Modern Villainesses: The Complex Personalities and Motives
The online group BookRiot recently began a Facebook discussion on female villains’ motivations, or lack thereof, in media. Many discussion participants claimed female villains are often boring because their motivations aren’t varied. Allegedly, female villains become or commit evil because they want men they can’t have, or because they want to hurt another female character, often the protagonist. Modern media consumers often call this “girl hate.” They reduce well-known and often respected female villains to the mean girls sitting at the middle or high school lunch table, gossiping about and tearing down any girl who dares to be different or go after the guys the “mean girls” want to date.
In fairness, several fictional villainess’ motives fall into one of these two categories. The Evil Queen from Snow White tries to murder her stepdaughter simply because Snow is younger and more beautiful than she is. Regina George from Mean Girls starts out as protagonist Cady’s friend, but she eventually turns on her because Cady “stole” Aaron Samuels, her ex-boyfriend. Kathy Morningside of Miss Congeniality tries to pull off a bombing essentially because she’s become jealous and bitter toward young, ambitious, and intelligent beauty pageant contestants. However, not every villainess’ motivation comes from lust, lost love, or “girl hate.” Particularly in recent decades, the media has given us more complex villainesses with deeper motivations. Today’s villainesses are physically, mentally, and emotionally diverse. They pursue multifaceted goals, and at times they indulge their potential to become honorable women. When they don’t indulge that potential, we still root for them because these women and girls are relatable. We tell ourselves we’d never act the way they do in pursuit of what we want, but they give us a safe outlet to explore those options and their consequences.
Ingrid, Once Upon a Time
The word “villainess” is slightly archaic, but pleasantly so. It conjures up visions of a fairytale or historical “bad girl” rather than a modern one–someone from whom modern female antagonists can draw roots. Ingrid of hit series Once Upon a Time is a perfect example of this archetype, and one with highly complex motives. She first appears in season four, the central villain of the show’s Frozen-based arc. At first, her goals seem straightforward. Ingrid, like many villains before her, wants to take over Storybrooke and perhaps destroy it. She wants control, power, and respect, the kind leaders like Emma, Snow, and Regina have attained. Only when viewers get to know Ingrid do they see how atypical, and therefore how dangerous, she is.
Fairly early in season four, viewers learn Ingrid was Emma’s foster mother in the modern world, and is a banished Arendelle resident. She experienced an idyllic childhood with her sisters Helga and Gerda, until Ingrid’s uncontrolled ice powers tore the sisters apart. Ingrid’s heart shattered and splintered like the ice she creates. Convinced she was a “monster,” she began using her powers for intimidation and evil. But beneath Ingrid’s icy, raging exterior lay a layer of sadness and emptiness. More than anything, Ingrid yearns for Helga, Gerda, and their lost relationship. She’s determined to resurrect sisterhood, using foster daughter Emma and niece Elsa. Ingrid knows her quest will harm the other residents of Storybrooke, and steal Emma and Elsa’s happiness. Yet at the point we meet her, she’s lived without love and family so long, she no longer sees or cares about potential consequences.
Ingrid isn’t the first villain who turned evil for lack of love. That’s a common motivation for what TV Tropes calls villains “Start of Darkness,” especially in pieces like Once Upon a Time. For example, Regina and Zelena, two other Once antagonists, gave in to their baser instincts after love was ripped from them. Unlike these two ladies though, Ingrid isn’t outwardly vengeful or rage-fueled. She’s not content to vent her emotions on the innocent. She calculates and schemes not to tear something down, but to rebuild something. She uses warmth, kindness, and logic to get what she wants instead of brute strength or overt manipulation. More than power or control Ingrid seeks family, something everyone needs to thrive emotionally. Unlike many villainesses who know on some level they’re doing evil, Ingrid believes she is as innocent as fresh snow. The ugly truth, though, is that she’s borderline psychopathic. She’s convinced herself Elsa and Emma will love her plan to make them a powerful “family,” and that they’ll love her for relieving them of Storybrooke’s burdens. What Ingrid can no longer see is her inability to relate to Elsa, Emma, or anyone else as people. In her mind, they are simply pawns to be used for a twisted version of a noble purpose.
