress of the god Zeus, causing Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, to kill all of Lamia’s children and transform her into a monster that hunts and devours the children of others. Another version has Hera stealing all of Lamia’s children and Lamia, who loses her mind from grief and despair, starts stealing and devouring others’ children out of envy, the repeated monstrosity of which transforms her into a monster.
Some accounts say she has a serpent’s tail below the waist. This popular description of her is largely due to Lamia, a poem by John Keats composed in 1819. Antoninus Liberalis uses Lamia as an alternate name for the serpentine drakaina Sybaris; however, Diodorus Siculus describes her as having nothing more than a distorted face.
Later traditions referred to many lamiae; these were folkloric monsters similar to vampires and succubi that seduced young men and then fed on their blood.” (Wikipedia)
Here, everyone is a villain. Zeus is a dick, Hera is a bitch, and Lamia is a monster, but note how Hera is the jilted lover/spouse and Lamia is the false caretaker/mother and Zeus is still just a dick. Because he’s free to be.
And this kind of thing is still going strong. Neil Gaiman often employs the false caretaker/mother in his books, like the mom in Coraline and the nanny in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And there’s a reason for that. Of the two roles, that is certainly the most powerful. A jilted lover/spouse has a reason to be upset, which is why it’s been so easy to turn the Wicked Witch, and indeed all witches, into sympathetic characters (a la the play Wicked).
In fact, to the degree such women were guilty — if they were guilty of anything — only of “perverting” traditional gender norms, modern audiences are probably predisposed to seeing them as powerful heroines more than anything else, tragic figures who fought the system and paid the ultimate price. And so we see Lamia and Lilith and Eve and every witch in Salem turned round in a lot of contemporary fiction.
This is not so easy to do with the caretaker/mother. One has a hard time imagining what could possibly justify Nurse Ratched’s behavior in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, or Kathy Bates’ character from Stephen King’s Misery, both nurses, a traditional caretaker role, and both absolutely devilish and effective villains. That kind of reversal has been done, such as in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but it only works because Ms. Jackson, for example, revealed that the supposedly sick person, the one being cared for, was not only faking, but also abusing the sick role and their caretaker. Hence the fate of poor Eleanor.
As an example of just how powerful these expectations are, and how we’ll only accept someone as villain who is perverting a traditional role, consider that there have been several cases — real, historical cases — where women guilty of despicable murders were either let go or given significantly reduced sentences where they acted alongside a man.
In one case, a woman convinced her lover to help her butcher her husband, but when the couple were caught, she broke down on the stand and said it was all her lover’s idea, which was clearly contravened by the evidence. But we don’t accept a female Vader. Our narratives teach us men are perpetrators. Women are victims. So the jury gave her a reduced sentence, and she was eventually released.
Progress, if there’s been any, has been entirely one-sided. That is, we’re getting better at portraying women as something other than victims. They can be heroines. But as villains, they’re still restricted to perversions of the two traditional roles. Not that it’s not tricky. It’s great that the makers of Star Wars put a woman, Rey, in the lead. If Kylo Ren were also female, it would likely strike audiences as “a woman’s film,” rather than something for everyone. Look at the reaction to Ghostbusters (which also stopped short of casting a female villain, which I thought was a little disappointing).
There is a third role for the villainess that I shudder even to mention. It used to be more prevalent but is thankfully less common these days. This is the woman trying to “act like a man” — who thinks, for example, that she can be CEO or president or some other traditionally male (usually leadership or scientific) role, when we all know she’s just being silly and needs to get her ass back in the kitchen and bake us a pie. In her underwear. And of course, when she’s called on it, she fights back, only to have everyone’s worst fears confirmed in the end when the company goes under, or the country is attacked, or the virus escapes containment, or whatever. Fuck that and may it rest in peace, or at least stay in Christian fiction, where it still plays a role.
This is why I always say we’ll know sexism is truly on the ropes when we start to see engaging, effective female villains who aren’t perversions of the two traditional feminine roles, which brings things around to my work. All of my villains have thus far been male, more or less, with the exception of Anne Pickford, the witch from my horror short, Scratch, although really it turns out she’s possessed by a demon, so even that’s tricky. And what’s more, the only reason she was possessed at all is because she was shunned from the community (in the 1800s) for being a lesbian, which very much fits the Lilith/Lamia archetype already mentioned.
Without giving away any spoilers, I just want to say that my mind is turning towards female villains for my upcoming works, including the novel I’m co-authoring presently with, as well as my next standalone novel, a sci-fantasy mystery tentatively called The Mysterians. The issue, of course, is how to make female villains genuinely effective when your audience comes “fully laden” — predisposed to really engage only with villains that pervert previously internalized norms, where anything else is trite and less-than-memorable.
At least in the latter case, I think I have a solution. We’ll see if it works.
art by Mike Mignola