In fairy tales and stories of the past, women were always the ones who needed saving. Not just in books, I might add. Look at Princess Peach; she's been saved by Mario for 30 years!
But girls, we no longer need to be saved. Well, we never did, but I digress. I could go on and on about my favourite female heroes who save themselves, but this year - suggested by Lisa H. and Jem Wakefield on Twitter - I'm going to focus on the villains.
When villains first started appearing as women, we were only evil step-mothers and witches. Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Rapunzel are a testament to that. As if the only thing that could make a woman do evil things was being old, unmarried, and childless. Come on. But of course, that was what men of the past believed. If a woman is unmarried and childless when she reaches middle-age, there must be something wrong with her.
And this stereotype lasted for hundreds of years. Until the 20th Century came along. Yes, the 20th Century also brought us the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) and the White Witch (The Chronicles of Narnia), but more importantly, it gave us a break in the way women could be evil in literature.
One of my favourite examples of this is Cruella De Vil (The Hundred and One Dalmatians). Neither old nor unmarried, Cruella De Vil is spoilt and demanding and therefore used to getting what she wants. How much more engaging is that? She's pretty awesome too, animal cruelty aside. She made her husband take her surname, which for a book published in 1956 is such a fierce statement. Cruella knows exactly what she wants and will stop at nothing to get it, and I can't help but love her for that, and I'm not even sorry.
Another of my favourites is Miss Trunchbull (Matilda). I know, yes, she is also unmarried and childless, but my God, she is petrifying. As a child, no character frightened me more than Miss Trunchbull, and that's because she's so real. We've all had a teacher a bit like her. (Mine materialised to be my bitter Year 8 geography teacher.) The fact that she's a woman isn't important (my geography teacher happened to be a man Trunchbull). It's not really a character trait of hers. She's just pure nasty. It's perfect. Just because your villain is a female does not mean she has to be into her looks, like Cruella. She doesn't even have to be feminine. But that doesn't mean that feminine isn't scary.
This brings me to another fantastic example. Cersei Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire, better known now as Game of Thrones). Cersei isn't old, she isn't unmarried, and she isn't childless, but she is fierce. She wants power and will stop at nothing to get it. She's complex and cunning and clever, and this is something we're still crying out for. When an interviewer asked George R. R. Martin,
"There's one thing that's interesting about your books. I noticed that you write women really well and really different. Where does that come from?"
He replied, "You know I've always considered women to be people."
Villains are always far more successful when they're not just evil for evil's sake. There's always a reason they do what they do. They're human!
How could I write this blog without mentioning Harry Potter? Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix brought us two of my all-time favourite villains: Dolores Umbridge and Bellatrix Lestrange. Bellatrix is just a classic villain. Overcome by power and a little crazy. She's menacing and scary, but how many of us are going to meet a Bellatrix in real life? A lot of her power is lost in that fact. But that's where Dolores Umbridge shined. I have never hated a character so much. I have never wanted bad things to happen to a character so much. The beauty of Dolores Umbridge is that it's in all the little things. She's never going to kill you like Bellatrix is, but she is going to make every facet of your life miserable, and isn't that just as evil? Whether you like Harry Potter or not, you have to agree that Dolores Umbridge is one of the most well-constructed villains of all time.
Look how far we've come. From ugly witches, to fabulous heiresses, nasty headmistresses, and power-hungry royalty. The female villains of today are so much more engaging and relatable, and fiction is better for it. I for one can't wait for all the villains to come.
An honourable mention goes to Maria from Jem Wakefield's Eating our Heart Out as one of these awesome villains of the future. Maria is one of the most addictive villains I've ever read. Can't wait to see you in print, Jem!
Let me know who your favourite female villains are.
Happy International Women's Day!