Where Have the Villainesses Gone?

allen song - young evil-lyn

“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 thrilling stories (more than literature or arthouse films) and I love women in action stories as something other than a damsel. It’s fun when the spunky teen-sized girl roundhouses the 250-lb. muscle-bound baddie into the wall. It’s not at all believable, but it’s way better than her screaming in the corner with her polished nails pressed to her lips, waiting for her hero to save her.

While we can certainly afford a few 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 it matters, we have to understand a very important fact about fiction: heroes must follow the rules. Only villains are free to make their own.

“The rules” don’t have to be laws, 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, which 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 the only one that is truly free. Villains have the power to choose, to sacrifice in pursuit of an aim, even where that aim might once have been good, such as returning order to a galaxy in chaos. They reflect — in the literal sense of that word: reveal 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 Nurse Ratched but Hannibal Lecter. Not Captain Phasma 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,” which becomes a rape itself?

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 or Conan as variants of the stock, hyper-masculine hero whose battles always seem to end with them shirtless and bulging.

Personally, I have no problem with gender roles, but in a system where they are defined in opposition, like binary stars orbiting each other, women are only free to occupy new roles once men get out of the way. If femininity is only what masculinity isn’t, then it is freed only when we change our attitudes about masculinity, and vice versa.

Imagine if 50 Shades of Gray were about an older, wealthy woman who sexually manipulates and sadomasochistically abuses a naive college-aged boy who, as a result, becomes hopelessly enthralled with her? It seems more sinister somehow — straight-up psychological thriller versus soccer-mom erotica fantasy.

I would argue that’s not because women can’t be dominatrixes, clearly, but because men are not free to be weak. A submissive male comes across less sympathetic than simply pathetic. A male protagonist can be flawed. He can be 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 think he had it coming and more or less side with the abuser. A man’s story still has to be about him becoming the hero. In all other roles, he’s the villain.

Under a binary system, for women to become truly potent villains, we don’t need new attitudes about them — or not only. We need new attitudes about men.

There are a handful of great female villains already out there, of course. It’s been easy for later writers to re-imagine the Wicked Witch and Maleficent as heroes because the original villains were so robust. Similarly, Nurse Ratched (from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates’s character in Misery) are both legitimately terrifying.

But however well-executed, these are still mere perversions of traditional feminine roles: the witches are jilted vixens, the dark antithesis of the hero’s princess/sex object (rejected, rightly or wrongly, for another), and the nurses are the antithesis of the caretaker/mother, as is Other Mother from Neil Gaiman’s popular children’s tale Coraline.

I’m with Gillian. Where’s the rest?

cover image: “Young Evil-Lyn” by Allen Song