The Rise Of The Female Villain

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Injustice towards women is everywhere in Hollywood. From the bounty of sexist character introductions in screenplays to inexplicable pay gaps between actresses and their often lesser known male counterparts, you can’t avoid it. But the thing is, there’s one area in which the industry appears to be evolving. There’s one place where the fairer sex is slowly but surely starting to get more of its due: as movie villains.

Small consolation, I know, but hear me out:

When Charlize Theron was officially cast as the Big Bad in the upcoming Fast 8, and with her reprising her role as the evil queen in next week’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War, it made me think about the recent rush to make women the baddies on film.

Actresses like Theron, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton have paved the way for this trend, but it certainly doesn’t end with them. Upcoming movies like Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (Chloe Grace Moritz and Kiersay Clemons), Baywatch (Priyanka Chopra), Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Julianne Moore) and Thor: Ragnarok (Blanchett again) all have female baddies and, rumor has it, Cara Delevingne’s Sorceress could have a major villainous role in this summer’s Suicide Squad. It’s also entirely possible that the main antagonist in next year’s Wonder Woman will have a couple of X chromosomes, and let’s not forget that the new Star Wars movie established Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, a formidable officer in the evil First Order.

Could this have implications beyond casting announcements? Hang onto that thought, because I’ll come back to it.

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While there does appear to be a trend emerging, the history of film is littered with fantastic female villains. From Betsy Palmer’s Pamela Voorhees (Jason’s mom) in Friday the 13th, to Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction. From Cruella de Vil (perhaps the best of all the Disney villainesses), to the all-time heavyweight champion of the genre, Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West.

There’s Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, Selena Kyle in Batman Returns, The Bride’s ‘to do list’ in Kill Bill, and a dozen female henchmen who have made life interesting for 007 over the years.

Go back even further and you have Circe kicking Odysseus’ butt in The Odyssey, Morgan Le Fay tormenting her brother, King Arthur, and perhaps the mightiest of all: Lady Macbeth. Yeah, this whole idea of having a woman act as the Big Bad is as old as stories, it’s just now seeing something of a resurgence.

What’s especially interesting about that, though, is how it’s evolved. For years, female villains were psychotic scorned women, or mentally disturbed horror movie killers, or the spoiled rich type, not to mention the classic femme fatale (see: Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity) and even the young ingenue (Anne Baxter in All About Eve). Now, we’re seeing a more evolved female character entering the scene. The woman who is ready to do whatever it takes to get what she wants, no matter who or what is in her way.

Another difference is in the types of movies in which we’re seeing these increasingly complex, female villains – namely the big budget blockbuster. Of the all-time top 50 domestic box office performers, only two could be considered to have a female villain, and both are arguable: The Dark Knight Rises, with Marion Cotillard playing Talia al Ghul (though Tom Hardy’s Bane is really the central bad guy in the film) and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, with Penelope Cruz’s con artist Angelica alongside Ian McShane’s Blackbeard. Add in animation, and you’ve got a third in Minions and Sandra Bullock’s Scarlet Overkill — still not a large number. On the contrary, it’s ridiculously low, and each of the three movies listed here are just within the last five years.

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But let’s not forget that, just two years ago, Angelina Jolie led Maleficent to more than $750 million worldwide. Tilda Swinton fronted The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to almost identical numbers way back in 2005, which would be close to $900 million today. The first movie starring Charlize Theron as Queen Ravenna, 2012’s Show White and the Huntsman, did close to $400 million worldwide, enough to beget the sequel hitting theaters next weekend. More recently, Blanchett’s performance as the original Evil Stepmother helped Cinderella clear a half billion dollars at the worldwide box office just last year. The other thing these characters have in common? They’re actually interesting. Well-developed. Three-dimensional. You know, the way they should be.

It may sound strange to suggest that more women being cast as villains is a promising trend. But in a world where big studio blockbusters carry so much weight at the global box office – including countries where women are treated as second class citizens – the more depictions we have of these complex female characters, good and evil, can’t help but open peoples’ eyes to how strong women can be. And maybe, just maybe, that could plant a seed for further social change. 

It’s a strange idea, indeed, to think that movies can actually make a positive difference in the world. But, then again, stranger things have happened.


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Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades in the independent film world and writing about Hollywood. Aside from being a successful screenwriter and director, he was also the editor-in-chief of the entertainment news website and newsletter Film News Briefs for close to five years, before merging it with SSN Insider in the spring of 2013, where he continues to contribute as Senior Editor.

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