Female villains whose motivations aren't 'feminine'?
November 4, 2013 9:19 AM   Subscribe

I've been in the mood for media with interesting villains and antiheros lately, and it suddenly occurred to me that I'd like to see some interesting female villains. But I don't want them to be Disney-villain-esque women whose motives are defined by their femininity. Suggestions?

Off the top of my head, the majority of female villains or antiheros that come to mind for me are defined by love for their children, love for a man, vanity, having been hurt/raped by men and then turning against them, being the partner of a male villain and working with him or taking over for him, etc. Well, I'm not very interested in that! I wanna see powerful women who are just plain bad, without a 'girly' or man-centric reason behind it.

I'm open to any medium, but my favorite recent villains have been Hannibal from the new TV show, and the Cardassians from DS9. Both take a kind of smug glee in being the bad guys.
posted by showbiz_liz to Media & Arts (50 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
The Last Seduction, starring Linda Fiorentino.
posted by Melismata at 9:22 AM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Know what's funny? Roald Dahl is great for this: you should read (and watch) The Witches and Matilda.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 9:23 AM on November 4, 2013 [8 favorites]

posted by jbickers at 9:23 AM on November 4, 2013

Michael Clayton.
Red Rock West.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:24 AM on November 4, 2013

I haven't watched it yet, but lots of people have said glowing things about Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) in Season 2 of Justified.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:26 AM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Margaret Atwood's novel, "The Robber Bride," revolves around Zenia, described here in a NYT review:
Yet oddly, for all her inscrutable evil, Zenia is what drives this book: she is impossibly, fantastically bad. She is pure theater, pure plot. She is Richard III with breast implants. She is Iago in a miniskirt. She manipulates and exploits all the vanities and childhood scars of her friends (wounds left by neglectful mothers, an abusive uncle, absent dads); she grabs at intimacies and worms her way into their comfortable lives, then starts swinging a pickax. She mobilizes all the wily and beguiling art of seduction and ingratiation, which she has been able to use on men, and she directs it at women as well. She is an autoimmune disorder. She is viral, self-mutating, opportunistic (the narrative discusses her in conjunction with AIDS, salmonella and warts). She is a "man-eater" run amok. Roz thinks: "Women don't want all the men eaten up by man-eaters; they want a few left over so they can eat some themselves."
She is a nasty piece of work.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:32 AM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I haven't watched it yet, but lots of people have said glowing things about Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) in Season 2 of Justified.

Oh, yes, this. Mags Bennett is one of the best villains to have ever graced television.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:35 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

La Femme Nikita perhaps?
posted by jim in austin at 9:42 AM on November 4, 2013

Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter?
posted by oinopaponton at 9:42 AM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Root on Person of Interest does not appear to be influenced by other people. (Caveat: I haven't watched that much of it.) Anna Espinosa on Alias seems to be of the "just doing my job" evil (spy and assassin); Elena Derevko has murkier motives, but she's not evil because of love of family. Glory on season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer just wants to go home (because she rules the world there, not because she loves anyone). Katherine Pierce on The Vampire Diaries is entirely selfish and so far is rather anti-family. You may find more examples on TV Tropes Dark Action Girl, though of course then you have to figure out the motivations of each.

Mags Bennett is a great villain, but is definitely motivated at least in part by love of her children (at least if you include the one she quasi-adopted).
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:43 AM on November 4, 2013

Glenn Close's character in Damages

Orange is the New Black (some characters are motivated by men, some are not)

Related: movies that pass the Bechdel Test
posted by melissasaurus at 9:43 AM on November 4, 2013

I'd say the Wicked Witch of the West but, I guess Wicked made her back-story all feminine and such.

Since you like ST, then the Borg Queen.

In that vein, Lieutenant Valeris from Star Trek VI is a really great one, and a murderer to boot.
posted by Dimes at 9:45 AM on November 4, 2013

The Rani from Doctor Who, despite her coming back after her portrayer Kate O'Mara was on Dynasty pretty camp-glammed up, is a amoral mad scientist who is in it more for the science curiosity than the universal domination.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:47 AM on November 4, 2013

One of the point of view characters in the novel Abaddon's Gate, by James S.A. Corey fits the bill.
posted by Green With You at 9:48 AM on November 4, 2013

Potentially Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke. [tv tropes link]
posted by koucha at 9:50 AM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

