Monsters come in many shapes and sizes, and that’s just a fact of life. Putting aside the real-life monsters for now (but sadly, not forever), this time of year brings evil to life in a thoroughly more entertaining way than the daily news does. Searching the internet for lists of the most iconic movie villains will bring up the usual suspects – Hannibal Lector, Darth Vader, The Joker. Whether murderers or criminal masterminds, most have one thing in common – they’re all men.
A well-written female character is difficult to come by in Hollywood, let alone a well written female villain. When evil-aligned female characters do show up, it’s usually in the form of an unnecessarily sexed up sidekick. Her attractiveness will be held above all reality, even a fist fight with the hero will end in nothing more than a small dribble of blood from a tiny cut to the cheek rather than risk her looking ‘ugly’ with a broken nose, swollen eye, and three teeth missing. It’s for this same reason that she’s wearing armour that’s cut to show cleavage (…why wouldn’t you want armour that covers your heart?), short shorts, high heels, a cat suit or some unfortunate combination of all the above. See: every incarnation of Cat Woman, the entirely naked Mystique (not even shoes), Harley Quinn, and the fact that even Transformers, a franchise about giant robot-car hybrids, managed to find a way to disguise one of those robots as an attractive twenty-something woman in denim shorts in Revenge Of The Fallen.
The women who don’t fall in this category often fall squarely in to a second: women whose motivations are based entirely on men. A man broke their heart, they’re trying to win over a guy, they’re fighting with another woman to win over a guy who broke their heart. These tend to be the more realistic villains – Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction springs to mind, even though Alex Forrest still makes it into the top ten all-time great female villains.
This isn’t to say that every villainess motivated by a man is automatically a bad one. Welcome to the stage, Amy Dunne.
The woman who starts out as Gone Girl’s apparent victim quickly becomes one of the most terrifying villains in recent movie history, let alone within the tiny subsection of ‘female baddie’. F.B.I Agent Candice DeLong analysed her behaviour for a Vanity Fair series and concluded that she was a ‘cold, calculating psychopath’, and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn has said herself that she created the character of Amy as proof that it is possible to write female characters that don’t conform to the usual pop culture stereotypes:
“I read somewhere that it’s been a while since a woman on screen washed blood off herself in the shower that wasn’t her blood. It does make a nice change.”
Amy is cold, a calculating genius driven by the real human emotions of jealousy and betrayal. She’s allowed a full range of emotions while still maintaining her villain status, and although there is sex and nudity in the film, it’s not gratuitous and it doesn’t objectify Amy. Gone Girl is one of the best examples of a female antagonist in recent years, but it’s very likely that she wouldn’t exist without another one of the all time greats.
Misery’s Annie Wilkes is the antithesis of everything that female characters are told they need to be. She’s not sexualised or one dimensional, or pining over a man. Although Misery is often described as being about a woman’s obsession with her favourite author, it’s more about her infatuation with the character of Misery Chastaine, and Paul Sheldon is just the vessel to bring Misery to life. She often tops lists of iconic movie villains, perhaps because of the ease with which she goes from chirpy attentive nurse to screaming bully brandishing a sledgehammer. The most terrifying part of Annie is the front that she puts on to fool everyone in to thinking she’s just a harmless farmer.
Female villains shouldn’t be any more difficult to write than their male counterparts, and yet Hollywood still seem to struggle to write characters that don’t rely on the tropes we’ve come to expect from female characters. Despite the odd writer brave enough to go against the grain and prove that complex and original villainesses are possible, there’s still a distinct lack of diversity where these roles are concerned. You could fill books with all the reasons that the movie industry needs to start hiring more women behind the scenes, but perhaps the most compelling is that diverse writers create diverse movies. It’s time for the movie villain hall of fame to stop being such a boy’s club.