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  • Evil As She Does

    By Amrita Rajan

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    Pity the female villain.

    Male villains can look forward to world domination, tons of moolah and all the power they can handle; females, on the other hand, spend all their time scheming to sabotage various weddings when they’re not forcing their daughters-in-law to mop floors while dressed in rags or nagging their husbands to death. And if somehow they manage to stumble onto a bitchin’ gig, they might just find themselves laboring under gallons of body paint and CGI because God forbid they show an actual live woman having the sort of fun men having been having for ages now (before getting blown up or dissolved in a vat of acid, naturally).

    Male villains get cool names, all the chicks they can bang, and fly around the world like the billionaires they frequently are; female villains are typically the mom or the wife from hell, nobody loves them much less wants to bang them, and all their plotting and planning usually leaves them with a wrinkly face.

    Chee. Who’d want to be a female villain?

    So it’s always nice to stumble across a proper villain in a dress. Especially when it’s Glenn Close.

    Every ten years or so, Close manages to play one woman character who is so dead-on perfect for that decade, it’s absolutely uncanny. They’re not your run-of-the-mill female villains; they embody everything we’re supposed to fear about women that generation. It’s no accident that they’ve become by-words in pop culture.

    Fatal Attraction (1987) – Clearly, there’s something fishy about Alex Forrest (Close). She’s a sexy, capable, career woman who knows what she wants and when. She could have anybody at all but she inexplicably sets her sights on the charming (some would say smarmy but that’s just Michael Douglas for you) Dan Gallagher.

    Good ol’ Dan, our sympathetic hero, has a wife and little girl at home but when offered an illicit weekend with the sexy Alex, Dan couldn’t be more ready. The sex is amazing but once the weekend’s over and the wife is on her way back, Dan would like nothing better than to put it all behind him. This is when Alex informs him that she has some ideas of her own. Ideas she probably culled from a horror movie.

    Oopsie.

    By the time the 80s rolled around, sexism was still rampant in the workplace not to mention the home, but change was definitely afoot in the gender wars. However, things hadn’t evolved to the extent where strong, successful women working outside their homes were the accepted norm.

    Close, dressed in those sexy suits with her hair done just so and the mascara smudging around her eyes so you wondered whether she’d just rolled out of somebody’s bed or was finishing up a long day at the office, perfectly captures the threat implied by women like Alex.

    She is off the leash, so to speak, a woman whose sexual liberation conveniently masks a sexual predator; the ice queen who (spoiler alert!) could boil a child’s bunny rabbit without a qualm to send her prey a message; the bitch who threatens to emasculate you because she is more powerful than you. Even her uterus, that sacred vessel of life, is a threat to this decent family man (who made one little mistake) and his innocent family.

    Towards the end of the movie, it really does transform itself from a thriller to a horror film, but that too is in line with its theme of a woman run amok — she’s not just an evil woman, she’s a monster. She can’t merely be defeated, she must be eliminated because she will not stop! By the time she meets her end at the hands of the Good Wife right when things look very black indeed for the Erring Husband, it’s turned deliciously 80s… yet Alex the Psycho is such a powerful image, she resonates even today.

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    101 Dalmatians (1996) – Who doesn’t love, and love to hate, Cruella De Vil? The woman so fashionably evil, she wants a coat made from puppy dogs! Beat that Meryl Streep, with your Prada-afflicted Priestly and whatnot. This is how the real De Vil kicks it.

    Made at a time when America was obsessed with Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe (of Doom! also, pantsuits), this anti-fur, pro-puppy movie has everything the mid-90s held dear — the women are beautiful, smart and employed; the men are goofy, sweet and supportive; and animals are amazing; everybody just wants to wear plaid, cuddle and drink coffee by the fire. A new age had dawned, people!

    On the evil side of things, Close’s Cruella is the kind of woman who might well have been Alex Forrest in the 80s but in the new decade, she’s found better things to do with her time than muck around with douchebags like Dan Gallagher. She’s no longer the kind of woman who’d stalk some bunny rabbit — that would look crazy and she’s all about the image these days as people around her spruce up, realize what a sartorial embarrassment the 80s were, and begin to probe the seemingly unending limits of this new post-Cold War, post-threat (ah, remember those brief few years when it looked like everything was going to be sun and roses forever now that Communism was dead and everybody was rich?) world. When she needs her dirty work done, she doesn’t bother sullying her own hands with it — she simply commands the hapless males to do it. And of course, they’re just bumbling idiots put on earth to screw up her plans.

