Mary's Minute: Bad Girls Do It Well

I've been thinking a lot lately about female villains lately (inspired by yet another reread of The Illuminae Files, naturally), and I'm trying to put my finger on what makes them so intriguing. Villains, it seems, are in the middle of a cultural movement. Sure, princesses are great, but the general feminist movement is critiquing shallow trappings of princesshood (pretty gowns, long hair, instalove and marriage and babies with a handsome and usually vapid prince) and admiring the contrasting power and autonomy of lady villains. It seems like every week I see another Buzzfeed article talking about how relatable and fabulous Disney villains are or another book deal about a villain's origin story.

But WHY is this? And why do the female villains especially seem so fascinating? Sure, Gaston has sparkling teeth and bulging biceps galore. Yet he can't hold a candle to the bold-lip-AND-eye combo (honestly, why choose one feature when you can showcase both?!), arched eyebrows, and sheer drama perfected by vixen villainesses like Ursula, Maleficent, Cruella de Vil, and Mother Gothel. Why do the women seem to be so much more interesting as villains than their male counterparts or female do-gooders? And how does this translate when we look at the lady villains of YA and not just the campy culprits of Disney films (although some of them ARE YA villains, thanks to Serena Valentino's aptly named Villains series [although I will never understand why tf Beast is included])?

I have come to the conclusion that female villains are simply allowed to be more complex. I think it's one place where women are truly able to shine in the complexity of womanhood. I think male villains are able to be simply evil while the women have to have REASONS. Because a woman can never want power for the sake of wanting power. There's nothing more terrifying than an ambitious woman (hence why in our political landscape, powerful, ambitious women are often presented as the bad guy *cough*HillaryClintonAOCElizabethWarrenRBGetc*cough*).

YA is also a category largely dominated by female writers. While not as wholly directed toward female readers the way adult romance is primarily written by women for women, YA books do contain much more of a female perspective (although it can and should be read by readers of any age and gender), than, say, highbrow literary literature and adult sff, what with their women who are just big breasted, long-haired objects present for the emotional development of male characters and plot development (see: fridging and women correcting male writers about how they portray female characters).

As such, I think readers are seeing female villains being written as interesting, three-dimensional characters with as much backstory and development as main characters receive. After all, if your interesting and complex protagonist doesn't have an equally interesting and complex antagonist to create a believable amount of conflict, the resolution doesn't feel earned. To go back to a Disney movie villain, if Hela were anything less than the Goddess of Death, Thor probably could have triumphed in Thor: Ragnarok much sooner than he did. But Hela was more than a match for a Mjolnir-wielding Thor so he had to learn to be better AND get a better team (sorry, Warriors Three) (also, as much as I love the MCU, they have an even poorer track record with lady villains than they do with lady superheroes, and that's saying something. Be better, MCU!).

Typical gender roles and characteristics set women as nurturing, gently and quietly caring for everyone as mothers, aunts, wives, girlfriends. They are defined not entirely by their actions but also by their relationships to others. Which is why it's fascinating when we have mothers like the Commandant from An Ember in the Ashes or Leeane Frobisher from Illuminae being seemingly straight-up evil and doing actual direct harm to their sons (and lots and lots of others) in order to achieve their own goals (Leanne is cleaning up the Kerenza assault, and the Commandant is ????). Queen Levana from The Lunar Chronicles is a take on the evil stepmother (she is, after all, modeled after OG evil Queen Grimhilde), but in Fairest, Marissa Meyer explores Levana's past, which contextualizes her motivations to be the lovely-yet-malicious dictator we love to hate.

