The Bad Girls Club: Female Villains

As much as I enjoyed the Catwoman of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, I couldn’t help but notice that, unlike most of the bad guys in Nolan’s Batverse, she wasn’t particularly scary. Admittedly, Catwoman isn’t really a villainess. She’s an adversary, and occasionally, a reluctant ally. (For more on Catwoman’s backstory and the Kitty Conundrum, see here.) But Nolan specializes in endowing superhero situations with genuine danger and edge, so I hoped that an amoral thief with a fondness for guns might seem a little more menacing. [SPOILER: You’ll notice that the other female antagonist also lacks any real scare-factor. By the time she has her finger on the button, we know Batman is going to save the day, so she’s never tasked with real brutality. Threat level: meh.]

This got me pondering favorite female villains and I thought it was worth breaking them down…

The Caregivers

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of fiction’s most memorable and terrifying female villains are nurses. For one thing, though they rarely get the respect or pay of doctors, they have a tremendous amount of power in a physically immediate and embarrassingly intimate way. Simply put, we are at our most helpless before them.

Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery

Annie starts out as someone to be mocked and indulged, a frumpy caregiver, an overzealous fan. She reveals layer after layer of darkness, becoming increasingly dangerous and hard to predict, each act exposing the full vulnerability of the protagonist. As far as I’m concerned, Annie is one of the most truly scary characters created on the page and brought to life on the screen. I think part of the reason is that her mission is so personal and not about something larger than herself or her own desires. Also, in the book and in the film, her physical strength feels real and grounded in the solidity of her body. That’s not something we often see from female characters on screen. (One of my great frustrations with female action heroes—Korra and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor excepted— is that they really don’t look like they could do much damage.)

Dolores Umbridge from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series

Umbridge isn’t a nurse, but she most definitely belongs in this category: someone entrusted with the care of others who abuses that power. I think Umbridge is most fascinating when held up against Bellatrix LaStrange. Bellatrix is definitely EVIL—a murderer, a torturer, a fanatic. But I think she is simply much less real for readers than Umbridge with her little bows and her relentless, self-righteous cruelty. It amazes me how many people have stories of school administrators or teachers that remind them of Umbridge.

Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

A little sadistic, a lot fascistic, Kesey’s Ratched is more symbolic than Annie Wilkes—a 60s stereotype of the Powers That Be. Her power is bureaucratic, but Kesey also draws a direct line (through Billy Bibbit) between Ratched and the corruption of the maternal. Which brings me to…

Bad Muthas

Mrs. Coulter from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Series

One of the most fascinating and understated monsters of fiction. Cold, controlled, and driven, I’d like to see her and Nurse Ratched in a stare-down. She is the Dr. Mengele of Pullman’s novels, but what makes her most horrifying is that she saves Lyra from the procedure she has inflicted on countless other children—proving she knows just what she is doing and is less a true-believer than a creature of politics and pride.

Cersei Lannister from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

Beautiful, scheming, ruthless, Cersei is in many ways the wicked queen of so many fantasy tales. But Cersei is more compelling because her desire for power is firmly rooted in the realities of being female in a warrior culture. Cersei talks the Lannister superiority talk, but we are often reminded that she craves power because she truly understands powerlessness. She’s one of the few truly hateable characters in Martin’s series, and in a world of child murderers, rapists, and thugs, that’s saying quite a lot. Despite all this, I’m not sure I’ve ever really been scared by Cersei.

The Grotesques

The fellas have the edge here, but there are exceptions…

Ursula from Disney’s The Little Mermaid

Her features were apparently modeled on Jack Nicholson, but her body is something remarkable to behold—heavy breasts, and a VERY physical, visible, scary bottom half. (For the record, Hans Christian Andersen’s witch wasn’t nearly so villainous, and tried to warn the little mermaid off her bad bargain instead of scheming against her. I love Disney’s Little Mermaid, but it’s one of the few Disney versions that I wish had divorced itself entirely from the original because it is so radically different in tone and message.)

The Grand High Witch from Roald Dahl’s The Witches

One of the many things I love about Roald Dahl is that he has an equal-opportunity policy when it comes to creating grotesques. Male or female, his baddies are spectacularly gross. His witches aren’t just old ladies pretending to be young, they’re demons pretending to be human. Toeless, hairless, claw-handed, the worst of them is the Grand High Witch who wears a mask to disguise her “worm eaten” face. More importantly, these witches are unapologetic child murderers. It’s fairytale horror on a grand and modern scale.

