I recently wrote about the qualities that constitute a heroine, whether in literature, TV, or film. In doing so, I was led to consider the equally compelling question: What makes for a successfully imagined female villain? Perhaps more specifically, what makes for a portrayal of a female villain that isn’t sexist?
We know what makes for a good villain in general—he or she should be someone we love to hate. Generally, a villain is characterized by an incapacity for empathy. This is true no matter the villain’s gender. But too often, representations of female villains seem driven by animosity toward women in general, or at the very least fall back on misogynistic gender stereotypes. Thus, perhaps the most common female villain is the “ambitious woman,” the power-hungry Lady Macbeth archetype: hard, icy, cunning, and scheming (think House of Cards’ Claire Underwood). There are also female villains who are merely promiscuous, irrational, and violent, ruining the lives of the unfortunate male protagonists they ensnare. These two stereotypical female roles have sometimes fused in the femme fatale who uses her sexuality to advance her ambition. Some combination of the two stereotypes has informed female villains from King Lear’s two ungrateful older daughters to the Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Stereotypes of female evil also often blend ageism with sexism—every fairy tale has its evil hag or warty witch. I grew up watching Disney’s female villains—the Evil Queen, Maleficent, Cinderella’s step-mother, Ursula, Cruella Deville. Their villainy was usually connected to their jealousy of youth and beauty and/or to their hunger for power. The evil queen is vain and envious, Maleficent vengeful, Cinderella’s step-mother spiteful, and Ursula manipulative and just generally ruthless. Whether or not their individual representations are sexist, as a group they send the message that older women are dangerous to youthful heroines, and could never be heroines themselves.
How do we tell, beyond a gut feeling, if a particular representation of a female villain is sexist? Certainly we can’t call sexism on every female villain; to demand only positive representations of women would itself be regressive and sexist. The question is only complicated by the fact that today, particularly on TV, we seem to have moved in many cases beyond portrayals of clear-cut villainy, favoring anti-heroes and (less-frequently) anti-heroines. Generally, an anti-hero or anti-heroine is made, not born; they have nuance, and we see the circumstances have led them to be who they are. Some iconic female villains have been given backstories this way and even received full-on makeovers in recent years, occasionally even transitioning to heroine status: Maleficent and the Wicked Witch of the West are among these. But other female characters, even when given nuance, remain evil, and it’s in those cases that it’s particularly tricky to pinpoint whether they convey a generalized negative attitude toward women.
One such difficult character is A Song of Ice and Fire/ Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, who is worth discussing in detail. Is she a villainess or an anti-heroine? She’s certainly not pure evil like her son Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton. She has a back-story and some complexity. But why must the series’ most overtly devious female character be the one with the most feminist awareness? Is dissatisfaction with female roles aligned with villainy? Other, more positive female characters in the series transgress gender norms (Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth). But Cersei has the most fully developed awareness of the gender constraints imposed on her, and of the differences in the way she and her twin brother have always been treated. She resents being married off like chattel and having her ambitions limited by her gender. The trouble is that her indignation about these things is part of a general pattern of resenting and blaming others for her own faults or the consequences of her own actions, so that it feels as if Martin is undermining the validity of her gender critique. (Book readers may be particularly unlikely to attribute her villainy to years of gender inequity, since as a little girl she was already apparently evil enough to drown a friend in a well.)
Another thing that frustrates me about the representation of Cersei, but may just reveal my own stereotypes of female villainy, is her lack of cunning or even intelligence; this lack is unusual for a powerful, ambitious female villain. The first time I read A Song of Ice and Fire, I was surprised when I reached the third book, A Feast for Crows, in which Cersei first becomes a point of view character, to discover that she lacked the calculating intellect that typically goes along with ruthless ambition in a female villain. The second time I read the novels, I was more actively annoyed—Why does G.R.R. Martin have to emphasize that every single decision she makes is stupid and self-defeating? Her one redeeming quality is her love for her children, but she loves them only for the same narcissistic reason that she loves her twin—because they are reflections or extensions of herself.
I am not sure that it is necessarily sexist that Cersei’s villainy is bound up with her gender and her gender-awareness. It seems incorrect to say that a representation of a female villain is sexist unless her villainy is disconnected from her gender, or unless her role could just as easily be played by a man. I am also thinking here of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and its deliciously sociopathic title character, who has cunning in spades. Amy Dunne, like Cersei, is keenly aware of the role gender plays in every aspect of life. She uses the media’s bias toward pretty white women to strengthen her intricate revenge plot against her cheating slob of a husband. She also gives the novel’s powerful and much-quoted “cool girl” speech, skewering men’s expectations of women. At the same time, what does it mean that this arguably feminist speech comes from a sociopath? Amy herself is certainly no feminist—like Cersei, her attitude towards other women is often sexist, contemptuous, and exploitative, never sororal.
Is Amy a villain, an antagonist, an anti-heroine? Rosamond Pike, who played Amy in David Finch’s 2013 movie version, has said there is something essentially feminine about Amy’s type of crazy—by extension, one might say Amy’s type of evil. This makes me distinctly uncomfortable, but it seems indisputable: there is no way Nick’s and Amy’s roles could have been successfully reversed. Indeed, they seemed to play out an extreme version of husband-wife dynamics that some readers and film-goers found uncomfortably familiar.
Gone Girl seems to break the most fundamental rule of non-sexist villainess depiction: that a book/show/movie not cater to men who could close the book or leave the theatre with the comment: “Women—crazy, am I right?” (This rule is why I have avoided watching movies like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct.) But then again, men are more likely to leave Gone Girl terrified than smug, and I honestly can’t say if that’s better or worse. In any case, sociopathy certainly characterizes many of the scariest male villains as well. It doesn’t necessarily make a depiction of female evil sexist.
So it seems any rule one lays down about female characterization is inevitably unstable. The best conclusion I can come up with in avoiding creating sexist female villains, and it seems a cliché, is that a character should be fully-realized, not a caricature or stereotype, but recognizably a human being. She should not be vilified merely for wanting things or doing things a man would not be a villain for wanting or doing. Those ideas seems simple, but we can hold to them and still retain characters like Cersei or Amy, who challenge us to continue the debate about representations of women that loom large in our cultural consciousness.