Why Are There Less Female Villains?

The answer to this one is actually really simple and comes about in two parts:

The first part is that ‘male’ is the default gender for characters.

The second is that no one wants to condone violence against women. No one who isn’t a huge douchebag, anyway. Additionally, it “doesn’t make sense” for a woman to overpower a man, which the protagonist may well be, especially in contests of strength.

The thing about the Final Boss type character is that the audience needs satisfaction and in many cases, satisfaction means poignant death. And poignant may mean ‘horrible’ or ‘brutal’ or ‘violent’. Audiences also like to see the bad guy, if truly terrible, thrashed. Think about your favorite fight scenes between hero and villain, swapping sword blows, punches, bullets…Now imagine that the hero is a man and the villain is a woman. And you see one major problem. A man cannot stab, punch, or shoot a woman, no matter how evil and vicious she is! It’s just…wrong! Especially in the light of actual domestic abuse, which is a real thing, and actual murder of women, which is a real thing, and actual shootings of women – and those things we all agree are very not okay and here is this story with its female villain where the woman is stabbed, punched, shot, and it is okay and even good? That can’t happen. (And obviously violence against females is the worst kind, worse than violence against males and violence against children just doesn’t exist because it’s too horrible.)

Villains often need to be cruel and awful, horrible people. Consider what a hard time people have with separating a single character from their entire group – race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. This is true in real life as in fiction. One Muslim is a terrorist, bam, we think all Muslims are out for American blood (despite the fact that their religion generally does not actually condone violence).  Pearl Harbor? Better put all the Japanese into our own concentration camps of sorts. Consider also that people have a hard time separating a character’s views and behaviors from the authors – if the hero is a gigantic homophobe, people will generally assume the author must also be homophobic. Authors and books have been picked apart for their social messages in what the book/writer is saying by what they hold as ‘good’ as embodied by their protagonist and protagonist’s growth and what they label as ‘evil’. If you have a woman villain, the hyena critics will wonder if you did that because you think all women are evil, all women are heartless and cruel. You’ll find people wonder if the villain stabbing the hero is symbolic of an ex-girlfriend or a traitorous female friend.

Funny story – as far as I know, this is based on an actual event where an English teacher had an author’s daughter in her class and when the teacher insisted the curtains were symbolic, the actual author could say no, that – well, just what the meme says.

This sort of analysis of your story will happen anyway. But do you really want people criticizing your view of women, especially in today’s heat of the subject? Where there are “feminists” who will find you like a laser-guided missile and beat you into oblivion? No. You don’t want to do that. Better stay on the safe side and just pick a male villain.

Is that just today’s society? I remember learning the actual story of Hercules in fifth grade and becoming very irate to learn that, once again, Disney had outright LIED to me about a story. (I still kind of hate Disney for miss-telling stories…but I do like anything original by them. I even like Tangled, as it seems to me more a presentation of their version of the story th- getting sidetracked, sorry). I asked my mom why they did that, why they felt like they had to make Hades the villain when Hades is actually a perfectly nice guy except for that part where he kidnapped Persephone and does not actually show up in the story of Hercules at all. No, don’t argue with me – Cerberus and Charon do but Hades DOES NOT.

Look at me and my happy marriage with Zeus, there is NOTHING WRONG here with our HAPPY FAMILY.

My mom said that it was probably because Disney did not want to portray a woman as a villain.

Now as an adult, I think it’s because Disney didn’t want to tell a story about a godly fellow who cheated on his wife and his wife spent the rest of the child’s life trying to ruin it. Why make Hades the bad guy instead? Because he’s the god of death and the underworld, CLEARLY he’s totes evil (even though it wasn’t his choice to be such, he lost in drawing straws with Zeus and Poseidon).

But my mom’s answer is curious, don’t you think? Because Disney TOTALLY avoids all female villains COMPLETELY.

Whoops I accidentally the female villain

Hahaha whoops?

No, I’m still claiming it’s an accident.

Rescuers? Emperor’s New Groove? Snow White? Cinderella? What’s the difference between them and Hera?

