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Why superhero films should follow Wonder Woman’s lead and have female villains

Bring on the bad.


In films, as in real life, the villain is rarely a woman. There are several reasons for this. One is believability. Women just don’t commit heinous crimes as much as men, so a film has to work very hard to convince the audience that a female baddie could do whatever terrible things we have no problem believing men capable of. There’s no such thing as a bogeywoman because society isn’t afraid of women. As Gillian Anderson’s serial-killer-hunting detective Stella Gibson says to her colleagues in the BBC’s crime thriller The Fall, “is anyone in doubt as to the gender of the killer?”.

A recent Empire Magazine piece entitled The Greatest Villains of All Time featured just one woman out of twenty evil characters, Nurse Ratched from 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The article gleefully quotes Jack Nicholson’s character calling Ratched “a c*nt”, but doesn’t stop to analyse why the sole woman in the list (no, I don’t count the Alien xenomorph) is so bad. She, along with Misery’s Annie Wilkes, are popular villains because they betray a heavily gendered caring role. Around 90 per cent of nurses in the UK and USA are female, so Nurse Ratched’s subversion of her woman’s work - her female caregiver duties - is one of the worst lady crimes Western men can think of.

When women are allowed to be baddies, they’re usually one of a handful of female archetypes. The sadistic nurse, the crazed mother, the vain witch, the jealous lover, or the black widow. Rarely are female baddies allowed to be motivated by something other than the emotional or personal, while male baddies are obsessed with power, money, sex or politics, or just plain evil for evil’s sake.

Another reason filmmakers (93 per cent of whom are male) shy away from the female villain is because the hero is usually a man. To defeat a female antagonist, at some point our hero dude is going to have to punch her, shoot her, explode her, or drive a stake through her evil black heart, and most people are uncomfortable with that even when she really deserves it. Indeed, if the main baddie is a female, she’s often presented as victim herself (think Dredd’s Ma-Ma, Kill Bill’s O-Ren-Ishii, Audition’s Asami Yamakazi, or Mama’s’ But most female baddies are sidekicks, afterthoughts to the main man, to be dispatched by her equivalent female hero sidekick in a setup so common, it has its own TV Trope, the Designated Girl Fight.

This trope is seen frequently in comic books and therefore superhero films, but only because those films are way ahead of the curve in terms of female villainy. Superhero films have no duty to reflect real life. Superheroes can be anyone, from the underdog nerd to a billionaire, and so too can their nemeses. Superpowers are an equalising force. It’s okay for Toad to fling Storm through a glass display case in X-Men, because Storm is a superhero with mutant powers.

But still, these are supporting characters. Female leads even in comic book films are rare. One major exception is of course 2017’s Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, whose protagonist is both exceptionally well trained for combat, and endowed with a few handy supernatural abilities (plus a gadget or two to help out in a plot jam). She’s a badass, and deserves an enemy just like her.

The main antagonist in Wonder Woman is of course a man, first fiddle to a female supporting character, Dr Maru, a sadistic chemist who straight up wants to kill as many people as possible, Nazi-style. She is played with chilling grace by Spanish actress Elena Anaya (in contrast to her comic book counterpart who was originally depicted disguised as a man, to better fit in with her evil allies. Baddies skew male, remember). But to truly belong to women, Patty Jenkins’ world shouldn’t be afraid of the big bad female. And so it isn’t. This weekend, Patty Jenkins announced that the main villain, the “big bad” of Wonder Woman 2 will be the Cheetah, played by Kristen Wiig. In the comics, the Cheetah has always been Wonder Woman’s archnemesis, part of the original canon. Her most popular incarnation is as alter-ego Dr Barbara Ann Minerva, a brilliant archeologist, although we don’t yet know if that’s the version of the character we’ll get for the film. Two evil women with PhDs in a row, can Hollywood be that progressive?

But still, however the Cheetah’s character plays out, this is a big deal. A female hero and a female baddie in a mainstream blockbuster film. It’s no coincidence the film is directed by a woman. More female filmmakers means more female characters and fewer lazy stereotypes, motives and archetypes. Those baddies who break the mould are often the brainchild of women. Kingsman 2’s psychopathic drug lord Poppy Adams is the co-creation of screenwriter Jane Goldman, Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge, representing the banal evil of unchecked authority, is of course the creation of JK Rowling, the screenplays of Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland were written by Linda Woolverton. A new study by digital movie network Fandago shows that 82 per cent of cinema-going women are more inclined to see a movie with dynamic female characters, and 75 per cent want to see more female ensembles. MPAA data shows women are consistently 50 per cent of moviegoers, and in 2016 were even slightly in the majority. The market is there, and we want our representation.

