Killing Eve to Cruella, a new wave of pop culture offerings could undo problematic depictions of female villainy
As Killing Eve's creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge surmises, to enjoy watching a woman stab, torture and batter on screen — and find it empowering — says something about women’s position in society.
Villainous women date back at least as far as Delilah, in 110 BCE.
But for far too long, the villainy of women on screen (in the face of rampant depictions of male violence) has been reduced to a mere cinematic strategy that seems to say: Bored of men being violent? Here is some female violence for you!
There is no motive or intent for such villainy, other than to subvert the audience's expectations of yet another male villain.
Midnight; a chilly street in an Argentinian city. A scuffle breaks out between a girl and her pimp; the latter nearly kills her. In Ontario, a couple has a romantic getaway in a cabin in the woods. But the woman witnesses a sudden change in her partner, who pushes her off a cliff.
Twists from hackneyed thrillers? Maybe. But would these clichéd scenes grab our attention if the perpetrator of the violence was also female?
Violent women draw strong reactions onscreen — be it the pimp in Perdida, the serial killer in What Keeps You Alive, bank robbers in Set It Off, or the ruthless boss from The Devil Wears Prada. These depictions of female violence emerge in an environment that is ambivalent about women’s propensity for aggressive behaviour: Male violence is deemed conventional, even routine. But the sociocultural norms that equate womanhood with kindness and nonviolence, and manhood with strength and aggression, make the few cinematic depictions of violent women seem horrific and unsettling.
Villainous women date back at least as far as Delilah, in 110 BCE. But for far too long, women’s villainy on screen — in the face of rampant depictions of male violence — has been reduced to a mere cinematic strategy that seems to say: ‘Bored of men being violent? Here’s some female violence for you!’ There is no motive or intent for such villainy, other than to subvert the audiences’ expectations of yet another male villain.
The antithesis of this attitude can be seen in some recent offerings, a case in point being the award-winning BBC drama Killing Eve, which has been renewed for a third season. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who developed season one, said in an interview, “Seeing women being violent, the flip side of that is refreshing and oddly empowering.”
When far too many female characters are depicted as subservient or sexually overcharged, it is true that an occasional streak of grey does relieve the monotony. But films that centre on the character’s brutality as a trope — an option to choose a film based on the gender of the villain, with absolutely no context — is problematic. The fact that we find on-screen male violence repetitive or unimaginative is a direct reflection of how ubiquitous it is. As Waller-Bridge surmises, to enjoy watching a woman stab, torture and batter on screen — and find it empowering — says something about women’s position in society.
This banal process of mindlessly flipping the ‘nurturing, peaceful’ female into a bloodthirsty murderess for a “change”, comes with a heavy cost as such flipped roles end up being thoughtless. There are many shades to the flipped female villainy, but you are sure to have come across these broad archetypes:
— A seductress or the sexually assertive, rebellious women, who is an abettor of sin. Films in which a woman is shown to use her sexuality as a means to gain her ends, as seen in Basic Instinct, Eve of Destruction, Naked Killer.
— Dereliction of the duties of marriage or motherhood, like Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest.
— A despot who seemingly seeks pleasure in the corrupting influence of power, like Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Elektra King in The World Is Not Enough.
Take a moment to consider the opposite instance — such as when a macho protagonist is flipped to play a meek role (The Kindergarten Cop, The Pacifier) and this toss is considered lighthearted. Isn’t it lopsided that a male character’s vulnerability is marketed as funny because we are used to seeing him as a saviour, whereas in the case of the woman, a shift from her conventional nurturing role to assume a position of power makes her a villain?
The most sapping avatar of female villainy is when a woman is made to perform gory acts “like a man.” The number of TV series that feature a male killer far outnumber the few exceptions like Killing Eve and Luther. And even among the exceptions, there is rarely anything feminine about the violence that these women are shown to be inflicting. An outlier would be Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, a doting mother, poised queen — and venomous, vindictive antagonist.
As psychologist Fiona Murden noted, "Female crime should be presented in a female way, otherwise we're playing into stereotypes again. It's a bit like saying in an organisation that women bosses should behave like men, which we've seen is not the way it should go. Women should be women and they should behave as women, so I would say let's get it accurate if we're going to do it."
Murden points out that female violence is usually portrayed as masculinist and thus doesn’t accomplish any consciousness-raising; rather, it becomes part of the problem. In their book Reel Knockouts, Martha McCaughey and Neal King argue that most female villains are too unrealistic: deranged, emotional, sexualized, or co-opted to uphold patriarchal values. Rikke Schubart, author of Super Bitches And Action Babes, concludes: “The female villains of popular culture are characterised by a certain ‘in-betweenness’. They occupy a space between traditional notions about male and female roles as well as about the ways each sex is supposed to be active or passive; they are expected to conform to stereotypical ideas about staggering female beauty but they also have to be aggressive and active in a male fashion.”
Experts observe that there is a sense of intrigue in films with violent women (especially to male viewers). This could be due to the element of surprise or novelty, or the scopophilic pleasure of watching an evil seductress. Either reaction provides an insight into the audience’s psyche.
While there are obvious problems with the way we consume female violence, experts believe that pop culture offerings could now also see more homegrown female villains who can assert control without having to adopt a masculine facade. With films like Emma Stone’s Cruella de Vil slated to release in the coming months, there certainly seems to be scope to explore the varied shades of female villains.
The significance of a violent woman is not confined solely to the way that she breaks the limitations of a preconceived ideological edifice, nor is her power limited to her potential to shock audiences with her cruelty or belligerence. With the cultural fashioning of her as a paradox, the violent woman instigates a rethinking of gendered subjectivity in cinema. She demands the cultural discourse factor in the possibility that women too, can be violent.
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