Ingrid’s motivation has one more unique facet – guilt. While in Arendelle, she accidentally killed sister Helga with her ice powers, and the fallout directly contributed to Gerda’s death. Thus, Ingrid became an atoner. By the time she reaches Storybrooke, her guilt is not apparent, but every action points straight to it. Again, her core purpose is understandable, even noble. Everyone wants to be forgiven for something, even if the guilt is false. Like Ingrid, everyone would like a chance to right wrongs done in the past, although not every wrong is fixable. In this, Ingrid becomes one of a handful of modern villainesses who not only recognize and acknowledge guilt, but lets it drive and weaken her. Guilt and shame nip at Ingrid’s heels every time she appears, including the times she engages in traditional villainy. She attempts to manipulate Emma, Rumple, and others, and can be downright frigid while doing it. But under her coldness lies raw desperation, and the protagonists don’t have to dig too deep to find it. Actually, Ingrid’s guilt and desperation make her more dangerous than a villain such as Regina or Zelena, because it’s easy for a protagonist like Emma to empathize with her. Ingrid poses a fresh and often unexplored challenge. The protagonists must try to defeat her, and save themselves, without shattering her further, which would increase her guilt and anger. As the Storybrooke residents work through this challenge, Ingrid becomes perhaps the most frightening villain they’ve faced yet.
Hilly Holbrook, The Help
On the surface, Hilly Holbrook is an almost one-dimensional female villain. She goes after Skeeter Phelan when the latter stands up for Minny, Aibileen, and other black protagonists, making her a candidate for “girl hate” motivation. Pure racism apparently drives most of her actions, making her an easy villain for a book set in the 1960s South. She acts like the quintessential Southern belle, falling back on the classic villainess strategy of being cruel while appearing sweet. Yet beneath her simple veneer, Hilly is a complicated villain.
Hilly’s first layer of complications arise from the deeper motive behind her shallow one. Unlike other racist villains, she doesn’t target minorities for pleasure or out of deep-seated hate. In Hilly’s case, racism is what she grew up with and all she knows, so she doesn’t recognize or believe she’s committing it. However, this isn’t enough to make her a complex villain, because plenty of other characters like Hilly have made radical changes by the end of their books, movies, or television shows. What makes Hilly complex is that although she’s a product of her time period, she doesn’t use that to justify her behavior. Instead, she uses the status quo, trying to force her particular brand of racism on others. Her contemporaries, like the ladies of the Junior League, might disagree with Hilly’s views or think they’re too extreme, but they’ll never speak up. Hilly has too much power for that to work. Yet if Hilly didn’t have that power – if she wasn’t Junior League president and a member of one of Jackson’s oldest families – she could still spread her poisonous attitude freely. Her underlying message is, “I am a benevolent leader. I keep my subordinates safe. Without my guidance, my friends and family are in danger.” Without losing her smile or poise, Hilly uses other sources to back this up – not only Jim Crow laws, but hearsay, such as the idea that blacks and whites are susceptible to different diseases, or that black maids are predisposed to thievery.
Hilly’s second layer of complexity comes from who she is outside her racial views. During The Help, Skeeter wonders how a conniving woman like Hilly could be such a devoted mother. Aibileen acknowledges Hilly was once one of the “babies” the help in Jackson took care of–before that sweet little girl grew up and became the boss. Of course, Hilly is not the first villain, male or female, who used to be a sweet kid, or has the capacity to love. The key is in how she does or does not use that capacity. For instance, unlike her friend Elizabeth Leefolt, Hilly doesn’t spank or berate her children. She relishes time with them and brags about them. For part of The Help, she at least appears to be a devoted daughter to her elderly mother.
But unlike similar villains, Hilly can never quite turn her dark side off. While spending time with her kids, she subtly reminds them of the “rules” about public areas like restrooms or swimming pools. She sometimes takes over child-rearing tasks, not because she wants to do them, but because she’s reluctant to trust a black maid. When her mother bucks Hilly’s inner status quo, Hilly sends her to a nursing home; every inch of tolerance or kindness disappears. Hilly puts forth effort, but she can never let go. Fear dogs her the way the fallout of Jim Crow dogs Aibileen, Minny, and other maids. She’s terrified not only that her perfect world will implode, but that someone like Skeeter will strip her mask and reveal who she is to the other ladies of Jackson. When, in a pivotal scene, Hilly eats her own excrement, readers are meant to laugh, and we do. While laughing though, we shake our heads, because we know Hilly is figuratively and literally eating herself, and her own poison. If she were an in-your-face, unapologetic racist, there might be some hope of redemption for her. As Kathryn Stockett writes her though, little hope for lasting change exists.
Mrs. Agnes Medlock, The Secret Garden
Mrs. Medlock of Frances H. Burnett’s classic children’s book is one of the “flattest” female villains. We don’t know anything about her past or what she does outside her job as Misslethwaite Manor’s housekeeper. She doesn’t have a defining “start of darkness” like Ingrid; she doesn’t have potentially redeeming characteristics like Hilly Holbrook. She exists to fill a role: keep Misslethwaite running smoothly while her master is away. That’s exactly what she does, and seemingly no more. She doesn’t abuse the servants under her, cook the household books, or do anything wrong in itself, so much of the household believes she’s tolerable, if “a bit sharp,” as maid Martha Sowerby says. However, Agnes Medlock isn’t as flat as she looks, nor as simple.