When women are involved in a film, female characters are allowed to be complex, including in villainy. It may sound like a weird feminist goal, to be allowed to express the full range of evil characters alongside the good ones, but when it comes to superhero movies, where anything is possible and art is escaping life, rather than reflecting it, there really is no excuse. Bring on the bad.

The Isle of Man, from where author Zoe Gilbert hails. CREDIT: GETTY
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Zoe Gilbert’s original debut novel Folk feeds our new appetite for myth

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says so, but I’m not sure.

I’ll put up my hands and make an admission: I don’t read many contemporary novels. Most of them seem, well, too contemporary. For a long time, much “literary” fiction has skated along the surface of modern urban life, engaging with the “interiority” of the middle-class mind and whatever cultural brouhaha is currently in fashion among the progressive literati.

The result is a kind of placid, smug dullness about which it’s mostly impossible to care: an Ian McEwan-isation of the soul. For years, writers shunned or simply ignored the old storytellers’ realms of mythology, image and the collective unconscious; the strange, magical depths which underlie all things, but which our society prefers to pretend is not really there.

But something is stirring. In recent years, novelists have begun to venture out beyond the shores of reason, beyond the city and sometimes beyond the human, too. The result is a small blooming of books, and of films and music, which are exploring this strange otherness again. Writers such as Daisy Johnson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sylvia Linsteadt and Ben Myers are pushing the boundaries of what has been called “folk horror”. They, in turn, are drawing from a thriving underworld of eeriness, folk culture and myth that is perhaps unparalleled in Britain since the 1970s.

What is going on here? Well, people are hungry. Hungry for real meat, and missing what they don’t know they have lost. What we might call the “folk soul” still undergirds our vision of the world, however many gadgets we use to navigate it. Why else would the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings continue to grip the popular imagination?

The surface is not enough. Our culture is starving people of spiritual and mythic nourishment. We barely even know what these words mean any more, so how would our writers know how to engage with them? Yet when our stories remain stuck in a permanent present, something is missing – something old, strange and sacred. “Fantasy” novelists such as Alan Garner, M John Harrison and the late Ursula K Le Guin, have long known this better than their “literary” counterparts.

In this vein comes Folk, the debut novel by Zoe Gilbert, a past winner of the Costa Short Story Award. It draws deeply from the old tales of the Isle of Man, from where the author hails, to give us a book which is genuinely original, disturbing, beautiful and gripping. It is both a joy to read, and –always a bonus – a tricky book to pin down

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says it is, but I’m not sure. It has recurring characters, but no single storyline; each chapter could stand alone. So is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but no: the same characters recur throughout, popping in and out of each others’ tales and adding to the weight of the whole. That whole makes up a convincing world peopled with distinctive characters, a verdant, living landscape and a liminality of strange beings who regularly intrude upon the everyday lives of the humans.

Perhaps Folk is neither a novel nor a collection of stories; perhaps it is a map. Indeed, one of its attractions for me is that a map of Neverness, the fictional village in which the stories are set, is the first thing you see when you open the book. (I am a sucker for books with maps in the front: I grew up on fantasy novels, and the cartography was always part of the attraction.) Folk can be read as a map of the British mythic imagination: of the river under the river. Starkly original and expertly written, it draws you, like a faerie song, into a kingdom from which you may never escape, and may not want to.

Gilbert’s writing has shades of Le Guin and Angela Carter, and like both of those authors she knows that real mythology, real folk culture, has a core of darkness to it; a core that both repels and entices. True fairytales are not fluffy, and they often do not have happy endings. There is an undercurrent of earthy danger here; a raw sexuality too, unashamed of itself.

A young boy is burned alive in a gorse bush, seeing visions of angels; a girl’s father kills and skins her pet hares; a woman is kidnapped by a water bull and ravished beneath the waves; a girl drowns her father by mistake; a woman murders her sister to steal her lover. But the darkness is not revelled in or overdone; it is intrinsic to the book’s realism. “Realism” might seem a bizarre word to use about tales set in a mythic land in which men are born with wings for arms and women become hares. But in a book like this, it is imperative that the newly-minted world has an internal logic and consistency.

Folk succeeds triumphantly in this regard. Reading its chapters – which have titles like “The Neverness Ox-men”, “Fishskin, Hareskin”, and “A Winter Guest” – is like sitting by a fire with some old storyteller, listening to the strange tales of his people. The work that has gone into creating the world of Neverness has paid off. These seem like stories from a real place.

This is the marker of the novel’s success: that immersion in its world makes that world seem, for a while, more real than the one you are living in. More appealing, too. When you turn the last page, you may find yourself looking out of the window, or at the screen of your phone or laptop, with a pang of regret and a sense of loss. Then you might find yourself returning to Neverness, like the children return to Narnia. It beats what passes at the moment for “reality”, and it is more human, too. 

“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth is published in paperback by Faber & Faber

Zoe Gilbert
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game