Where are our Female Villains?

Something I’ve spoken and written about since The Thief’s Gamble was first published is the rise of the Female Hero within fantasy fiction. By which I mean a female protagonist whose motives, adventures and ambitions are not first and foremost driven by, and in service of, her relationship with a man and/or by extension, motherhood.

A Female Hero can assuredly have male lovers, maybe even a husband and/or children. She can co-exist with Heroines whose roles in a story and within the world it portrays, are defined by their relationships with men and/or children. This doesn’t mean such women have to be meek or passive. One of SF’s greatest kick-ass Heroines is Sarah Connor from the Terminator mythos. She’s no less awesome because of her heroism is driven by her need to protect her son.

What distinguishes a Female Hero, whatever her quest or her story might be, is that she is free from controlling male/family influence, whether she’s seeking political power, magic, or something else, whether she seeks it for herself or to benefit others.

No, I don’t mean a ball-breaking man-hater who scorns all males. And I definitely don’t mean the Red-Sonja-I-will-kill-my-rapist swordswoman as interpolated into Conan the Barbarian’s mythos. That notion might have been ground-breaking in 1973 but has become a very tired, exploitative and often misogynistic stereotype in subsequent decades. Though please note, I’m not familiar with the latest comic book incarnation as written by Gail Simone, and I’ll be very interested in comments from anyone who is currently reading it.

These days you can find plenty of Female Heroes across science fiction and epic fantasy. I’ve written a good few myself. Feel free to suggest your own favourites in comments. How is the comic world doing for Female Heroes at present?

The thing is though, where are our Female Villains? We have plenty of Female Villainesses; strong, capable women with agency and ability, whose actions drive stories, whose motivation centres on lovers and children. Cersei Lannister in A Game of Thrones is one of the first who springs to mind.

Female Villains? The only recent one I’ve been able to think of while writing this is ‘Ma-Ma’ in the 2012 Dredd movie. Gang leader, drug dealer, all-round terrifying, viciously intelligent and ambitious and incidentally, a woman.

And yes, I have noticed that I’ve just cited three examplar characters who have all been portrayed on screen by Lena Headey. Not sure what that signifies…

Before Ma-Ma? Casting my mind way back, I can think of Servalan, in the late 70s TV series, Blake’s 7, who was quite ready to use sexual wiles but whose ultimate goal was always power. Possibly The Rani, a ruthlessly scientific female Time Lord (Lady?) in the late 80s Doctor Who? Given I’ve seen neither series since first broadcast, I’m open to correction by anyone who’s watched them more recently.

Since then? Where are the Female Villains? Who have I missed seeing out there, in books, TV, movies or comics?

(Edited to Add – this link to the subsequent post What do Female Villains do that Bad Guys don’t?

54 comments

  1. Hello,

    Only because I’m currently rewatching it at the moment, but in B5, Deathwalker is a female villain, the ultimate butcher and war criminal, who slaughtered millions and tortured people. A creepy and icy character that still bothers me.

    Going back to Red Sonja, in the current version written by Gail Simone (slight spoilers people), she and another women were slaves forced to fight in the arena, ala Russell Crowe in Gladiator, and they both continue to defy the odds and survive, thereafter the evil king was overthrown and they were set free. They then pledged their loyalty to said King, so her back story is different from the one mentioned above. The comic also digs into her childhood more, but I won’t spoil that or what happens next. She swears, drinks, and is a devil with a sword.

    Talia Al Ghul, daughter of Rhas Al Ghul (in the comics, not the films) in the new and old DC comics, is a fantastic character. A master of many martial arts, extremely intelligence, driven and extremely complex, and yet she is not a man-hater and is clearly very sensual and an attractive woman. She also has a very layered relationship with Bruce Wayne, the Detective, but I’ll stop there to avoid any spoilers.