Mrs. Medlock probably didn’t set out to become hard, stern, and potentially evil. Remember though, that she’s been in her position for ten years minimum. Like a shell-shocked veteran, she’s seen plenty of tragedy and dealt with more hardship than most women of her time. Her master, Lord Craven, is physically disabled and was always somewhat distant because of that. Mrs. Medlock watched Craven’s wife, beloved mistress of Misselthwaite, die. As the highest-ranking surviving female, she was left to pick up the pieces of her employer’s consuming grief. From what Burnett lets readers see, she wasn’t successful, in part because it’s not a housekeeper’s job to be a sounding board or provide emotional healing. As if this burden weren’t enough, Mrs. Medlock also took on the responsibility of Craven’s ill ten-year-old son, Colin. Along with a nurse, she practically raises the boy – another task that she never signed up for and never should’ve been given. In some adaptations, such as the 1993 film, Medlock attempts to be stern with Colin when necessary, but has to back off. She knows to jeopardize Colin’s health is to risk the death of her still-grieving master’s only heir. Worse, she knows her position and livelihood are in the hands of a spoiled and capricious prepubescent boy.
The longer these burdens wear on her, the more Medlock changes from a stern but tolerable housekeeper to an almost fanatical protector of the manor and Colin. These tendencies aren’t so apparent in the book, but come through well in stage and film adaptations, most notably the 1993 American film and 1975 BBC miniseries. In both, Medlock regularly targets Mary Lennox for her wrath. This might be considered “girl hate,” except that Mary is only ten. She has no real power against an experienced and authoritative adult. Also, Medlock doesn’t hate Mary because of her beauty, kindness, or intelligence. Frankly, Mary is a plain-faced and imperious brat for much of The Secret Garden. Medlock grows to hate her because she sincerely believes Mary will kill Colin with her eventual exuberance and insistence that his life can change. If Colin dies, or if he no longer depends on Medlock for safety, then Agnes Medlock might go from respected housekeeper to blacklisted servant. She might end up on the streets.
Medlock never changes her ways completely, but she lets us see more of her true fears and foibles than the other two villainesses we’ve covered. She’s also brave enough to own up to how she feels. “She’ll kill Master Colin,” Medlock tells Craven desperately, speaking of Mary in the 1993 film. In the BBC miniseries, she’s a little more forceful, constantly claiming Mary is a danger not only to Colin but to Misselthwaite itself. Craven doesn’t agree, but he does seem to understand Medlock’s protective efforts. Although Medlock says in the 1993 film she will resign, she’s still around at the end. She also never leaves in any other adaptations. She simply disappears, giving the impression she’ll take time to consider taking her gift for protection down a more productive route.
Angelica Pickles, Rugrats
During the 1990s, Nickelodeon produced several great cartoons known as Nicktoons. The network gave us some great female villains, from Helga Pataki of Hey Arnold to Miranda Kilgallen of As Told By Ginger. The best-remembered villainess though, is Angelica Pickles, who still makes “top ten” lists in TV Guide, on YouTube, and beyond. Her show was cancelled circa 2004, but viewers can’t seem to get enough of her. Her motivations and character are largely responsible for that.
Perhaps what makes Angelica so memorable is her ability to be so similar to, yet so different from, other villainesses. Like a typical villainess, she thirsts for power and control, although the only people she can control are her one-year-old cousin Tommy and his toddler friends. She manipulates, unwilling to do anything unless there’s something in it for her. She verbally abuses those she sees as inferior, using insults like, “You stupid babies!” Like so many villainesses before and after her, Angelica does these things while affecting an air of innocence others fall for, especially adults.
Despite these similarities, major differences make Angelica stand out. The most obvious is her age. At only three, Angelica knows enough to grasp a basic sense of right and wrong, but she’s on par developmentally with “nicer” kids her age. She’s completely self-centered because her world is so small. She can’t predict long-term consequences of her actions, and she assumes she’s completely right and innocent although everything about a situation indicates otherwise. With this in mind, it could be argued that unlike other villainesses, Angelica does not mean or want to be evil. She wants the shortest and easiest ways to achieve her goals. Those goals can be physical, like a new toy or stash of candy, or they can be emotional, like staying in her parents’ good graces (to then obtain more material goods). Once she’s reached her goal, the particular scheme attached to it is finished. She doesn’t plot or scheme endlessly. She takes action out of momentary, explosive anger, but not real hatred or a long-term desire for revenge. Angelica can be good or bad; more easily than any other villainess we’ve discussed, she can “turn it on” or “turn it off” because of her age, and because deep down, she wants to be good. The problem is, she’s never had a significant opportunity to be good, so she doesn’t know how.
