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In Praise of TV’s Female Villains

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Strong female protagonists are so much more fun when there’s a strong female baddie for them to fight.

Game of Thrones fans keep cheering about the positive turn for many of the show’s female heroes, which is good because the show has a bloat of villains in it. But this change of direction for the show would mean much less if those female heroes weren’t also battling female villains. For the record, I consider the Dornish ladies even with all their (alleged) battle prowess to be “baddies”, although they pale in comparison to Queen Cersei.

Even in more progressive circles, we associate women and femininity with peace and harmony. While it may be empirically true that women largely do not engage in the same kind of violent brutality that men do, we are not naturally averse to violence. So when I see this reflected on television, I get excited. Obviously, I’m not cheering for the female villains to win but there is some liberation in recognizing that women are capable of achieving that level of power too.

What frightens me so much about The Handmaid’s Tale is less the Mike Pence type male Commanders, but the women they’ve all employed to keep the other women in check. In the course of the show, we find out that the role of the enslaved handmaids was first truly envisioned by “domestic feminist” Serena Joy. the tragic irony of course is that women were returned to domestic roles by the Commanders, and thus Serena Joy loses any ability she had to influence the direction of the new fundamentalist state of Gilead.

Also, I think every woman has met an Aunt Lydia or been terrorized by one. Some old crone who tells you that everything about you is dirty and wrong and that they must correct you. If you’re a scheming male misogynist, you give those women the weapons with fair certainty they’ll never use them on you.

Another show I really enjoy, Orphan Black, is consistently great at delivering these female on female struggles. It cannot be overstated how incredible Tatiana Maslany is all of the roles she takes on as the clone. Most of her clone characters are good guys, but one of them is definitely not on board with Clone Club. Season 4 also introduced a new female villain in addition to the Rachel clone plus the gray character of Rachel’s long thought dead mother. The entire season was just women fighting other women and it was glorious.

For a return to real life, check out some of my favorite anthropology texts on female combatants that show a complexity of motivations for violence.

Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers, Chris Coulter

Female Genocidaires during the Rwandan Genocide: When women kill, Leila Fielding

Girls with Guns: Narrating the Experience of War of Frelimo’s “Female Detachment”, Harry G. West (one of my SOAS lecturers!)

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  • I’m glad you mentioned Orphan Black; it was the first show I thought of when I saw the topic. I also really enjoyed Missy from Doctor Who although in the most recent season she’s no longer a villain, which I felt was handled quite well. And Elementary‘s Moriarty was fucking fantastic.

    • woodrowfan

      I loved Missy. I was a little dubious about a female Doctor Who at first, fearing it would just be a stunt or checking something off a list, but I think the choice they made was fantastic and look forward to seeing the new Doctor.

      • Whittaker was one of the best choices they could’ve made, honestly. (I’d actually been expecting them to cast her Broadchurch co-star Olivia Colman. That show couldn’t have worked without either of them.)

        • wjts

          I do not think Olivia Colman would make a good Doctor.

  • Perkniticky

    Old crones telling me everything about me is dirty and wrong has never bothered me. After all, old people are liable to be behind the times. What really disturbed me was when young women my own age tried to tell me I was dirty and wrong. Fortunately I have long left that environment far behind. Hopefully those women have as well.

  • Resistance Fighter Astraea

    Rachel is my favorite, and I think she’s had the best arc of a female villain that I can think of. She’s obviously been shaped by the people around her, but the show never suggests that absolves her of her choices. I sympathize with her and hate her at the same time.

  • Abigail Nussbaum

    What frightens me so much about The Handmaid’s Tale is less the Mike Pence type male Commanders, but the women they’ve all employed to keep the other women in check.

    I think this approach is valuable up to a point, but what worries me about The Handmaid’s Tale is how often it’s used to obscure the responsibility of men for creating and maintaining Gilead. Yes, it’s interesting that Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia are the main sources of torment in Offred’s life (and probably not unrealistic to how such societies function). But I remember being genuinely startled when the credits rolled on the season finale and I realized that the first and only Gilead official to be called “evil” was Serena Joy. Meanwhile Fred – an actual serial rapist – is treated as so remote from Offred’s suffering that she can even come to him for protection for her daughter. And that’s not even to mention Nick, who willingly signed on to be a rape-Nazi because of Economic Anxiety, and yet is treated as a so positive that he’s even shown as Offred’s protector against Serena Joy.

