Written by Elliott H and Tristan H
It’s no secret that women are given limited roles to play in media and one of the ways this manifests is the relative lack of female villains, especially the kind of complex multifaceted villainy offered to men. Villainesses often fall into the two categories of hyper-sexualized or hag and that line is usually drawn along how much agency the woman has and how her evil relates to men or a specific man. The ‘femme fatale’ type is frequently evil because some man made her like that or she uses her sexuality to manipulate men. Even the hag characters can have an elemental of twisted sexuality when motivated by their ugliness which is often used as an outward reflection of their inner evil. A villainesses evil is almost inevitably shaped by her gender because ‘femininity is supposed to be composed of emotionality, prudence, cooperation, communal sense, compliance, etc. Masculinity is supposedly its opposite: rationality, efficiency, competition, individualism, ruthlessness, etc’ (Zoonen, p. 38). Feminine nature as described by society and media is at odds with the masculine nature of villainy. To become a villain requires a manipulation of femininity to one end or the other.
The character that created the term ‘Bunny Boiler,’ Alex Forrest has become a symbol for dangerous female sexuality in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction. In the scene pictured Dan Gallagher, the married man having an affair with Alex, helps her bandage her wrists after she attempts suicide when he tries to leave after sleeping with her. Alex uses perceived helplessness, a trait coded as feminine, to trick Dan into staying with her and when that doesn’t work switches to stalking and violence to intimidate him. While Dan was the one having an affair Alex is the villain because her obsession with him drives her to do evil things- she will not be ignored. This character is born from long standing ideas that women are overly emotional, that sex and love make them ‘crazy.’ Unlike most male villains Alex isn’t motivated by a desire for power or wealth or even pure evil. She just wants Dan which strips her of the agency allowed to most male villains. While she is the driving force behind the plot the choices she makes are because of Dan.
Another in the ‘Love Makes Women Crazy’ category is Harley Quinn but in her relationship at least she plays more victim than villain. Since there are multiple different versions of Quinn, this essay will focus on the version depicted in the 2016 Suicide Squad. Going even deeper into the hypersexualized trope Quinn goes from a reserved, intelligent professional to an infantilized maniacal sexpot through manipulation from the Joker. The scene pictured is when the transformation is complete- the Joker convinces Quinn to dive into the same chemical bath as him and she is reborn in his image. The scene resembles a baptism of sorts as the Joker cradles Quinn. Like Alex, Quinn is evil because of love. Her devotion to the Joker is what drives her. In Suicide Squad Quinn wears shirts emblazoned with the phrase ‘Daddy’s Little Monster.’ Aside from the uncomfortable paternalistic spin that puts on the romantic relationship between Quinn and the Joker it points to the elemental of control and ownership. She wasn’t born evil, she was made a monster through her relationship.
Moving back a couple decades in the Batman universe brings us to Eartha Kitt’s performance in the third season of the live action 1960’s tv show, which is significant because of the way Kitt’s race impacted the way Catwoman expressed sexuality. Catwoman’s sensuality has historically been an important part of her character and Kitt continued that tradition of slinky femme fatale. But one of the main objects Catwoman’s affection had always been Batman (Adam West in the tv series) and in the 60s you couldn’t have flirtation between a black woman and a white man on television so the sexual tension that had existed between the characters in the previous seasons was cut out of the show entirely. This shows how race impacts sexuality and how women of color, especially black women, are simultaneously framed as undesirable while being hypersexualized and exoticized, while also giving Catwoman slightly more agency than other sexualized villainesses. While her sexuality still impacted the way the character was played it longer hampered or motivated her evil. Her sexualization is different from Alex Forrest’s or Harley Quinn’s because while sex made Alex crazy/evil and Harley Quinn has no agency over her sexuality, Catwoman’s is more of a femme fatale who uses her sexuality as a tool to get what she wants.
Also voiced by Eartha Kitt but on the other end of the Hypersexual/Hag spectrum is Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). As it exists now, the film has plenty of jokes about Yzma’s appearance but the original script took it a step further by basing her entire motivation on a desire to be beautiful again like she was in her youth. This obsession with youth and beauty leads her to try to destroy the sun, which she blames for her appearance. The core idea here is that a woman’s worth is based mostly in her appearance. Yzma is intelligent, powerful, and ambitious but because she’s ugly she’s treated as a joke. In a song cut from the final movie once the plot was changed, Yzma sings ‘I’ve really stopped at nothing/Murder, treachery and lying/Whatever it takes to keep my looks/You really can’t blame a girl for trying.’ She’ll stop at nothing to be beautiful because for a woman it isn’t enough to be smart and strong- you have to also be beautiful or you aren’t enough.
