Sorry for the radio silence throughout July – a combination of work and moving house (more on that later) has kicked my arse, and I’ve spent most of the past month too exhausted to focus on anything beyond “carry box from here to there”. It hasn’t left much time or energy for blogging.
Hopefully, though, the busy period is out of the way – and at least I’ve had a chance to catch up on my books, TV shows and podcasts over the past month. I’ve also been thinking (although no more than usual) about female characters, and particularly female villains.
Female villains often get the short straw, at least compared to their male counterparts. Like the ‘strong female character’ (which I guess they are, although from a different direction to the one you’d expect), they often have to fit a very restrictive and specific set of roles. Female villains get to be either dangerously sexy, or repulsively grotesque; either lonely and outcast (and therefore vulnerable to affection) or prettily popular (and therefore in need of knocking off their pedestals). If the protagonist is a man, he must either be attracted to or despise the female villain; if the protagonist is a woman, she must prove that she’s a “better” woman than her nemesis, usually by being more modest and chaste. (Of course, this is assuming the protagonist is straight – but then, LGB protagonists usually crop up in better-written stories).
Some female villains, though, get to break this mould, escaping from the restrictions of the ‘(bad) strong female character’ and becoming interesting and nuanced people in their own right. Here are a few of my favourite bad women.
Pearl from MST3K
Who would have thought that a show where three guys (well, one guy and two guy-coded robots) sit around making silly jokes about bad films would have such good female rep? Okay, Pearl is a pantomime villain, but in exactly the same way as her male predecessor. I’ve never caught a single joke from the boys about the fact that she’s a woman – and a woman who doesn’t fit conventional American TV beauty standards, at that. Pearl’s behaviour comes under fire much more than her appearance, and she follows the rather male-orientated tradition of “bumbling inept evil scientist” without her failures being put down to her gender.
Dr Caldwell from The Girl With All The Gifts
A far more serious (and far more competent) evil scientist than Pearl, Dr Caldwell brings one of my favourite narrative dilemmas into the zombie-apocalypse novel The Girl With All The Gifts – she’s cold, she’s merciless, but she’s right. Dr Caldwell is neither a femme fatale nor a grotesque monster; instead, she’s a single-minded scientist with a strong sense of her own self-importance who may actually be humanity’s last hope – and the fact that she has to kill children to get there doesn’t faze her one bit.
Ursula from The Little Mermaid
I know what you’re thinking – a Disney villain?! Surely the female Disney villains are the go-to examples for the ‘lonely, ugly and bitter’ stereotype?
Well, not Ursula. Yes, her character design was intended to fit the Disney trope of “ugly = bad” – but Ursula laughs in the face of that “ugly” label. She knows she’s fabulous, and makes it clear to everyone around her that she’s entirely comfortable in her own skin. (In fact, it’s only when she forces herself to conform to Disney beauty standards that she starts to lose her grip). Ursula doesn’t want to be young, popular, or the fairest of them all – her ambitions are far grander, and far more political. Her Machiavellian manipulation of the other merpeople mean that she comes within a tentacle’s reach of ruling the seas, and Disney cannot give her her own solo film soon enough.
The Raven from The Adventure Zone
No picture of The Raven, because she’s from a podcast and I don’t want to nick someone’s fanart, but trust me when I say that she’s a brilliant character (as are all the characters in that show, to be honest). The Raven is like the inverse of Dr Caldwell, filling another character role that I love – a good person who’s doing bad things, for what even they would have to admit are bad reasons. She holds a city hostage to the power she’s gained through the use of a horrifying magical artefact – and she’s also one hell of a chariot racer.
I know I’ve missed out so many good female villains (if that’s not a contradiction) – if you have any favourites of your own, share them in the comments!