not in our stars, but in ourselves
As often happens, I was having an imaginary argument in my head earlier today. In all the furor about Gone Girl (don’t worry, I won’t talk about it too much, because I certainly am sick of it), this quote from Gillian Flynn has, to be indelicate, really stuck in my craw: “To me, [objecting to the Amy character as being misogynistic or anti-feminist or what have you] puts a very, very small window on what feminism is … Is it really only girl power, and you-go-girl, and empower yourself, and be the best you can be? For me, it’s also the ability to have women who are bad characters … the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish … I don’t write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive, and so she’s a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness.” Yes, I railed against it in my review of the film, too. I won’t rehash the same argument again.
In my imaginary, internal argument, I was pitted against an opponent who tried to argue that Amy is the most complex female villain (or antagonist, at the very least) out there. I disagree entirely, either with my internal devil’s advocate or with anyone who might happen to hold this opinion in reality, that Amy is complex. She’s nothing. I can think of no better way to dismiss her than with the words of the world’s greatest insulter, Malcolm Tucker: “You know, I’ve come across a lot of psychos, but none as fucking boring as you. You are a real boring fuck. Sorry, sorry, I know you disapprove of swearing, so I’ll sort that out. You are a boring F-star-star CUNT!”
But consider the playing field, as it were. Consider the male villains (sorry, sorry – antagonists) in film, TV, etc. Consider the females. For every genuinely interesting O-ren Ishii – a truly fascinating, badass, ultimately and understandably flawed killer – there are twenty Amys. On the boys’ side, there’s no shortage of compelling antagonists. Hannibal Lecter. (And Hannibal’s pageboys, Jame Gumb and Francis Dolarhyde.) Norman Bates. Marlo Stanfield. Hans Landa. Humbert Humbert. Uncle Charlie. You get the idea, right? There are plenty of badly drawn bad guys out there, but of those well-drawn bad guys, they are almost entirely male.
I’m not here to bash men, not at all. Most of these characters’ creators are male. You write what you know, I guess, so they tend to write compelling male antagonists. I’m not here to bash women, either, even if I think Gillian Flynn and Taylor Swift are probably about the same level of feminist. (It’s about the same level that I’m an Olympic discus thrower.)
What am I missing here, people? I grant you: I tend to be a scaredy-cat about horror movies, and I know that horror movies are teeming with female ghosts, ghouls, demons, etc. That, of course, is a discussion point for another time (but you can get started here and here and here, if you fancy); in brief, it’s more about men fearing women than it’s about giving them their proper place as human beings, dead or alive. (Often. Not always. Geez, calm down. I can’t talk to you when you’re emotional like this.)
Are there really so few compelling, realistic, terrifying female antagonists out there? Literature has a few truly fatal femmes, perhaps due to the slightly higher percentage of female authors than female screenwriters, but even then. Are we so vilified in reality that we shy away from creating truly fearsome women in fiction? Why? Why not show the boys what we can do? Is it because we know, before we even begin, that the men’s rights activists will shake their jowls and their neckbeards, and proclaim that while not all men are like the creep of the week on Law and Order: SVU, yes, all women must be like that vicious harridan in that movie or TV show or whatever.
It’s frustrating, to say the least. Long ago, I read something (and please forgive me, I can’t remember the author or the source – but rest assured, it wasn’t me) that said, in effect, “Every antagonist is the protagonist of his own story.” I won’t bother about the male possessive there, because I am a fuddy-duddy grammarian and it’s technically correct and we can raze the English language for equality’s sake later, so focus on the concept itself. Think of all those male villains above. They’re convincing because, even if their respective stories don’t delve into the back story in great detail, you know that they have back stories. They have reasons for why they are the way they are. Those reasons are implied, at the very least, and you can begin to understand how various events in their lives led them to do the things they’ve done. Does it excuse their villainy? No. Does it make for a better character, anyway? You bet. The aforementioned O-ren gets a back story. She’s treated as a human being. She had a traumatic childhood, and decided she would seek vengeance, and then she found she was good at it. Hence: Queen of the Crime Council. It’s not elaborate, but it’s something. She is the protagonist of her own story, even as she’s the antagonist (well, one of them) of The Bride’s.
I don’t mean to discount the more positive female characters on your screens and in your books. I’m glad they’re there. I would just like to see the occasional female villain who’s not a cartoon (not to dismiss cartoons, but, well…), who’s not an embodiment of male fear/paranoia/etc., who’s not a boring f-star-star cunt. Someone who’s a real cunt. Someone who’s a real human, and all the more really frightening for it.