There seems to be plenty of female villains and anti-heroes in the Kill Bill franchise...
posted by jim in austin at 9:54 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try Gone Girl, a novel by Gillian Flynn.
posted by scratch at 9:56 AM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I enjoyed the BBC's small-screen treatment of Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. Julie T. Wallace, Patricia Hodge and Dennis Waterman starred in this fab 1987 TV series. I was glued to that thing for weeks - now I'm planning to get it on DVD. (Wouldn't recommend the Meryl Streep movie version though.)
posted by cartoonella at 9:57 AM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Dredd" (not the Stallone version) has a straight-up female villain who also happens to be a badass.
posted by DWRoelands at 10:07 AM on November 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

To Die For with Nicole Kidman as the wanna be news broadcaster. My absolute favorite line in any movie is delivered by Nicole's career obsessed character shortly before she kills her husband who is trying to talk her into having a baby. " If he wanted a babysitter," she snarls," he should have married Mary Poppins!" I love watching great actresses play really wicked women!
posted by WalkerWestridge at 10:08 AM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Alice Morgan in Luther is just a straight-up psycho-/socio-path. She's only the literal "villain" for one case, but the character sticks around and I think fits what you're looking for.
posted by Su at 10:14 AM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

101 Dalmatians, Cruella de Ville
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:22 AM on November 4, 2013

In Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, Mrs. Coulter may meet your guidelines, depending on how you view Lord Asriel. He may be a villain she works with or he may be a pawn. I think she is the main villain either way.

Bavmorda in Willow is motivated by power and tries to destroy a child who is destined to bring about her downfall. Her daughter is in the movie, but she is not motivated by love for the daughter.
posted by soelo at 10:38 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lady Kaede in Akira Kurosawa's Ran?
posted by thomas j wise at 10:41 AM on November 4, 2013

The FX show "The Bridge," which recently wrapped up season one, features a truly villainous Mexican drug cartel leader who looks like someone's kindly abuela.
posted by jbickers at 10:43 AM on November 4, 2013

Mystique, from the X-Men?
posted by lyssabee at 10:56 AM on November 4, 2013

One of my favorite Bond villains ever is Rosa Klebb, who appears in From Russia With Love. (She's the SMERSH agent with the shoe knife.)

I was delighted to see this in the Wikipedia link:
Her name is a pun on the popular Soviet phrase for women's rights, khleb i rozy (Cyrillic: хлеб и розы), which in turn was a direct Russian translation of the internationally used labour union slogan "bread and roses"
posted by Room 641-A at 10:58 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Last Seduction. My favorite villain / femme fatale ever.
posted by Mchelly at 11:05 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

" Mags Bennett is a great villain, but is definitely motivated at least in part by love of her children (at least if you include the one she quasi-adopted)."

You might want to consider watching the overlooked but outstanding show The Americans, however. Both Margo Martindale and Keri Russell play very complex women, and while love and family do complicate their motivations sometimes, they do so in very unexpected ways.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:05 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

In Suzy McKee Charnas' Holdfast Chronicles, there are a few female antagonists who are villainous because of their PTSD and experiences of slavery. While the slavery is pretty gendered, w. "fem" slaves and men as owners, one of the big points of the series is that institutional sexism/patriarchy fucks up everyone. So, I think it's a little different than your typical "raped by a man, now I hate men" series.

Also, the bad cat in Cat House (about spayed kitty prostitutes) isn't really defined by being feminine. She just thinks farris (cats) who've got the "changes scar" (don't go into heat) are defying Lady Farri by continuing to have sex. The POV cats kind of think she's a hater, because she's a street cat and they're all owned by humans and so are very pretty, but that's not a motive she ever cops to, and it's more consistent in text that it's about the scar/will of Lady Farri.

Also, Takhisis (and her chosen ones) in Dragonlance are pretty much into evil/chaos because that's their thing. I don't think Takhisis herself has any larger motivations than pure ambition and a love of evil.
posted by spunweb at 11:13 AM on November 4, 2013

Jadis of Charn

Deeply complex, horrific.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:26 AM on November 4, 2013

Also if you're interested in novels and not just watchable media, I love love love Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country.
posted by Mchelly at 11:27 AM on November 4, 2013

What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, which was made into a movie with Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. Alys, Always is a lesser-known novel along similar lines, of a woman who insinuates herself slowly into someone's life to ill effect.
posted by matildaben at 11:40 AM on November 4, 2013

Zero Effect
posted by edgeways at 12:08 PM on November 4, 2013

My thing is 1930's horror, so I'm going to recommend The Devil Doll. It's perhaps not the world's best film (I sincerely love it, for all its flaws) but Malita is a truly great female mad scientist who, like her masculine counterparts, is entirely in it for the science.

It's certainly possible to interpret Kay Caldwell's actions in Son of Dracula as being motivated by affection for her (terrible creepy) boyfriend, but it's also possible to interpret the film as her playing the boyfriend and Dracula against one another for her own benefit. Also, she's one of the few female film vampires who isn't aggressively sexualized, which I find pleasing. I love Kay Caldwell.