    In mainstream superhero comics, in general in the last few years, there are a lot of very grey character. Anti-heroes perhaps, so not villains as such. People like The Punisher, but equally there are people like Elektra and Black Cat, who are not really white hat heroes and yet they can help out heroes such as Spider-Man or Daredevil, but equally Elektra can and has been part of an elite suicide squad type of group sent out to kill people in problem parts of the world (see recent Thunderbolts for more info).

    Those are just a couple of examples off the top of my head, but there are lots of others.

    Stephen

  2. Servalan definitely fit the bill for a female villain. She had a mild thing going on with Avon, but nothing that would interfere with her agenda – which involved ruthlessly controlling the universe.

    One of the things I like about Cersei is that while she’s as tough and ruthless and aggressive as the men, she’s actually quite inept in her conspiring. Her appalling behaviour ends up getting her in endless trouble. She’s a long way from a conventional villainess, and all the better for it.

    The traditional witch figure, who was the standard villain for Baum and Lewis, and many others, seems to be considered sexist and crude in recent years – but as often happens, rather than produce a rounded, nuanced version, the concept seems to have been abandoned. Rather than have a woman who’s bad because she’s old and ugly – or else because she’s tall and sexy – we have villainesses who turn out not to be bad at all – Catwoman and Irene Adler. All they need is a nice man to treat them right and they start purring.

    Actual women doing bad things for bad reasons – there’s Yzma, in The Emperor’s New Groove – an update on the evil queen from Snow White. Given that the film is 14 years old, that implies there’s not a lot out there.

    I suspect that there’s the problem of sexism – where writers don’t want to portray women characters – and anti-sexism – where writers want to portray women in a positive light. When two opposing forces are pushing in the same direction, we shouldn’t be surprised to find a shortage of bad women.

    1. Yes. I think you may well be right about those two forces combining and giving an unintended outcome. I recall noticing when villains-of-colour started appearing on film and TV, crucially not being villainous because they were black as had previously happened, pandering to not-very-veiled racist stereotyping, but simply through colour-blind casting – because there was no good reason for the villain *not* to be black.

  3. I’ll throw in my Seda, Empress of the Wasps in Shadows of the Apt, and I have a number of other female villains in the series. Own trumpet I know, but still.

  4. *cough* TimeBomb, June 5, Hodder and Stoughton *cough* 😉

    The thing with writing my villain – and there’s a blog post in this which I will write at some point – was trying to write her while trying to avoid the top evil-woman stereotypes: the femme fatale (all noir, ever), the psycho bitch (Fatal Attraction), the scheming manipulator behind the man (Lady Macbeth), the wicked witch. In the end, I found myself using elements of all four but tried to subvert them and show how she was more complex than any of those tired labels. But it’s for others to decide whether I’ve pulled it off or have accidentally stumbled into a #genderfail trap I’ve failed to notice, which is always a possibility and is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night!

  5. ooh, just remembered one myself. Zavcka Klist, the ruthless bio-industrialist in Stephanie Saulter’s ‘Gemsigns’ – which is a brilliant read by the way, I recommend it highly.

  6. Potential Spoilers

    Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files features a fair number of villainesses (albeit not necessarily major or recurring but then no villains tend to last long against Harry) Bianca, Mavra, Corpsetaker, Aurora (although she was nuts)

      1. I was going to comment specifically about corpsetaker, did a ctrl-f first. I think that the Corpsetaker is a great example of precisely the sort of villain the OP is asking about. Also in Dresden files there’s Cowl’s female sidekick, Lasciel, at various times Mab and Lea, Lara Raith. Many of those are supernatural entities though, which is why Corpsetaker’s complete disregard for gender (though predominantly female) is an interesting addition to the conversation.

  7. I have noticed that I’ve just cited three examplar characters who have all been portrayed on screen by Lena Headey. Not sure what that signifies…

    *That* is an indictment of Hollywood.

    The Rani’s motives are/were not Female Villainess…she was a Villain in that her motives were absolutely amoral and self-directed in pursuit of her research. Kidnap people from time and space? It’s for Science! So, yeah, Villain.

