Historically, books, especially children’s books, have been filled with female characters playing the damsel in distress. Think of all of the fairy tale stories that are traditionally read to children at bedtime- the Cinderellas and the Rapunzels, always the prey of an evil queen or wicked witch, and always saved by a handsome prince charming. As a result of these stories, little girls all around the world are taught that talking to birds and squirrels is normal, and that true love’s kiss is the ultimate salvation. Luckily, these traditional stories have largely been regarded as out-of-date, both because of the restrictive example they set for young girls and because of the villanization of powerful women as snarl-toothed, long-nosed wicked witches and evil queens.
Of course, I believe that the dreams of little girls around the world should not be limited to true love’s kiss and Prince Charming. I also believe that there are not merely two types of female in the world- the princesses and the wicked witches. However, while I am okay with decreasing the amount of books that revolve around princesses and princes, I have a hard time totally erasing evil queens and wicked witches from the narrative. My reasoning is as follows: Is it really always necessary for women to be altruistic in their endeavors? Why is it so taboo for a woman to be strong, independent, and powerful, if not a little cruel-hearted? It’s normal if men are, after all. If we are to totally eradicate female villains, then we are only reinforcing the gender norms of women to be selfless, and upholding the patriarchal mirroring of women focusing their existence on others, rather than themselves.
If we are to increase the amount of female villains in literature, there are a few caveats:
- We must begin to view female villains less as villains, and more as anti-heroes. Take Goneril and Regan from King Lear, for example: if we viewed these two sisters as villains, we’d be missing out on much of their characters’ substance. However, if we view them as anti-heroes, central characters who lack conventional heroic and altruistic attributes, we open doors to analyze them as developed and complex characters. Rather than merely viewing them as power-hungry and evil, we can see that they are extremely calculated and witty women who are able to unhinge (and rehinge) the social framework to flip the gender binary and gain power. They began the play with very limited power, but by understanding the weaknesses of those conforming to power binaries, they quickly became the puppet masters controlling those who had once been considered superior to them. If you can empathize with Cordelia, who is a much more conventional heroine than her sisters, you must also be open to empathizing with Goneril and Regan, who have just as complex of an arc.
- Furthermore, it is important to understand that when I call for more female villains, I do not necessarily mean that we need more of the traditional female villains, such as the wicked witch/evil queen stereotype, or the more recent addition to the list, the femme fatale. Female villains (anti-heroes) cannot be boxed into categories because of their appearances. Not all independent and powerful women are green with long noses and pointed caps. While some very possibly might be, most women with these characteristics are normal people. It isn’t a woman’s looks that make her who she is, it is her wits, confidence, drive, and values. In order to continue having a platform for non-altruistic women vying for power, we must separate the woman from her appearance.
- Finally, we need to have more female villains prevail! Why should so much potential go to waste, time and time again? Again drawing from Shakespeare’s King Lear, the play’s two primary female characters, Goneril and Regan, were killed off before they could even truly gain the power that they had won. Their fight to shatter the male dominance of society was wasted with their untimely deaths. While some might believe that Regan and Goneril would not have been any better in power than a man, due to their cruelty, and thus are better off dead, I find this argument hard to believe. Who is to say that the sisters wouldn’t have changed the system from the inside, once they acquired power? If they were smart enough to nearly overthrow the entire framework of a society, surely they could have been smart enough to merely use cruelty and savagery as a tool, knowing that it had worked in the hands of the men before them. Why root against women whose acquisition of power sets a new norm for girls and women everywhere, that it is possible for a woman to have power?
In my opinion, female villains are the best type of villains. This is because female villains are feminists working against the patriarchy, rather than with it. Beneath the seemingly cruel surface lies their motivation- a justified bitterness towards the patriarchal system which has time and time again oppressed independent and power-seeking women. While ultimately it is necessary to destroy the underpinnings of patriarchy, which lie in the core values of what it means to be a good leader, in the meantime it is vital for women to have leadership positions. It is impossible to put an end to male dominance, male centeredness, and male identification, the roots of patriarchy, if women are never in power. Therefore, it is important to celebrate and uplift the female villains who represent the driven and power-hungry women out there, unwilling to patiently wait their turn for the spotlight.