In Defense of Villainy: How some fictional villains can empower real people

Posted on Oct 20 2013 - 12:09am by Kels Mejlaender

By Kels Mejlaender, Senior Copy Editor

For all the variety of characters in stories, it seems to be an unspoken rule that villains — the primary antagonists — must be male and straight.

While issues like sexism, racism and homophobia are often combatted with positive examples in books, shows and films, villains are an untapped source of potential for breaking down stereotypes.

While sexuality is sometimes simply not discussed when it comes to a story’s ‘big bad,’ readers or viewers usually presume that an antagonist is straight. This is particularly problematic for gay men, because they are so often portrayed as weak.

That is why characters like Cyrus Beene, of the TV show “Scandal,” are so promising. Portrayed by Jeff Perry, Cyrus is the U.S. president’s chief of staff and is also openly gay and married. While he cannot necessarily be called the show’s big bad, Cyrus is certainly ruthless and makes many morally questionable decisions for the supposed greater good. It is difficult to accept stereotypes of gay men as powerless when confronted with a character like Cyrus.

In the latest James Bond film, “Skyfall,” there were some pretty heavy hints that villain Silva, played by Javier Bardem, is bisexual. Rather than trying to send any signal to audiences that bisexual men are evil or bound to go wrong, the choice supplied a much more enlightened perspective — that gay men are not incapable of great authority.

When it comes to women as primary antagonists, the examples can be more difficult to sort through. While it’s true many villains in fairy tales are women, these antagonists are in belittled roles, lashing out because of vanity, envy or witch-like cruelty.

Essentially, these are women being evil in traditionally “female” ways.

Female villains in stories, when they do exist, often still serve a higher male power. This is the case with characters like the witch Bellatrix Lestrange of “Harry Potter,” who ultimately serves the male wizard Voldemort, and Princess Azula of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” who ultimately serves her father, the Firelord.

When women are the ones pulling the strings, they are often behind the scenes and not revealed until the end of the story, such as in “The Dark Knight Rises” when it is revealed that not Bane, but Talia, is the great villain.

The few horror movies that portray women as villains usually depict them as being evil for typical “female” reasons. The titular villain of “Carrie” wreaks havoc after her dress is ruined. In the nineties movie, “Urban Legend,” the female serial killer sadistically kills out of vengeance for her boyfriend’s death. In most stories, women are not villains because they crave power for themselves. They’re villains because of appearances or romance.

That is why when a woman is the primary antagonist for reasons the typical male antagonist might be — money, control or even sadism — it is a welcome change. And there are some cases of this, few though they may be.

In the fantasy book trilogy “His Dark Materials,” the complex and deadly Mrs. Coulter is the face of evil for the story’s protagonist. Yet Mrs. Coulter’s wicked actions are driven fully for a desire for power over others, not an absurd quest for vanity or a trivial romance. The White Witch in “The Chronicles of Narnia” is another example of a female villain motivated by this desire for pure power.

Fictional villains may be an odd form of activism, but there is no denying that it is satisfying to see villains — so often the harbingers of extreme power — as people traditionally written off as weak.