What is it about women that just isn’t scary? Perhaps it’s because women can represent motherhood and mothers are loving and caring. Or maybe it’s because we are (generally) smaller framed and not as physically strong as (most) men and therefore don’t epitomize the brutality of villainy.
Whatever the reason, when I asked you to list villains in the Who’s Your Ultimate Villain post, you gave me a list… but it had barely any women in it. The list included (but wasn’t limited to):
Cruella De Ville, Ursula, Professor Umbridge, Annie Wilkes, Nurse Ratched, Miranda Priestly and Alex Forest
Rather a small list if you ask me.
What gives me hope is that the AFI (American Film Institute) has their own list: 100 years… 100 Heroes and Villains. This breaks down into a list of the top 50 pairings, rather than a list of 100 heroes and 100 villains.
In 4th place is the Wicked Witch of the West and in 5th is Nurse Ratched. So, 2 of the top 5 are actually female. Promising… but of the list of 50 pairings, only 13 in total had female villains, and only a quarter of the best villains were female. Better than I expected, but not as good as it should be.
I wrote a previous post about the 6 Most Sinister Villain Personalities in which I discussed mental health and its relation to villains. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is frequently used as a mechanism to develop character in female villains. I think this is because it is widely seen as the more common female equivalent of psycho/sociopathy.
Examples of villains with BPD include: Eileen Wurnos from Monster, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Winona Ryder in Girl Interrupted and Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest.
Females can have psycho/sociopathy as it is not an illness constrained by gender but, it is less common in females. Perhaps this variance in gender distribution in BPD is why so many famous female villains have BPD instead of psycho/sociopathy. But isn’t this becoming a bit of a cliché? Shouldn’t we be developing a ‘different’, new and exciting kind of female villain rather than sticking to known stereotypes?
Briefly: BPD is marked by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships and typically more women than men have it. The four major areas affected are:
- emotional instability (the psychological term for this is affective dysregulation)
- disturbed patterns of thinking or perception (psychological terms for these are
cognitive or perceptual distortions)
- impulsive behaviours
- intense but unstable relationships with others
If you want a more detailed explanation of BPD visit the 6 Most Sinister Villain Personalities.
Crudely, I wonder if film makers and writers alike are entrenched in the societal concept that women are peaceful and caring, motherly, and to be ‘protected’ instead of writing stories with credible violent women?
What annoys me more, (and I’m trying not to get on my feminist soap box) is that they are all portrayed as insane, crazy, psycho bitches, often dressed in sexy clothes. It’s such a cliché, AND it’s boring.
So what can we do about it?
I refer back to my post discussing 6 Terror Tactics For Really Scary Villains. I focused on creating credible and believable villains. Personally, I don’t think you need to do anything different in creating a female villain to a male one. With one exception:
Female villains don’t have much of a reputation; they are harder to market and less believable. It’s a sad fact, but it is true.
But, credibility creates believability which means better female villains. So how do we create credibility?
Women as mothers (fathers too but I’m focusing on women) embody values. They teach and rear children and impart those values on their children. Strong core values are therefore crucial to a credible female villain.
That doesn’t mean a juicy villain’s values aren’t messed up and insane. It means that whatever their values are, they need to stick to them like glue. If they do, then they will be consistent which builds character. It also means your female villain has a reason to fight – villains will defend their values to the death just as much as your hero will.
Although integrity is about doing the right things for the right reasons, if your female villain has core values (even if they seem illogical) she fights for them anyway, so she has integrity.
A villain fighting with integrity and thinking what they are doing is right for the right reasons is terrifying. Especially if what they are doing is horrific like mass genocide or torture, and here goes an inbuilt stereotype but, doesn’t it seem worst if it’s a woman doing it?
Your female villain should be able to give reasoned logical explanations for why they are doing what they are doing. If it’s good enough, their reason and logic might occasionally even make you believe what they are doing is right too!
Your villain needs to do exactly what they say they are going to do. Especially if that means torturing your main character or killing off a couple of major minor, or minor minor characters. Without following through on their convictions they become weak and flaky, another total cliché for a female villain, but worse – it makes them completely defeatable.
Having an intelligent villain with expertise in a particular area means they know more than you do, especially more than your main character, and this makes them unbeatable.
It is possibly more essential that a female villain seem unbeatable in order to give them credibility. This is because you are starting from a lower baseline of audience perception and assumed reputation.
Can come from playing on fears. I always think some of the scariest things in life are those that are the closest to reality, the ones that could almost be true.
A mother who lost her child and then lost everything else…driven to insanity, to murder…to villainy. Torture your female villains with their history. Make it intricate and detailed enough that their motives are believable and credible.
What do you think makes a credible female villain? Let me know in the comments below.
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Here’s a free infographic summarising the points above: