The Cinematic Witch-hunt and Abuse of Female Villains

The Cinematic Witch-hunt and Abuse of Female Villains January 6, 2019

Yesterday morning I had the hilariously stupid delight of seeing the movie Holmes and Watson. While waiting for it to start, the trailer for the new King Arthur movie came on (“The Kid Who Would Be King”, the old tale set in a modern day kid’s environment). I was struck, as I have been many times the past few years, by yet another faceless female villain, this time taking Morgana’s name—when the actual movie started. Even though Holmes and Watson was hilarious (if you’re a fan of Will Ferrell, I highly recommend it), the build up to the villain the entire movie led to a VERY disappointing character. Guess what gender? Yep. You got it. It wasn’t necessary that she be female; it could have been worked around, but it wasn’t, and it was really irritating.

It struck a chord with me that has rung for many years—since I noticed an upstart in the specifically female villain. 

There are of course side characters in such films that are female (I’m sure to use as defenses against there being female villains), but so many movies in the past few years, including The Kid Who Would Be King, Samson, and the most recent mummy movie with Tom Cruise, have female villains. Sure, the male characters have their flaws, but nowhere near the audacity and evil of the villainess. Which is the point, no doubt. 

The women villains are powerful, independent, and not needing anything more than their other-worldly powers to nearly take over the world. Because of this they are, of course, portrayed as being inherently, irredeemably evil, almost always without reason. 

They are female, they are evil, and they must be destroyed. 

This is happening enough that it can’t be ignored. 

This kind of female villain is always against a male protagonist that is just trying to make his way in the world, and does so against all odds—those odds namely being a fiercely evil feminine villain he must defeat. 

It is the male self-insert of fighting against an independent, powerful, terrifying, (yet still seductively beautiful, go figure) woman that wants to steal from the world all that is good. And, of course, only the male character (even if he is aided slightly by his side female characters) can save the day. Because patriarchy. 

One of the more infuriating instances that still irks me is the recent film retelling of the Samson story. Of all the biblical stories that could have been (and need to be) told, why choose this one? Why choose the plot line where the righteous, anointed male is brought to his doom and the doom of his country and his people because of an evil seductress? And all is only brought to right when she and everyone associated with her is killed? 

You only need to be acquainted with online discussion for a couple of minutes before you see the appeal such a story has for “Christian” men afraid of losing their God-given right to authority and “masculinity” (I have this in quotes because that is not real masculinity). 

And this isn’t just seen with newer movies, either. Branching into older movies and other genres, even the infamous Alien series’ main villain is a female mother queen, spawning her evil hatchlings to spread her evil across the galaxy. The 1998 Godzilla is also female with a similar MO of spreading her young to conquer the planet.

Sensing a pattern here? 

Our patriarchal culture is so threatened by women’s autonomy, independence, and power in our ability to learn and work alongside men that films are being made to showcase that (usually white) male fear. 

Now, that is not to say there is not a place for the female villain. 

One of my all-time favorite mini series is Hallmark’s The Snow Queen, the story that Frozen took a VERY liberal use of (and didn’t do it justice–just sayin; the original story is SO much better). The conflict is centered on a woman fighting the Queen of Winter in a battle for the man she loves. There isn’t the underlying propaganda of the poor man fighting against the evil independent woman from conquering and changing the planet.

I love women villains if they’re done right. But so often as is happening now, the female villains ARE SO BORING, on top of being sexist. Without their ridiculous amounts of CGI, SFX, and makeup, they wouldn’t be anything worth putting on film. 

Give me Once Upon a Time’s Evil Queen Regina, or her mother the Queen of Hearts (who made her daughter look like a Girl Scout). 

Give me Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty and her pettiness and terrifying laugh. 

Give me female villains with personalities, axes to grind, flaws, dashed hopes, and tragic wounds that drove them to the madness of evil to conquer the world around them. 

Don’t give me the convenient villain of The Last Witch Hunter or Cruise’s The Mummy, both of whose female villains have literally no personality, and are interchangeable. They are both ancient evils unleashed onto the world to destroy it or conquer it. It wasn’t even necessary for them to be women to be in that villainous role, yet here we are. 