The Grand High Witch
Originally from Ronald Dahl’s book The Witches, the Grand High Witch was also depicted in the 1990 film of the same name. While she plays one of the purest villains out of the examples listed in part because her evil isn’t born out of a relationship or vanity her villainy is still impacted by her gender and her appearance. One of the most important aspects of the character is how she disguises herself. Because she can hide her true form and appear conventionally attractive, she can move through normal society without arousing suspicion because physical attractiveness is treated as an indicator of personality and morality. If she presented in her true form she’d be met with suspicion and fear because ugliness is equated with evil. And her evil is based in the ultimate failure of femininity under patriarchy- a dislike of children.Wanting to kill children in particular is just evil but it’s a common trope with witch characters in particular. Because under patriarchy the main function of women is birth and raise children it creates the idea that being bad with children is equal to being bad in general. A woman is meant to be beautiful and nurturing. The Grand High Witch is neither and therefore evil.
In perfect parallel with the Grand High Witch, Ursula is an evil enchantress that uses dark magic to steal and deceive her way into love. Her true form is overweight, has a deep voice, is graying, and is caked with makeup. Acting as a maternal figure to Ariel, the movie’s young, white protagonist, Ursula steals her voice and threatens to steal her love interest. While she transforms from one stereotype its opposite, her behavior remains static. Overly sexualized, deceptive, and always willing to destroy Ariel to succeed in love. The motivation of the plot revolves around both characters chasing the perfect patriarchal specimen, giving the Prince only enough character to chase after the prettiest girl with the prettiest voice, and its conclusion devolves into the man slaying the beast while Ariel watches helplessly.
Well within the “Hag” column, The Cruel Devil herself wields power from her terrifying presence. Designed to frighten children and adults alike with a shrill, deeply cutting voice and a constant cloud of cigarette smoke, her major motivation is to be beautiful behind extravagant clothing. Her source of wealth is animal abuse, and so is her source of personality. She spends her screen time either putting others down for their lack of wealth, trying to murder cute puppies, or barking orders to her henchmen, and the screen time dedicated to characters talking about her is full of jokes about her physical appearance, her nagging, and how scary she is. Everything about her is supposed to convince the audience that she doesn’t deserve to be beautiful or wealthy, from her exaggerated skeletal structure, to the dark blue eye shadow, to her stained teeth.
Jadis (AKA The White Witch)
The White Witch has ruled Narnia for many years, though age has not touched her skin. Compared to other characters in this list, Jadis is beautiful, not overly sexualized, but still a product of stereotype. Like her title implies, she is a white matriarch, the only natural threat to the white patriarchy. Her main motivation is to stay in power and defeat any threat to the throne, but her character remains as a relative point to another’s power rather than standing on its own merit. Her character serves as a contrasting figure to Aslan, a male lion father figure. She is deceptive, he is honest. She is selfish, he is selfless, etc. The story also fails to provide the other female characters agency compared to men. Father Christmas makes a cameo appearance to assist the heroes by giving the boy a sword and his sisters…a healing trinket and a horn to call for help.
The picture says everything you need to know about Jennifer, a murdering demon from the supernatural horror film Jennifer’s Body. As a human, Jennifer was sacrificed as a virgin in a demon-summoning ritual. Unfortunately for her killers, she wasn’t a virgin, so she became a monster. She moved on to kill young men from her high school, but not before she has a chance to have sex with them and make out with her female best friend, the film’s protagonist named “Needy”. Needy is portrayed as a weak, helpless nerd that stands no sexually-competitive chance against Jennifer. Jennifer is a succubus and nothing more, serving as a crazed sexual conquest for innocent young men and as a source of jealousy for the less patriarchally-perfect.
In all of film, there are certainly a number of excellent female antagonists, but what struck me the most was how difficult it was initially to compose this list of characters. Women in film, at least in the villainess role, are generally unmemorable due to their near-universal poor representation. In this list, 8 of the 9 villains were white. In this list, there were 5 Evil Queens, 5 seductresses, and 9 characters that were made or broken by their physical appearance. Attractiveness, as enforced by Hollywood, is all 9 characters’ sources of power and characterization. In this list, a character is either Hot or Not, and this trend carries over into a staggering percentage of media. What kind of effect does this have on hopeful actresses? For those that don’t fit the mold of the innocent protagonist, the evil hag, or the deceptive seductress, what kind of roles can they hope to fill? Actresses require representation that resembles them, “diversity and alterity, other ways of being in the world, of imagining and playing out possibilities”. (Henderson, 175)
Thank you for reading.
van Zoonen, Liesbet (1994). Feminist Perspectives on the Media. Retrieved from https://utexas.instructure.com/courses/1220938/files/44703429/download? wrap=1
Henderson, Lisa (1998). Keywords for Media Studies. Retrieved from https://utexas.instructure.com/courses/1220938/files/44588992/download? wrap=1