This morning on the twitters, Erica Hayes asked, ‘Why must all female villains be superior smart-asses? Can’t we have some real people?’
We went on to discuss how most female villains are bitchy and catty, which emphasises their lack of power and leads to their downfall.
As this idea percolates, I venture further afield…
Life imitates art. Popular culture leads more than it follows. Acceptance of homosexual couples has been preceded by TV series and movies normalising acceptance of these couples. (We have a way to go, so we need more of same.) Women portrayed as bitchy villainesses and melodramatic characters creating their own dramas in soapies teach women how to gang together to bully a perceived competitor and how to create unity in a group by creating a common enemy. My daughter used to come home from friends’ houses having watched soapies and learnt how it was done, telling me ‘But it’s so true to life!’
The typical high school in-crowd scenario shows the in-crowd feeling so threatened by the geeks or so vulnerable within their own group that they focus their energy on making the geeks’ lives a living hell in order to shore up their own position. While this is a cliché, done to fucking death in popular entertainment, there is a lot of truth to this trope. Unfortunately this particular trope has been cut and pasted into every genre, both in the form of solo villainess and villainess with Greek chorus or minions. Even many feminist writers resort to feminine politics and bitchiness as plot devices, thus reinforcing the status quo.
A deeply ingrained cultural belief in the subordinate status of women thus disempowers women, teaching and reinforcing their scrabbling over each other for the approval of men (the seductress villain), the insane destroyer of men (‘if I can’t have your approval, I’ll destroy you’, the monstrous feminine villain) and the bitchy villain (I’m not really powerful so I’ll be nasty instead). Humans are like apes, whose hierarchies are established and maintained with violence, keeping the vulnerable down so that those further up the food chain can feel better about themselves and be groomed by their immediate subordinates. That’s right, I am saying that the chorus surrounding the Queen B___ is actually picking fleas and grooming her hide.
The conversation that Erica started went on to discuss true power, and how true power can be quiet. Think of the number of villains – male and female – who have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory because of the ‘big reveal’ when they should have just shot the damn hero and been done with it.
One real-world villain with true power – Hitler – was protected by his subordinates obeying his commands. There was no need for bitchiness or for Hitler to needle or aggravate anyone. In contrast, female villains are often portrayed as insecure mouthy bitches on heat, too powerless to win via intelligence, technology or skill. Female protagonists can be written as powerful, especially within a team, where they are sassy, not bitchy, and have great strengths (although too often are in a subordinate role). Why aren’t female villains part of elite teams, with sassiness or quiet menace emphasising their power? Or the solo villain spins a web quietly, insidiously… I saw a movie where the big reveal was the president’s wife had the president murdered. Her artwork seen through the movie looked abstract but at the very end she arranged separate canvases in a group and, seen from the right angle, it was a spider in a web. The movie recognised the relative lack of power she had as the wife. I was almost ambivalent at the close: she was a female villain who was getting away with murder and yet I felt some small sympathy for her motives. I can’t remember the name of the movie but this was probably the best female villain I’ve seen.
Popular culture – books, TV and movies – is not reality but it heavily influences people’s expectations and how they live their lives. Many relate to TV characters as well as if not better than they relate to people in their lives, spending more time watching TV than they do interacting with real people face to face. Even the webz, with its distance between user and victim, has changed human interaction. Once upon a time, being bitchy would have been like a knife fight (up close and personal), or using a gun (backstabbing to friends to injure at a distance). Now the internet acts like a remote controlled missile where the victim receives a written incendiary device or poison is spread via proxies to contaminate and destroy. Both scenarios give the villain a comfortable distance, avoiding the need to see the pain and hurt on the victim’s face.
‘By why would people do this?’ you ask.
On the lower slopes of Mount Success, the fight for advantage is bitter, vicious. Women rake their long, painted nails into the faces of innocent bystanders in their endeavours to claw their way up the bloody pile of bodies. Cohorts gang together and Queen B___s summon lesser minions to unite in one cause: forcing selected individuals out and down, enabling the victors to climb upon broken backs to reach new heights. Oblivious to the potential for unity to result in a Tower of Babel reaching for the stars, these gangs prefer the confusion and strife inflicted upon humanity by the legendary god or gods of old.
Unnoticed, some people slip away from the battles being waged in the Fields of Tradition. They flee alone or with a small group of friends to explore new territory and build sandcastles where no bullies can find them to assault their spires.
Others inadvertently venture into this war-ravaged country only to be assaulted by those on the fringe and ignored by those in the midst of the melee. Some accidental immigrants lie bruised and bloody about the battlefield, while others escape, seeking safety in shelters built too close to the battlefield. The more entrepreneurial warmongers see these houses as potential rubble, a foundation for their empire-building. At the very least, these houses will be used as target practice for archers and ballista commanders defending their borders.
I watch, grief stricken, as I see people injured and lives wasted. I dream of empires built with collaboration creating true power and wealth for many, while weeping over the empire that, at war with itself, cannot stand.
Life imitates art. If true bitchiness (catty nastiness) was exposed as the last resort of the weak and contrasted with role models wielding true power, a shift would occur in those who ‘consume that culture’.