justira: A purple, gender-ambiguous unicorn pony in the style of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. (lady business)
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When I was at Wiscon 42 I took over 13,000 words of notes. That is not a typo. Thirteen thousand. And since I took so many notes, I thought I would write up the panels I attended as well as the four panels I was actually on. Let's go!

I attended:
I was a panelist on:

This writeup is different from my previous one: I didn't track speakers and will be doing more of a synthesis of points covered than a transcription. During the panel itself the discussion sometimes jumped back and forth between topics. For this writeup, I tried to stay true the overall trajectory of the panel while grouping similar point together, if they were not too far apart in time. My personal opinions and reactions will be largely after a clearly marked break at the end; the first part will be dedicated to conveying what the panel covered.

One of the first — and in my opinion most effective — descriptions of heroines and villainesses came right at the start of the panel: "Women who don't stay where they belong." This was part of the opening section of the panel, where the panelists discussed what makes a woman an antiheroine or villainess, and why we/the panelists like them. Consensus on one point was clear: antiheroines and villainesses are appealing because they have power. Many will do what they think is right even if it is inconvenient to other people (the horror!), and are sometimes trying to uphold a higher standard than the people around them are comfortable with.

Having established some basic traits shared by many such women, the panelists went on to discuss some of their favourite antiheroines.
  • Malinche, a Latinx cultural figure whose interpretations and cultural standing have shifted over time. She was a slave and worked with Cort├ęs and his conquistadors, but she ended her life free of him.

  • Morgan le Fay, another woman who has been interpreted and reinterpreted numerous times, particularly with respect to different waves of feminism.

  • Marvel's Phoenix. Jean Grey was a good girl who only turned into Phoenix once she was sexualized— against her will.

  • World of Warcraft's Sylvanas Windrunner, who has historically been treated very poorly by Blizzard but is getting some more interesting narratives now.

  • DC's Amanda Waller, the only African-American villainess in the DC universe, who also breaks femme archetypes.

Several threads emerged here. One common trait of villainous women is sexual deviance, such as with the Star Trek mirror universe, where all the women are suddenly bisexual and promiscuous. Another example is Willow from Buffy: as soon as she turns into a vampire she becomes "skanky and queer," tying those traits to monstrosity.

Another common reason a woman is branded antiheroic or villainous is if she does not love her biological family; this makes her automatically unsympathetic. Even if her bio family is toxic, she is at least supposed to agonize over not being able to love them properly. A very quick way to be villainous is to be a bad mother, such as Medea drowning her children. Annie Wilkes from Misery twists feminine traits of caretaking and idealism and makes them scary. Notably, though Annie is portrayed as bipolar, she is at her most frightening when euthymic.

Finally, another thread was less about the women themselves but more about how they are regarded: women tend to be reinterpreted as more or less villainous or (anti)heroic depending on prevailing sociocultural mores and moments. At this point the moderator directed the panel towards a specific question: Given that historical and mythical figures get retold and reinterpreted, what role does retelling and fanfiction play?

First you need a critical mass of people who are familiar with the story before it can be reinterpreted, and it is usually only at this point that marginalized people can give their take. You can see what society considered bad by looking at interpretations of villainesses that came out at the time. Did she choose not have children? Abandon her children? Have sex out of wedlock? Was she bisexual? For example, in the age of selfies, would Snow White's Evil Queen be considered bad? She's vain, and women need to look beautiful but not act like they know they're beautiful. They're supposed to conform to beauty standards, but not on purpose. Antiheroines and villainesses tend to look good on purpose. A little before this block of conversation, one of the panelists mentioned a Tor article about Disney villainesses and how they all have great makeup, great outfits, and interesting faces.

Another point the panelists made is that literary fiction tends to be more accepting of villainesses, unlike pop fiction, where they have to be likable. Gone Girl and Girl on the Train are examples.

