The Evil Woman

Evil woman, don’t you play your games with me

-Crow

I’m slightly hesitant when it comes to writing about this subject even though I think I’ve got a lot to say. One problem is, how to define ‘evil’? Another is, why would I write about women? Not humans in general? Why do I have to differentiate between the sexes here because we’re all equal blah-dee-blah-stop-demonizing-women!

But as a fellow-blogger/writer Jian pointed out,

“It’s also a subtle way of having a female character that does evil things, but is not evil. Albeit, a very easy way to do it. It allows them to be redeemable, yet bad simultaneously.”

so could it be somewhat unnerving for a writer to even write a truly evil woman? Should, for women, a chance for redemption exist? Is it “safer” to write her mentally unstable than downright evil? In a way, especially for male writers (yes, I said it, sex/gender matters, don’t even bother pretend otherwise) this might save them from proverbial crucifixion by angry feminists… or not.

But bad things are done by janes and joes all the time all over the world. True evil, the way I see it, is done by mentally unstable. Sociopaths. Murder, torture, and rape being their favorite gummibear flavors. To not understand or grasp (as much as it can be) morals, right and wrong, to not feel remorse, perhaps not much anything aside of pleasure, sounds to me really quite mental. So I’d say evilness and mental health go hand in hand here.

Back to the woman. So the Evil Woman (i.e. the female villain) is, most likely, the Insane Woman as well. But still there are more character tropes for the villainous lady than there is for a sole nutjob sans obvious evilness. Here are a few (from tvtropes.org, what a depressing place!):

Alpha Bitch, Black Widow, Dark Chick, Dark Action Girl, Dark Magical Girl, Dark Mistress, Evil Diva, Femme Fatale, Fille Fatale, Evil Matriach, Lesbian Vampire, Psycho Lesbian, Vain Sorceress, The Vamp, Woman in Black, Violently Protective Girlfriend (evil? At times), and many more. There are a few things that most of these have in common which seem to boil down the essence of ‘The Evil Woman.’

So, let’s take a look how one can write a nasty lady, and how they compare to evil men.

Look at my rack, my rack is amazing!

For one, I can see that the Evil Woman must be attractive (Poison Ivy, Elle Driver, Faora…). That’s the number one rule. Yeah, realistic. Look up these beauties: Ilse Koch, Aileen Wuornos, and Anneli Auer (I added the last one ’cause not only is she suspected of the murder of her husband, but of abusing her children sexually as well. Now that’s effed up). I’ll admit it, T. K. Trian has written evil hotties–men and women–in the past (Blood Calling, Bricks), but we have fuglos and plain janes as well (Solus).The men, well, to them it’s the brains rather than the looks that matter. In fact, the men have turned evil ’cause they’re so butt-ugly they never got laid which then turned them evil (e.g. in Buffy it was the Trio who wanted to become supervillains so as to get laid). Evil men must have brains, evil women must have beauty. I think this would work quite plausibly the other way around too. Anyway, if you’re writing an evil chick, make her pretty. Because beauty and admiration do not equal happiness, ergo you may end up on the dark side. (I mean, at least the heroine can be an unassuming, hidden beauty like that Anastasia chick in that trilogy I never read and that has nothing to do with Russian royalty!)

I’ve got the whole package!

Secondly, the Evil Woman displays her crazy more than the Evil Man (Bellatrix Lestrange, Drusilla from Buffy). Sure, the guys are nuts too, but they often appear outwardly normal if cold and calculative. The Evil Woman is all over the place violent, giggles manically, neglects to comb her hair, and dresses flashily though usually in black. Of course, Joker wasn’t a cool-as-cucumber type of a bad dude. Batshit crazy. Yup. But does it make the villain more sympathetic if they’re blatantly crazy? Well, in Joker’s case, no, even when played by Heath Ledger. Like how Jian pointed it out:

“…whereas an insane man is downright creepy. Don’t get me wrong. He’s cool to us guys, but to most women, he’s reeeeeal creepy. For example, the movie Psycho. Norman Bates is creepy. Cersei from Game of Thrones is insane… but she’s kind of attractive.”

