Misha Burnett made a comment on my article “How Do You Create Strong Female Leads?” where he suggested that an essay on Villainesses was in order. Specifically, he said, “Female villains who are schemers rather than fighters are somewhat more common, perhaps because it’s easier to write an unsympathetic manipulator than a sympathetic diplomat, but the same principle applies – instead of outfighting a man, a strong woman maneuvers the conflict into an arena where something other than fighting determines victory.” His comment – and a relatively recent statement by someone, somewhere, that villainesses in general become evil because of mistreatment by men or because they fear that another woman may be more attractive than they are – got me thinking.
Mr. Burnett’s point is right on the money; female characters, good and bad, who are strong and believable often use their wits to maneuver those around them into situations where they (the women) can do battle without relying on physical force. Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff is a good example; best reviewed by the press for her fighting skills, the fact is that any viewer paying attention to the films can see that she relies on speed and surprise more than strength in combat. For instance, in The Winter Soldier, when she goes to secure the ship’s engines Natasha shouts loudly into her wrist comm while everyone else is whispering into theirs. This is because she wants the pirates to hear her; her job can be accomplished much more quickly and easily if they come to her rather than the other way around. She is thereby relying on being faster and smarter than the men she is facing, who come running when she makes “too much noise” during her stealth mission.
So besides our shared humanity with men, women can be a match for men in combat situations because of our ability to think as fast – or faster – than our male/female opponent(s) can. Our greatest assets, in general, are our wits and our wills, not our physical strength(s). It is also worth pointing out that beauty and abuse are not the only two motivating factors for villainesses in fiction. As a case in point, can someone tell me where Shelob, from The Lord of the Rings, fits into that equation? I don’t recall her preening before a mirror or crying over being abused by Sauron, do you?
While we remember that the evil queen in the fairytale Snow White wanted to be “the fairest of them all,” have any of us ever stopped to ask why it was important to her that men regarded her thus? Was it simple vanity on her part, or was it because her physical beauty allowed her to gain and maintain power? And even if we follow the pattern of the first Huntsman movie – which suggested that the queen was lead into evil by repeated sexual abuse – is suffering such cruelty a good reason to dole out more of the same to others, or is it an excuse used to cloak a different motive?
Questions such as these are not often asked by either readers or writers, and they should be; without them it is impossible to completely understand the characters in a given piece of fiction. If your villainess is motivated to do evil acts because she was raped at six or because she has become obsessed with her good looks, you won’t have a very memorable antagonist for your heroine/hero to vanquish. We remember villainesses whose evil goes beyond this surface level to something deeper and more frightening.
In this article, we will look at the three main types of villainesses encountered in fiction. Each of these models of villainess is the counterpoint to the previously delineated heroine classifications in my post on creating strong female characters. This is because, for every hero, there is a villain; this is no less true of heroines and villanesses. Also, these female antagonists’ motives are not the thin shields of spurned vanity and mistreatment, but something far deeper and darker. The two main motivating points for villainesses are the same as those for villains: pride, and a lust for power for its own sake.
Of the three types found herein, we will look at the Power Players first. Power Players are villainesses who either hold positions of command, or who control power(s) beyond those of mortal men. They do not get their name because they are making a play for more power (though they can and often do that, too) but because they have assets beyond the physical/surface level. It is not their beauty, nor their intelligence (great as that may be), which makes them dangerous; it is the authority or magic that they wield which makes them the dominant force of chaos in the story.
The first example of this is the Borg Queen of Star Trek fame. The focal point and directress of the Borg’s vast hive mind, the Borg Queen singlehandedly holds captive billions of souls through a forced cybernetic mental link. Under her command these cyborg zombies enslave more sentient beings without thought or emotion, allowing her to spread her control across the galaxy. The “we” in the familiar Borg mantra is not a symbol of billions of minds working together in enforced harmony; it is the imperial “we” of the individual who rules and manipulates the hive mind.
Power Players are the dark counterpart of those heroines who have lost/sacrificed some part of their femininity in order to enter combat, and the Borg Queen is one of the best exemplifiers of this type. In order that she may spread her idea of perfection across the galaxy more easily, the Borg Queen has cybernetically modified her body to come apart at the seams. She keeps it stored away in an alcove separate from her drones’, entering it only when she cannot deal with her enemies or “subjects” from the relative safety and comfort of Borg cyberspace.
Additionally, she demonstrates no love or compassion for others, even when she claims to be doing so. The “affection” which the Queen shows Seven of Nine in the two-part Voyager episode “Dark Frontier” is downright creepy for this reason; while she may say she wants to keep Seven “unique,” the Queen never shows any true concern or feeling for her former drone as an exceptional individual. Rather, she toys with Seven the way that a spider will with a fly. There is no feminine grace in her or wistful desire to return to her natural state, possibly to become a mother. There is only the all-consuming drive to become queen of the universe through cybernetic assimilation.