Well, nothing – I think my mom just got the answer wrong but didn’t want to bring up the whole adultery thing with me as a fifth grader even though I clearly knew about it. But what’s the difference between these women and others? In a fairy tale’s case, there’s two big points. One, the protagonist is female. So it’s all good, women can totally fight other women. No male domination there! And no worries about any inadvertent messages about women: look, the girl lead right there shows we don’t think all women are evil! Two, these women villains don’t tend to be…women. They’re evil witch-fairy-whatevers. I mean, you don’t really think so much about a boy dragon being a boy; you think about it as being a dragon. Yes, witch-fairy-whatevers are humanoid lending to think more easily of them as being a woman, but really, when you see the evil crone bent over her staff with a flapping raven, do you really think of her as a woman? They’re all female, so it’s more like a racial trait than an additional trait.

So how do we fix this problem? (Honestly I don’t think it’s a problem but clearly people want to see more female everythings so let’s address it.) First, we do have to remember to separate author from character from group – just because a man writes an evil, devilish, manipulating woman does not mean he thinks all women are like that – and neither does the book. Next, you’re just going to have to get over the violence against evil women thing. Although really, it does come back to the violence against men and children – the ‘against women’ part isn’t the problem, it’s the ‘violence’ part. If violence against a female villain bothers you, reevaluate how your characters handle ALL violence. Maybe you should pull an Asimov – “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” – and have your heroes fight the villain some other way. ‘Cause you know what? In real life, violence against anyone is inappropriate, although against an assailant sometimes necessary to some degree for survival, even a female assailant – that should be the same in our books.

Here’s the most important way to fix the problem, though – male characters are generic characters in part because of androcentrism…and in part because I think most people, especially male writers, find them easier to write. Practice writing good female characters, real women characters, and you can make one evil just as well as heroic.

About Rii the Wordsmith

An aspiring author, artist, avid consumer of storytelling medium, gamer, psychologist (insomuch as one with her bachelor's is a psychologist), wife, mother, DM, Christian, a friend to many, and, most importantly, an evil overlord.
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11 Responses to Why Are There Less Female Villains?

  1. Yay for Asimov! This post did make me think of Indiana Jones 4, where the “villain” was a woman, but was not defeated by the heroes. She was defeated by her own greed. (honestly though, I don’t think it was really greed, because she just wanted to know everything and is that really a bad thing?) I like your points about violence. I’m getting lots of ideas for my current work.
    Couple Questions: What are your thoughts on Indiana Jones 4? What are your thoughts on a female Mafia head?


    • I’m unaware of Indiana Jones 4. I’m pretty sure they only made three movies. I’m 1000% sure they only made three movies. So I can’t give you any comments on a fourth movie which clearly doesn’t exist, sorry.

      As for the Mafia – if you want to go realistically, the REAL Mafia, the scary one, is Albanian. Like, seriously, that’s why they’re Albanians in Taken (although Tyler would complain they’re not really because their accents are screwed up but that’s another thing). And Albanians are still kind of backwards with the whole women are property kind of thing – sorta. Women don’t really get to be leaders or anything cool, anyway, and a father is totes allowed to beat his daughters if they disappoint him or disobey or whatever. I’m not really versed in Italian culture so if you want to go for Italian Mafia, I’m sure you could pull off a female leader. (Just know the Italian Mafia designed themselves after the Albanian one. They’re just more famous because of The Godfather.)
      But say that you are going to write something in an alternate dimension where it’s not entirely unrealistic for a woman to be a Mafia head – There are a few pitfalls that I”m not worried about you in particular falling to, namely the femme fatale of “I get everything with my dangerous beauty” trope, or having her actually be manipulated by male puppet masters. It’d probably be best to set her up as respected because she is so deadly, but keep beauty out of it. And with that, I think she could be a very interesting character.


      • Too bad about Indy 4. The villain is really fascinating. Yes, this particular mafia is going to be in another dimension / universe / completely made up spot, but I want it to be serious organized crime, so I’m trying to model it after Mafia from here, to be realistic. There totally won’t be any “I use by sex / beauty to get everything” mostly because I have no respect for anyone who lets lust control them (James Bond, I’m talking to you.) Maybe I’ll make it that anyone can rise up the ranks, provided they do it right. Or have a male head. Or both. Though the “women are property” mentality would come in useful for something else . . . now I have even more ideas! Thanks!


        • No problem! I’m certain if there was a fourth movie, the villain might be one of the only things I even remotely liked about it.