    To plug my friend Teresa Frohock, Catarina, sister of the protagonist in MISERERE, is a full fledged Villain, not a Villainess. She wants to unleash hell on two worlds and is a real piece of work.

  8. *Following Adrian’s trumpet blowing* …

    I’ll throw in Helen Crane – she’s one of the main antagonists/villains in my series. Her driving force is wanting power, and she’s unapologetic about what she does to get it. All my main female characters have agency (of course ;-)) and I’d say they probably split 3 ways pretty evenly into Genny’s friends, opportunist who want something and could go either way, and outright villains.

  9. How about Glory from Buffy? I think she counts as a villain as opposed to a villainess. Would Madam Morrible from Wicked count too – she doesn’t seem seductive enough to be a villainess but also is only part of the Wizard’s inner circle rather than a mastermind in her own right.

    I definitely concur with Seda from Shadows of the Apt. Robert Jordan had quite a few female villains (though few of them were prime movers) but there’s a smear of unpleasantness over that series to me, if only because of all the spanking.

    In comics there seems to be a trend to introduce characters with a splash and then either downgrade them or revert to using the old standbys. The Queen of Fables in JLA was well used for a single story and then seemingly forgotten about, and Grant Morrisson has been making good use of Talia Al’Ghul in recent years, though she isn’t a new character by any means. Gaile Simone created some good new female prime movers when she wrote Wonder Woman but, again, they didn’t stick.

    I wonder if we’ll see more female villains as writers plunder history more and more. I think that would be a good thing but it does need to be handled in a non cliche way with believable figures.

  10. How about Patience from Scott Lynch’s “The Republic of Thieves”? She happens to be a mother, but it’s a complication to her schemes rather than the core of her motivation.

    There’s also Queen Phoria from Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series – she’s not the main villain, but her antipathy to the protagonists causes them a lot of problems. Again, her motivation is mainly political – though family and politics are inextricably intertwined in an aristocratic society!

  11. I’m fond of Charlize Theron’s Ravenna in Snow White & the Huntsman (whatever your opinion of the movie overall, I found her character totally enthralling) – plus Moriarty in CBS’ Elementary, Root in Person of Interest…

    Ah, and now this reminds me of something I read on Tumblr:

    “the conversation we should be having is why are all of these women white and thin and blonde and conventionally beautiful / why do our fascinating brilliant complicated female villians all have to look the same? / (and yes you’d absolutely have to be careful making your morally ambiguous lady not white or not straight) / (that doesn’t mean it should never be done)”

    (via tags on this post)

    Just throwing that out there, for consideration/discussion.

  12. Oh God, can I add to the *cough* *cough* *embarrassed face* thing? My girl Kate NicNiven may be a witch but she has other motivations and she KNOWS she’s doing the right thing, oh yes, the means justify the etc etc. *cough* I can get you a Rebel Angels review copy *cough*

  13. She’s not the central villain, but in Diana Wynne Jones’ “Archer’s Goon” there’s a fabulous female crime boss called Shine. She’s large, ruthless, clad from head to foot in black leather, and scares the hell out of everyone. And she’s definitely not at the beck or call of any men!

  14. I remember sitting watching Servelan on Blake’s 7 (in black and white on a 14″ tv) and thinking that there were lots of female villains around then, and since there were very few other women around at all, and those were secondary characters at best, overall the trend was worrying. Unfortunately for this conversation I was in my early twenties at the time, and that is so long ago that I can’t remember who I was worrying about.

    The Bene Gesserit sisterhood in the Dune books are not, as I recall, exactly cast as villains but they are definitely not heroes.

  15. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to SF/F. I’ve been trying to think of Female Villains in any sort of fiction, and there aren’t a lot of them.

    That said, I think there were Female Villains in some of Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books. It’s been decades since I read any of them, and I’ve gone through a huge revulsion against them, so I may not be remembering all that clearly. But I seem to recall some nasty female Keepers who were just out for power.

