After decades of being fed the same kinds of tropey stories about good vs. evil, we've gotten a little too used to the narrative that there's nothing more horrifying, grotesque, and unnerving than a female villain. We love to hate them. We live to watch them wreak havoc on the world around them. And we're more than ready to accept the fact that they're simply Bad™, usually because they have on a lot of eyeliner and/or they're wearing a questionable amount of leather.
But as women's stories get more nuanced and Strong Female Characters get a little more complicated, it's become increasingly clear that many of our favorite villains may have actually, when you zoom out and take the world at large into consideration, been misunderstood.
In fact, there's a particular genre of female villain that has transcended the popular culture and its opinion of her and become, to the girls and the gays and all the adjacent folks in between, iconique. These villains are the ones we quote at parties, dress up as on Halloween, have likenesses of printed on graphic tees, sometimes even scream over when we even see simple screengrabs of their best work. They're constantly saying "gay rights!" even when they're not. They ARE the moment.
They're actually, if you're willing to think critically and accept the power of female rage into your heart, heroes. So here are some of our very favorite ones.
Warning: some spoilers ahead!
Emma Stone as Cruella de Vil in Cruella
Disney has been on a reboot/remake/re-imagining kick for the past several years and the latest in their lineup is Cruella, the origin story of one of the animated film world's most fabulous villains. Her movie is out now on Disney Plus and it's sure to be a game-changer for Disney canon, but at the time of publishing, not much is known about the inner workings of the mad woman. Based on the trailer alone, which features Emma Thompson playing a Disneyfied version of Miranda Priestly (more on her later) and Emma Stone playing the young, Hot Topic-ed fashion designer who bears the brunt of her wrath, it seems we're about to get two new iconic bad gals for the price of one. While the jury's still out on whether Cruella's devious actions are justified, it feels safe to say that no matter what, the two Emmas will come to serve, and for that, we thank them.
Jessica Walter as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development
It's impossible to mention iconic villainous characters without almost immediately thinking of the absolute wonder of one-liners, the sergeant of side-eye, the mother of mean herself: Lucille Bluth. For five seasons, she played the hateful matriarch of the dysfunctional Bluth clan, and while it often seemed like she was a little too harsh, if you zoom out (and remember that she is perhaps the best deliverer of a deadpan punchline in cinematic history), you'll find Lucille to be a victim of circumstance. Sure, that doesn't mean she needs to victimize everybody else in her wake. But also yes it does, because if we didn't have hours worth of her "I don't understand the question and I won't respond to it"-caliber quips, this world would categorically be worse.
Katherine Hahn as Agatha Harkness in WandaVision
Between not being able to go out, theatre being closed, and The L Word: Generation Q not being back on streaming for another 3 months, the gays have had a tough year. But as is the case throughout much of our community's long and storied history, one woman came along to save the day. This woman was able to simultaneously destroy our lives with the weight of her power and give us life with the magic of her presence. You guessed it: it was Agatha all along, hunny!
For discerning gays, Kathryn Hahn has long been a source of comfort and entertainment, mostly because she can really do everything from slapstick comedy to hard drama better than any expert in either field, but partly because she might just be, scientifically, the hottest person alive. Either way, this year she kick-started the Hahnaissance with her performance as Agatha Harkness in the beloved WandaVision and she quickly become a fan (and the entire Internet's) favorite. For that, and for her unparalleled pantsuit outfits, she has proven herself a hero.
Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine in Cinderella
If we're being honest with ourselves, there's almost no evil less nuanced than that of a step-parent in a Disney movie. They're cruel, they're hateful, and they always have henchmen (or hench-daughters, in this case) who are willing to do their dirty work, no matter how filthy. In the original film, Lady Tremaine ticked all those boxes easily, proudly, and kinda for no reason other than sheer jealousy. In Kenneth Branagh's 2015 remake, however, she's portrayed as a mother who's been left in the lurch after her husband's death and who needs, desperately, to find a way to provide financial stability for her two annoying grown-up daughters who still live with her for some reason. Not ideal, but who can blame her? Her adult kids need to eat! And while this fantastical remake is certainly not in the business of excusing its main antagonist, it didn't do itself any favors by casting Cate Blanchett, known lady-killer, as a character named Madonna Tremaine. Madonna? A villain? Not on my watch!