Honorable Mentions

In preparation for this post, I went out to my fellow PubCrawlers for their most memorable female villains. Umbridge was the overwhelming favorite, but here are a few that deserve a shout as well:

  1. Melisande Shahrizai from the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jaqueline Carey
  2. The Marquess from Cat Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
  3. The Lunar Queen from Marissa Meyer’s Cinder
  4. Queen Sia from Incarceron and Sapphique by Catherine Fisher
  5. The White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  6. Azula from The Last Airbender series
  7. Caprica Six from Battlestar Galactica [Though, as Erin Bowman pointed out, like so many characters from BSG, Six isn’t wholly bad or good. On a sidenote, if you haven’t watched BSG, get on it, you layabouts!]

Do you have a favorite villainess to add to the club?


34 Responses to The Bad Girls Club: Female Villains

  1. Julie Aug 2 2012 at 5:40 am #

    Awesome post, Leigh! Such a great variety of villains – I love the way you broke it down by category! And the pics are so fun. 🙂

  2. Debbie Aug 2 2012 at 7:11 am #

    I really loved this post. And I found what you said about Cersei really illuminating.
    As you mentioned Ursula I really enjoy Mother Gothel in Tangled. She’s a bad mutha and I the way she keeps Rapunzel in check by going for the young woman’s self esteem (calling her chubby and the like) is fascinating to watch. I think that’s an interesting way for the older woman frightened of loosing her looks to attack the up coming generation.

  3. JJ Aug 2 2012 at 7:54 am #

    I love you for this post, Leigh. (Although I thought Ursula was modeled after drag queen Devine?) I love that you’ve broken them down into female villain archetypes–we usually get male villain archetypes, but not female ones.

    After much thinking, I’ve decided that my favourite female villains have villainy arising not from their insecurities, but from their confidence. Cersei is insecure about power (and rightfully so in Westeros), which makes her lash out, often irrationally, causing her to lose gambits and fail. I see a lot of female villains who are insecure about something: their looks, their beauty (Ravenna from Snow White and the Huntsman and Mother Gothel from Tangled), their parents’ love (Azula, although I adore her), etc. In the end, these female insecurities (and they are often specifically female insecurities) are their fatal flaws and the reason for their downfall, which doesn’t always sit with me too well.

    On the other hand, Mrs. Coulter knows exactly how terrible of a person she is and she has no qualms about it. Her greatest flaw and biggest downfall is also arguably her greatest strength: her love for her daughter. Some people find it saccharine or cliche; I actually think it’s awesome. Mrs. Coulter is so ruthless and pragmatic and terrible and uses underhanded ways to serve herself–and does the exact same to save Lyra. I love that scene where she meets Metatron, and Pullman says, “Lyra had lied to Iofur Raknison with her words; her mother was lying with her whole life.” She uses how terrible of a person she is as yet another tool in her arsenal.

    Melisande also has no insecurities; she is a villainess because she loves to play games and I love that she’s the one of the few female examples of a Magnificent Bastard. Umbridge too, is driven not by her insecurities, but by a vendetta, and I think that’s what makes her so scary.

    • Megan Duff Aug 2 2012 at 9:58 am #

      Wow, you took some of the words right out of my mouth and then thought things out a lot better than me. Well done! *applauds*

    • Leigh Bardugo Aug 2 2012 at 1:55 pm #

      FANTASTIC point.

      (On a sidenote: I’m curious, do I recall correctly that we never get much of Lyras’ parents backstory? I remember the fact that they existed in this post-romantic state to be really compelling.)

      • JJ Aug 3 2012 at 7:17 am #

        All we know about Asriel and Marisa is that she was married to Edward Coulter when she had an affair with Asriel. When Lyra was born, it was clear she looked like Asriel, and there was a duel, resulting in Edward Coulter’s death and Asriel’s wealth and holdings being taken away. No specifics though. I would dearly love to read that backstory! I feel the moments Asriel and Marisa do interact before their ultimate [spoiler] are really telling though.

  4. Laura Kolar Aug 2 2012 at 8:19 am #

    Cruella Deville, because who doesn’t love puppies?

