Female Villains and The Impossibilty of Motive
(A note: there are mild Star Wars spoilers contained in this post. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but still care enough about Star Wars to be upset with me: don’t read. Also, quit breathing. Are we supposed to not talk about the damned movie for an entire month while you get your shit together?)
So it was around June or so that I started hearing rumors about the new Star Wars movie–interesting rumors. I was trying to go rumor-free until I saw it, but that proved pretty difficult: if you touched the Internet, the Internet told you something about Star Wars. I’m telling you this to explain how I heard this rumor and then didn’t unhear it shortly after. That’s important, you see, for the story.
Anyway, the rumor I heard, and then cherished, and then never unheard until I set foot in the theatre:
Kylo Ren is going to be a girl.
I felt a warm flush of pride deep in my bloated old-woman craw. What a victory, really, for those of us who grew up wanting the red lightsaber.
That rumor stuck with me for a while. Mostly because, at first, I couldn’t see why I found it so fascinating.
Of course, when I finally saw Star Wars, I was horribly disappointed. We traded the possibility of that for Anakin Lite?
I liked the idea of Kylo Ren a lot better when that masked and looming figure was female. Just because you don’t see it much–a woman villain, power-hungry, under a mask. Not wearing a low-cut lady outfit, not flirting. The sort of villain even boys want to be, because they could be that villain.
The hard truth of it is, it’s tough to find a good female villain. And when you do find one, she usually has one of these motivations:
1) A tragic love affair (in love with the man villain, hero did her wrong, etc.)
2) Revenge (someone wronged her–often sexually–and she goes too far to the other side taking revenge.)
3) A Devastating Trauma (family killed, kids killed, husband killed, etc.)
4) Life Is Just Too Hard As a Woman (so she has to go to the Dark Side to gain ‘freedom’.)
Nothing wrong with these motivations. They’re perfectly decent motivations. It’s just–they all depend on the actions or lives of somebody else. It weakens the perception of a villain, to start with this sort of backstory. And it doesn’t half explain away the evil.
The had truth of it is, as much as you see the advice ‘give your villain motivation’ spattered about online, you can over-motivate a villain. We tend to do this with women especially, since you don’t usually see a girl when you picture a power-mad despot taking over a small South American country. What could lead to that? What made her go from painting her nails with those cute Bonne Bell tiny nail polishes and dreaming about prom to military dictatorship?
It’s tough for us to grasp that a woman could be doing both (or not be into painting her nails in the first place, even weirder). So we overcompensate–we make out Evil Empress a great haughty beauty, we put her in a slinky dress, we make her a good person deep down, no really. (Don’t worry, I’m guilty of this too. It’s a hard taboo to break).
The thing is. Any villain, male or female, has one motivation for being a villain: being a shitty human being.
You might start down the path to the Dark Side because you’re frightened, or lonely, or angry. And there should be a starting point, and you should know what it is. But that’s not what takes you all the way. The one thing that makes you truly evil is being truly evil. Whether you’re a woman or a man, girl or boy, you don’t reach the point where you’re killing every elf in the city because your ex was an elf. You reach that point because you’re a despicable, genocidal person. You do other things that aren’t nice, too: obviously, you’re racist, but you probably also don’t tip. You probably have an inflated sense of your own importance (after all, you’re human, so you’ve got to be pretty decent, right?) and you’ve probably never held the door for one of those awful elves in your life. Actually, you probably make a stink when they walk down the same side of the street as you do. You won’t eat something if elf hands have touched it. When your sister moved into a house near the Elf Quarter, you probably said, horrified: but elves might have lived there. You probably made her move, because you’re also a domineering and forceful person. Or: you burned her house down and made it look like an accident. It’s okay, it’s better for her in the end anyway.
It’s hard, I think, for us to see women in this light. I don’t know why we like to see women as better people in stories (or, at worst, as ineffectual bitches), but we do. Maybe it’s the residual effects of Coventry Patmore and all the rest of those Victorian moralizers, but it’s not a good thing. Women can be shitty people too. We know that from our personal lives–we just have trouble carrying it over into fiction without stereotyping.
And a good villain is a shitty person. That’s what makes him or her a villain in the first place. There might be a tragic story (loss of a loved one, etc) that acts as impetus for the villain’s transformation, but this is not motive. A villain’s motives are hard for a good person to understand, and you want them to be.
Because this is your villain. This isn’t Barney the Purple Dinosaur, it isn’t that chick from your book club, and it isn’t your sister. This is Hitler. This is Stalin. This is Pol Pot. This is an awful goddamned human being. This is someone you want your audience to loathe.
And we don’t understand the people we loathe. When we do–and maybe this in and of itself is a part of your story–when we do, they cease to become villains.
Hitler had to take a dump every once in a while. He was vegetarian. He had a girlfriend, whom he probably loved. He probably had bad hair days, trouble tying his tie right, socks with holes in them, all the things that make us human. Maybe he loved skiing, dogs, relaxing evenings at home reading a book.
We all have these things.
But Hitler was also a genocidal maniac. We can understand why he did the things he did, inasmuch as we can see the logical train from reason to result. But we can’t understand why why. We’re decent people, so there is no great burning truth to us for Hitler’s motivations. It simply doesn’t exist, and the fact that it doesn’t should be immensely reassuring.
Long story short: let women be shitty, too. Shitty, occasionally, without sex and beauty (because sex and beauty don’t make someone shitty, nor do they cover up an innately shitty soul). Remember that your villain is a villain, and make them, regardless of sex, act like villains. A power-mad despot doesn’t have a lot of time for longing after old loves. It’s hard to take over the world when part of your brain is always focused on your dead children. Just let her be shitty. For women everywhere: let her.
A Note: For an excellent example of a villain who is ‘humanized’ without ever once becoming less of a villain, check out John Fowles’s The Collector. This book is one of the great exercises in point-of-view, rotating as it does between the collector and his collected. Read it all the way through, and then read Part I again. Trust me.