Angelina Jolie in Maleficent
In yet another attempt to humanize a notorious Disney villain, Maleficent and its recent sequel give us the full tea on this horned icon's backstory, and BOY did she have no choice but to become evil! The initial film starts with Maleficent as a child, where we see her happily frolic with a young man in the woods until she falls in love with him, which is her first mistake. He betrays her bigly, and of course, this heartbreak (which follows an act of physical violence against her) is her origin story. Throughout the movie, we watch as her eventual relationship with Aurora develops from "I would like to kill you due to a curse" into "oh no, I actually care about you and must protect you," because females are strong as hell even when they are trying their damnedest to be vengeful.
Cate Blanchett as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok
Obviously there's a second Cate Blanchett entry here; no one does Scary Villain Who We Would Pay To Murder Us better than this Australian icon. And once again, quite obviously if you have been paying attention at all thus far, I have only seen two Marvel movies in my life: Captain Marvel because Brie Larson and because Annette Bening, and Thor: Ragnarok, because Cate Blanchett. I can't comment on the lore of the film nor its relevance or resonance within the MCU, but I can say this: in one of the first scenes in which she appears, she says the words "Kneel before your queen" to one of the Superhero Men, and that's the sole reason I decided she was a hero. She's actually quite evil. Like, the literal goddess of death. But I choose to only recognize the "goddess" portion of that phrase, which is my right as an independent woman, and as such, she stays on the list!
Elaine Hendrix as Meredith Blake in The Parent Trap
Meredith Blake defined villainy for most millennials, who hadn't yet been exposed to a character with nuanced levels of evil. She wasn't all bad. She was just misunderstood! From the get-go, she knew she was stepping into a situation in which she may not be welcome; meeting the young daughter of the man you're to marry is never easy, I assume. How was she to know that, amidst this would-be quiet indie family drama, a hi-jinxy heist had been hatched!? Admittedly, Meredith is no saint. She doesn't seem to have ever met or seen a child in her life, and the way she throws herself at Nick is, in a word, disgusting, but what I'm about to say may rock your world: objectively, Meredith is the victim of this tale. Let that steep. Tap a couple sticks together to ward off mountain lions while it sinks in. And get ready for my explosive one-woman show that finally exposes the twins for the pot-stirring lunatics they really are: "Too Little, Too Blake: An Origin Story," coming Nowhere this Never.
Elphaba in Wicked
The entire point of Wicked, really, is that Elphaba is a misunderstood villain, so maybe her image isn't exactly in need of rehab, but I'm not about to write about a bunch of beloved bad guys and not include the Wicked Witch of West 51st Street! While the Wizard of Oz character who inspired her story may have been a true baddie, Elphaba's journey is one of reversals of expectation that lead to acceptance, both in the characters and in the audience. There's a reason this is one of the most adored musicals of all time: the idea of being misunderstood and outcast despite your best intentions is universally resonant and viscerally powerful. Now if only someone would write a list of other famously evil characters who deserve the same chance at a rebrand...
Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
There are only a few things I'm willing to fight about in any circumstance, with anybody, on any given day, and when I tell you that the wrongful villainization of Nurse Ratched is at the tippity-top of that pyramid, I mean it. I will go to my grave shouting, "Nurse Ratched wasn't evil; she was doing her job, which the men who wanted desperately to take advantage of her resented, and because the audience was set up to sympathize with those bad men, we all got tricked into thinking she was the antagonist when really, she's being regular!!!" Go watch the movie again, and keep in mind that this character, this NURSE, who basically solely administers pills and stops the bad dudes from actively being bad on her watch, is widely regarded as one of film history's foremost villains, and you come back to me and tell me she's pure evil and not just a woman trying her best to operate in a harrowing, male-dominated space. I'll wait!
The Witch in Into the Woods
It took me several years of obsessively but passively rapping about beans and rutabagas to sit back, actively listen, and realize that The Witch (from next door) is actually the most beautiful and heartbreaking representation of parenthood Into the Woods has to offer. Granted, she's a lot. I'm not advocating for locking your daughter away in a tower to keep her out of the big, bad world. But metaphorically, her fierce devotion to keeping her child safe is admirable at least and heart-wrenching at most, and the actresses who play The Witch are always giving THE MOST.
I'll never forget the moment the lyrics to "Lament" finally hit me. When I heard "children can only grow from something you love to something you lose...," and really heard it, I vowed that if I ever got my hands on a time machine, I'd go back to ten-years-ago Me and tell her:
- The Witch is doing her best like all mothers, and
- Call your mom more in college.