I also find it fascinating how female villains are physically portrayed and how they use their looks as yet another weapon in their arsenal—because everyone seems to underestimate women no matter how they look. There seems to be no middle ground between alluring beauty and intense hideousness, even when a character switches from one to the other such as Queen Grimhilde's change from her initial dagger-sharp elegance to the ugly old crone or Ursula's transformation from her not-typically-sexy true self (*sarcasm* ewww, fat purple octopus!) to the fair loveliness of Vanessa. Again, Levana must at all times maintain the facade of being the most beautiful queen of Luna, the most beautiful woman in the universe, in order to preserve her rule. Opal Koboi, a primary antagonist of the Artemis Fowl series, is also quite lovely, and she uses her beauty to appear innocent when in fact she is an evil science-y mastermind. Amarantha from A Court of Thorns and Roses has quite the exquisite face... which masks the fact that she's a horrible being, rotten to her core. Ladybird Hope of Libba Bray's Beauty Queens is the secret antagonist (sorry, spoiler alert), but she hides her nefarious doings behind a vapid beauty queen facade. And then you have characters like Alma Coin or Bellatrix Lestrange, either listed as relatively plain and therefore a deceptive bad guy or a former great beauty who has lost her looks as a result of her evildoing. The unnamed Seeker in Stephenie Meyer's The Host is a petite woman who is frequently underestimated by her size (something Kady Grant from Illuminae can relate to).

Additionally, there's something very relatable about most female villains. I think it's a testament to the complexity with which writers are gifting these antagonists that they can be easy to empathize with. Many of their goals can seem reasonable, even if their methods are not. Or sometimes they're just bad for the sake of being bad, and that's cool too. Either way, these characters are admirably charismatic, intelligent, ambitious women. They are resourceful and wield every facet of their looks and personality as handily as they wield actual weapons. They are precise, goal-oriented, capable. They command attention and demand respect. They're often witty, sharp-tongued, and they know how to cut someone down with just a few words. As such, they often have the best lines AND the best wardrobe. They're self-aware. Even though they're bad, they are so magnetic, they draw people in. Best of all: they embrace themselves. There's very little hand-wringing with a good bad girl. She knows what she wants, and she works for it. Damn anyone who gets in her way. We know these villains are the baddies, but dang if sometimes it's impossible not to root for them even when they are ultimately doomed to defeat. Shante, you may not stay, but damn, you sure do slay!

I've shared a few of my favorite lady villains in here. Please share a few of your own in the comments!

Review + Giveaway: The Risk by Elle Kennedy

Rating: 4 stars
Release Date: February 18, 2019
Genre: new adult contemporary romance
Format/Source: eARC, from the author
Status: book 2 in the Briar U companion series
Links: The Deal review

Everyone says I’m a bad girl. They’re only partly right—I don’t let fear rule me, and I certainly don’t care what people think. But I draw the line at sleeping with the enemy. As the daughter of Briar’s head hockey coach, I’d be vilified if I hooked up with a player from a rival team.

And that’s who Jake Connelly is. Harvard’s star forward is arrogant, annoying, and too attractive for his own good. But fate is cruel—I require his help to secure a much-coveted internship, and the sexy jerk isn’t making it easy for me.

I need Connelly to be my fake boyfriend.

For every fake date…he wants a real one.

Which means this bad girl is in big trouble. Nothing good can come from sneaking around with Jake Connelly. My father would kill me, my friends will revolt, and my post-college career is on the line. But while it’s getting harder and harder to resist Jake’s oozing sex appeal and cocky grin, I refuse to fall for him.

That’s the one risk I’m not willing to take

Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this book by the author. This does not affect the content of my review.

Review: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett

Rating: 3 stars
Release Date: April 3, 2018
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Genre: young adult contemporary romance
Format/Source: hardcover, purchased
Status: standalone

Ever since last year’s homecoming dance, best friends-turned-best enemies Zorie and Lennon have made an art of avoiding each other. It doesn’t hurt that their families are the modern-day Californian version of the Montagues and Capulets.

But when a group camping trip goes south, Zorie and Lennon find themselves stranded in the wilderness. Alone. Together.

What could go wrong?

With no one but each other for company, Zorie and Lennon have no choice but to hash out their issues via witty jabs and insults as they try to make their way to safety. But fighting each other while also fighting off the forces of nature makes getting out of the woods in one piece less and less likely.

And as the two travel deeper into Northern California’s rugged backcountry, secrets and hidden feelings surface. But can Zorie and Lennon’s rekindled connection survive out in the real world? Or was it just a result of the fresh forest air and the magic of the twinkling stars?