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Bad Girls: From Vixens to Villains

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I’m going to use a term today that may offend some of my readers, but as it’s becoming a technical term in writing, there’s no other way to say it. We’ve spent quite a lot of time talking about men in this series. And we’ve talked at length about those Bad Guys who have a quality about them in which, even though they’re bad and we recognize they’re bad, we can’t help but feel attracted to them. Doesn’t matter what they do—doesn’t matter that Sir Guy murdered Marian at the end of season two, on top of all the other atrocities he’s committed—so long as they show that they’re tortured by their actions (i.e., they brood about it), we’re willing to forgive them. However, put a woman in a similar role, and she’s hated and reviled and called a bitch. What is it that makes us sympathize with Bad Guys and hate Bad Girls? Is it because men secretly want to be that kind of guy and women want to save him?

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADAI worked in the advertising/marketing industry for more than twelve years. When I first started, as a sales assistant at a community newspaper in suburban Washington DC in the early 1990s, the industry was just starting to transition from being male dominated to female dominated. That newspaper (along several others in the area) was owned by a family—but it was the wife who was the most hands-on when it came to running the business. As a matter of fact, she had all of the partitions taken down between the desks in the large room that contained the advertising department (including between the thirty or so sales reps in the Classifieds call center) so that she could walk into the room and at a glance make sure everyone was working. She was my first exposure to the kind of woman who erroneously believed that ruling with an iron fist, never showing any kindness or empathy, was the only way to maintain authority. In reality, the only thing she managed to accomplish was to instill fear and hatred for her into everyone who worked there. As always happens, fiction is a reflection of life, and throughout the ’80s and ’90s, as women started moving up in the corporate world and breaking all kinds of glass ceilings, women in fiction—especially women’s fiction and romance novels—started doing the same. Only there were two classes of them: the Cinderellas and the Bitches. The Cinderellas worked hard and tried to get recognized for their accomplishments, all while “playing nicely” with everyone else, and would never consider trying to throw someone else under the bus or step on others to get that promotion she so badly wanted (but then, the handsome and wealthy CEO fell in love with her and asked her to marry him, so she didn’t have to worry about climbing the corporate ladder anymore). Then, there were the Bitches. The Ball Busters. The women who could emasculate a man with just one look, just one word.

As we’ve explored with taking about the Disney/fairytale villainesses, there have always been Bad Girls in literature. But the ones we saw there were the more one-dimensional evil queens and wicked stepmothers. Was it through these stories that women who attained power believed they had to become a Bad Girl/Bitch to keep it?

Captain Harville: Let me just observe that all histories are against you, all stories, prose, and verse. I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which did not have something to say on women’s fickleness.

Anne Elliot: But they were all written by men.
(Persuasion 1995, screen adaptation)

The way women have been portrayed in literature throughout the millennia has been a snapshot of that particular author’s/that particular society’s view of women. And because women really didn’t start getting a voice as authors until the late 17th and into the 18th centuries, we have thousands of years of men’s histories, stories, prose, and verse that try to define what women are. And, for the most part, women—the Good Girls, anyway—are supposed to be nurturing and submissive, if not downright subservient. And if you think about it, with the exception of those women who had to go out and work for the few years before they married, like Laura Ingalls Wilder did, in most popular fiction (including TV and movies) it wasn’t until the mid- to late-20th Century that women moved out of the home and into the corporate world.

Because the first very successful corporate climbers we had exposure to back in the 20th Century seemed to embody the Bitch character, it became the accepted norm that for a woman to be successful, she had to put away all trappings of femininity—from frills and lace on her clothes (remember the shoulder-padded, man-tailored suits of the ’80s?) to the way she talked, to the way she interacted with people—and become this caricature of Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl. Why? Because when a woman attains and maintains a position of power, she’s seen as a threat to the Alpha Males who’ve always been handed that kind of power throughout the years. Therefore, she’s allowed no signs of weakness or vulnerability (like empathy or the ability to be a nurturer). Bitches must either be shamed and brought to justice (like Weaver’s character in WG)—or even killed off, like Lady Macbeth or Madame Bovary—or they must be tamed and brought to heel, usually by a man, ala Kate in Taming of the Shrew.

What happens to the Bad Girl character at the end of the story greatly depends on the type of Bad Girl she is. So let’s look at several of those archetypes:

ScarlettFemme Fatale: A beautiful woman who uses her feminine wiles to manipulate the people (men, usually) around her to get what she wants—which usually includes money and/or power. She exploits her sexual prowess and confidence, and men usually find her irresistible. The best known of these characters is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, or her 1980s successor, Ashton Main Huntoon from John Jakes’s North and South franchise. (Other examples would be Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.)

nurse-ratchedCrone: A bitter older woman, mentally twisted and usually lovelorn—perhaps the femme fatale in her later years. This character is usually more of the cartoon caricature: the evil queen in Snow White, the wicked stepmother in Cinderella, the witch/crone in the Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood. However, these can also be more of a creepily sympathetic character, like Miss Haversham in Great Expectations, or just downright creepy, like Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Peyton FlandersCon-Woman/Female Criminal/Sociopath/Black Widow: Women who live outside the law. They rob, cheat, maim, abuse, lie, murder—basically, everything a woman is not supposed to be able to do. Though they do have some of the traits of the femme fatale and/or the crone, they tend to take those traits ten or twenty steps further into the darkness of evil. Once again, there are two types of these characters: the cartoon caricatures (Cruella de Vil) or the creepy, more realistic characters—many of whom are based on real life criminals/sociopaths (after all, truth is stranger than fiction): Joan Crawford, Lizzy Borden, Aileen Wuornos, or Bonnie Parker. My favorite of these characters is probably Peyton Flanders (Rebecca De Mornay) in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.