    Again, that’s not to say that any of this is unrealistic, or even unintentional – it is, for example, obviously in Fred’s interest to let Serena Joy be the strict authoritarian with Offred, so that he can play the cool, fun rapist. But I’m wary of analyses of the show that identify Serena Joy as its main villain, because she isn’t. While there’s no question that she should be up against the wall when the revolution, she absolutely shouldn’t be first.

    Rachel, for that matter, feels like a broader case of the same problem. I’m getting increasingly suspicious of villains who are products of abuse and manipulation, who are castigated for their own villainous acts even as the people who molded them into psychopaths are treated as “morally grey”. The fact that Orphan Black S5 expects me to sympathize with Susan Duncan and Aldus Leekie, even as it wanted me to recoil at the behavior of the woman they tortured into psychopathy, has left me feeling pretty perturbed. One of the reasons that Cersei works so well as a villain is that the people and systems who turned her into a psychopath aren’t let off, and in fact are severely punished. I’d like to see more instances of that in pop culture.

    • I’m two episodes out from the finale and I have read the book and I can say I never got the impression that the men were being excused. The strict separation of the sexes means that Offred spends more time with the women abusers hired by the men, but I never felt like the show/book was letting us forget who gave them that power. Plus, you also sympathize with Serena Joy a little bit every time Fred goes behind her back and pushes her out of the decisions!

      • Pat

        Doesn’t Joy remind one a little bit of Phyllis Schafly?

        • wjts

          I think Atwood has said that Schlafly was one of the inspirations for Serena Joy.

          • Pat

            That explains why she has Joy punished for her actions. Schafly ignored her own advice for decades on end without any detriment at all.

    • Karen

      I haven’t watched the TV Handmaid, but I have read the book a couple of times, and, at least in my opinion, the men are very far from excused. For one thing, it’s clear in the book that Serena Joy is absolutely miserable, so much so that she encourages Offred to have sex with Nick — which could get them all killed — because having a baby is important enough for her to deceive the Commander. Also, Book Commander’s efforts to play nice to Offred, giving her books and cosmetics, taking her to Jezebel’s where they have sex in a room other than The Ceremony — are clearly shown to be hypocritical as well as manipulative.

  • LeeEsq

    Feminism, Calvinist style. Women are just as depraved as men and should be given every opportunity to prove it. ;).

    • woodrowfan

      in “Jingo” one of the pseudo-Arab characters tells Commander Vimes that he should believe in true equality, and accept that people from other groups can be real bastards too.

      • LeeEsq

        People are unnerved by female villains because there is a definite strand of thought that women are gentler, nobler, and wiser than men. Its expressed a lot in both real life and popular culture. See the mom and dad roles on sitcoms as a really good example. This is generally expressed in sexist ways. One argument against giving women the right to vote was that they were too good for the dirty world of politics. You can also find feminist versions of this argument. A lot of the disappointment at many female politicians were that they were just as corrupt and self-interested as male politicians or didn’t have the right sort of beliefs for a female politician, see Margaret Thatcher or even Hillary Clinton.

        • Karen

          I recall a quote attributed to George Carlin which goes something like: “You know that you’re no longer a racist when a black guy cuts you off in traffic and instead of muttering a racial slurs you shout ‘Hey, Asshole, are you blind??!!'” Real, genuine, demonstrable equality has to include the equal right to be horrible, and to be horrible in ways that don’t strictly follow racist or gendered stereotypes, and which are critiqued without any reference to those stereotypes.

          • LeeEsq

            You can’t have an equitable social system where some individuals or groups have to be saints so others could be sinners. This is a lot harder to pull off in practice than theory though.

  • John F

    Mike to Jesse, talking about Lydia: “And now you’re being sexist. Trust me, this woman deserves to die as much as any man I’ve ever met.”

