12 Ways In Which Male And Female Villains Are Treated Differently In TV And Film
JUSTICE FOR BADASS VILLAINOUS LADIES!!!
Sexism in TV and film can often be really apparent. Like when there are no female characters.
New Line Cinema
Or the female characters only exist in relation to men's pain and arcs. Or women are portrayed as less capable than men. Or assault and abuse of women is portrayed for drama and shock value. Or when the female characters are put in revealing clothing while the male characters aren't. I could go on all day.
But oftentimes it can be a lot more subtle — yet still just as damaging. One example of subtextual sexism in television comes with the handling of male vs. female villains.
I am ALL FOR female villains! But unfortunately, a lot of the time they aren't handled super well.
Below, let's look at different ways that female villains are just done dirty in TV and film!
Most supposedly "legendary" or famous villains are male.
As writer Kelsey McKinney pointed out in a
Vox article on the subject, most famous villains are men. Think of the most famous villains of our time: Voldemort. Hannibal Lecter. Darth Vader. Walter White. Thanos. The Joker. As McKinney says, women can be just as complicated and corrupt and even evil as men — that deserves to be portrayed onscreen.
Male villains are often three-dimensional, while female villains are two-dimensional.
As McKinney points out, when female villains do exist — such as Nurse Ratchet from
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — they're two-dimensional compared with the men, who are given clear motivations and backstories — like, say, Killmonger from Black Panther. Famous male villains like Darth Vader and Walter White get entire series (film or otherwise) devoted to their layered personalities and pain.
Going even further than that: Female villains often don't have any real justification or explanation for their actions.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Male villains have a strong goal and sense of (twisted) morality, while oftentimes, female villains are just mean for no real reason. One great example of this is
Harry Potter. The two main female villains are Professor Umbridge and Bellatrix Lestrange, while I would say the two male villains are Voldemort and Snape (more on Snape later). Voldemort is given a really strong backstory and is shown to be layered and complicated. The only real justification for Umbridge being evil is that she likes order, which is more of an ideal or trait than a justification. It's the same with Bellatrix: She seems to prize cruelty and loyalty to Voldemort, but that's really all we get.
Many times, two villains (one male and one female) are introduced together, are presented as equally evil, and share a common goal; but as the show goes on, it's the male villain that is redeemed and further developed, while the female villain remains the same.
Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection
There are SO MANY examples of this...Jaime and Cersei on
Game of Thrones, Cha Cha and Hazel on The Umbrella Academy, Spike and Drusilla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In each of these cases, the villains are introduced as a pair that are practically synonymous. But the female character often gets written off or tossed aside or becomes even more evil — while the male character eventually gets redeemed. In each of these cases, the redeemed character could just as easily have been the woman — but it's not. (Don't @ me saying these examples are just going off their books/comics — the criticism still applies to written media.)
Not every villain needs a redemption arc. There are some great examples of complicated female villains that don't get redeemed — think Elena from
Little Fires Everywhere, or even Cersei. But when the male villain ALWAYS seems to get redeemed, while the female villain NEVER does, there's a problem. Teen Wolf is probably the best example of this. Deucalion, Theo, Ethan and Aiden, Peter...basically all of the male villains were redeemed except Gerard. The female villains, like Jennifer Blake, Kate Argent, and Malia's mom, weren't.
And oftentimes, the female villains aren't written in a way that makes us want them to be redeemed.
Shows and film don't usually give you any reasons to root for the female villains. With male characters, they're often developed more, given more humanity, or even given a love interest to humanize them (think how Damon and Klaus almost immediately had sweet women who saw the good in them on
The Vampire Diaries, whereas villains like Katherine and Rebekah didn't get that, or didn't get it until much later). This makes us root for them to become better, while we don't usually get to that point with female characters, or it takes far longer — think of Rumple versus the Evil Queen in Once Upon a Time.
When the female villains are redeemed, the arcs are much shorter and sometimes go backward...
Avatar spent seasons on a redemption arc for Zuko, whereas Mai and Ty Lee got basically two scenes. I know they were minor characters, but still — even Jet got more of a redemption arc than they did. Even when women do get redemption arcs, they're often later thrown away — like with Rachel on One Tree Hill.
...or the female villains are brought back seasons after their arc is over to serve as another brief Big Bad, showing that they haven't changed or developed at all (and, in some cases, have gotten even worse).
It's like as shows near their end, they're like, "Oh, what female villains can we bring back to be more evil than ever?" When the villains come back, they've lost any nuance they had originally — like Katherine on
The Vampire Diaries, who was shown to care about Stefan and her daughter before dying a villain, then came back as the literal devil in the last season. Or, again, Rachel from One Tree Hill — the show completely throws away the redemption arcs these characters had and turns them two-dimensional.
Male villains are often shown as just needing love from a woman in order to become better.
Allow me to talk about Snape and Kylo Ren (Snape Lite™️) for a moment. Both had complicated childhoods and didn't receive the care and love they deserved, which drove them evil. Both then returned to the good side because they loved someone on it, and NOT because it was the right thing to do. Not only is this a damaging lesson for young girls, but it also perpetuates the notion that men are entitled to female love, and if they don't get it, they have an excuse for their actions. It places the power of whether or not a man is evil in the hands of a woman he oftentimes ridicules or even tortures, rather than placing it with the man.
Male villains die heroically, while female villains die in disgrace.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Ah, the eleventh-hour hero move. Let's stick with Snape and Kylo Ren — both men die heroically and get to live on in canon as heroes, despite the fact that throughout the canon, they have rarely done good. We don't even know if they actually were good people or just did one good thing. In fact, in Snape's case, we know for a fact that he continued being a dick after turning to the good side, but since we learn he's a hero right at the end and then he dies, it sort of masks all of that. Meanwhile, female villains die in disgrace or are completely written off.
The male villains get to be the "fun" villains, while the female villains are just bad.
There are so many great male antiheroes — Damon Salvatore, Han Solo, Jack Sparrow — but we don't have nearly as many female ones (though it's getting better!). It's even worse with male villains — like Spike, and even Angel, on
Buffy, or Loki from the MCU. Meanwhile, a lot of famous female villains are frustrating and even hated, and aren't shown being funny or cheeky, like Hela from Ragnarok.
And finally, male villains that really shouldn't be humanized (especially if they've committed crimes like rape) often get humanized.
Sexual assault is a scary reality in our society, and I think it can be powerful to show survivors' stories (
Jessica Jones is a GREAT example of this). However, many times this is undercut because the show gives the male perpetrator a redemption arc or humanizes him in another way. If they do apologize or "realize their mistake," it's treated as just that — a mistake, or a lack of judgment — and not as an actual serious crime (e.g., Chuck on Gossip Girl). Even if they DO pay (e.g., Bryce on 13 Reasons Why), they often pay in a way that doesn't bring peace to the victims, and they still have storylines that humanize them after the fact.
I want to end on a positive note, so finally, here are some AWESOME female villains that shows did a great job with!
Some of my favorites are Villanelle from
Killing Eve, the Evil Queen from Once Upon a Time, Maleficent from Maleficent, Mona from Pretty Little Liars, Regina George from Mean Girls, Elena from Little Fires Everywhere, Nebula in the MCU, and Morgana in Merlin! TV and Movies
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