The Problem with Female Villains

The Problem with Female Villains

by Ivonne Spinoza

We like to think of villains as fun rebels these days. Characters like Loki from the Thor movies are fan favorites, and we even love questionable anti-heroes such as the modern interpretations of Sherlock we’ve gotten in recent years.

If you look further, though, this sort of playful acceptance of attitudes that would normally be somehow socially reprehensible is, more often than not, reserved for male characters. We accept them as eccentric geniuses, adorably immature jokers, and even understandably vengeful estranged lovers. All is justifiable when you’re a man.

A male character can be charming even when he is a serial killer, but a woman will usually be demonized for something much smaller. Something as little as being considered too ambitious, demanding, or intimidating by anyone around her. Just look at how Renata Klein is portrayed in the whole first season of Big Little Lies as the perfect example of this. She is an ambitious and highly-successful mom who, albeit annoying at times, is the absolute worst according to all the other characters. This is mostly because she doesn’t fit the mold of what these Monterrey moms are supposed to be, and as such, she needs to be punished and put in her place somehow. 

She’s too successful and that makes her unpalatable, basically.

For centuries nothing has been more reprehensible than being deemed “a bad woman”, even if they don’t always call us that. Sometimes we’re witches, whores, or even spinsters, but the intention and message is the same: you have failed society by not meeting the sexist expectations set for you from the moment that doctor told your mother, “It’s a girl!”

It’s not that there aren’t awesome female villains out there for us to enjoy, but the point is more that the perception of them by society and the public’s reception of them is profoundly different from that of their male counterparts. 

Thor and Loki’s sister Hela is revealed to be the rightful heir to the throne in Thor: Ragnarok. She was used and discarded by her father, and yet, she is still the villain in the story we are told in the movie.

While male villains can just be rebels, females need justification for their evilness. Conversely, while male villains can charm us into thinking they’re not really evil—just a bit misunderstood, you know—female villains can be enjoyed by audiences but will not stop being inherently evil and wrong in their ways, no matter what. They’ll be enjoyed at an arm’s length, never really embraced, accepted, and much less idolized in the way male villains usually are.

The professional woman tends to still be such a threat to the status quo, that even nowadays she’s always questioned and portrayed as a villain. 

It’s perplexing that after decades fighting for equal rights and women’s possibility to self-determine their own existences, society as a whole still considers these independent women anti-natural to a degree and as a result is always questioning their fitness as mothers and partners in general.

A good example of this type of treatment and how prioritizing one’s career can constitute “evilness” in female characters is Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. No one is going to make a case about Miranda being soft, fluffy and lovely, but the problem is that she shouldn’t need to be in order to be accepted. 

Furthermore, as horrible a boss as she might be to our idealist protagonist, her questionable work personality shouldn’t be equated with a lack of motherly skills and insufferable home and family life. Is it that hard to believe that a highly competent woman could be a loving mother despite—or because of—all of that? These are very different facets of life, after all, so why is it so hard to separate them? Men are never held to this same ridiculous standard and would never be automatically assumed to be disgraceful parents just because their employees hate them as bosses.

You might have a problem trying to point out the reasoning behind this, but when you think about it, it all boils down to a matter of freedom. It is about freedom because a woman who makes her own choices and doesn’t need anyone to be validated about her existence goes directly against the “natural” order we have been imposed by this patriarchal society. The order of the world still has too much invested in convincing little girls that they are somehow incomplete until they find a—preferably male—partner to devote their lives to. No, not to share, TO DEVOTE.

A memorable scene in 101 Dalmatians comes to mind when I think about villains and the vilification of female independence: at one point Cruella de Vil tells Anita that she shouldn’t squander her talent by pursuing marriage and that more good women have been lost that way than “to war, famine, disease, and disaster”. As an early teen it struck me as unfair that disinterest in marriage would immediately be classified as an inherently “villainous” trait. Like making coats out of innocent puppies was somehow equivalent to being single and being a successful businesswoman.

All this traces back to Christianity and a very specific interpretation of the Bible. The essential conflict between the ideal female model and the real-world experience as we have always lived it and still live it is explained by Nel Noddings in Women and Evil as being related to “women having to achieve motherhood in the Old Testament in order to be worth anything at all”. Something along the same lines is mentioned by Susan Brownmiller in Femininity, where she elaborates about how a real woman is considered to be one that gives “careful attention” to “body, hair, clothes, voice, movement, and emotion” yet “carefully shuns” anything that could be constructed as ambition. In Brownmiller’s own words:

“The world smiles favorably on the feminine woman; it extends little courtesies and minor privilege. Yet the nature of this competitive edge is ironic, at best, for one works at femininity by accepting restrictions, by limiting one’s sights, by choosing an indirect route, by scattering one’s concentration and not giving one’s all as a man would to his own, certifiably masculine, interests.”

Still today, the ideal woman doesn’t pursue her own fulfillment. Everyone else must be more important than her ambitions.

Many women offhandedly dismiss feminism because they think the work is already done, but if you look around and pay attention, you’ll realize we’re far from it, and even the media we consume keeps reminding us of it. It might be subtler than it was for our mothers, but the message is still pervasive. We have a very long way to go before we’re really equals measured with the same tape, and feminism is still essential as a tool to alter these accepted beliefs and valuation systems.

Nodding perfectly expresses that “…women appear as angels or as innately moral and beautiful as long as their sphere of activity remains severely limited. They have won admiration occasionally, but more as properties than as courageous independent agents”, as well as that “evil became associated early with disobeying the father and is representatives.” We as women have been largely identified as evil any time we don’t conform just for being female.

Or like Taylor Swift put it simply “…if I was a man, then I’d be the man.”

Ivonne Spinoza is a trilingual Latina writer and illustrator. She’s been a Feminist since her early teens and this fact inevitably tints her work to this day. She believes in the transformative power of art and in sisterhood through lifting other female voices. She sometimes writes for television, and is always jet-setting around, drinking coffee, and spoiling her kitties. You can learn more about her at ivonnespinoza.com and find her everywhere online as @IvonneSpinoza