Ahoy! Spoilers ahead for the following TV shows: The Vampire Diaries, BBC Sherlock and Elementary.
During Heroes Fortnight we looked at the dichotomy between Heroes and Heroines. We already covered the lack of female characters, particularly in the lead role, but also the absence of male protagonist in YA. In this essay, however, we’re looking at the opposite. The person who stands against our hero.
When thinking about heroes there has been a switch from the ‘default’ of assuming male, to the possibility of femininity as well. This is especially true in YA. Then why is it, in this changing climate, that we can still only view the villain as a male character? Of the top 50 movie villains of all time listed by the American Film Institute, only 14 of these were female. Shortlist’s top 20 Greatest Movie Villains does not feature a single female villain. Whenever discussing a comparison between male and female characters, it’s impossible for feminism to take a back seat; it is important that we discuss these issues. The Mary Sue states that “it’s clear that, as meager as the attempt to include ‘good’ female characters in movies is overall, even less consideration is given to including women in antagonist roles.” For representation to be equal, then women need the freedom to be evil and threaten the world just as much as they are needed to save it. This was best put in terms by Kelsey McVinney from Vox, “To achieve equality, we need women who don’t make women look good. We need lady mob-bosses, female serial killers, and women who are leaders of the dark side.”
When we discuss male villains there’s more than enough to count. There’s the serial killers, the evil Kings, the manipulative sub-ruler, the mob boss, the evil sorcerers, the incubus. But in Rii the Wordsmith’s post, ‘why I don’t like female villains’ she points out that female villains are far more limited in the tropes they are associated with. The female villain is the femme fatale, the evil enchantress or the evil relative, but that is all. The male villain can be anyone, there are no constraints on what he can do or the breadth of his personality, but the female is limited to archetypes straight out of a James Bond film or a fairytale.
It’s hard to pinpoint why the female villain is less common. There is a claim that it’s much harder for a woman to be scary, or more accurately for a man to find her such, but I argue that it’s more to do with how female villains are represented in comparison to their male counterparts. It starts with how they dress, if she’s beautiful then she has to also be slutty and skimpy. There’s no alternative to that. However on the opposite end of the spectrum Gina Barreca discusses what it takes to make a woman scary in film. “What had men pants-wettingly terrified about the film (Monster) was not that Theron played one of the few serial killers who systematically murdered male victims: It was, instead, that dazzlingly gorgeous Charlize Theron could look bad simply by installing prosthetic teeth and doing weird stuff with her eyebrows.”
However, it’s Disney films that actually show a prevalence of female villains. More often than not, Disney follows the formula that the villain is the same gender of the protagonist. This means that in the majority of Disney Princess films, there is a wealthy collection of scary female villains, from the iconic Cruella de Vil to the unforgettable Maleficent. Though taken from fairytales their villains are strongly developed, they have clear motivations and terrifying actions, such as when the Queen in Snow White ordered the Huntsman to cut out Snow White’s heart. The recent film of Maleficent further expanded her motivations, taking her from a character simply upset she wasn’t invited to a party, to someone whose actions were understandable. Disney’s male villains are of different natures to their female counterparts, they often seek power above anything and there is a concern that they’re being represented as idiots.
This discrepancy in the motives of female and male villains extends to the film industry in general. For example, who would be the male equivalent to Ursala? There’s not really one that shares her motives. More often than not, the motives of female villains are derived from jealousy. The stepmother and evil Queen in Snow White is evil from her vanity. However, male villains such as Voldemort are evil from their obsession with power. Although the character development for heroes and villains are often not equal, and that in itself is a real shame. The character development of a female villainess seems to be weaker than for male villains. For example, we understand much more about the origins of Voldemort and his childhood as Tom Riddle, but we hardly know anything about the other villains (especially the villainesses) in the Harry Potter story. Although the other villains do have a more minor role than Voldemort as an antagonist, Dolores Umbridge is hated more than Voldemort and we don’t really know anything about her childhood.