In Bellatrix’s case… maybe a little more sympathetic. I mean, at least she’s still a looker despite the crazy hair.

You even get a nifty certification!

Third point: The Evil Woman gets away with her evilness (Willow and Anya in Buffy, Ruby and Meg in Supernatural). Either the guy falls in love with her or she turns her back to the dark side at some point and everyone and their dog forgive her. And I mean, pretty much they all forgive her, and their sanity is not questioned. The male villain turned hero is treated with less civility. It’s usually the masochistic girl who forgives him while her (male) friends suffer of lesser cases of amnesia. I don’t quite get this. I’d just punch the villain regardless their sex and be done with it. Wait, would that then make me evil? So, if you want to write a bona fide shady lady, make sure she will be forgiven at some point. Especially nowadays it may be considered of bad taste to burn the evil witch. I mean, they have rights.

I have to admit that I’d love to read a novel or watch a TV-series with a female villain who is not gorgeous, obviously crazy, or over-sexed. I don’t personally care if it’s written by a man or a woman (you know this one: “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot.” Check out Niven’s Law), as long as she comes off realistic. A character of her own, not a plot device. Even better if she broke to the mainstream, plowed way to the other non-willows, bellatrixes, and poison ivies. Don’t know why, but it’d just be quite interesting. I know there are such characters out there… so if you know some interesting stories, let me know!

-K. Trian

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The Insane Woman

I’ve been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer lately. Yes, that show never grows old (in fact, for someone born in 1988 my taste in entertainment is relatively ’90s/early ’00s. Though I do like Supernatural). Anyhoo, the show got me thinking about the concept of The Insane Woman (or the Crazy Woman, the One-Way Ticket to Looney Bin Lady, etc.), and I had to ask myself, why are the women portrayed so often in pop culture or literature as people completely off their onion (or are they)?

This is my sane face.

This is my sane face.

Take Buffy. There’s Drusilla of course, a permanent resident of Nuttyville, there’s Evil Vampire Willow (whose “bored now” line always makes me cringe in all its faux-evilness), and Tara whose head’s tampered by Glory, and in episode “Normal Again” even Buffster spends time in a mental institution. But of the main male cast it seems that only Spike goes looney tunes, and even that won’t happen until in the last season. Angel exhibits slight craziness when he’s spat out of hell, but he got over it pretty quick and was tai chi‘ing in no time. Hm. So is there a pattern here? Or does it only look so because there are more female characters in Buffy than male?

Well, then I took a look at T. K. Trian’s manuscripts. Let’s see.
Story 1, Blood Calling. The Insane Woman? Check.
Story 2, Three waifs. Hm, nope. Huh. 
Story 3, Ruins. Check. Check. 
Story 4, Red Bricks and Black Leather. Check. 
Story 5, Solus. Check. 
Story 6, Yet to be Named Steampunk Thingy. Check. 
That’s about it, I think. But what worries me is that we haven’t written too many insane men there (the way I define insane, I s’pose). In fact, there are none on the list above. And we try to keep our cast 50-50 men and women. Why are our women more or less insane, yet men are the voices of reason? Is this a matter of a stereotype? The hysterical woman? To me this kind of thinking feels so 19th century, and more often it is me, a woman, who ends up making the female characters nuts when the men are boringly sane. Even my two favorite books are about The Insane Woman, Herbjorg Wassmo‘s Dina’s Book and Vigdis Grimsdottir‘s Nimeni on Isbjörg, olen leijona. 
I feel like we are dealing with a stock character here. *pulls out a list of stock characters*
Let’s see if it’s true. We have here:
Manic Pixie Dream Girl which implies being crazy in a woman is actually sexy and ‘eccentric’.

I’m crazy, but least I’m darn cute!