    • Leigh Bardugo Aug 2 2012 at 1:56 pm #

      YES! Definitely a grotesque. Though I do have trouble taking her seriously.

  5. Rowenna Aug 2 2012 at 8:44 am #

    Great discussion of great villianesses! I agree about Cersei–though like many of Martin’s characters, she’s definitely detestable, but even she gets more sympathetic as the books progress. I love that she has real motivations–some admirable, most totally not. I think one of the reasons it’s difficult to be scared of her is that we really see her limitations–not just her situation but her ability. She tries to be cunning but usually gets outmaneuvered.

    The White Witch is a great pick, too, but I’ve always found the Green Witch (from The Silver Chair) to be scarier–her mental tricks and absolute control are creepy!

    • Leigh Bardugo Aug 2 2012 at 1:58 pm #

      Ooh, excellent add! I’d kind of like to see a Battle Royale of all of the Witch Queens of folklore, fantasy, and Disneyverse.

  6. Sandy Williams Aug 2 2012 at 9:03 am #

    Great post! I’m going to have to try my hand at writing a female villain some day. Yeah, definitely going to have to try it.

  7. Daphne Aug 2 2012 at 9:22 am #

    This is a great post, thanks Leigh!

    Cersei is actually one of my favourite characters in the George R.R. Martin series (it’s close between her and the other Lannisters). Call it the ‘Estella’ effect, but I have sympathy for bitchy women who just want to get ahead in life.

    I always felt menaced by Azula. She’s such a well crafted and truly skilled villain. In fact, bravo to the entire A:TLA world for creating such amazing female characters.

    And I just watched The Dark Knight Rises last night and was a bit disappointed tbh.

    • Leigh Bardugo Aug 2 2012 at 2:00 pm #

      I went in expecting to hate it and ended up loving it, but I understand why it’s controversial. Ah, the expectations game!

      • Daphne Aug 6 2012 at 11:16 am #

        Yeah I went in only hearing great things so I was let down severely!

        Such a fickle game!

  8. Ange/Libby Blog Aug 2 2012 at 11:12 am #

    Great list! Love it! I agree with the add-on of The White Witch from Narnia though AND of Matilda’s parents and that awful Aunt Trunchbowl!

    Fun post Leigh!

  9. Sara Bennett Wealer Aug 2 2012 at 11:19 am #

    What about Carrie’s mom? Is a totally deluded woman whose stifling influence helps destroy her child a villain or… what would you call her?

  10. rachel writes things Aug 2 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    Love this post, Leigh. I actually wrote my undergraduate thesis on Mrs. Coulter and gender performative acts/feminism/female villains along with Paradise Lost and how Mrs. Coulter=Eve and Lilith. She is such a three dimensional, interesting character. Sometimes I wish Pullman would write a book about Marisa and Asriel – they can be seen as Eve/Lilith and Satan.

    I also second Sara’s comment above me – Carrie’s mom in CARRIE was freaky as heck!

    • Leigh Bardugo Aug 2 2012 at 2:02 pm #

      Oh wow. I would so read that prequel.

      Re Carrie… yes, her mom would DEFINITELY fall in the Bad Muthas category, but… I think her impact is a bit more diffuse because of the high school antagonists.

      • Sara Bennett Wealer Aug 2 2012 at 2:09 pm #

        Once I posted about her I wasn’t sure she’d really fall into the villain role – she seems like more of an influencer, if that makes sense. You could argue the real villains are the girls who pick on Carrie – her mom is more responsible for shaping who Carrie is and what Carrie does. Ultimately Carrie may see her mom as a villain, and what her mom does is indeed evil, but… Hm!

  11. PK Hrezo Aug 2 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    These are spot on. Umbridge embodies everything female villainy is for me. Ms. Hannigan from Annie was a big one for me too–even tho she redeems herself.
    Btw just finished S&B and it was a treat! 🙂

  12. Krispy Aug 2 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Love this post! I have to add to the Disney arsenal, MALEFICENT from Sleeping Beauty. I can’t say she was particularly 3 dimensional, but I think she kinda freaked me out as a child. Plus, she’s bad with style. She’s powerful, kinda beautiful, and she is unapologetic about being bad.

