Cheerleaders are pretty dang strong. They have to be to accomplish all of the lifts and flips and back handsprings and whatnot. Plus there’s all that running and dancing and… y’know… cheering. The more I’ve contemplated it, the more convinced I am that a cheerleader could make a pretty awesome villain. So, when one appears in that role, are bullying and humiliation the typical calling cards of her villainy? Why not racketeering or gun running? Is it because she dedicates too much of her life to physical prowess already?
On the other hand, maniac genius inventor-villains have spent the lion’s share of their time experimenting, usually in a lab with neutral-colored walls and fluorescent lighting. There probably hasn’t been much bench-pressing in their past. Yet, the minute these glorified nerds get a ray gun and a cape, they’re somehow prime physical specimens, ready to crush the world. Their villainy takes the form of death and mayhem—in addition to any psychological elements, depending on how intelligent a character the villain is supposed to be.
Sometimes, the psychological warfare of a lesser female villain renders her more hated than the all-out genocide of a major male villain. (See Dolores Umbridge vs. Lord Voldemort for a prime example of this.) Sometimes, when poorly executed, it renders her into a caricature.
Beyond the cheerleader: female villain tropes
Women in general are physically weaker than men, so it makes some sense to gear a female villain’s evil-doings more towards the psychological end of the physical-psychological spectrum. If you’re going to pit a cheerleader against a lab-chair jockey in a physical fight, though, my money’s on the cheerleader.
Unfortunately, when a physically powerful female villain does come on scene, more often than not the story poses her as a sex object: super hot, super fit, and wearing super tight clothing that reveals every curve and dimple.
And in the event that she’s not impossibly attractive, she’ll probably be repulsive beyond all measure. Girl-as-Object doesn’t apply only to female protagonists.
The best female villains, though, are the ones who don’t have to pull on a spandex bodysuit to get attention. They can employ a mix of physical and psychological assaults against their victims. They are clever, devious, manipulative, self-serving, and they use their “weaker sex” stereotype to its full advantage. In other words, they’re fully rounded characters instead of flat, uninspiring Mean Girls.
And we need more of them, just as we need more level-headed female protagonists.
Really, why should men get to have all the fun?
I think the most terrifying–in one case psychological and in the other physical–female antagonists I’ve ever read/watched would have to be:
1. Lady Broome from COUSIN KATE (obvs the psychological). She was horrifying and implacable and unbeatable. I remember reading that book, as much as I loved it, with a feeling of nightmare.
2. Goneril and Regan from KING OF TEXAS (a King Lear thing that’s better than straight King Lear 😀 ). They were mostly physically terrifying, though there was an element of psychological terror to them, too. The sight of one of them helping to hold down the man who killed the other’s husband, while the widow went to burn his eyes out with the poker– flamin’ terrifying! And the ending…! (but I don’t want to spoil it if people haven’t watched it :D. So I guess what I’m saying is, watch it!)
Awesome examples! Goneril and Regan are pretty heinous in King Lear. I haven’t seen the King of Texas adaptation, but can only imagine how the eye-gouging scene was translated for a Wild West setting. (Yikes. That is all.)
As for Cousin Kate, I’ll admit I look back on that book with a sense of grand disappointment. About halfway through it, I hit on a possible plot twist, but the story didn’t veer that way in the end. Lady Broome was indeed awful, but not to the degree I had imagined her. (My ever-analytical brain ruined the book for me, basically.) 🙁
I don’t think I was terribly analytical back when I read it first 😀 I was maybe ten or twelve, I think.
I was in my twenties by the time I got around to that one. 😀
So there I was, going, “Wait. What if Torquil’s not insane? What if his mother is the nutball, and she’s projecting her insanity on him, and he’s just pretending to be crazy to keep her delusions at bay because she’s just that completely, terrifyingly deranged and she’s going to fly off the handle if she’s ever confronted with the truth?”
But no. Torquil really was insane. #spoiler