Yup. That’s it. That’s all that Wikipedia gave me. I also checked this list about female stock characters  but there was no particular mention of the insane woman trope.
Well, then I went to tvtropes.org. Madness Tropes. Well, there’s Cute and Psycho, The Psycho Lesbian (ut-oh, apparently she’s a big no-no. Jesus. *Shakes finger at Sarah Waters*). But there’s no particular mention of the Insane Woman, women in particular being portrayed as nutjobs in literature or pop culture in general. Still I somehow feel that women are more often the nutjobs than men. Men can be violent or possessive, but women are weird, crazy, insane, clueless, spacy, etc. Is that the acceptable way to write a non-Mary Sue woman without the fear of being called a chauvinist or accused of misogyny or reinforcing negative stereotypes of women? If that’s the case, I don’t get it. I mean, people, mental health issues are not cool. Mania is not cool. Psychosis is not cool. Depression isn’t sexy and mysterious (that might just be a mental issue equally prevalent in male characters, come to think of it).
Color me confuddled (and a spoil sport, if you want), but I’m not liking this trend if there is one here.
-K. Trian
P.s. Okay, Cracked is so not an academic source, but neither is this blog. But I found this funny article about pop culture relationships somewhat related to my post.

The Pervasive Male Gaze

I started to think about a concept often referred to as ‘male gaze’ (though perhaps more accurately, the heterosexual male gaze :P). In short it means that a story is told through a male gaze that shows women in eroticized situations more often than men, often even unnecessarily, that is, gratuitously.

Coincidentally enough, I was reading Lois Tyson’s book on critical theory and at the same time I came across these two articles. One is a book review and one a blog post about women (in fear and pain):

Review by Jia on Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer
http://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/d-plain-reviews/review-stormdancer-by-jay-kristoff/

Blog Post by Kate Elliott
http://www.kateelliott.com/wordpress/index.php/2012/04/the-narrative-of-women-in-fear-and-pain/

Both articles talk about male gaze in entertainment, as does Lois Tyson in her introduction to feminist criticism. To sum up the relevant bits, here are a few quotes:

By Tyson:
…in most Hollywood films, even today, the camera eye (the point of view from which the film is shot) is male: the female characters, not male, are the objects gazed on by the camera and often eroticized as if a male eye were viewing them, as if the point of view of the “universal” movie goer was a male (Tyson 84-85)

By Jia:
Later in the novel, there’s a scene in which Yukiko’s allegiance to the shogun is revealed to people rebelling against him. The sign of this allegiance? A tattoo. And how did they find out? Two guys spied on her while she was taking a bath so we can get an icky scene in which two random dudes ogle her naked body. How nice. It’s great when a “strong female protagonist” is objectified because apparently her strength and agency don’t matter if she doesn’t look good naked. There are a million ways in which this reveal could have been executed and this was the option that was chosen? Did we want to show off the anime influences?”

… One is an adulteress. Another is lethal in a fight but again, that doesn’t matter if she doesn’t look hot while doing it:

“The girl slid down into a split, kimono riding up around her hips”

None of the male fighters are described like this. None of them are showing off body parts that many people consider sexy and erogenous. None of them are described as horrible homewreckers.

By Kate Elliot:
“Undressed scenes are what killed my interest in watching the US remake of Nikita with Maggie Q because I could not get past the gratuitous bikini and lingerie scenes in the pilot, which were evidently needed to undercut the fact that she is meant to be a dangerous and out of control assassin and perhaps to attract a male viewership evidently deemed (by the producers and writers) too sexist to be willing to watch a show with a woman lead unless she is undressed for them. I don’t know, maybe some other reason. What I do know is that the plot did not need the undressing for the scenes to work.”

I have to admit I have been fairly blind to this phenomenon. I have accepted it as a norm (call it what you want, maybe I have been patriarchally programmed, then) that the camera lingers on the woman’s curves more than it does on the man’s abs, pecks, or butt. But when I first read about this from Tyson’s book, it surprised me how pervasive the male gaze really is!

Like when I was watching this movie, Go (1999): The camera in the bit from Ronna’s (Sarah Polley), a girl’s POV, spent considerably less time on the naked torso of a fit drug dealer (Timothy Olyphant) than it did on her own cleavage and lingerie. The camera didn’t follow her or her female friend’s (Katie Holmes) gaze when a boy lifted his shirt for Ronna, or when the friend obviously checked out the boy’s backside. It remained on the girls, as if bashful by male nudity.

