Girlbossing and glamourising female villains is not representation at its best.
Recently I played a game with a friend, guessing if a stranger was a victim or a perpetrator, based on their expression and external attributes. However, we quickly agreed that most women would inevitably be victims in our game. Do we prefer the female victim or villain? And why is the answer obviously the latter?
Female villains are no new phenomenon, having been around perhaps since Circe in The Odyssey, who was depicted as a temptress and a witch. These themes have continued in folklore and fairy tales, giving us the Evil Queen in Snow-White, and the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid. An iconic villain to this day is Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, a character who has become more liked over time, transitioning in our cultural consciousness from the “Fourth Witch” to a “girlboss”. Whereas Lady Macbeth’s story resembles Eve tempting Adam, she is humanised by guilt and her frankly common ambition, endearing her to modern readers. There also seems to be a pattern of female villains and anti-heroes receiving support as main characters, a part which Lady Macbeth fills as well as her husband. Enduring a dynamic arc that ends with death, you can’t exactly say she got away with her bad behaviour. Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne and Killing Eve’s Villanelle are also examples of antagonistic main characters where the focus is on their experiences and reasons for being bad, letting us into the bad girl psyche. There is something freeing in a character being unapologetic about their antagonism, when they are traditionally disadvantaged in society. It feels justified because it’s revenge, something like an eye for an eye.
Anna Delvey is a real female villain people root for, because she punched up, taking advantage of society’s wealthiest. Stealing from the rich like a self serving Robin Hood, she stole our hearts at the same time. Perhaps the juxtaposition of female antagonism with the oversaturated portrayals of male anger and violence has made the female alternative more attractive to audiences. For many women, including myself, the growing complexity of female characters in the media is a development that we embrace, whether they are portrayed as good or bad. Even female superhero villains are unusually beloved and imitated, such as Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Thor’s Hela, whose costumes you can spot every Halloween. There have also been attempts to humanise these characters by making them the focus of their own movies or comics. Disney’s Maleficent and Cruella are examples of this, which makes me wonder: why can’t we just let women be evil? Do they need reason and sanity behind their actions in order to appeal to us? Whereas they were generally disliked before, both Cruella and Maleficent have been transformed into younger and prettier renditions of their former selves who are, actually, not evil, but slay queens who serve looks. They are suddenly complex, losing their villain status and any trace of evil.
There is also the compulsory element of sex appeal, one that is present for both men and women, when our most beloved villains are played by beautiful or sexy women with charisma. More often than not, female villains are stylish and swaggery. Case in point: Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, female villains who especially capture male audiences. Their cool inspires worship, like Regina George in Mean Girls, not only from audiences but other characters as well. A favourite is also Kim Possible’s Shego, a sexual awakening for many young girls, who foils Kim’s niceness with her sultry danger. Bad girls are like bad boys, hot enough to make it all too easy to ignore their red flags.
Women being bad fills a gap in our representation, one that satisfies the internal needs of most women to assert themselves. So why not root for evil women? Are they just fun and stylish to watch, or do we perhaps all secretly want to be evil too?