Recently I read an article at Tor entitled “Villainesses Required: Why the Dark Side Needs More Women” by Elise Ringo. In this look at female villains, the author made a plea for more females who acted in villainous was, not in reaction to the men of their lives, but for their own ends. In other words, not women who were jealous of another woman’s beauty or who wanted to eliminate a rival in order to win a man’s hand. Rather, Ms. Ringo longs for
women who are extended the same complexity and depth—and, potentially, sympathy—as their male counterparts, and also women who are really, truly, bad. Women who are willing to burn the world down—maybe because it wronged them, maybe just because. Women who are ambitious, who crave power, who are willing to crush people on the way to the top.
These are interesting thoughts. I sifted through my small sample of speculative fiction to see if I could name any female protagonists. I didn’t have to go far to land on the White Witch, who qualifies in every way to what Mr. Ringo says she wants. I suspect in C. S. Lewis’s day, putting a woman in the role of the great evil of the universe was just one note in the chord of critics who claimed he was a misogynist.
Perception is everything in this day and age, I guess.
Another series that came along some ten years later is Lloyd Alexandar’s Chronicles of Prydain. In the second book of the five-book children’s series, The Black Caldron, three female antagonists arise, three witches named Orddu, Orwen and Orgoch. They are, in many ways, responsible for the rise to power of the over-arching antagonist who used their caldron and the magic it contained to create an army of evil through which he ruled.
The next iconic female antagonist I could think of is television’s Borg Queen, most clearly fleshed out in Star Trek: Voyager. She, of course, met her match when she went up against the female protagonist, Captain Kathryn Janeway. But she seems to fit Ms. Ringo’s qualifications for a female who wants to crush the galaxy and rule all—even though she is tied to the hive mind and thinks in terms of us and we.
Of course there is a trend of books, plays, and movies that turn the traditional antagonists of such stories as The Wizard of Oz and Sleeping Beauty into the more sympathetic protagonists. Do those count? In their original roles they were the very female antagonist Ms. Ringo decries: flat, simplistic, evil because they wanted female things, not for power and ambition like men do.
On one level, I see what Ms. Ringo is saying. There really aren’t many female “bad guys” that I can think of. What’s more, the more recent ones do seem to be bad for very “unfeminist” reasons. They are jealous of the prettier girl. They do want to marry the prince. They hope to exact revenge on their perceived rival.
But that makes me wonder: are these female antagonists somehow unworthy because they act like women and not like men? One of my complaints about the feminist movement is that it actually strips women of their unique attributes and basically says women aren’t really good unless they are doing what men do, only better.
So protagonists have to be “bad-ass” women who better most men physically in hand-to-hand combat. It’s not enough that they are like Miss Marple, able to out-smart criminals and most police lieutenants or detectives. That type of role is still “too feminine.”
But I digress.
Ms. Ringo also wants female antagonists to whom she can relate:
The villains I like most are the transgressors who push the boundaries of right and wrong, whose darkness has layers. There’s a certain power fantasy involved, not just in watching a great villain behaving badly but in seeing someone who challenges conventional morality, who defies easy categorization and invites sympathy for the devil.
Sympathy for the devil? This concept is precisely why I think speculative fiction should not have the “pet the dog” moment for the antagonist—that scene which causes a reader to see the antagonist’s pain or brokenness or lovable side. Speculation gives writers an opportunity to delve into the spiritual war that rages within. In real life I don’t want to “give the devil his due,” let him argue with the angel on the other shoulder, and definitely I don’t want him to win.
As I see it, treating the devil as anything but the devil is clouding the picture speculative fiction can paint.
While I do not agree with the reasoning Ms. Ringo brings to her conclusions, I do understand from a literary point of view that complex characters are more interesting than flat, uncomplicated ones. Consequently, her point—that speculative literature needs more complex female antagonists—seems to me to be valid.
When it comes to contemporary literature written by Christians, I was hard pressed to think of one female antagonist. Maybe my reading sample is just too small and they are out there, but I’m not aware of them. I can see promise in stories that have female antagonists—ones who act like Jezebel or Athaliah who became queen of Judah by killing all the royal offspring.
Now those where worthy female antagonists.