    Cruella is, in fact, an updated version of an Evil Woman Prototype familiar to moviegoers of all demographics — The Fashionista. There is something about a woman who is devoted to fashion that seems to set alarm bells ringing, no matter what their generation. How can somebody so frivolous, so committed to looks, so caught up in the exterior of a person, be anything other than Not Good? The easiest way to indicate a woman’s evil nature… well, is to give her a sexual appetite. But! A close second is to put her in a couture outfit. And give her a good manicure. Be it high school, high society or the Highlands, with those weapons she will enslave the poor male who is too much of an idiot to see the evil that lurks in her expensively clad bosom and then he will slowly descend into the bowels of depravity — just the way she likes it. Muahaha!

    Standing in stiff opposition are the bland yet delicious-as-bread pudding couple of Roger (Jeff Daniels) and Anita (Joely Richardson). They not only love puppies and want them to keep their fur, they want to adopt all the little puppies in the world and love them forever by putting out precious video games that teach other people how awesome puppies can be. Puppies! Puppies! Puppies! They loves them! And we loves them! And we loves them even more when they make Cruella’s fur fly! Cue the happy ending: a mansion on a giant estate with a yuppie couple, their newborn infant and loads of doggies. I think we can all agree that’s pretty much the definition of 90s heaven. As long as someone else is wielding the pooperscooper anyway.

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    Damages (2007 – ) – As is right and proper in this postmodern, post-racial, lipstick world of ours, Close’s Patty Hewes is a much more complex character. For one thing, she’s on TV, where all the good writing is these days (seriously! Search and ye shall find). For another, she’s a lot more ambiguous as The Career Bitch than you’re used to. Do I want her to win or do I want her to bite it? I’m so confused!

    She’s a cut throat lawyer, the kind that makes you hope she will always be on your side, but there’s nothing funny or eccentric about her — this isn’t your David E. Kelley lawyer who can be a bastard all day in court and then come back to the office and make your heart melt by his devotion to his pet frog or his bonding sessions on the terrace with a co-worker.

    She frightens people, and with good reason, as we keep finding out. And yet, she’s obsessed with a case that has Erin Brokovich (without the boobies or the toxins) written all over it.

    Like her protégée, the naive Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), we just can’t get a handle on this woman — what is she capable of, what are her motivations, and what does she want? It makes you think fondly back to the days when you knew that all a woman really wanted was a man in her bed and a coat made of intelligent puppy dogs.

    And then there are the other conventions that Damages plays with all the time:

    Ostensibly, Hewes’ problems all stem from the male of the species. There’s the billionaire Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), who in another sort of female context would be the hero: rich, strong, charismatic, older man who is deeply concerned about the impact of litigation on his innocent family. The air thrums with tension if he and Hewes so much as mention each other. It’s just what you want in your Harlequin romance. Except for that part where he really is evil and they hate each other’s guts. You could easily see shades of the Forrest/Gallagher power struggle in this if you squint a bit.

    Then there is her son, the delinquent Michael (Zachary Booth). He accuses his mother of being the ultimate control freak and rejects her. But is he being a normal teenager or does he just know her better than anybody else? Is Hewes that classic stereotype — an exceptional career woman and a lousy mom? Or is he just yanking her (and our) chain? Should we be calling Hewes Mommie Dearest or is her son just a manipulative son of a bitch?

    She even has a weak-kneed male second-in-command she likes to boss around and remind that he will never be anything better than an also-ran, Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan). He’s with her every step of the way and she can always reel him back in if he makes a bid for freedom, but can she really trust him? And if she can’t trust him, doesn’t trust him, then is it because control freaks can never fully repose their faith in another human being no matter how much they prove their loyalties or is it because he’s a weaselly weasel and she knows it? Can Hewes ever have a friend or are they all doomed to fail her?

    It is, however, the very female Ellen Parsons who is her real counterweight. We first meet Ellen as the ambitious young lawyer with everything going for her and a serious case of hero-worship for the legendary Patty Hewes. She wants to be Hewes the way ingénues in stories like these always want to be the ice-cold bitch at the top of the pyramid who is everything they are not, but the closer she gets to the flesh and blood woman behind the reputation, the more she looks askance at her.

    The time honored graph for characters like Ellen is hero-worship -> disillusionment -> anger -> dissociation -> revaluation -> happiness/acceptance + new direction. See: The Devil Wears Prada for the perfect example. Ellen had made it all the way to disillusionment/ anger by the end of season one, but as season two begins, we see that too much has happened for her to continue along the traditional path. She’s come too far and done too many things for her to end up in a tidily smug place on this series.