The panel title included the phrase "taking control," and it was also the hashtag for the panel. (Much of the panel and audience thought this hashtag was too generic and didn't encapsulate the panel well.) What does taking control mean and how do villainesses and antiheroines exemplify this?
  • Melisande from the Kushiel's Legacy books takes control in a huge way. She actively tries to overthrow the royal family, rather than, say, marrying into it.

  • Yubaba from Spirited Away is a very successful businesswoman, including being willing to take on the dirtiest jobs and being good at the jobs she expects of her employees. She's motivated by greed, but she decided to use the capitalist structure to get what she wants.

  • Seska from Star Trek: Voyager is a villain less because she is wrong and more because she is against our heroes. She is the protagonists in her own life.

A common thread from this set of women is qualities that are acceptable when they are traditionally male, e.g. having opinions. But when women embody these qualities they tend to be received poorly, such as women are expected to negotiate salaries but still have worse outcomes when they do.

Another commonality is ubercompetence, such as being really good businesswomen or really good schemers. Even if these women die or are defeated, they remain good at what they do, though the narrative will often try to take this away from them. For example, Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender was incredibly competent, but at the end of the narrative was "written off as crazy."

This brought the panel to another topic: How do these womens' stories end? In general, many villainnesses' narratives end by having their power taken away. A common way both villainneses and antiheroines are undercut is via sex.

One oft-seen and problematic end to these womens' narratives is redemption is via babies: you're a terrible person until you get pregnant and suddenly you are a caring and devoted parent. Yubaba becomes sympathetic as soon as we see her with her "weirdly large baby." Natasha Romanoff's inability to have children in the MCU is tied both to her supposed monstrosity, and also to her ability to be a badass.

A recent example is Hela, from Thor: Ragnarok. Her sin is that she excelled at what she was made to do. Then she was discarded. Karl Urban's character Skurge goofs around and is incompetent, and he gets a redemption narrative. But not Hela.

This brought the panel to another question: Do we want redemption for these women? The consensus was that antiheroines don't need to be redeemed at all. For villainesses, redemption runs the risk of sending the message that women should be good girls. On Leverage, Parker and Sophie use their badness for good ends. They remain flawed and ubercompetent.

Is whether or not we want a redemption arc based solely on the character's motivation? Or whether they achieve their goals? Whether or not they regret the way they achieved their goals? It seems to only qualify as redemption if they feel bad or guilty. One of the panelists brought up the idea of goal-oriented villainy verus a True Neutral character Another asked, Do you ever resent it when you admire a villainous character and she is reinterpreted to take the edges off? This is especially relevant for historical examples. In Dollhouse Adele DeWitt pivoted on her goal (though this panelist also expressed chagrin at bringing up a Whedon property at all). Regina from Once Upon a Time transitions from villain to antihero. It's very much about intention. The panelists overall objected to redemption arcs much less when the character goes from villainess to antiheroine and stops there.

The panel description explicitly included nonbinary people, so the moderator asked the panel if they had any examples. Colleen put forward the first and almost only candidate the panel could think of: Loki. In A Series of Unfortunate Events there is the Henchperson of Indeterminate Gender. In general there are not a lot of examples of villainesses or antiheroines that are not femme, and they often embrace the ultra femme. By contrast, Lucifer from The Wicked + The Divine is butch. There is also the troubling way trans femininity is portrayed, examples being HIM from Powerpuff Girls and Dr. Frankenfurter from Rocky Horror. Both nonbinary and trans aspects are often coded as part of the evil. For both nonbinary and trans women, media is not at a point where they are allowed to inhabit villainy without it being a reflection of/on their gender identity. Overall, there's not enough representation of nonbinary and trans people to have diverse approaches to morality.

