Have you ever noticed the way female villains are presented in movies? Firstly, compared to their male counterparts, women with nefarious agendas are few and far between. Secondly, while male villains can have motivations that range from simple to complex, female villains tend to be mentally ill, or suffering some kind of deep-seated, ‘a-man-done-me-wrong’ kind of emotional damage. Rarely, in cinema, do we see a female villain who is driven purely by a desire for power, or money, or non-romance-related revenge.
They do exist. Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest; O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill; Queen Ravenna in Snow White And The Huntsman – but compare this number to the vast array of those women who have been driven to evil by illness or the actions of men, and a very clear pattern emerges. While male villains can simply be criminal, corrupt and murderous, there usually has to be some sort of definitive explanation for female villainy. The implication of this is that women are inherently incapable of doing ‘bad things,’ unless they are broken.
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Television does better for female villains. The second season of Fargo, for example, featured the character of Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart), who assumed the mantle of crime family boss when her husband suffered a debilitating stroke. She sought to further their business interests by any means necessary, driven only by the desire to see her family maintain its power and influence. The award-winning Game Of Thrones, meanwhile, depicts Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) as a self-serving woman in search of increased power and authority – albeit as reaction to the oppression wielded by patriarchal figures in her life. American Horror Story also often delivers excellent evil female characters – most notably those played by Jessica Lange – throughout its anthology format.
The genre – in both television and film – that perhaps offers the greatest efforts in female villainy though is the comic book adaptation. On the small screen, Gotham has Fish Mooney; The Flash has Killer Frost; Supergirl had Astra In-Ze; Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D had Raina and Jiaying; Agent Carter had Dottie Underwood and Whitney Frost; Daredevil has Elektra Natchios. On the big screen, we have seen Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Talia al Ghul, Mystique, Dark Phoenix, Faora Hu-Ul and Nebula. But the female of the species still rarely gets to be the main antagonist, and – with the exception of Faora Hu-Ul in Man Of Steel – are still regularly presented in a way that suggests they need to be ‘saved,’ or ‘fixed.’
This is why – despite its critical mauling – Suicide Squad is an important film. When movies become so big that they break box office records, and permeate the public consciousness outside the confines of cinema audiences, they have a societal impact. Whether you’re a fan or not, Suicide Squad has dominated the summer, inside movies theatres and beyond – and it has done so while loaded with a wide variety of female villains. Even more importantly, these are not female villains who appear briefly and are disposable. These are female villains who lead the movie, instigate the action, and face down potential consequences with ease.