  16. Another really good character from DC comics I’ve thought of is Amanda Waller, aka The Wall. She’s incredibly grey, has been labelled a villain several times, and until very recently she was a short and quite generously proportioned black woman. She worked behind the scenes, pulling strings, manipulating people, and despite having no powers, could comfortably stand up to the biggest heroes and villains out there because of her intellect. Recently, with the latest DC comics 52 reboot, she is still there, but is now much younger and a slim woman. She’s also appeared in the Arrow TV series, again, as a younger slender woman. CCH Pounder voiced the character in the JLU animated series. Angela Bassett played her in the dodgy Green Lantern film from a couple of years back. She was brilliant, but the film had it’s issues. So The Wall continues to thrive, in one form or another.

    1. Hoo boy, did that Green Lantern film have its issues… 🙂 Not least effectively wasting an actress of Angela Basset’s calibre. But I digress. Thanks for highlighting the full scope of this particular character.

  17. I do have a thoroughly nasty female henchman (henchwoman) in my upcoming space opera ‘Empire of Dust’ (due out in November), though she probably doesn’t qualify as a villain in her own right. I also have a female villain developing in the current work-in-progress, but until I get a little further into the first draft I’m not sure whether she’ll turn into a scenery-chewing Grade A Villain in her own right or remain second string.

    How about Carlson in Tanya Huff’s The Wild ways. And then, of course, in the same book there are the Gale aunties, all of them amoral, but ‘Auntie Catherine’ takes amoral to new levels, or should that be, new depths. The Gale aunties are far more scary than the actual villains.

  18. Okay, I must now go and DM a gaming evening for the sons and their mates. Still not entirely sure how that happened…

    Anyway, will pop back in from time to time to moderate fresh comments.

    Thanks, all for a great conversation 🙂

  19. I would put forward Seska from Star Trek: Voyager. She may have used some classically villainous tactics, but I really think that was situational driven. She certainly had the intellect and drive to use whatever advantage presented itself. Even her child with Chakotay was used as simply another game piece. She had no affection for Cullah, a stark contrast to his deeply emotional show of affection at her death, not to mention his willingness to raise Chakotay’s son as his own for her sake.

  20. There are a number of nasty female characters in the Deverry series: Ladies Merodda and Mallona spring to mind. Also a female unincarnated spirit, Alshandra, who causes an immense amount of trouble and slaughter. And some minor scheming females in the Bear clan in Eldidd.

    Yet I hesitate to call them “villains” because I understand what made them that way. And I hope the readers do, too.

  21. There are so many female villains in our mythologies and fairy tales, it amazes me that there aren’t more in modern literature. Of course, it used to be that any strong woman who took what she wanted was a villain. Now they are heroes. Maybe we are simply finally casting strong women in the right light.

    On that note, the TV show Once Upon A Time has done a spectacular job of recasting and modernizing the fairy tale witch. Wonderful stuff.

    1. Interesting, yes.

      Though I would say the ‘wicked witches’ in Once Upon a Time are rather more ‘villainesses’ in that their motivation is tied up with loss of true love, vengeance etc? Apart, perhaps from Cora?

  22. She wasn’t a recurring character, but how I did love Patience in “Firefly”.
    Kai Winn and The Female Changeling from DS9.
    Adria from Stargate SG1.
    And (I can’t believe I’m saying this) perhaps Salmissra from David Edding’s “The Belgariad” and “The Malloreon”.
    Um, that’s all I can think of off the top of my head. Oh, that’s depressing.

  23. Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter books? Seanan McGuire’s October Daye books have a few female villains, and since CarolC mentioned Stargate, I think the Wraith Queens in Stargate: Atlantis would qualify too. (Though it’s very telling that the only Wraith characters who were given depth and layers in the series were male …) I haven’t seen recent seasons of Supernatural, but I get the impression that Abaddon is a Female Villain also. And I’m not sure whether Azula from the Avatar: The Last Airbender series qualifies or not; she’s definitely not motivated by a lover or child, but her story arc ultimately revolves around her father.

