The problem with Blockbuster Female Villains and their perception of femininity

“We’re not a minority, we’re 52% of the population”, my tutor spans, exasperated, working to convince one stubborn student that film has a legacy of extreme sexism both on and off screen. It is no secret that male characters take up the majority of screen time in every major film one can think of. There are few films that feature women in the same manner that they portray men. A distinct difference in everything from character depth to lighting to costume, and this issue has been the focus in the last few years. We want equality. Not the quasi-equality we have had since the early 2000s where women are free to dress how they want, as long as they’re still attractive. Have a career, as long as they balance it with childcare. Have fun and own their sexuality, as long as they get married.

Equality is the overall goal we are fighting for, right? Equality is the reason for the #Metoo movement, the 82 protest at the 72nd Cannes Film festival, and the various film funds and diversity initiatives focused on giving women the opportunities in the film industry that their male counterparts receive. Equality means visibility for all genders. We need to see male and female characters, of all nationalities, races, sexualities, ability with agency, choice, and complexity on screen. But that cannot be fixed with merely using the statistic 50/50.

In the last five or so years there has developed a trend in big budget Hollywood cinema, particularly in action films, where there is a male hero and a female villain. So we should be happy now? We have achieved on-screen equality because the two main characters are one of each, but it’s far more complicated than numbers.

Three such films which exemplify this trend are Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2018), The Mummy (2017) and Baywatch (2017). All three films feature a male protagonist and a female antagonist. Each villain is powerful, elegant, and ultimately falls to the male hero or heroes. These films only contribute to the problems of gender inequality and representation. Firstly, as more female villains, unless genuinely well written like Hela in Thor: Ragnarok, only serve to further demonise femininity and validate heroic masculinity. Professor Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, once said that as long as femininity is portrayed negatively, no-one will want to be a girl, let alone a woman.

Baywatch is a good place to start. Two male protagonists, and a further male character and two female characters make up our main cast. The narrative focuses largely on Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) and Matt Brody (Zac Efron) working against the police’s wishes to stop drug dealers and property developers from threatening their turf; the beach. Our villain is Victoria Leeds portrayed by Piriyanka Chopra despite the part originally being written for a man. She is a powerful, seductive woman who surrounds herself with giant body guards and seeks to intimidate with designer dresses. She is an archetypal ‘bad woman’ who uses her beauty and intelligence to manipulate and seduce to achieve her goals.

This may not seem far out of the ordinary, there are countless female assassins, spies, evil heiresses and wives of billionaires across film and television history. This image is not only tired, but unrealistic. One doesn’t have to look too deep into feminist film theory to understand that female strength is almost always linked to weaponising sexuality. A woman who owns her sexuality is bad, or is punished for pursuing pleasure. We cannot have a strong woman who reflects the complexity of women in reality. She cannot be strong in the male fashion. She must be strong and successful because she uses her ‘feminine wiles’.  Victoria is clearly smarter and more accomplished than the men which surround her, but all of that is buried under her aesthetic value. Even so, she falls at the hands of our all American heroes.

Similarly, Poppy Adams, the sickly sweet drug boss of Kingsman: the Golden Circle leaves an audience wanting. Although Julianne Moore is a brilliant actress and her appearance in the Kingsman sequel was much anticipated, she was just as plastic and lacking as the rest of the film. She is characterised as a successful, if sadistic business woman. She lives in a hidden 50s style theme park called ‘Poppyland’ in the middle of the Cambodian jungle. Her obsession with being recognised as the most successful woman on Earth, despite running a drug empire, borders on delusion. Furthermore, she doesn’t poison millions of people in an effort to legalise drugs for the benefit of humanity (at least Valentine wanted to save the world) but for her own personal gain.

Poppy is as terrifying as Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds, but the writers felt the need to trivialise the character. To make her perform the type of femininity reminiscent of 1950s housewives. In fact, director Mathew Vaughn stated that Poppy was intended to be “Martha Stewart on crack… a kooky, sweet, Stepford Wives-style villain that, at the same time, is lethal and crazy and intelligent.” While it’s always fun to have a character which incorporates such antithetical traits, it is almost like a neon sign reinforcing that no matter how successful a villain, Poppy Adams is still a woman. She combines evil with a stereotyped performance of femininity which binds the two together. The more images like this on screen, the more this association will be entrenched in cultural memory. These images help perpetuate the ideas about women, sexuality, and morality which have been thrust down our throats since medieval morality plays.

Our female villains may be far superior to the one dimensional damsels in distress featured in films like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, but these villains, whether a housewife or a vixen, will always fall to good old fashioned heroic masculinity. Which reinforces the gender binary and the idea that there is something wrong with being a woman, especially one who can achieve power, money and influence without a man.

Demands for better representation are difficult because it’s not just about visibility. It’s not about female characters behaving as badly as male characters in The Hangover, or more characters who are one dimensional of either gender.  What would be a step in the right direction is allowing female characters the full spectrum of traits, agency, and morality. This is a lot to ask of any writer, creating realistic, multi-faceted characters is difficult at the best of times. Yet this is not an excuse. Statistics about dialogue, screen time, and percentage of characters of a certain gender can only take us so far. The same can be said for sexuality, race, and nationality.

Except for one key fact, women are not a minority.

Being a woman is not exotic, bizarre, or widely out of the ordinary. It is ridiculous that film and literature, and the industry that surround it, are so biased against women that we have to be satisfied with one in five characters being female, with women defined by their sexuality or their role as a mother. This makes something made by women for women inherently trivialised or marketed as ‘speciality’. It is hard to comprehend why the lens is so distorted and this male-hero, female-villain trope, whilst although a step above zero women in a film, is not the equality we are after.


By Mia Garfield

Mia Garfield has just finished a degree in Film at Falmouth University. She has written about the female voice in cinema and negotiating the position of the female director. She has just finished her first short film ‘Sonder’, keep an eye out for it at festivals in the UK. A big lover of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Mythology, her taste is varied and every time she is asked about her favourite film she gives a different answer. Today her favourite films include Howl’s Moving Castle, Memoirs of A Geisha, How to Train Your Dragon, and Big Hero 6. You can find her @miajulianna2864

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