Angelica has multifaceted motives, even and especially for her age. Like Ingrid, she thirsts for familial love, as well she should. Angelica’s mom Charlotte is a high-powered corporate executive who unconsciously neglects her daughter in favor of work. Angelica’s father Drew is doting and well-meaning, but can’t balance indulgence with discipline, constantly sending the impressionable Angelica mixed messages about what love means and whether it’s unconditional. But unlike Ingrid, Angelica hasn’t progressed enough developmentally to create her own family. More importantly, she hasn’t developed enough to understand the myriad meanings of love. Unlike Ingrid, Angelica can’t imagine herself as lovable, nor has she ever experienced consistent love. She doesn’t know if she’s good enough to deserve it because she’s never been shown she is. Thus, her motivation doesn’t revolve around obtaining love. Rather, it revolves around becoming good enough to earn it. If she can’t become good, Angelica figures the next best thing is appearing good just long enough to get what she needs in the moment. Once she does, she can relax, until she begins feeling empty again.
As noted, Angelica often uses material things to fill a void she doesn’t yet understand. Her toy collection is the envy of any girl her age; in the Christmas special The Santa Experience, a guilt-ridden store manager gives her “practically every toy in the store,” according to Charles Finster Sr. Despite her parents’ efforts to curb her sweet tooth, she can get dessert almost on demand. She owns a pedigreed kitten named Fluffy, a child-size convertible, and countless other things, a fraction of which any child would feel blessed to have. Still, Angelica demands more and better of everything. Viewers in Rugrats‘ target audience rightly assume it’s because she’s spoiled. Additionally though, Angelica seems to think, “If I get this toy, this sweet, this [insert object here], I’ll be happy. I’ll feel better about not having consistent friends, truly attentive parents, etc.” She can’t voice that, but she can act out how she feels. Unfortunately for Angelica, this comes across as tantrum-throwing, manipulation, and entitlement. The adults in her life spend more time trying to eradicate those behaviors than examining why they exist.
No matter how many times she schemes for possessions, Angelica’s satisfaction with “stuff” always runs out. In these cases, viewers see her underdeveloped but present vulnerable side, and it’s often heartbreaking to watch. This side of Angelica usually comes out when quick fixes won’t solve her problems. Whenever she’s forced to face how unlovable she feels, Angelica becomes overwhelmed. A prime example is the episode “Angelica’s Worst Nightmare.” Charlotte and Drew tell Angelica they’re expecting another baby, and Angelica slowly becomes fearful of being “replaced.” Later, she has a nightmare in which Mommy and Daddy give away her room and toys, make her live in the laundry room, and become too enamored with the new baby to feed her. Worse, the baby in Angelica’s nightmare is a monster child who tries to eat her. The dream ends with Angelica getting sucked into the black hole of her baby brother’s mouth.
Angelica wakes terrified, and Drew comes in to assure her she’s only having a bad dream. She breaks down crying, and Drew allays her fears. “You’ll always be my princess,” he says, adding, “You’re our first baby and we’ll always love you and take care of you.” This leads to one of Angelica’s few touching, wholesome moments. But because these moments are so few throughout the series, she can’t hold onto her father’s words. She also can’t take them to heart and begin acting kind or gentle, the way the princess she wants to be would act. These and similar moments of Angelica’s vulnerability net her more pity than most villainesses get. Viewers root against her, but they also like her and occasionally root for her, because they recognize she’s still young enough to make changes if the right people help.
The Final Verdict
Female villains are often accused of operating from one of two motivations – a desire to take down a rival female, or a desire to unscrupulously net a man. While these motivations are classic and sometimes celebrated, modern villainesses have evolved. They are diverse in countless ways including their motives. Although two villainesses might have versions of the same motive, they challenge us to see them as people, not cardboard representations of evil. Feminism has done plenty for the “good girls” in our media canon, but modern portrayals of evil show us the “bad girls” are finally getting a fair shot as well.
Burnett, Frances. H. The Secret Garden. HarperCollins Reprint Edition, December 21, 2010.
Germain, Paul, Gabor Csupo, & Arlene Klasky. Rugrats. September 1991.
Kitsis, Edward & Adam Horowitz. Once Upon a Time.
Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. Berkeley Reprint Edition, April 5, 2011.
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