Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Villainess

The villainess is femininity gone feral – Sue Turnbull
Sugar and spice and all things nice?
Or scary, psychotic and all your nightmares come true?

Femme fatale, wicked witch, bad girl, seductress, Eve, succubus, wizened crone, Medusa, naughty minx, ingénue, Cleopatra, lusty saucepot, not-really-bad-at-all once salvaged by a good man... stereotypical perspectives of women endure over centuries and seep into the cultural wallpaper. All part of the fun.

Then there is The Villainess.

Whether real or fictional, a truly bad woman is no fun at all.
Their names are synonymous with the shadows cast by barren trees, things under the bed and why a wardrobe door swings open just before you go to sleep.
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Lizzie Borden was tried and acquitted of the murders of her parents, but the image of a woman committing a double axe murder in 1892 excited the public imagination and became legend.
Real-life lawless ladies like Bonnie Parker, Aileen Wuornos, Ruth Ellis, Ulrike Meinhof and Patty Hearst have enduring dramatic appeal on page, stage or screen.

In fiction, a true ‘bad guy’ female embodies the opposite of conventional perceptions of women. Hard, not soft. Cruel, not kind. An abuser of power. A killer. An avenger.
Writers have created many terrifying bogeywomen but few wield an axe. These ladies use a sharper tool – the mind.

Medea, Lady Macbeth, The White Witch, Mrs Danvers and even Annie Wilkes are all manipulators of power in circumstances where women have very little. To paraphrase Jack Crawford on my favourite bad guy Hannibal Lecter – you don’t want them inside your head.

Here’s my own personal dirty half a dozen of feminine villainesses in a roughly chronological order of awareness:


Cruella de Vil – 101 Dalmatians

Black-and-white animated evil with unspeakable urges. A would-be puppy killer. Her demonic pursuit of warm furry things to destroy for personal gratification against the anthropomorphic Disney creature-people makes her a Baddie in the blackest of hats. No matter what age you are, everyone cheers when she falls in the shit.

Why is she so scary? A predator on the cute and defenceless.


Tamora – Titus Andronicus

Queen of the Goths, Tamora shocked Elizabethan audiences. From another race and moral code, strong in warfare, politics and sexual allure, she turns her captor into a victim and wreaks the bloodiest revenge in Shakespearean history. One of her vilest crimes is encouraging her sons to rape and mutilate the innocent Lavinia.

Why is she so scary? Insatiable, cruel and without conscience.


Cathy Ames – East of Eden

A sexual manipulator with a calculating patience, Cathy’s physical beauty and intelligence are underpinned by a determination to use everyone for her own ends. She plays men and can only learn to feign emotion, as she feels no sympathy. Even in the face of generosity, she schemes to take advantage. A human hurricane, she destroys everything close to her, bringing nothing but pain and loss.

Why is she so scary? Innocent on the outside, pure poison within.

Nurse Ratched – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The immovable object against an unstoppable force. Her determination to retain control over her patients and McMurphy in particular is a battle only a bully can win. The extraordinary cold steel at the heart of Kesey’s creation evokes the same frustrations and loathing in the reader as she does the characters. And worst of all, her weapon of choice is medicine.

Why is she so scary? Ego supersedes empathy in authority.

Marquise de Merteuil – Les Liaisons Dangeureses


The devil makes work for idle hands. Using people as playthings, the Marquise plays a vicious theatrical game of lies and seduction, preying on the vulnerable and gambling on her nerve. The repercussions of her Machiavellian plotting with the Vicomte de Valmont ruin lives and leave scars. Ruthless, but not quite shameless, the vision of herself in others' eyes is her ultimate humiliation.

Why is she so scary? Arch manipulator with no loyalties.

Josephine Hurst – Mother, Mother

Not a misery memoir, but far more chilling fiction. The Hursts maintain a perfect facade, engineered by the matriarch. The psychological damage she inflicts on her family is haunting, especially when the escape routes seem worse. The author shifts perspectives, leaving the reader as lost and uncertain as the characters, until we gradually piece together the monstrous truth behind Zailckas’s creation.

Why is she so scary? Because she knows your head better than you do.



Bad guys come in all gals and guises, including that nice lady next door.
Hello, would you like a cookie?


By JJ Marsh 
Images courtesy of Creative Commons

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