The Gender Of Evil Baddies In Literature

Bad Girls by Leo Margulies

I’m usually more interested when I see a female baddie in a fictional story, whether on the screen or in a novel, because we seem to be going through a period in which male baddies are a lot more numerous than female baddies. This is the age of the anti-hero. It hasn’t always been this way, as described by Maria Nikolajeva in Children’s Literature Comes Of Age:

  • The struggle between good and evil is the most common motif in fantasy.
  • In early texts, often written by men, evil is depicted as a female figure. 
  • Female writers tended to write male monsters (e.g. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein)
  • Male writers made much use of witches
  • Examples of out-and-out evil witches in stories written by men: The Queen of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland; her twin in Through The Looking-Glass; the witch in The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald; the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz; the witch in Narnia; The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
  • (I’m reminded of the old tradition of referring to boats: men called boats ‘she’ while women called boats ‘he’, but since men have had more to do with boats over the years, now everyone tends to call them ‘she’.) At the source of this literary gender switching with monsters was perhaps the fact that the opposite sex tended to be regarded as not fully understood and therefore not fully human. This is the theory put forward by Nancy Veglahn, at least.
  • For example, Hans Christian Andersen’s problems with women are well-known (apparently): In Andersen’s early life, his private journal records his refusal to have sexual relations. (Wikipedia). C.S. Lewis can be subjected to similar psychoanalysis by critics.
  • The opposite sex is not outright evil, but feelings are complicated by sexual attraction and love, which is expressed through the good female images: the reasonable Alice, MacDonald’s emancipated princesses, Dorothy who is both courageous and resolute despite feeling helpless, Lucy as the favourite in the Narnia stories.
  • Veglahn also points out that female monsters were primarily sexual symbols.
  • But females as evil characters goes all the way back to traditional witches in folktales, or to the ambivalent good/evil progenitor in myths, which may couter Veglahn’s theory.
  • Modern female writers who have created evil baddies as male: Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula Le Guin, Susan Cooper, Natalie Babbiet, which also tend to feature male protagonists.
  • Stories which do not fit this gender thing are Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit, but there are hardly any female characters in those stories at all.
  • Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle is another exception, with a female baddie by a female writer. Or characters in Darkangel by Meredith ann Pierce. In both cases, the authors write of the sexual attraction of the protagonist to the evil monster. Writers (mostly women writers) seem like they’re trying to free themselves from sex stereotyping, thereby creating new patterns.
  • There are plenty of other exceptions, and more so since ‘good’ and ‘bad’ become more complicated, but there still seems to be a pattern.

RELATED

Writer’s Digest has a useful breakdown of villainous tropes and archetypes, and of course there is a different set of tropes for the stock characters.

ON XENA AND A LACK OF FEMALE VILLAINS from The Mary Sue

Why Girls Shouldn’t Play Nice from Essential Kids

Why the swooning over difficult men and not difficult women? from Psych Central

I hate Strong Female Characters from The New Statesman, because “Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”

Is Carrie Bradshaw an Anti-Heroine? from NYT Opinion

WRITING STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS: DEFINING A BITCH from Writer’s Digest

25 MOVIES WITH BAD GIRLS AND BAD-ASS ROLES THAT KICKED DOWN THE DOOR AND TOOK NO PRISONERS from Cleveland. (These articles keep popping up in my feed. Is this saying something about what viewers want?)

The Villainess, a poem by Jeannine Hall Gailey from The Library And Step On It

The Most Intriguing Women In Horror Movies from Persephone Magazine

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