A Certain Type of Girl: A Portrait of Fictional Female Villains

Megan Walsh

 

Villainous women have existed in fiction for as long as there's been fiction, though they often fall into types: mean girls, evil queens, harping wives, revenging mistresses. Often, they all share one quality: they are unsympathetic. This is not a sweeping statement across the board, of course, and characters intended to be unsympathetic can be read sympathetically by certain audiences. However, female characters of questionable morality are not always granted the automatic sympathy of a lot of their male counterparts. Men can be antiheroes; women often aren't allowed that luxury.

 

The villainous categories women fall into are no doubt familiar. The Regina Georges of Mean Girls and Heather Chandlers of Heathers of the teen genre are camp classics, reveled in by teen girl viewers who crave their wardrobes and witticisms. But as much as we enjoy these girls at the height of high school nastiness, the narrative still demands they get their comeuppance. Regina is hit by a bus, and learns a Life Lesson about channeling aggression; Heather delivers some timeless quips before crashing headfirst into a glass coffee table. Perhaps part of the reason we are allowed to enjoy their wickedness to the extent that we do is because it is not rewarded. They are not our good girl leads, and that gives them both the freedom to act out and penalties that come with that.

 

The dichotomy between "good girls" and "bad girls" is perhaps never as clear-cut as it is in the teen genre, where differences are easily delineated by behavior and even coded wardrobe choices. This goes deeper than the widely recognized coding of good girls as virginal and bad girls as sexually promiscuous: good girls are selfless, doing things for others even at cost to themselves, and bad girls are selfish, saving their own skin first. This is seen as a bad quality, despite the instinct to survive being very human and very understandable.

 

 

Selflessness plays a huge part in a lot of female narratives. Just think of all the dead women scattered throughout television and film, fictional women who were cost their lives just to give the male hero something to strive for; suffering mothers who give up everything for their children; wives who ignore their own dreams to bolster their husbands; all those good women who show it by putting everyone else ahead of themselves. We even see it in our real life, magazines and talk shows full of lessons about how to teach mommy to treat herself. And why doesn't the world want women to think of themselves first? The answer seems faintly obvious.

 

This selfless vs. selfish argument plays out in another genre famous for wicked women: fantasy and fairytales. Fairytales are enjoying renewed popularity now with such big budget films as Maleficent and the upcoming Cinderella, as well as the multiple Snow Whites of recent years. Most of those have a young, pretty ingénue standing opposed to an older, calculating woman who craves beauty and power above all. There are princesses, who are good and pure and fight for others, and there are evil queens, who fight for themselves. This is not to say that fighting for the other is bad; of course it isn't. But in a society where every step you take towards equality is a battle, sometimes it doesn't always apply. Helping others is a good thing, but helping yourself isn't a crime.

 

The aforementioned Maleficent is an interesting case on its own. The film takes a famous, popular villain and turns her into a hero. It doesn't go about this in any sort of morally complex manner, simply recasting the titular character as a plucky do-gooder who is wronged by a blatant rape metaphor (a favorite punishment for fictional women who dare to act in an unconventional way) and seeks revenge, but it's half-hearted at best and she's easily swayed back to the side of doing good. She is, in fact, hardly a villain at all, especially when placed in opposition to the blatantly awful king, who stomps around and yells, ignores his wife and child, and finally plunges off a tall building to his death. The end of the film proclaims Maleficent both a hero and a villain, but it's a thin premise that's barely explored.

 

 

It also bears noting that in fairytales the villainous women are often older, perhaps less conventionally attractive (in the case of Disney cartoons, at least), and share another damning designation: bad mothers. Wicked and step-mother are words that go hand-in-hand in our consciousness thanks to stories like these. Bad mothers are perhaps the least sympathetic of all female villains – just think of all the hate heaped on Mad Men's Betty Draper over the years, who is not even a bad mother so much as a woman who is just unsuited to motherhood. She is certainly not a worse parent then Don, but the blame is all thrown at her feet instead. Absent fathers are to be expected; terrible mothers can never be forgiven.

 

This has at least something to do with the idea of a woman rejecting something that is supposed to be so deeply entrenched in her, that is allegedly her reason for existing. All women are supposed to want kids and have kids and love their kids and do everything for their kids no matter what. People don't know how to handle the uncomfortable gray areas of that role, or women who reject it entirely. Audiences find it hard to forgive women who fail at this thing all women are supposed to be naturally good at.

 

Unconventional women, women who do not fulfill traditional societal roles, can often be deemed villainous or threatening within narratives. Whereas male characters are often championed for going against the grain, striking out against the status quo, and just generally rebelling, it isn't so easy for women. Antihero is a term coined for men who don't have the conventional attributes of a hero. It seems we're still trying to catch up to the idea of women as heroes sometimes, let alone women as antiheroes.

 

This has come up in regards to the current wild popularity of Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, Dark Places, and Sharp Objects, of which the latter two are soon to be adapted for screens big and small. Flynn admittedly writes dark female characters, exploring a violence in women that has remained largely unexplored. It seems obvious by her takeoff in pop culture that this is something people are beginning to crave: complicated, messy woman who are allowed to be awful because sometimes people are awful. This is seen even in the new hit show How to Get Away with Murder, where Viola Davis' Annelise is a woman you root for even as she does bad things, because she does them powerfully, with style.

 

It's clear now more than ever that we need unique, complex, and varied female characters. Media is unsurprisingly slow in answering the demands of its audience, as has been the case for years. But things are beginning to change, and we can only hope to see them continue: to see the range of roles applied to women increase and change, and become more than just repeated types with different window dressing. The question really is: what makes a woman a villain? It is the things she does, or the way we perceive the things she does? Or both?

 

Author Bio:
Megan Walsh is a contributing writer at
Highbrow Magazine.

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