    As Close just signed on for another 6 seasons, I guess we’ll find out whether Hewes will get hers or not. If she does, however, then I bet Ellen is the one who seals the deal. Although storytelling conventions have changed since the days of Fatal Attraction, in the search for equilibrium on the gender scale I think we’ve arrived at a point where it simply strikes a discordant note for women of the chilling majesty imparted to them by Glenn Close to be taken down by some man. Even if he is William Hurt.

    We can look forward to that in the next decade.

    ***
    Amrita Rajan is a writer. Her debut novel, The Travails of Bunny Baby and Boo Baba, will be published later this year. She has a variety of interests and blogs about most of them at IndieQuill.

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    7 Responses

    1. I do not understand, please explain 😦

    2. I was very impressed by this article!
      I am currently working on a small seminar based on Female Villains and allusions that are made to them and this post really helped me formulate some of my ideas. Thanks for identifying some key stereotypes and characterizations!

    3. and i like how female villans are always so hot! – while male villans are as ugly as female villans are hot

      – sharan stone – basic instinct
      – demi moore- charlies angels
      – michele pfiffer – batman

      if she is main villan she is hottest woman. if she is a flunky villan- she can only be as hot with make up but will always be less hot that heroine

      there are a few regular looking female villans too- but too few- like
      – nurse mildred rachel -in one flew over the cuckoos nest
      and few ugly ones too like-
      -the head mistress lady in mathilda

      either they are super aware of their sexuality or dried up repressed frustrated spinsters

    4. […] Continue reading the rest of this post at Ultra Violet […]

    5. Amrita, you raise such an important point here…mem’s comment above crystallizes it, too. The female villain is always perfectly groomed, beautiful in an evil, threatening way. The ‘heroine’ – in both, Bollywood as well as mainstream Hollywood – is also perfectly groomed, but she’s pretty, beautiful in a simple, non-threatening manner. There are no real UGLY women, or women whose looks are indifferent, in the manner of male villains – and often male heroes. (the only truly ugly women are shown as mentally deranged or otherwise outside of normal society).

      This is pretty much because most movies are made with a male gaze – the makers – writers, directors, producers, are all male, the viewers are considered to be mostly male, focus groups for movies have far more male representation than rep. audience, since the assumption is that women will watch men’s movies but men don’t watch women’s movies (eg. chick flicks, SATC, etc.). Women, powerful or not, have to first cross the barrier of beauty – they need to be pretty, be desirable, be ‘fuckable’ to even be noticed. Of course, we see that reflected in off-screen commentary and writing too…no matter what a woman is or is trying to be, whether it is an astronaut or a teacher or the US President, what gets the maximum column inches is how she looks, what she wears and how much cleavage she shows.

      Male villains and heroes, on the other hand, need just be role-appropriate – they need to fit the masculinity profile and not be too effeminate if it’s a power-based role (e.g. being a political leader on screen or off it, or even be the evening TV news anchor), they need to look strong, in charge – and a little like ‘daddy’. If they’re gay, or look gay (whatever that means) – the horrors, they suffer a worse fate than the average woman.

      Patriarchy and stereotypes affect men and women in some pretty harsh ways, and the roles played by on-screen women and men are a great way to analyze our society, and how it sees itself. Kudos to Amrita for a really well-written piece.

    6. Thanks for reading everybody!

      Horeff – it means Glenn Close = Awesome!

      Meagan – thank you! If you write a paper, I’d love to read it and I bet others on this site would as well.

      Mem – so true! Female sexuality as the ultimate mark of deception leading to nothing but downfall; or the lack of sexuality denoting jealousy and leading to tragedy. Heads you lose, tails I win.

      Chevalier – thank you!
      I think reading the average film review (and I’m talking specifically about desi ones) underlines what you’re referring to… most people will write about the director’s skill, the writer’s talent, the hero’s work and the heroine’s looks. Always! The only change (and I think of this as a qualified improvement) is that lately, that’s been widened and now everybody talks about the hero’s looks as well. I remember reading Drona’s reviews in shock – it was the first time I’d read any hero being called out for his tummy.
      With female villains, I think Indian TV gets it – it’s all about the make up! It’s almost like a Kathakali performance – color coded acting.
      And let’s not even talk about gay people – I’m still recovering from finding out that they censored Dustin Lance Black’s speech in India because he said God loves gay people.

    7. […] Evil As She Does « Ultra Violet Pity the female villain. […]

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