Rosamund Pike as Amy Elliott Dunne in Gone Girl
Amy Dunne is the President, CEO, Brand Manager, Director, absolute QUEEN of villains-who-are-true-heroes. There is no other character in fiction quite like Amy. She began a revolution, if you ask me. Well, Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, did. When this book was released in 2012, every woman (and some worthy men) I know devoured it. Our protagonist is Amy, a trust-fund-baby turned kind-of-writer who finds herself in a stiflingly unfulfilling marriage and decides to do something about the wrongs she's suffered at the hands of her dumb-dumb bore of a husband. Amy's intense, oftentimes incomprehensible actions reframed the societal structure of gender for so many women, giving readers a glimpse into the heightened, fantastical reality of a world in which men face consequences for their actions. What a concept!
She's calculated, she's cruel, she's twisted, she's wrong, she's right, she's decidedly not a cool girl, and I guess what I'm trying to say here (which I know is NOT what I was supposed to take from my reading experience) is that Amy Elliott Dunne is my dream wife and I'd let her destroy my life any day of the week!
Olivia Colman as Godmother in Fleabag
What more is there to say about the whirlwind masterpiece that is Fleabag? In its two short seasons, it managed to span the breadth of what it feels like to be a modern woman who is messy but kind, who is lonely most of the time, and who would probably snarl at the proverbial camera knowing I just used lyrics from a musical to describe her emotional journey. Along this journey, of course, she encounters many hiccups in the form of loved (and hated) ones who get in her way, the most entertaining of them being Godmother, the nameless, tactless antagonist of the series played with delightful wickedness by Olivia Colman. Godmother is unabashedly done with Fleabag's shenanigans, even in the rare case there isn't a single shenanigan to be found, and although she can be a bit too harsh, her heroism comes in the form of her ultimate kind-of-good intentions: she just thinks Fleabag needs to get her sh*t together.
Their rivalry is one for the books; come for the casually eviscerating remarks behind each other's backs, stay for the scene in which Godmother paints a portrait of Fleabag and Claire using a red that is, somehow, "three colors." Trust me.
Jessica Lange in almost any Ryan Murphy joint
Jessica Lange will certainly go down as one of the greatest actors to ever live, and if I have anything at all to do with the preservation of queer history, I will ensure that she is also revered as one of our nation's foremost purveyors of camp. I mean, after already having a wildly successful and winning career, she was snatched up by Ryan Murphy and decided to ride the wave of his usually unhinged but never-not-fun series of series. First, it was American Horror Story, which solidified her as as a late-in-the-game scream queen. Then, it was Feud, in which she played an actually famous kind-of villain who played lots of other iconic kind-of villains onscreen: Joan Crawford. Then came The Politician, where she played a ripped from the headlines but highly camp-ified version of Dee Dee Blanchard, an actual famous villain! The layers! The range! The hand acting!!!
Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada
The king of kings. The Alpha and Omega. The beginning and the end. Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly? I cannot think of a single list she doesn't deserve to be on. But this list? She's the captain now. She's the hero Gotham needs and the hero it deserves right now. She's, simply, The One.
In a recent rewatch of this now-classic, I found it staggering that The Devil Wears Prada was released in 2006, somehow both because of its modern resonance and because of its sometimes laughably outdated views of womanhood. The real genius of this movie is in its exploration of "good" vs. "evil," as our protagonist Andy struggles to make a name for herself in a world that values a cutthroat attitude over a thoughtful and skilled professional. It presents some hard but insightful truths about what it means for a woman to sacrifice herself at the alter of success at every level. Sometimes, Andy is a villain. Sometimes, Miranda is a saint. But always, Meryl Streep is razor-sharp as she rants about cerulean and Harry Potter, and there's almost no amount of abuse I wouldn't put up with to bear firsthand witness to that!
These women may have dealt with their fair share of cultural backlash and Internet hate, but I'm here (like, on this Earth) to be the Billy Flynn of Actresses. No matter the [fictional] crime, I'll spin a narrative to clear their names and have the whole crowd cheering for them by the time credits roll. Some may say that's trickery, or highly sus, or perhaps even a little bit, dare I say, villainous. But me? I like to think of it as heroism. I'm Robin Hood-ing. You're welcome.