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'But what of female villains? Perhaps I’m just not reading the right meta, but it’s always seemed a bit glaring to me that, whereas (for instance) there are endless paeans to the moral complexity and intricate personal histories of the Buffyverse’s Spike and Angel, their female counterparts, Drusilla and Darla, never seem to merit the same degree of compulsive protection.' (Gender, Orphan Black & The Meta of Meta by Foz Meadows)

Jodie has emotions about Morgana Pendragon approximately five times a day. So, when Foz Meadows mentioned the need for more meta examining the moral complexity of female villains Jodie got to scheming.

Months later, our Female Villains theme week is finally here! Get ready to go Metaphysical, party with ladies who start fires and share all your love for female villains. We begin with a guest essay from Foz Meadows herself; the author of Solace and Grief and The Key to Starveldt, and editor of Speculative Fiction 2015.

I have gone out, a possessed witch
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.1

Bad women disobey.

This is the crux, the core truth, of our historically gendered ideas about villainy. Bad men are complicated: they have tragic pasts and hidden agendas, fascinating pathologies and extenuating circumstances; they are political animals, mavericks, monsters, kings and brigands and renegades. They differ from each other in innumerable ways, but while some of them might be misogynists or hypermasculine zealots, the thing that makes them bad is never their gender itself, but only their particular means of expressing it. Bad men are not representative of all men – not culturally, anyway; not at the level of shared narratives – but for centuries of storytelling, bad women have been representative of all women. Our villainy is a stain we brought upon ourselves and which, like Lady Macbeth's damned spot, refuses to wash clean.

And bad women disobey.

The type of disobedience varies, but in the end, it all boils down to the same thing. They step out of bounds. They challenge authority. They defy convention, or culture, or custom; they live in ways that women aren't meant to live, occupying masculine or androgynous roles and thereby disquieting men, or else so embracing the potential of their femininity as to become wilful with it. Wicked stepmothers rule as queens without the guidance of kings, refusing to accept the idea that their beauty must necessarily fade with age; that they should give up their power and experience to someone younger just because she's prettier (and whose husband, of course, will do the actual ruling). Wicked witches are ugly, unmarried, childless and hostile to children in contexts where women are expected to be comely, married, nurturing mothers. It's not a coincidence that the oldest archetypes for female villainy specify women who wield power over men; who refuse to submit, or who have no husbands.

We all know the story of Eve, whose curiosity and disobedience lead to the downfall of humankind, but equally important is the story of Lilith, who, having been created equal to Adam – in one version of events, they're initially made as a single creature, joined hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder, back to back, until God splits them in two – refuses to submit to him as a lesser partner. Lilith flees the Garden of Eden and becomes a monstrous, inhuman creature who preys on men and babies, thereby embodying the worst type of disobedient womanhood.

Because traditional female villains aren't just politically evil, barbarous or violent. Invariably, they're an inversion of what women are supposed to be: unmarried or man-eating, sexually autonomous, cruel to children, and either they're not mothers at all, or their offspring are monsters, too.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

At best, mythology and fairy tales view female disobedience as a catalyst for disaster. Pandora opens the box, and unleashes evil into the world. Psyche looks on the face of her sleeping husband, and loses him forever. Little Red Riding Hood strays from the path, and is eaten by a wolf. Male disobedience, by contrast, tends to be framed as innovative, revolutionary, even comical. The lazy farmboy who daydreams instead of doing his chores ends up on a magical adventure, rewarded with the princess of his choice; there are multiple such characters throughout European and Scandinavian folklore. Prometheus is punished for stealing fire from the gods, but the act itself is what kickstarts human civilisation. When men disobey, they're portrayed as challenging tyranny; but when women disobey, they're unnatural.

And while storytelling has certainly come a long way since the days of mythology, the cultural influence of these ideas has cast a long shadow, their tropes possessed of a narrative half-life to rival that of uranium. It's easy to fall into the trap of writing female villains whose villainy is synonymous with their brand of womanhood, or lack (as traditionally defined) thereof. Which isn't to say that we should never have female villains who are old, or unmarried, or who hate children; just that we shouldn't use these traits as a shorthand for expressing why they're bad in the first place, or make them the defining characteristics of their villainy.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not afraid to die.
I have been her kind.

If your wicked ladies ultimately draw their motivation from disobedience or defiance – against sexism; against family expectations; against magic; against custom and authority – don't just make them straw foils for a system that seemingly has good reason to keep them subjugated, or whose imbalances you leave unaddressed. Ask yourself: what are they really fighting against? Are they right to do so, or at the very least, is their anger understandable? Is there a reason for their rage, even if their actions aren't always defensible? If your character is unskilled or incompetent, don't just make that a function of her gender or portray it as a failure to listen to male advisers: actually think about why she might make a particular error, or why she might lack certain knowledge. I've encountered far too many stories where tyrannous female rulers who, having schemed their way to power, suddenly lose all political acumen the second they have it. And don't, for the love of god, assume that the only way for women to succeed in sexist settings is to sleep their way to the top, and especially not if you're then going to portray them as evil simply on the basis that they've done so.

Villainy shouldn't be gendered. The human capacity for evil isn't tied to any one identity, and as such, it's deeply wearying to encounter story after story that acts as if it is, or whose tropes are coded to perpetuate a binary distinction in which men perform evil one way, and women another. I don't want fewer female villains; I just want their narratives, and their characterisation, to be more complex than a bad performance of womanhood.


1 All poetry sections taken from Her Kind by Anne Sexton

Date: 2015-04-20 11:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.pip.verisignlabs.com
HUZZAH what a great event week! Lady Business is all geniuses all the time. I absolutely cherish a good female villain, when it can be accomplished, which is one of MANY MANY reasons I am psyched to watch Jane the Virgin. (I am not totally positive that there is a lady villain in Jane the Virgin, but I do know that Bridget Regan is in that show and she has TOTAL villain hair, so I badly WANT her to be the villain. And be super nuanced. That is my wish list.)


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