Maleficent, from Sleeping Beauty (the original animated film, not the live action remake), is another example of the Power Player class, since she wields forces beyond mortal ken. A fairy who has given herself completely to the Dark Side, Maleficent can cast curses of immense power, transform herself into a dragon, grow massive thorn forests in moments, and drum up storms with little to no effort. No one – not even the three fairies invited to Princess Aurora’s christening – is powerful enough to undo her work directly. They have to thwart her by being smarter and acting in “small” ways to defeat her.
Given the remake’s hack job on the original story, it is of great importance to this discussion to make Maleficent’s motivation clear. Is it abuse that makes her curse Aurora? Is it her vanity? In a manner of speaking, the latter question hits the nail on the head. In the original fairytale, the king and queen accidentally forget to invite Maleficent to their daughter’s christening. There is no malice in what they have done; it is an innocent mistake. Yet for this one mild error, the dark fairy curses their child to death at sixteen years of age by spinning wheel spindle. Her pride in her power and standing in the world is such that any slight – guileless or otherwise – pricks her hubris, leading her to immediately retaliate in the worst manner imaginable.
She is another inversion of the heroine type who has lost/sacrificed some part of her femininity in order to enter combat. Maleficent spends sixteen years hunting down a girl who has never intended harm to her so as to avenge an accidental insult. She has no one whom she loves in the world; even her care for the crow Diaval in the animated film is based on what she can get out of him. Because the animal worships her, she knows he is a reliable servant, and where there is one there will be more. If she had succeeded in stopping Prince Philip, Maleficent would have found herself another pet with the same fanatical devotion. It would have taken time for her to find him/her, but in the end she would have accomplished the feat.
Next we have the class of villainess one might call Manipulators. Manipulators, as a kind of female antagonist, are women who manipulate others to acquire the power they do not have or cannot claim on their own. These villainesses very probably desire both the authority and the capabilities of the Power Player division, but they do not actually have them at their disposal. So, rather than rely on physical strength, these women scheme and maneuver others into situations that allow them (the villainesses) to get what they want from society and life in general.
A good first example of this antagonist type is the super villainess and X-Men arch-nemesis Mystique/Raven Darkholme. Those who have only seen Mystique in the films do not know this, due to the odd decision on the part of the filmmakers to change her into a sympathetic anti-heroine. A meta morph capable of shape shifting into any form – human or animal, male or female – Mystique is actually the Manipulator par excellence. Since she is able to look and sound like any hero/heroine in the Marvel universe, Mystique has played merry hob with the home life and combat careers of almost every X-Man on the team. More than once the heroes have been lured into traps or led into evil because they followed Mystique while she wore the guise of someone they cared about and trusted. So by the time they realize who is leading them around by the nose, the damage is already done.
This makes Mystique the dark equivalent of the heroine who is ennobled and strengthened by the man she loves, while at the same time he is ennobled and strengthened by her. Though she has had many liaisons with men (and one woman) in her life, Mystique lacks any genuine or long-lasting love interest. She also shows no true proclivity for or inclination to the role of motherhood. In the comics, Raven Darkholme has two children: the X-Men Nightcrawler/Kurt Wagner and Rogue/Anna Marie. She abandoned the former when it became obvious he could not hide his mutation as she could hers and adopted the latter, not out of charity, but because she wanted to use the future X-Man’s mutant power for her own purposes. Though Mystique often claims to love her children, this assertion rings more than a little hollow due to the fact that she continually fights against and/or uses both of them in her schemes to gain power.
Clearly, not all such villainesses have Mystique’s specific advantages. Our next example in this category is Dr. Elsa Schneider from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A Manipulator of considerable skill, Schneider never engages in physical combat with Indy or anyone else during the film. Instead she uses her “feminine charms” and intelligence to maneuver men into doing what she wants/needs them to do so that she may acquire what she desires. It is worth noting, too, that her motivation is not to pay back some “abusive male” in her life or to keep her good looks.
In the film, Dr. Schneider seduces Indy after trying to win over his father to find the Holy Grail. This is not because she desires the Grail for its own sake, as Henry Jones Sr. does, or at the very least to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis, which is what Indy wants. She desires the prestige and prominence which will be bestowed on the one who brings the Grail back to the world, along with the mystical power the Grail is said to possess and which she believes she can use for her own benefit.