There is, of course, the argument that some of these (like the Arthur story) are based on myths and legends where the villains are female, therefore it isn’t a modern sexist take. I like to point out to these arguments that the patriarchy didn’t start in the last five or ten or fifteen years. It is a millennia old system of oppression that harms both men and women in its clutches, and stories such as Morgana (the King Arthur villain) are reflections of that. 

Let me conclude with a fantastic female villain, one that puts almost any others to shame in her depth, her veracity, her cruelty, and her terrifying humanity, and one that serves as an example of a villain who happens to be female, not a female villain. 

Lady Lucille Sharpe of the film Crimson Peak is, bar none, the greatest and most cringe-worthy, utterly disturbing woman villain I can call to mind. Similar to such characters as Maleficent or the Queen of Hearts, she knows without any doubt that the horrific and blood-curdling acts she commits are evil, diabolical, and wrong. She likes them—she enjoys them—she does them without regret, without remorse, and without recompense (at least until later).

(Spoiler alert!) As a child, she and her brother, Thomas, due to terribly cruel and torturous childhood abuse, are incestuous lovers. To maintain this relationship, Lucille, at the age of 12, kills her mother with an axe through the head. After serving a meager prison sentence, she is released and returns to Thomas, forming a plan to lure young, lonely heiresses in “marriage” to her brother, only to steal their fortunes and eventually their lives. As these stories always tend, Lucille’s repetitive plan backfires when her brother falls in love with one of these women, and in the only action she regrets, Lucille kills her brother in anger and betrayal. It is not long after this that she meets her end. That is the standard we should hold up to the trope of the female villain. Lucille is a villain because of her actions, and her intentions, not because of her female-ness. 

If we are ever going to change how we and the world view Woman, we need to stop placing them on a pedestal. Female evil and female virtue are the same when raised on the platform of idolatrous lust. 

It matters how we are portrayed, for good or ill. Let’s remember that, and not settle for the less that we are given.




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About Jennifer Riley
Jennifer Riley is our new co-leader. She’s an emotional writer, engulfing people in her tidal wave of life experiences and interpretations. She’s a bad Catholic, a good sinner, and a pernicious writer who tries to find who she is to herself and to God through her words. You can read more about the author here.

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  • Wayfairer

    I just clicked on the synopsis of Hallmark’s version of The Snow Queen, and it sounds awful! I’m still hoping that some day some independent animation company will put out a lovely hand-drawn–and faithful!–adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story I loved as a child.

  • Wayfairer

    On another note, I’ve been thinking lately about movies of the 1970s, one of the greatest eras for American filmmaking. I thought of how, in these films, the evil women are sexually repressed and repressive (Hotlips in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, Nurse Ratched in One Flew over the Cukoo’s Nest) or are sexual teases (Jacy in The Last Picture Show.) The good women, besides being warm nurturing and earthy, are sexually open to you, the guy, if you’re nice and if you treat her better than that jerk she’s hung up on. It’s a bit different now, I guess, what with all the sexy sword princesses running about. Why must women’s sins *and* virtues be so sexualized?

  • Sarah McCabe

    Sadly, we don’t do faithful adaptations of anything here.

  • Illithid

    I was already thinking of the Alien franchise before I read down to your mention of the queen… possibly because Aliens is on TV right now. Ripley is a great, strong woman protagonist, aided by male sidekicks (Hicks, Bishop). And I loved the newer Maleficent, whose only male main character is the villain.

    I’m eagerly awaiting the next season of Game of Thrones. Now there’s a grab-bag of male and female heroes and villains. Pity John Snow is an idiot, but ya gotta love those buns!

  • Ame

    I prefer reading Angela Carter’s versions of fairy tales over versions that try to humanize a villian for the sake of making them more interesting and less of a caricature. Rather, she reveals the villians and heroes in us all. I don’t see female villians as the new trope of independent women who are naturally responding to injustice with bad behavior. Just like the Joker in The Dark Night Returns, there are some villians that have no story to tell because they have lied about it out of existence and who are only motivated by crushing souls, killing love, smothering hope, and watching the whole world burn.