Also, it seems to me that robot!Maria from Metropolis may fit the bill, but it's been a while since I watched that, so I can't be entirely sure.
posted by darchildre at 12:23 PM on November 4, 2013

Signed in just to second "Ma Ma" from Dredd.

What's awesome is that her background makes you think that she's going to fit the tropes that you described. She is a prostitute, who kills her pimp in a fit of relational rage.

But then she takes over his organization and decides that, since she likes being in charge so much, she'll take every other organization in her "city".

As the villian(ess) she isn't any of the things you described; her reasoning seems to be that she felt like it, and she can.

Anyway, you should see it. Gendered squick with the female co-lead is appropriate to the setting and the character (she's a rookie who hasn't passed the necessary tests to prove she's hard enough to be a Judge). Also, she'll be a bigger part of the sequel, if they can make it (she's second only to Judge Dredd when it comes to importance within the comic book, and also grows to be hard as hell).
posted by Poppa Bear at 12:29 PM on November 4, 2013

Annie Wilkes, from Stephen King's Misery
posted by mkultra at 12:32 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

* Blade Runner has a female villain that's not motivated by any of that (I don't think anyway).
* One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (again, it's been a long time, but I think she was just evil, at least in the movie).
* Throw Momma From the Train
* The Devil Wears Prada (I suppose if fashion equals femininity, this doesn't count).
* Misery (I guess the obsession is female-male, but I don't think that defined the villain in the movie).

Some of these are debatable, but hopefully they help.
posted by cnc at 12:33 PM on November 4, 2013

The Bad Seed is a novel (by William March) and a film about a terrifying, sociopathic, eight year old serial killer named Rhoda.
posted by goo at 12:48 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh my god do I love The Bad Seed.

I'd also recommend Romeo is Bleeding, which has Lena Olin playing Mona DeMarkov, one of my all-time favorite bad guys. She just wants to escape and cover her crimes, and she doesn't really have any qualms about manipulating or murdering anyone to get that done. She's a total badass. Just don't look it up on YouTube because their clips spoil some of the most shocking scenes in the film.

(20-year-old spoilers ahead:) Heartless greed was the motivation for the villain of Malice.
posted by heatvision at 1:17 PM on November 4, 2013

Dangerous Liaisons (this is the Glenn Close thread)
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:45 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cathy Ames from Steinbeck's East of Eden is downright sinister. While she is not the main character, she is a major force of gravity within the narrative.
posted by Turkey Glue at 3:00 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

My immediate thought was Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick from the hilarious Election. I'm not sure she's THE villain of the movie since no one is particularly sympathetic and every character thinks of themselves as the protagonist, but she's an awesome foil for Matthew Broderick's pathetic guidance counselor character.
posted by speicus at 3:20 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Alice Morgan from Luther
Patty Hewes from Damages
Mags Bennett from Justified

Admiral Cain from Battlestar Galactica
Amanda from Nikita
Irene Adler from Elementary
posted by jyorraku at 9:57 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.

The movie is great and the book even better as far as the development of her character. She had to be the center of attention and was often seductive or provocative, using her appearance to draw attention to herself. Some people are of the opinion that she is more of a villain than a heroine.
posted by JujuB at 10:23 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal, though Cate Blanchett is no paragon of morality either.
posted by marsha56 at 10:35 PM on November 4, 2013

(These are all a bit spoilery, sorry)
Eve Harrington, All About Eve
Phyllis Dietrichson, Double Indemnity
Jasmine, the Big Bad of Angel Season 4 (not that I can really recommend Angel as a show, but she's a good villain)
posted by phoenixy at 12:32 AM on November 5, 2013

Oddly, your mention of "Disney-villain-esque" brings to mind The Emperor's New Groove, whose villain Yzma is pretty much driven by lust for power, rather than any of the stereotypical motives you mention. It's a surprisingly great movie. (And Yzma is voiced by the spectacular Eartha Kitt, as an added bonus.)
posted by McCoy Pauley at 7:41 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

One thing about the Mags Bennett character: She doesn't appear until S2, and while you can certainly start watching at that point I'd really suggest just starting at S1.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:12 PM on November 5, 2013

While she uses her feminine wiles to do her Villain Thing (as is entirely historically reasonable), Milady De Winter from Dumas's The Three Musketeers is a FANTASTIC villain. Totally one of my favourites ever. She's so horrible! It's wonderful!

The book is also so much more fun than any movie interpretation I have ever seen, you have no idea. I think I need to read those things again.
posted by Because at 11:54 PM on November 5, 2013

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