To Evil Women: May We Know Them, May We Be Them
Villainesses Need Love Too
There’s a reason why women like me tend to root for the villainess. You know the type—the wicked witch, the stone-cold executive, the power hungry queen, the femme fatale agent. Mean, ambitious, ruthless, independent, too damn smart for her own good—they’re the women in each fairytale or blockbuster film that we’re taught to fear, loathe, and shun. Still, when we watch these women claw their way to the crown, there’s something in many of us that craves to see those dangerous and calloused hands close around that golden band.
Maybe it’s the wicked witch’s nose. Sharp. Crooked. Bold. Familiar.
I refer, of course, to not just any fictional female villain, but specifically to those whose motives (if, perhaps not their means) reflect our own passions a bit too closely—the activists and organizers of the world, the women with perfectly good intentions who will do just about anything for justice. These are the women pushed to the edge as they try to make a name for themselves. These are also the women who fight for ideals they truly care about. Of course, there are also the women who were beaten down before they could even consider trying.
Each evil woman’s origin story is seemingly unique, but Maleficients and Medusas all too often begin as victims. These characters struggle to obey, to fit in, to be respected and taken seriously, though their efforts are for nought. Their foes point to some physical attribute, an aspect of their temperament, or a pariah status to justify keeping them down. Too much of this and too little of that makes for a dreadfully inadequate woman.
Misfit women, marginalized women in particular, learn about this stigmatization early and intuitively detect when others are experiencing it. Our mothers teach us about these problems when we are young. We learn that in every playground interaction, every office conflict, every streetside encounter, no matter how obviously we might be the victim, the ways we look and sound prompt others to brand us unequivocal aggressors.
Witches are not the damsels of the world.
And so, we notice ourselves in the villainesses of these stories, antiquated and avant-garde alike. We see ourselves in these evil women because they have taken their cues from us. Queers. Brown women. Black women. We know it when we look at them. They’re tall, dark, and hairy, just like us. Centuries of not-so-subtle racist and queerphobic caricatures tend to distinguish themselves like that. We’re usually not meant to sympathize with them. The writers don’t like them, and they don’t want us to either. But seeing as we are them, we do.
Take the botanically beautiful Dr. Pamela “Poison Ivy” Isley as a prime example. Isley begins as a shy, frumpy scientist. Men overlook her groundbreaking and worldsaving research because she lacks the allure of conventionally attractive features. It is only when Isley, now Ivy, sheds her lab coat, replacing it with an ultra-organic bodysuit, that men begin to take notice of her and her ideals. Not only does Isley become a bombshell, she becomes a deadly one, no longer held back by her inhibitions, nor by the farce of patriarchal morality or purity. Her authors sometimes allow us to pity the mousy scientist, powerless and unassuming, but the terror that she becomes? Even pity is in short supply for her.
It is true that the demonization of Poison Ivy usually results in part from her becoming so caught up in the rush of her ideals and newfound power that she, too, partakes in violence against innocents. With the ability to demolish an oil refinery under the vice grip of her serrated vines in minutes, Ivy sometimes forgets the collateral damage to bystanders that comes with the eradication of blight.
Ultimately, however, she is the only character in her comic book world actively trying to effect any positive change, even if she is doing so imperfectly. As the chosen champion of the plants, the one who is blessed and cursed with the ability to hear them scream, Ivy knows that inaction means death. She does not wait on the flagrantly empty promises of politicians and corporations when she can protect a forest herself, acting in harmony with the natural world that she has dedicated her life to. The big, bad Batman does not share Ivy’s virtue of selfless dedication. He bursts onto the scene, the soon-to-be environmental graveyard, to throw Ivy behind the bars of a cash-guzzling private prison or a deeply flawed mental institution. To him, the day is now saved. Why would he stop to listen to the tirades of the insane, the so archetypically femininely hysterical? The fight is over.
To the man who has the power and capital to instantly reforest the continent, clean up the oceans, and protect endangered species, it is not just Ivy’s methods that are deranged, but also her mission. Batman fights to protect the status quo, a status quo that he not-so-coincidentally greatly benefits from. Bruce Wayne, however philanthropic he may be, wants to be a hero on his terms, in a way that honors the legacy of his elitist, morally bankrupt ancestors. And yet, it is he that we are meant to sympathize with. We, too, should cherish the status quo, and not be seduced by the dream of a different, better world.
Now, I, too, enjoy escaping into the illusion that there could somehow exist a benevolent and selfless billionaire—who doesn’t love seeing Batman knock around the king of misogynists, the Joker himself? Even so, there is always still something in me that stings when Ivy ends up back at Arkham Asylum, angry eyes boring through the bars of her cell. Who else is going to pick up her work, and stop that millenia-old forest from being demolished? Not Batman. Wayne Enterprises too is sure to have its own escape-to-Mars plan for its majority stockholders.
Despite this, Ivy tries. She does because she knows one of these days, she might come out on top and the world will be for the better. If she wins and the greedy lose, the world’s most vulnerable win. Had she remained the shy girl who waited her turn, no one would know who she was or, more importantly, what the plants cry out for. It is this persistence and Ivy’s strength that women like me aspire to.
So when the villainess then asks, early on in her delicious origin story, as the horns start to pierce through her scalp, “Why do I play the games I know I will never, ever be allowed to win?” we cannot answer her because we ask the same of ourselves. It is, however, no longer her concern.
This is the moment in stories where the soon-to-be villainess wipes the tears of humiliation with eerily still resolution. Instead of allowing despair to shackle her or subjugation to crush her spirit, she roars free, burning with her own vindication and a bone to pick. Evil women do not martyr themselves.
There is a dignity in damning yourself before anyone else seizes the chance to curse you as a “crazy bitch.”
By appropriating their weapon, you’ve robbed them of their authority, their power over you. What insults can you hurl at a woman who has said it all about herself? Maybe none of it is true, but she’ll brand herself anything to call their bluff.
We, the marginalized and the misfitted, both crave and fear that self-damnation. We want the freedom, the power of the villainess, no longer confined by the chains of those who made a demon of her to begin with. All too often the stories’ heroines have little purpose beyond being arm candy or sad little anecdotes in a male hero’s odyssey. But bad girls? They create worth beyond their sexual, romantic, or maternal value. They demand to be known, and feared, as being much, much more.
But we dread what we know inevitably befalls the enchantress. She cannot win. Her satisfaction does not last. She burns, indeed, the brightest, but the shortest. Ding-dong, the witch is dead.
Even so, the vicarious transformation gives us motivation to fight our real life demons. We may not be able to transcend human form and terrorize a small village as a large crow, but we can take other cues from the women who have taken them from us. Put simply, the villainess takes no shit. She knows what she wants and will let nothing stand in her way. She no longer tries to convince anyone that she is the saint or the good girl. If she cannot get respect, fear will do perfectly.
We, too, can be scary. Perhaps not murdering-the-king-in-his-sleep scary, but scary to the corrupt nonetheless. The status of “evil” is a shield, but it is not a true identity. The real life women who so often inspire and in turn identify with these villainesses are some of the most truly selfless and morally good women. They are fiercely dedicated to their communities, their causes, and themselves and they truly have the drive to follow through on what is important to them. They know intimately that they will never be given the medals or the honorary park benches. But they don’t care. It is not, was not ever, about the accolades.
I’m not sure when misfit women like me—too loud, too mean, too imperious—will have our stories told as the heroes, if, perhaps, ever. I’m not in the habit of holding my breath; centuries of hurt require centuries of healing. But I know I’ll always have the witches, assuring me that my story does not have to end at the stake.