Following on from last week’s post, interesting points cropped up in various conversations. One caught my eye – though I cannot recall who said it or where, so if it was you, please raise a hand in comments. Essentially the question was what distinguishes a Female Villain from a Male? Let’s think about that, and broaden out the question. Is there any point in choosing to have your evil protagonist a woman rather than a man, if there’s no meaningful difference beyond gender?
This rang a chord with me, as I recall a related conversation we had at the last World Fantasy Convention about strong women in epic tales; the Female Hero I’ve already referred to. One thing all of us on the ‘Broads with Swords’ panel really like is the way strong women in fantasy fiction no longer have to be ‘fauxmales’.
Which is to say, we’ve gone beyond stories where the only possible way for a woman to be strong is to pick up a sword, don implausible boobplate armour, and go off to play Joan of Arc. Nowadays in epic fantasy, Female Heroes and Heroines alike can be politicians, scholars, and yes, wives and mothers, while still playing a central, defining role in the plot.
So what about Female Villains? How are they not just Evil Overlord in a dress? A few things have occurred to me as I’ve thought about that in spare moments this week.
Female Villains are often not the figurehead. They’re in the background, often working within the Evil Overlord’s support system. Dolores Umbridge didn’t want to be Lord Voldemort. She wanted to establish her own, much less obvious power base and used existing systems to change things little by little, rather than shattering the old order from the outset. She was a much more subtle, longer term threat as she distorted the education of the next generation of wizardry. And her goal was achievable.
Initially at least, Dolores Umbridge used what management jargoneers call ‘soft’ skills very effectively – not confrontation but manipulation, building consensus and convincing her victims and onlookers alike that this was all for their own good and in the service of broader, longer-term benefits. And isn’t that notion of ‘soft skills’ interesting from a gendered-language point of view?
Another Female Villain very good at this is Zavcka Klist in Stephanie Saulter’s GemSigns. She also highlights another possible trait of Female Villains. Evil Overlords rule from the top down. Female Villains seem more inclined to recruit allies rather than underlings, both directly on their own side and also among their opponents. They are very good at divide and rule and conquering from within. Using those ‘soft skills’ again. All ‘active listening’ and ‘reflective speaking’. ‘I understand your concerns. Let me help you resolve this problem to everyone’s satisfaction.’
Zavcka Klist also understands the value of information and of propaganda and PR. That’s something I see in other Female Villains, up to and including Ma-Ma in Dredd, even if her particular approach is more akin to the brutal South American drug cartel offer of ‘silver or lead?’ Money in your pockets or a bullet in the head? How much necessary evil will a society tolerate, to save itself from something worse? Female Villains seem good at that particular calculation.
Ma-Ma also makes extensive use of technology, to gather information as she plans her next move. Is this something Female Villains do more readily than their Male counterparts? Not sure. But that relates to something else that came out of last week’s discussions. The really scary, truly dangerous Villains – male or Female and as distinct from Evil Antagonists – aren’t psychopaths. On that scale, Dolores Umbridge is far worse than Bellatrix LeStrange.
Once I started thinking about this, I realised something else. I’ve seen a fair bit of this in action for myself. Some years ago, at PCon in Dublin, the ‘How to be an Evil Overlord’ panel was run as a role-playing exercise. For no reason that I can see, I was immediately nominated to be the Empress. Alas, I forget who else took on what other roles, apart from Kim Newman who was my Minister for Public Relations, or as he immediately renamed himself, Minister for Fun!
We fielded assorted questions from the audience, notably from one journalist who wanted to know where the realm’s substantial tax revenues were going, given the hardship of most ordinary folks’ lives. After Kim promptly made her Royal Cake Correspondent, I explained how all that money was being invested in scientific research and preparations for the realm’s wonderful space programme which would soon shower everyone with rewards as we boldly advanced the causes of technology and exploration to win the realm new resources.
Meantime, alas, the secluded space centre behind the high mountains on the far side of the kingdom would have to remain strictly off-limits, to prevent our scientists from being distracted and to avoid biological contamination, so on and so forth.
We kept this up for a good long while, repeatedly recruiting the most persistent and awkward questioners for that wonderful space programme – if we couldn’t distract them with cake. Of course, that meant dispatching them to that top-secret facility beyond the mountains, which oddly, no one ever seemed to return from. As the hour wound up and more and more people were starting to say ‘hang on a minute…’ the Empress sent her handsome, charming, and clueless Consort out onto the palace balcony to face the mob. Travelling companionably though not romantically with her erstwhile Minister for Fun, she swiftly and discreetly departed for another country with no extradition treaty and a banking system of iron-clad secrecy which had profited for years from her substantial deposits.
That panel really was a lot of fun, though I did notice a few people giving me slightly uneasy sideways glances afterwards…
So, once again, what have I missed? What traits do you see as particularly distinguishing Female Villains?