    • Leigh Bardugo Aug 2 2012 at 2:05 pm #

      I ADORE Maleficent. The scene where she torments the prince? MERCILESS.

      And PK, I looooove Miss Hannigan. Yes, she’s a villain but good gravy she’s fun– and that’s not something we see in our wicked ladies very often either.

    • Kate Traylor Aug 2 2012 at 8:20 pm #

      I was going to mention Maleficent, too. She’s clever, articulate, passionate, beautiful, and CAN TURN INTO A GIANT DRAGON. She’s also got a real range of emotion– she’s like Ursula with her “precious poopsies” Flotsam & Jetsam in that her affection for her raven familiar makes her kind of likable. And her SPEECHES. She’s pretty much the coolest villainess ever. 😀

  13. Leeanna Aug 2 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    Great post! This makes me want a book featuring a female villain even more.

    Melisande is my favorite villain, hands down.

  14. Lara Aug 2 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    I’m said Melisande only got an honorable mention. She’s just an amazing villain, someone who plays for the ultimate stakes and has tons of back-up plans within plans. That said, perhaps the issue is though she’s very much the villian, she’s not completely evil. There are lines she won’t cross, which differentiates her from the Grand High Witch – for example.

    I see other Disney villians mentioned in the comments, I like that the one who made the list was Ursula. She wasn’t just evil, she was trying to take control of everything, unlike many of the other Disney villians.

    Out of something brand new, I wish I could mention someone from The Hunger Games, because though I’ve not seen the movie, the book sticks in my head and twists around like the echo of a nightmare. However, there’s not a person to cast as the cause of the atrocities, male or female, it’s just what is.

    Maybe if we’re lucky, we can get Joss Whedon to write a script with a Catwoman. After the job he did with Glory on BtVS I think he’d be up to the job!

  15. April Tucholke Aug 2 2012 at 8:13 pm #

    Oh, I dig this post. How about Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity? And Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. And Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. Book wise I would add Miss Havisham, or Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA, or the grandmother in FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC.

    • Leigh Bardugo Aug 2 2012 at 11:24 pm #

      I think the real monster in Flowers in the Attic is the mother.

      But GLENN CLOSE as Alex!! Fantastic call. Here’s the thing… She’s someone who is clearly broken, but who still stays terrifying. It’s like once her illusions are shattered, her crazy becomes highly functional and goal-oriented.

  16. AJ Bradley Aug 2 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    Melisande is my favourite villain, ever. She’s totally one of those “hate to love them” types. She is SO BAD and yet you know that she could be so good. She herself, points out in Kushiel’s Chosen, that she would be a very good ruler…of course it’s one of those “do the ends justify the means” scenarios, and she has no scruples. If she had a more developed moral compass she would be great. But she doesn’t, so she’s TERRIBLE. I love that about her!

  17. Frank Aug 3 2012 at 1:11 am #

    Queenpin, by Megan Abbott, or anything by Abbott for that matter. Abbott put herself on the map with neo-noir post feminist fiction. Lately, she has been doing a really interesting take on adolescent women and the vicious hierarchical culture of beauty and popularity. One of the best female villains I have seen on film in recent memory is Charlize Theron’s character in Young Adult. In Mavis Gary, we see a woman careening through life senselessly inflicting damage while she herself is gloriously unaware that she damaged. Linda Fiorentino as Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction deserves mad props for her blaze of whory calculated cunning. Bonus points for her character getting away with it.

    • Leigh Bardugo Aug 3 2012 at 2:37 am #

      I don’t know Queenpin, but you can bet I’ll be looking Abbott up.

      Very good pull on The Last Seduction. Femme fatale who goes way beyond siren. I approve.

      I have to disagree on Mavis Gary in Young Adult. She’s an interesting character, but she’s so pathetic that even when she was scheming and careening, I mostly felt pity. The bulk of the damage she does is to herself.

  18. Kirsty in London Aug 3 2012 at 4:52 am #

    Oooh, you’re so right — there’s something particularly insidious about villains in the role of caregiver — I’ve never thought about this before.

    It’s always interesting too when the villain is actually the main character of the book. I read WIDEACRE recently (Philippa Gregory’s first novel), and her MC Beatrice Lacey stops at nothing (including murder and incest) to get her way. She’s utterly loathsome, yet oddly compelling because you so desperately want the nasty witch to get her comeuppance.

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