ManchurianKing Maker. We’re all familiar with the quote, “Behind every good man, there’s a good woman.” Well, this archetype twists that and takes us to a place where the woman is the one who’s power-hungry and willing to do whatever it takes to push the man in her life (her husband or son, usually) into a position of power. Whether it’s a queen whose husband has died and she is now the guardian of her son, the underage new king, a mother who wants her son to succeed in the career she’s chosen for him, or a wife who thinks her husband is settling for less than he (she) deserves, these King Makers wield their power by lurking in the background. Examples are Angela Lansbury’s character of Mrs. John Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate and my own Lady Augusta Pembroke in Ransome’s Honor.

Nellie OlesonThe Other Woman/Jealous Woman/Scorned Woman. We’ve already looked at these types of characters with some pretty good detail. But I do want to point out that the Scorned or Jealous Woman character doesn’t have to be jealous over a man. This can be a girl who’s jealous over someone else’s talent or ability or even over her looks/wardrobe/social status, etc. These are the catty girls, the Mean Girls, who make all of us look bad—like Nellie Oleson in the Little House on the Prairie TV series.

Boardroom Bitch/Ball Buster: This woman wants one thing and one thing only: Power. Power that translates into ruling a country or a world (or an undersea world). Power over a major corporation. Power over men, because they’ve betrayed/abused her in the past.workinggirl460 Power that leads to wealth. Power that leads to vengeance/vindication. These women can use sex to get what they want, but it’s about dominance, not seduction—unlike the femme fatale. For these women, relationships are a distraction, men something to be used and discarded, not worthy to be her partner—either in life or in business. This is Ursula in her quest to wrest the throne from Triton. This is Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada or Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl. She knows what she wants and she’s not afraid to go after it. But usually in fiction, she meets with a very unpleasant end.

For Discussion:
Looking at these categories and thinking about some of your favorite Bad Girls—whether of your own creation or someone else’s—where do they fall? Do they easily fit into one category, or do they blur the lines? How do things turn out for them at the end of the story? If the Bad Girl you’re thinking of doesn’t fit into one of these categories, what category would you put her in and how would you describe that kind of a character?

  1. Lori permalink
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 2:37 pm

    Upon my first read of this blog, Dixie Carter’s character of Julia Sugarbaker popped into mind. Julia is the business smart, southern liberal woman, who can charm the clients to make the deal and cut anyone to size if need be all with the elegant charm and grace that leaves the other person saying “thank you for chastising me”. I don’t know if I would define her “bad” or “bitchy” or just strong in her convictions and set in her ways.

    After reading the blog for a second time I thought of Kathy Bates in Misery, clearly psycho, but so fun to watch.


    • Thursday, September 17, 2009 4:11 pm

      Julia Sugarbaker is a Strong Woman heroine, as she’s working for the good of those around her—and uses her charm (as well as those sugar-sweet cutdowns) to achieve a goal that is, ultimately, good or beneficial for those she loves. Now, if she were to use those skills merely to attain money or power, then, yes, she’d fit into a Bad Girl category!


    • Thursday, September 17, 2009 4:12 pm

      Oh, and yes, Kathy Bates’s character in Misery is a perfect example of the sociopath Bad Girl!


  2. Thursday, September 17, 2009 4:10 pm

    I just thought of another example of a King Maker Bad Girl: Lady Catherine from Pride & Prejudice!


  3. Thursday, September 17, 2009 4:49 pm

    First off, Julia Sugarbaker is my hero(ine):) In high school, my friend and I used to hurl Julia-lines at each other across the band room, our favorite being “I’m out of the game? Well, you’re UGLY!”

    Second, there is no creepier female film character than Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Islen. Period.

    Third, overall interesting post. I really hope by the time I have daughters going into adulthood, our society will understand that women can be nurturing and frilly without being pushovers, be powerful without being b****y, or be any combination of things they want to be because God made them unique individuals, just like He made men. Here’s hoping.


  4. Stephanie permalink
    Saturday, June 4, 2011 3:12 pm

    One of my favorite “bad girls” was Nancy Oleson from Little House–not Nellie, but the Nellie lookalike the Olesons adopted in later seasons. She was gorgeous, but more dangerous than a viper. Say one thing against her, and she played the victim–“It’s ’cause you HATE me!” (insert tears). She even manipulated everyone into thinking she’d been abused and abandoned as a kid, when it wasn’t true. I hate her, but I also like her because she makes me think. I find myself asking, “What in heaven’s name makes an eight-year-old DO that?”

    Other favorite “bad girls”: Rodmilla from Ever After, Kathleen, the dark angel from Touched by an Angel, Miss Minchin from A Little Princess.


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