There are also other axes of oppression, including race, sexuality, class, disability, and body type. One well-known intersection is autistic characters, with traits that are encoded masculine (only want the facts, not swayed by emotion), but this is used less often as villain coding now. SL Huang put forward the trope of the Dragon lady as another intersection that needs to be much more three-dimensional. Huang has been a stuntwoman, armourer, writer, and other amazing things, so people like her clearly exist and Hollywood knows this, but writing a character like that still feels risky and transgressive. Villains also tend to be rich. They have power over people by virtue of their wealth but want more, as in the Luke Cage villain. A white woman still turned out to be in charge of Madame Gao.

Villainesses and antiheroines often come from marginalized backgrounds, and become antiheroic/villainous to escape marginalization. Colleen said: "As someone who has experienced poverty I can see how that is a path to villainy, but as a bi person I don't want out of that identity." It depends on the marginalization and the chance to embody your identity.

Cersei from A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is labelled a villain for trying to actively obtain what she should have been handed, were she not a woman. In Black Panther Erik Killmonger is not a villainess, but you can see where he's coming from. Killmonger is not trying to escape his race, but he is trying to address a marginalization. While sometimes the motivation is escaping trauma, for many it's less about that escape and more that legitimate means to power have been cut off or are unavailable.

Where is the tipping point from antihero to villain? Especially in the vein of murder. How much killing people is too much?
  • In the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander does some very bad stuff, but is not regarded as villainous.

  • In the Broken Earth trilogy, the protagonists kill a lot of people but are not villains either.

  • The Bride from Kill Bill killed a lot of people, and her character also addressed motherhood.

  • Callisto from Xena: Warrior Princess was made a villain by Xena's past actions, and reminds us that the lead is herself an antiheroine who needs redemption.

Collateral damage, for example, is usually left to men. N. K. Jemisin is one creator who deals with collateral damage for women. Collateral damage also has to do with the faceless, in contrast to killing family or looking people in the eye when you kill them. It's also a function of good writing. If a character is well written, they can slaughter many and still be seen as good.

The panel closed with a final question from the audience: Would antiheroines and villainesses even exist if we didn't live in a patriarchy? SL Huang said there would be even more. We live in a patriarchy right now and there are tons of male villains and antiheroes. We would see more variety, and it would be less about transgressing femininity.

The brain itch that got me the worst during this panel was that no one had mentioned Jessica Jones. I brought her up when the audience was asked for examples, and I also mentioned Kuvira from The Legend of Korra. Neither of these women is particularly femme, which is another thought I had regarding the panelists' assertion that most of the women and persons mentioned throughout the panel were femme. My impression, at least, is that villainesses tend to be femme, but antiheroines are usually more masculine. Villainesses trend towards smarts and sorcery, while antiheroines tend to be more hands-on characters. This distinction again seems less prominent in literary fiction. I think there's something interesting here about likability and appeal. Villainous women, even though they're generally the antagonist, still need to be sold to the audience, and audiences don't tend to find women who are evil and butch very charming. Or that's the perception, at least, and I think there's at least some value to that hesitation because once again, the population is so small that it's easy for a villainous butch's gender presentation to be encoded as part of her villainy, as with trans and nonbinary villains. Antiheroines have more flexibility in presentation because they already have good motives or means on their side, even if the rest of their character is made to be abrasive or otherwise depart from the feminine ideal.

Looking at the contrasts between villainesses and antiheroines, and thinking of what the panelist who brought up Seska said, I thought of another question: Where does the protagonist/antagonist distinction fit in here? The way Seska was described in the panel (I have not seen the relevant Star Trek properties) made her sound like more of an antagonist than a villain. Likewise, antiheroines can be antagonists or protagonists too. The Villain Protagonist is a whole trope— but not one with a lot of female examples. Antiheroic/villainous women in general are more pigeonholed into certain narrative structures/presentations.