    … anyway, it’s a really good point. Even a lot of the books, shows and movies I can think of that are otherwise good at handling female characters in non-stereotypical ways tend to be lacking in this area.

  24. The last three of the Norret Gantier stories I’ve done for Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales line–“The Perfumer’s Apprentice,” “Thieves Vinegar,” and “The Bonedust Dolls”–have had female villains. In order: Madame Eglantine, a straight up villain, and to spoiler slightly, a female version of Bluebeard; Nella Caelian, not so much villain as antagonist and tricky rival for the same prize Norret’s after; and Byanka Morgannan, the head of a family of witches who has her own motivations and morality, as befits a descendant of Baba Yaga.

  25. The Margravine zu Malvolin in Helen Lowe’s “Thornspell” springs to mind: a powerful and compelling villain.

  26. Anime has quiet a few female villians. There’s Ophelia from Claymore, Balalaika from Black Lagoon, Junko from Danganronpa(which is also a game),Lust from Fullmetal Alchmist and Takano Miyo from the Higurashi no Naku Koro ni to name a few.
    There are also quiet a few others though these are the ones that really stick in the mind at least for me.

  27. In films, Jodie Foster’s Secretary Delacourt is my idea of a great villain: you can see how she justifies her actions to herself, but she’s still the main antagonist.

    I’ve just read GemX by Nicky Singer, and the ruler Leaderene Clore is almost the template for President Snow in The Hunger Games. Both Delacourt and Clore are the kind of subtle baddies who talk softly one moment, and the next they’re up to the worst kinds of mischief. I like that.

    In my own work, the demoness Fiuru in The Secret Eater feeds on the anger of others, and she has a creative approach to keeping her minions in line.

  28. Thanks for an inspiring post, Juliet. The sword-wielding assassin Jaa in Nnedi Okorafor’s The Shadow Speaker might count – though righteous, she’s ferocious and ruthless and the novel suggests her war-like ways must be overcome.

    My own debut SF novel, Seoul Survivors, stars the glamorous but sinister bioengineer Dr Kim Da Mi, whose vision of non-violent humanity can only be achieved by criminal means. I would be happy to ask Jo Fletcher to send you a review copy if you like.

  29. I’m glad to see other authors comment about their own works here, because a great example of a female villain is Lady Valerie from my own book, Porcelain Society. Lady Valerie isn’t villainous because of any desire to do harm or even for her own gain. She serves her society, and that, coupled with her own arrogance, creates the motive for some truly sinister deeds. Violence is nearly nonexistent in their world, but Valerie manages to be cruel and vicious without it.

  30. From my Paksenarrion-world books, series one. Barranyi, a mercenary soldier who was once the hero Paks’s friend, but developed into a bitter, resentful, controlling person who eventually chose to leave the mercenary company and join an evil sect. She particularly resents Paks, and eventually means to kill her. Haran, a Marshal of Gird whose narrow, rigid view of the Girdish religion makes her cruel to anyone who doesn’t measure up. Also a woman who has chosen to align herself with evil in order to gain magical abilities, which she uses to enchant, torment, and kill.

    Series two. Female villains both human and elven, from various cultures and of various ranks and occupations. The elf villain’s evil deeds are part of a long-laid plot centering on her jealousy of a rival for power within the kingdom: the daughter of the ruler of that elvenhome–she felt she would be a better heir. At the same time, though this is not laid out in the books, she was undermining the power of the elven ruler. Due in part to her elven ability to enchant humans and cloud their perceptions, she manages to evade detection a long time.

    The human female villains include both major and minor ones, persons of high and low rank, some obviously active and some more circumspect and sneaky. Their motives include lust for personal power, political motives (support of a faction, a person, a policy), desire for personal prominence in society, and religious bigotry, in four different kingdoms.

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