  • Karen

    This is an important topic. I have had two bosses who could fairly described as sociopaths –they screamed abuse on trivial subjects and picked me individually as a special target for their rages. Both were single, childless women who claimed to be feminists. One nearly had me fired for making typos in early drafts of documents and the other told me that we had nothing in common because I was married and had kids and therefore she didn’t believe I was committed to my job enough. When I was growing up, the people who told me that men would try to touch me in ‘bad’ places just to see whether I would resist or not, and that if I didn’t resist I was a whore with no rights to resist anyone ever again, were all women. (If I resisted, then I was a Nice Girl who was worth marrying. That I would be marrying someone turned on by the fact that I found his actions disgusting was somehow never fully explained.) There were plenty of “mean girls” whose verbal abuse I can still recall with a great deal of pain. Not all of these women were acting out of frustration at their restricted roles in a sexist society, although some of them were.

    The moral is that people quite often suck, even those who should know better. Liberals need to understand this and work within reality.

    • Half the female bad-asses were wiped out in Eps 2. They were fooling around when they should have been keeping better watch. What message does that send?

      • woodrowfan

        that they never saw the “Friday the 13th” movies?? Sex = violent death!

      • wjts

        What message does that send?

        Everyone in Dorne is stupid and boring and I hate them, but at least some of them are dead now? That was my take-away, anyway.

      • Those women were starkly different from their book version and I was not upset to see them go but I was upset at who took them down. But they weren’t the only female villains so ultimately I wasn’t that upset.

    • TopsyJane

      It’s quite common for women to act as the moral enforcers of the rules on other women in societies dominated by men.

      Also, if you were routinely making typos in drafts, even “early” drafts, especially after being told not to, that would be an issue in a lot of offices.

      • JohnT

        In the more misogynistic South Asian societies I occasionally interact with, the vast majority of the day-to-day hassling and putting down of young women with independent thoughts seems to be done by older women. Many of them seem to subconsciously believe ‘I had to put up with this shit so you have to as well’. (This is one way in which the oppressive women in The Handmaid’s Tale are worse – they lack this excuse). Of course, the possibility of violence by the men is absolutely one of the key backstops to the system – the other being the risk of ostracism.

  • Nym w/o Qualities

    My favorite film noir is Out of the Past (1947). It was remade as Against the Odds, which I haven’t seen. Jane Greer plays a bad news woman who becomes, in the climactic scene, a literal ball buster. One of the many things I like about it is that her character’s actions drive the plot, still a rarity today, much less then.

    • Nym w/o Qualities

      Not TV (oops) but the movie is sometimes on TCM.

    • TopsyJane

      The villainous or suspect woman, suspect usually on the basis of her sexuality, is a staple of noir. In the old Chandler-Hammett hardboiled school, often as not the killer is a woman or a woman has instigated the killing.

      • Nym w/o Qualities

        Yes, but you should watch Out of the Past anyway. The female leads are outstanding, and the villainess has real agency for 1947 (and seemingly genuine, not fake, hots for Robert Mitchum).

        • TopsyJane

          I did see it. It’s a fine picture and Jane Greer is great. (I also saw the remake with Rachel Ward, a ravishing woman and an awful actor.)

        • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

          Noir films are where the dangerous women from the
          pre code era resurfaced.
          Ann Savage as Vera in Detour,
          Barbara Stanwyck in Double Idemnity, Clash by Night, etc.
          Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven. And many more.

    • The Last Seduction was also delicious.

  • Turkle

    Not a TV show of course, but the film “Hanna” had a remarkably strong female hero (Saoirse Ronan) and a fantastic female villain (the always great Cate Blanchett). A little smarter than your standard action popcorn-fare, and I don’t hesitate to recommend it.

    • TopsyJane

      That women are making inroads into action flicks and grossout comedies and other genres where they were previously relegated to the sidelines is a real step forward. Most of the movies are terrible and I tend to avoid them but it’s nice to know it’s happening.

  • Uncle_Ebeneezer

    A couple other great ones: Alfre Woodard in Luke Cage, and Sadie Stratton in Underground.

    • Uncle_Ebeneezer

      Also, in film: In Get Out the girlfriend and mother were both incredibly effective at showing a new type (for mainstream film) of villains.

  • gepap

    The biggest female villain in Orphan Black to me is Virginia Cody – a totally amoral scientist who will use anyone/everyone to advance the science.

  • thebewilderness

    Women acting like people? Shocking!

  • Gareth

    Have you seen “Agent Carter”? It’s about a secret agent dealing with sexism in the 40s. One of her antagonists is the woman in charge of her single-sex boarding house. Not actually a villian, but she does enforce sexism, treating a thirtysomething military veteran like a total child.

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