Though she claims to love Indiana and demonstrates some concern for Henry Sr., Schneider’s only real goal is to gain power for herself. She does not desire a meaningful relationship with Indy or anyone else; she does not want to become a mother and help a potential husband raise the children they might have. Schneider is a woman who manipulates others to acquire the control she cannot claim on her own, making her a direct opposite to the heroine who is ennobled and strengthened by the man she loves. Like the villainesses above, her only true love is herself, and her dream of becoming the most influential woman in her particular domain.
Finally, we come to the Femme Fatales. Alternatively known as “black widows,” these antagonistic women generally operate on a smaller scale than the villainesses mentioned previously. They still want power, but not necessarily on the tremendous level at which Power Players operate and that the Manipulators strive to achieve. For some Fatales, the control over life and death is enough, and this leads to the greatest weapon in their arsenal which makes them the dark image of The Passive Heroine: in order to gain the influence they need to attain their desire, Femme Fatales sacrifice the grace and purity of their sex to murder others, usually men. They do this either by frequent intercourse with their targets or by tempting them with it.
One of the two brief examples of this category which I have some familiarity with is Shira Brie/Lumiya, Dark Lady of the Sith. An Emperor’s Hand like Mara Jade, Shira Brie was sent undercover to find and kill Luke Skywalker. She succeeded in becoming close to him, forming a near-romantic bond with Luke after running a few missions with Rogue Squadron. She would have murdered him in-flight during a battle if the Force had not nudged Luke into shooting her down. This left her body in so many pieces that, when the Empire finally put her back together, she had more cybernetic parts than Darth Vader did.
Though Shira did not succeed in completely seducing Luke, as Schneider beguiled Indiana Jones, she did willingly destroy her femininity in order to make him let his guard down so that she could get close enough to murder him. This is the mark of most “black widows” seen in spy films; they trade on their objective beauty out of a desire for the power over the life and death of their prey, not for revenge for past mistreatment or to satisfy their arrogance. In the end, all that matters to them is being judge, jury, and executioner for some poor soul smitten by their good looks. The fact that they get to have a little fun in the process is a side benefit at best, a useful tool at least.
My other example in this vein is Delphine Yant, from Louis L’Amour’s The Proving Trail. While she does not have sex with the hero of the story, Delphine does use her natural beauty to charm him and try to win him over. As one character describes Delphine: “She is a huntress. She is not looking for a man. All men are useful to her, none really important. Sex is not important to [her]….. [She] simply use[s] it as a tool in reaching for wealth or power. Such a woman usually controls the situation because she herself does not care. I think Delphine….wants wealth because it insulates her. She has an inborn hatred of people.” This description easily applies to most Femme Fatales; they don’t want love, revenge, or to maintain their beauty. They want to be insulated from the people they hate – and they hate everyone.
During the course of the novel Delphine lives up to this definition of the Femme Fatale. She tries to poison the hero of the book, Kearney McRaven, on one occasion and then attempts to lure him into an ambush. In the final battle, she walks up to Kearney so she can get close enough to murder him or hold him still so her relations can do the deed. And Delphine would be able to do it, in her time and place, by the simple fact of being a beautiful woman who is stating loudly that she and Kearney are long-separated relations.
While these are the three main types of villainess, future writers, there is no law saying that you cannot have a female antagonist who “crosses genres,” as it were. Mystique and Schneider both have sex with their victims in order to further their agendas; while not Femme Fatales in the strict sense, they will not hesitate to use and abuse their femininity in order to get what they want. After being rebuilt as a cyborg, Shira Brie declared herself a “Dark Lady of the Sith,” leaving her Femme Fatale past to focus on Manipulation in order to become a Power Player in the old Star Wars Expanded Universe. The most recent example of a villainess who encompasses all three classes is Ravenna, from Snow White and the Huntsman and The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Possessing power beyond that of mortals, Ravenna seduces and murders kings after manipulating them into marrying or falling in love with her. Thus she is a heartless Power Player, a Manipulator, and a Femme Fatale all at once.
Also, your Power Player villainess need not be dominant simply on an authoritative/magical level. Governor Ahrinda Pryce from the new Star Wars timeline is physically strong enough to match men in combat, while also possessing the authority to exert her will over others as the Imperial governor of her homeworld. Ursula, from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, is not able to win a contest with King Triton via magic but she still has enormous physical strength. Meanwhile Hela, from Marvel’s comics and films, is not only “magically” powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with the Mighty Thor as an equal but is physically capable of fighting him to a stand still.
What all of these female antagonists have in common is their decision to abuse and/or destroy their femininity in order to get what they want. It is the “price” of their pursuit of their own wills rather than the Good; more often than not, they pay it gladly in order to achieve their dark desires. Understand this, future writers, and your villainesses – whether you want one from a certain class or a woman who qualifies in two or three – and your heroes and heroines will have a worthy fight on their hands.
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