“Would love to hear your opinions on ‘bad women’ in stories (especially evil women and women villains).”
Truly a favourite topic of mine, and one I could potentially discuss for hours, but I’ll try to be brief(ish) for now.
I think it’s fascinating how women’s villainy tends to be tied to their status as either maiden, matron or crone. The villainous maiden is usually the seductress (or otherwise dirty/impure). The villainous matron is the monstrous mother (who leaves Hansel and Gretel in the woods) or the vain queen (from Snow White), but her villainy is almost always tied to her children (or lack of them). The villainous crone is the witch in the woods, who has cast off society’s expectations of her as a woman (she is ugly, alone, rude, and powerful).
Exploring these kinds of characters, and in fact all ‘bad women,’ partially appeals to me so much because they challenge the stereotypical idea of what a woman is supposed to be. Even today, so much of a woman’s value is placed on her purity, her ability to mother, her prettiness and her politeness. To be bad at being a woman is often to be labelled a ‘bad woman,’ and it’s not such a big step from this to being considered evil, and villainy.
Of course, not 100% of female villains have these traits, and those that don’t are interesting precisely because they exist without the typical ‘evil woman’ traits. Xena (Warrior Princess) comes to mind, while she was still a conquering warlord (and before her own spin-off show). These characters’ genders could be changed for male without the source material seeming at all subversive. But I think it says a lot that I’m struggling to think of another villainess in this category.
Bad women want to eat you up. By this I mean their villainy is often tied to flesh, to eating, seduction, cannibalism, poison. Poison is ‘women’s work.’ The witch literally eats her prey. Mrs Lovett bakes human bodies into pies. Real women are called ‘man-eaters.’ There is something compelling and recurring about a woman, who is supposed to nurture with her body and her food, suddenly doing the opposite.
‘Villainous’ violence in stories seems more shocking when a female character does it. She has not only violated the expectations society has of her as a person, she has violated its expectations of her as a woman. Today, when people talk about manliness and expectations of men, violence and aggression are still mentioned as norms. The same violence, when perpetrated by a man, does not detract from his status as a man. But done by a woman, and she is often considered inherently unnatural and evil.
A non-comprehensive list of why female characters (and in fact characters in general) may do bad* things (*bad is, of course, almost always subjective):
– They think the ends justify the means
– They want to make their mark on the world, and they can’t see a better way to do so
– Their upbringing/past experience has taught them that this is normal, or at least a reasonable occurrence
– In self-defense
– Protecting people or things they love
– They feel trapped (and there are lots of ways to feel trapped)/like they have no other choice
– They don’t (fully) understand the negative consequences of their actions (for a whole range of possible reasons)
– It’s situational/environmental (e.g. the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, or the Milgrim Experiment with electric shocks)
Their reasons can be multiple and mixed as well, of course.
I do believe that humans, including bad women, are almost without exception trying to do their best in this world. They are not bad or evil for the sake of it. Everybody has their reasons for acting the way they do. When writers remember this they create better characters and better stories, and when people remember this we have a better and more compassionate world.
In conclusion: Bad women are wonderful characters because they are allowed a full range of flaws and darkness and humanity, a gift which is rarely afforded to other female characters. More of this, please.