There is more promise for TV villains however. One of the reasons that the Vampire Diaries was so successful, especially during its earlier seasons is due to its well developed villains. There was Damon Salvatore, the morally ambiguous, love-struck brother; Klaus Michaelson, the ‘all-powerful’ original vampire and then there was Katherine Pierce, the manipulative vampire that can match Klaus in his scheming and cruelty. She was a very interesting character, that was loved and hated simultaneously by TVD viewers. Her storyline was well developed from the time her baby was taken away from her in Bulgaria, to how she has learnt to fight and survive on her own, worrying only about self-preservation. She is not afraid to get what she wants, and to do whatever it takes to get it. What makes her character even more interesting – and this also applies to Klaus and Damon – is the grey area in her personality. She has her moments when she genuinely cares about other people, when she connects to them on an emotional level and it makes it all the more powerful when she turns around to stab them in the back.
Similarly based on fairytales, Once Upon a Time has some amazingly well developed villains. Classic villains such as the Evil Queen from Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin are given new light in this story. Their motivations are expanded on, the Evil Queen isn’t jealous of Snow White but actually wants revenge and has the influence of her mother influencing her actions. Rumpelstiltskin is motivated by a desire for power but that actually stemmed from his cowardice and feeling powerless. Male and female villains are treated equally and are equally well developed in Once Upon a Time, and villains aren’t often treated in terms of black and white; their actions are given reason and in some cases they are even redeemed.
Comic books have often done female versions of male characters (or vice versa); the female Captain Marvel, Batman to Batgirl, Superman to Supergirl, heck Loki actually became a woman. When TV show Elementary based on the Sherlock Holmes series decided to do just that by making John Watson, Joan Watson, there were mixed reactions and concerns it was just a ‘gimmick’. But the show was hugely successful and even more so when it revealed it’s female take on Moriarty. Moriarty has always been an iconic villain, able to match Sherlock Holmes in intelligence. There was a dance that’s been played more times to count but if we’re looking at a direct comparison between male and female villains what better way to do it than to compare a male and female version of the same character?
Jim Moriarty in BBC Sherlock and Jamie Moriarty in Elementary are both phenomenal villains in their own right. There’s a battle of wits and they have both been written phenomenally. Both characters control a web of criminals and are extremely intelligent in a way similar to Sherlock Holmes. It’s more their interaction with Sherlock that is different, Jamie Moriarty (Elementary) is fascinated by Sherlock, she considers him a work of art almost on par with herself; Jim Moriarty (BBC Sherlock) however considers Sherlock to be his equal and is more obsessed with him than fascinated. If anything this is a reverse of usual gender roles, with the female villain being less emotionally invested. But Jamie still cares deeply for Sherlock in a far more romantic way (although she would never put herself in a threatening position for him). One of the most important things about Jamie Moriarty is that her gender is never forgotten, she used her sex to manipulate Sherlock at an earlier point of their relationship and acknowledges that some of the people who work for her might struggle with her gender, yet that never detriments her and she uses other people’s perceptions of her to her own advantage. In a way, Jim Moriarty’s introduction was very similar, including him pretending to be gay and giving Sherlock his number. Both incarnations use the same tricks and tools to manipulate Sherlock yet they are still very different characters.
Male and female villain characters are treated differently. Overall it would seem that female villains tend to be approached more cautiously and so have less breadth, they stick to tropes and cliches that should have been retired long ago. Female heroes however have the advantage that the YA genre tends to focus on the development of its heroines, but even in cases where there is a female protagonist, they tend to face a male foe and male heroes are very rarely pitted against women as their main villain. George R.R. Martin has created fantastic female characters with ambiguous morals that can easily be construed as villains, from Cersei Lannister to Melisandre and when asked about how he writes women so well, his response was, “I’ve always considered women to be people.”
In parallel, male villains can have under-developed characters too, especially in YA where they often appear as ‘faceless’ villains. This may be due to the fact a lot of YA is written in 3rd person, so villains like President Snow in the Hunger Games don’t have any space for much development, however the King in Throne of Glass quite often comes across as a cut out villain, further certified by the fact he is never referred to by a name, only as the ‘King’.
The main point of this essay is that villains of any gender deserve at least as much time and effort in developing their characters as the heroes of your story. And within the villains category, female and male characters should be equally well developed.
– Nadia & Elizabeth