The Great American Villainess

I don’t really watch the Superbowl for the football—I mean, I’m aware of the football game. I watched in disbelief as the Seahawks annihilated the Broncos for two quarters, because normally (I noticed, due to astute observations of other football games) the other team scores in the first quarter, too. But this year I was really hoping to catch the Jaguar commercial on my father’s enormous television, because it was chock full of famous British actors.

The premise of the Jaguar commercial is that British actors tend to be the best at portraying charming, calculating villains: Elegant facades that conceal power, precision, and aggression. Oh yeah, Jaguar, I see what you did there.  It really is good to be bad.

Because I enjoy elegant villainy, powerful imported vehicles, and possibly also Mr. Hiddleston, I watched the behind the scenes clip Jaguar had released as a companion to the commercial, in which the actors discussed what made the British men best at portraying bad guys. Sir Ben Kingsley noted our English brethren have better villain role models, in the form of Macbeth and Richard III—Shakespearean villains that have many layers and motives—while we Americans are more schooled in the role of the ass-kicking hero (or anti-hero).

I would have to agree. Most American-portrayed villains are two-dimensional whack-jobs. No layers of evil. The clip also had me thinking that female American villains are often even flatter—crazy witches out for revenge.

Granted, there are few opportunities for true villainesses, which I think is the great tragedy of Hollywood. Here’s my proposal.

One American-portrayed villainess, the character also being American, as the fulcrum of an action movie. She would be well-educated, well dressed, and charming. There would be no dress size limit or beauty standard, per say, as long as she was the pinnacle example of the fashion appropriate for her character. I lean toward the classic cocktail formal wear, but I could also see a more casual version of the Great American Villainess. A New York City chic vibe comes to mind.

She would be a powerhouse character. Always prepared for any contingency. A leader in business. Well respected and sometimes feared for her ruthless business strategies. Her villainy would not arise from a need for revenge, or out some sort of jealousy, but rather a desire to achieve her own goals come hell or high water, a need to fulfill her personal ambition, whatever that might be.

There would also be a slew of loyal minions, which she would treat fairly and with a respect. Everyone would know up front they were expendable—not that she would go around offing her army of enchanted followers willy-nilly. That’s just wasteful.

And just when the hero thought he might understand her game, she would do something dangerously unexpected. When she finally caught that pesky protagonist, there would be no monologues, no enumerating of the master plan, just a quick and efficient death. Boom. Problem solved, world domination achieved. End scene.

Although I suppose she would have to be promptly thwarted, but whatever.

I can think of one character I’ve read that fits the bill: Jacqueline Carey’s character Melisande Shahrizai.

Does anyone know a villainess that fits my description, in film or books? Make a recommendation.

I need a role model.

(Full disclosure: I wanted a red Jaguar convertible when I was in fourth grade, because obviously, but I am in no way affiliated with the company. I’m not getting paid for this, I just really dig the commercial.)

6 thoughts on “The Great American Villainess

  1. Your comment about loyal minions resonates with me. I’ve had at least two female bosses who I recognize don’t hold as much clout in a male-oriented workplace, but who I might actually serve in a world-domination scheme be they so inclined.

    There are few things scarier than complete loyalty. Let an aspiring villainess – a First Lady or some other “support” role to her husband – win over his underlings somehow. Then when she plots to usurp the throne, let readers see her man’s former majordomo take a bullet for her without hesitation. There’s your evil queen.

    Granted, men are fully capable of winning the hearts of their workers without physically ripping them out of chests. And women can stand on their own without usurping the obligatory Man in Power. But if your goal is to take a distinct “female” approach to villainy that doesn’t come across on the page as a dude with boobs…

    • I like your approach, it’s sneakiness definitely has value. But I think there are many ways to create a villainess without her coming off as a dude with boobs.

      Your “dude with boobs” comment is an excellent example of the problem in Hollywood. People assume that women in power who are ruthless are channeling masculine energies. But, ruthlessness is neither masculine or feminine. Both genders exhibit ruthless qualities equally.

      It is possible to be feminine and ruthless–it’s just all in the execution (if you’ll pardon the pun).

  2. Well, I know you realize that I’m not sexist and you weren’t trying to trap me in a “gotcha” moment to reveal society’s gender bias through my seemingly-innocent comment… *ahem* right?

    I took your post as a discussion of what traits would suit a villain precisely because she was female and not male. The implication seemed to be that you’re trying to figure out the difference. If I misunderstood, then what can I say – you got me ;)

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