In the world of modern cinema, there has been a growing magnitude of strong female heroes, the most influential to date being the release of D.C’s Wonder Woman (thank you Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins). Along with this string of heroic women, more and more strong, powerful women have been appearing on the dark side of the force, showing that villainous roles aren’t a male-exclusive and that women can be effective and badass villains as well.
People usually seem to underestimate the influence and power of a villain with viewers nowadays understanding the antagonist’s struggles and sympathising with their motives (or just loving how completely unpredictable Heath Ledger’s Joker was). Villains seem more real than the pristine hero that does everything right emotionally and morally. This fascination with villains, for me, grew when more female villains came into play, seeing my fellow women having genuine and passionate emotions that were taken advantage of or not taken seriously. Therefore, female villains are as important as heroes as they can connect and sympathise with viewers just as easily as any hero.
Complexity in female villains regarding their motives and personalities has also been on the rise. Some of them likeable and relatable (Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent) while others we rightfully despise and fear due to impressive writing and character development (Lena Headey’s Cersei Baratheon). This effort into introducing such complicated female characters pushes the idea that women aren’t just blank slates with bodies. Their motives especially produce a more colourful kind of character, with many female villains fighting for revenge, power or what (they believe) is right and doing so with passion and sheer determination.
Having more female villains pit against equally strong male heroes also suggests that women are just as strong and powerful as men. Cat Blanchett’s ‘Hela’ in Thor Ragnarok was depicted as a determined and powerful character, and an equal opponent to ‘Thor’ played by Chris Hemsworth. Not to mention that she is also the first primary female villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, alongside Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, the first LGBT character in a Marvel film.
These villains also break the stereotype that a woman’s only weapon is her sexuality, neglecting the need for any wits or other abilities in their master plan. Of course, this isn’t so much the case for some villains such as Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence/Rebecca Romjin – Marvel Cinematic Universe) and occasionally Cersei Baratheon (Lena Headey – Game of Thrones) but still their sex appeal is only used as a secondary weapon or as a last resort with their fighting abilities or smarts staring as their main weapon. This encouragement of physically and/or intelligently strong villains in popular culture creates the idea that a woman can face any rival whether it be with their fists or their wits.
Unfortunately, we still aren’t perfect as women of colour are still greatly underrepresented in villain roles (and let’s face it, every other type of role). I recently found a list of the ‘Greatest Female Villains’ which included characters from movies, tv and comics. On this list, there were 100 characters and all of them were white women. Although some of them were good role models to young girls (and boys), I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that this kind of encouragement was purely for white girls. Clearly, we still are still in need of some diversity in both heroic and villainous roles to help get the equality message across. Thankfully we are getting what seems to be a very diverse set of casting with the upcoming releases Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War movies.
These characteristics in female villains (and heroes) encourage an equal and empowering image of women in reality and create the normalisation of such characteristics in film, print and television. These empowering images will also create an impression on younger viewers, feeding into a young girl’s inner power and showing young boys that girls can be as powerful as their favourite supervillains/heroes. Still, there is work to be done in regards to diversity with characters like Valkyrie and Lupita Nyong’o’s Naikia hopefully the beginning of a more diverse range of characters.