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’…er…Mama). 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.