Another thing I wanted to expand on is the role of motherhood in this discussion. This was touched on several times, but there are a couple points I don't feel were really covered. Between the trope of the evil woman suddenly becoming good via pregnancy and the common plot point of mothers dying (especially in childbirth), the implication is that motherhood is not just an ending for a female character, but an end. The active role of being a mother to her child is not seen as a narratively interesting or rich part of a woman's life. She has fulfilled her usefulness to the narrative by either birthing the offspring or dying so her offspring could have feelings about it. Part of the implication is that mothers can't be badasses (yet another awful side effect of Natasha's lines from Age of Ultron). By way of counterexample I would like to put forward the heroic Cordelia Vorkosigan from the Vorkosigan Saga, the antiheroic Zamira Drakasha from the Gentleman Bastard series, and the villainous Mother Gothel from Tangled. Each of these women are active mothers to their children in their respective stories. Also absolutely everyone needs to read Scott Lynch's takedown of some douchecanoe that found Zamira unrealistic.

Finally, I want to touch on the subject of liminality. This is something I ended up talking about a lot in several of my panels. Liminality is a site of major discomfort in our society. For example, the population at large is generally uncomfortable with people they can't slot neatly into a known, generally binary, gender category. This discomfort is weaponized in narrative in ways the ways the panelists mentioned, encoding things like queerness or certain racial markers as part of a character's villainy. Liminality and marginalization are inextricably linked, not just because the liminal is so often marginalized, but also because the marginalized is so often liminal, or understood/viewed as liminal. Even among the marginalized, not fitting neatly into a very small set of rigid categories imparts a greater social and psychological burden. This point has less to do with antiheroines and villainesses specifically and more with thoughts that WisCon 42 helped crystallize, but I think it applies here too, and not just to queer/gender coding. Characters who can't be neatly classified as heroine, antiheroine, or villainess tend to be met with greater confusion and less audience acceptance; even among feminist communities these characters can cause more arguments about their relative virtues (as women? as female characters? As people?) or lack thereof than they cause celebration of innovative storytelling. Of course, not all liminal characters deserve to be celebrated in that fashion, but I wish there was less discomfort about not being able to neatly characterize a woman's motives or methods. It's okay to be in a category all your own, or none at all.

Date: 2018-06-06 11:38 pm (UTC)
kerrykhat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kerrykhat
I would be really interested to know why the panelist classified Amanda Waller as a villainess, because I think if she were a man she'd definitely be an anti-hero. She's very much an antagonist at times but she's also an ally to the heroes when their interests align with hers. Her pre-reboot history is fascinating and her portrayal in Justice League Unlimited is amazing. She gets the job done, uses the tools at hand, and doesn't let Batman boss her around.

Date: 2018-06-06 11:55 pm (UTC)
forestofglory: E. H. Shepard drawing of Christopher Robin reading a book to Pooh (Default)
From: [personal profile] forestofglory
Thanks for writing this up! I especially enjoyed your thoughts about motherhood.

Date: 2018-06-07 12:00 pm (UTC)
chase_acow: (da tyrant)
From: [personal profile] chase_acow
I'm really enjoying these! Thank you for posting!

Date: 2018-06-07 12:38 pm (UTC)
coffeeandink: (Default)
From: [personal profile] coffeeandink
Another point the panelists made is that literary fiction tends to be more accepting of villainesses, unlike pop fiction, where they have to be likable. Gone Girl and Girl on the Train are examples.

But Gone Girl and Girl on the Train are pop fiction. They aren't marketed as literary fiction. They're packaged as mystery/suspense with maybe a potential for litfic crossover. I think the pertinent difference might be mystery/suspense (particularly noir) vs. speculative fiction. Crime fiction tends to be fascinated by--and frequently sympathetic to--transgression.

I'd also note that becoming a good mother is considered an end to a story; the Bad Mother is a fairly common villainness or at least obstacle.

Date: 2018-06-08 10:28 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Love the idea that villainesses look good on purpose. 'You're fit but my god don't you know it' & 'it takes women ages to ready' are two big criticisms thrown at women in the real world which translate as 'knowing you look great is vain' and 'taking up time/space is unforgivable'.


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