          Not sure what Tyler could tell you about the Albanian Mafia, but he could tell you about their culture which might be helpful if you wanted. I think a woman driven to go to the top of the Mafia, cutting a swath of blood (or maybe NOT cutting a swath of blood, even where it seemed impossible not to) would be pretty epic. You’ll have to send me anything you write 😀


  2. Elizabeth says:

    WHY would you post a link to TV tropes?


    • You know I’ve done that before, right? Tropes are an important part of writing, too. Though…I have sometimes made the effort to warn of a tvrope link before so I guess the real answer is because I’m evil.


  3. Pingback: The Motivations of Female Villains | Build a Villain Workshop

  4. Luminas says:

    This is *waaaay* past the point where anyone’s likely to respond but basically: it’d be surprisingly easy to make a female villain you can beat into the ground.

    All you have to do is make half the cast women. Yep, that’s it. Just make it so that the demographics of the story line up more or less with real life, with women as supporting characters, angry scientists, rivals, regular protagonists (sometimes), et cetera et cetera. Make them interesting, believable women. Traditional housewife women, military women, tomboy women, hyperfeminine little girl in a woman’s body types. Then nobody’s saying much of anything about women by having us in the cast except “Women, y’know, *exist.*”

    Then make the Dark Lord a powerful, evil, psychotic woman who someone, even if they’re male, *really needs to beat into the ground.* Have her un-sexualized in blatantly ominous eerie armor. Have us not see her face most of the time. Have the male protagonist and the Dark Lord get into a glorious, bloody fight in which the dubiously-human female Dark Lord, as strong as a man at that point, gets her ass kicked. Have her grant Our Hero some horrific but accurate Aesop and then have him murder her. Nobody gets off on any of this unless they’re really weird.

    Like…the feminists are *fine with this,* in fact *more than fine.* This is *actually* the kind of gender equality we want to see. Where womanhood effects personality, but does not limit role. Where women can be and are anything, and get their ass kicked *by men* in a male sorta way. The only people creeped out by this are basically revealing their own sexism.


    • First of all, I’m glad my blog hasn’t faded into oblivion just because I’ve set it aside in favor of other endeavors, so thanks for reading!

      Second, wow, it was weird to go back and re-read this post. It’s like finding old writing from high school, just not as far back. Anyway I agree with you – I think a lot of (all of?) the toxic female tropes or lack of female presence could be solved by, gasp, greatly increased female presence. Though I know people who just /cannot/ accept the violence against women from a man thing. There’s just SOME RULES you just DON’T BREAK. Course at that point, I don’t really know what to tell them – Nothing is sacred, sorry? As long as there doesn’t feel to be a “put her in her place” underlying message, which you’d have to be pretty sexist for that to happen, I just don’t see a problem (so, yes, I agree with you).


  5. Luminas says:

    The average woman being weaker than the average man doesn’t really matter when you’re inherently dealing with non-average, abnormal, even inhuman people (protagonists and antagonists), y’know? Buffy the Vampire Slayer kicked men’s asses and got her ass kicked by men. Often. All the time. She grew from an archetype into a great character. Willow became the strongest person in that universe, after starting as one of its weakest. If it’s that simple with protagonists, antagonists, I think, are only a stretch because it bothers people to think that a woman could be a genuine threat to a good man’s goals. Could be deadlier and stronger and smarter than him, could *not* be viewed as a love interest or even redeemable by the male audience. We fear that outcome as a culture, because we recognize how terrifying that pent-up hatred and rage could be. That’s why on the occasions a universally deadly, mad, evil woman does appear….it’s in horror movies.

    But while this *is* a soapbox of mine, I really think that too greatly limits the realm of possibilities.


    • I don’t know if you’re familiar with the webcomic El Goonish Shive, but I’ve appreciated the way they’ve addressed this topic, actually.

      Ultimately, it’s useful to know stereotypes, statistics, and peoples thoughts and feelings on both – that changes a lot for how people will innately react to a character. But that doesn’t mean people are /right/ or that you /have/ to operate within expectations. Course I’m also a big fan of a woman, who could be physically overpowered by a man, being considered “stronger” than him because of other traits because I’m really friggun tired of “strength” having only one meaning. I may be a tiny woman with T-rex arms and no fortitude but I’m still very strong, thanks. I mean, just don’t ask me to help you move.


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