"Yes, the camera should be on her, mkay?"

“Ahem, the camera should be on her, mkay?”

However, when two male protagonists Simon (Desmond Askew) and Marcus (Taye Diggs) visit a strip club, the camera does not linger on the men’s extatic faces but offers the viewer close-ups on the strippers’ bare buttocks and breasts time and time again. Very much unabashed.

Now don’t get me wrong. The women on the screen were all beautiful, so why not show them, right? But the men weren’t sore sights either. Maybe we could’ve reveled in their beauty too, not just in the women’s? Why not? Well, Go is written by a man and directed by a man. Maybe they’re both straight. Maybe this felt like a natural way for them to tell a story regardless their sex or sexual orientation. Even when parts of the film are supposed to be told from a seemingly straight woman’s POV.

Back to Stormdancer and Nikita. I haven’t read the former, or watched the latter (just a few minutes). I’m a fan of La Femme Nikita, and to me Peta Wilson is even a truer Nikita than the original, Anne Parillaud. But in both posts by Elliot and Jia, I got a distinctive feel that even though these stories are from a female POV, the gaze is still male. Jay Kristoff certainly is a male writer. And Nikita was conceived by Luc Besson, a male. Why does the female POV become pervaded by the straight male gaze then? Is it that difficult to step into a straight woman’s shoes?

"You done preachin', K?"

“You done preachin’, K?”

I have to bring up La Femme Nikita though (created by Mr. Joel Surnow).  For starters, it’s not limited to Nikita’s POV. Even though the story’s premise is that Nikita uses her womanly charms to carry out many missions, LFN gives a fair treatment to both sexes, so it’s not just Peta Wilson’s charms the viewer gets to enjoy, but also e.g. her co-star’s, Roy Dubuis’s who plays Michael. Even when Nikita goes on a non-undercover mission, she wears loose pants, while Michael wears tights. In fact, Michael is oftentimes used by Section 1 to charm women just like Nikita charms men. It feels equal, it feels fair (though opinions on men in tights may vary).

So, I’m not saying we should remove the male gaze and substitute it with the female one. Or stop objectifying or eroticizing humans altogether in entertainment. I just feel that writers (be it on the screen or for novels) should respect the point-of-views of their characters. It’d feel more realistic. More respectful. Why can’t the target audience be everyone a little more often than it seems to be now? (like I thought the Game of Thrones TV show was for all the sexes, but at least the 1st season was clearly targeted for men).

I don’t usually get worked up by these things, I’m not a huge fan of feminist writing, and I’m not bashful either, but the pervasiveness of this gaze really caught my eye this time–no pun intended.

I hope T. K. Trian’s writing will be more respectful in this regard. I’ve noticed it hasn’t been, and we’re working on the problem now. Sure, in Solus we have an MMC who’s sexualized/eroticized/objectified over and over again by women and gay men alike. But still we have done this more often with women than men for no particular reason. Not everything has to be 50/50, but I’m not satisfied with gross inequalities either.

To explain why this is important would make this post a tad too gigantic, but I’m sure people can work it out themselves.

I know I won’t be reading Stormdancer though. It’s not just the seemingly poorly constructed POV that keeps me from spending my money on it. There were other things too that usually deter me. I might give a chance to Nikita, though what little I’ve seen, the leading lady doesn’t seem to have even half the charisma that Wilson does. Besides, Wilson actually looks athletic; muscular arms and a broad back (instead of just sinewy arms and tight abs like Jennifer Garner in Alias). And who says a muscular, broad back isn’t womanly?

And yes, it’s Nikita and Michael in the second pic.

Sincerely,

K. Trian

Sources: Tyson, Lois. 2006. Critical Theory Today. Routledge, New York.
http://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/d-plain-reviews/review-stormdancer-by-jay-kristoff/
http://www.kateelliott.com/wordpress/index.php/2012/04/the-narrative-of-women-in-fear-and-pain/