Friday, May 3, 2013

The Evil Women of Romance

I came of age during the heyday of the nighttime soap opera, with its opulent display of wealth, power, and above all, desperately scheming women. Just like their counterparts on daytime soaps, Dynasty's Alexis Carrington and Dallas's myriad angry villainesses hatched plan after devious plan to seduce unsuspecting men, win back long-lost lovers, and generally spoil any happy endings for all the "good" girls who served as their real rivals. Millions of viewers tuned in every week to watch the evil doings of these villainesses of the night, eager to both condemn their actions while taking surreptitious pleasure in their rule-breaking actions.


Who needs a knife, when you have pointy earrings?

In Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (1982, 2008), Tania Modleski suggests that soap opera villainesses function as the "negative image of the spectator's ideal self," the symbolic representation of the spectator's "resentment at being constituted as an egoless receptacle for the suffering of others" (88-87). The anger a good girl feels at being endlessly told to be nice, to be good, to sacrifice for others, returns in the form of her repressed opposite, the egotistical, greedy, evil woman. Cunning, powerful, and sexy, the evil woman proves adept at using what Modelski terms the "aspects of a woman's life which normally render her most helpless"—pregnancy, motherhood, loss of a child—and use them to manipulate the hapless men and good girls around her (87).

In the post-feminist world of twenty-first century romance, a genre which purportedly celebrates female desire rather than feminine self-sacrifice, is there a need any longer for the figure of the villainess? Though she served as a standard trope in the Harlequin and Silhouette books of my early teen years, the  greedy, heartless, self-absorbed woman who cares far more about her own needs than those of her swain has proven far less common in the romances I've found myself reading of late (though the lack of category romance in my daily reading fare may throw doubt upon this claim--any category readers out there have thoughts?)

Perhaps that was why I found myself surprised to read not one, but two romances this past week that featured bad old-fashioned villainesses. Laura Moore's contemporary, Once Tempted, features a throw-back villainess, one who attempts to use her sexual wiles to win back the fiance she dumped in the hopes of bagging richer game. This type of villainess worked in those 70s and 80s category romances in part because their point of view was typically restricted to that of the heroine; neither she, nor we as readers, were privy to thoughts of the hero, and thus the heroine's worry that the villainess would work her sexy mojo on the hero did not come off as entirely unmotivated. In Moore's book, however, readers know that the hero thinks as little of the scheming siren as does the heroine (in fact, everyone in the entire book thinks poorly of her, although her stepsister and future brother-in-law are just too polite to openly acknowledge it). The villainess, then, has absolutely no chance of winning over our hero. Her inclusion, then, adds little to no tension to the romance arc, making this reader wonder what purpose she was supposed to serve. As a decidedly unfeminist reminder of the guilt women are still so often encouraged to feel for pursuing a man, rather than waiting for a man to pursue them? (Not surprisingly, the climax of the novel occurs after the hero follows the fleeing heroine cross country to declare his love...)

Grace Burrowes' historical Darius features not one, not two, but three villainnesses, one of the old-fashioned greedy variety, and the other two embodying a trope more commonly associated with villains: the perverted sexuality = evil variety. The main story—an aged aristocrat in need of an heir arranges for his new young wife to sleep with a virile young man—is a pleasure to read. But the three villainesses who threaten, but do little to really endanger, the young couple's baby or growing love, do nothing but leave a bad taste in this reader's mouth. One, a shrew married to the natural son of the aristocrat, is so stupid that her actions would have led to the illegitimatizing of her own husband, rather than to his inheriting a title. The other two, female dominants whom Darius submits to sexually for pay in order to support a cast-off sister, are just as easily thwarted when our hero throws aside his false role and takes up his true identity as threatening alpha male. It's almost as if we needed a reminder, during this age of celebrating Shades of Gray, that while BDSM can be OK, even sexy, if the male is the one who dominates, women who get off on subduing a man are still too appalling to countenance. Or is it perhaps the fear of a submissive man that we find too gender-role-destabilizing to imagine?

What do you think—can there be any such thing as a villainess in a feminist romance?



Photo credits:
Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington: The Telegraph



Next time on RNFF
The first openly gay pro athlete in m/m romance


21 comments:

  1. I think it depends. What message is the author trying to send with this villainess? What kind of traits and characteristics are they villainizing? There's one story in particular that I'm thinking of. It worked on a feminist level, because the female villain was a stodgy proponent of "traditional values". She couldn't stand the idea of her daughter living an independent life of her(the daughter's) own choosing

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    1. So instead of a villainess representing repressed aspects a heroine must deny, a la Modleski, in this model the villainess represents the repressive forces that the heroine must overcome. I can see the feminist possibilities here, but wonder if the blame is placed solely on the villainess, rather than on larger societal (patriarchal) forces? If so, then we have a case of displacing anger onto a victim of the same forces, rather than aiming them at the true causes of repression, no? Can you remember the name of the book/story you're thinking of, Vicky?

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    2. It was Welcome To Temptation by Jennifer Crusie.

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    3. Oh, I'm not remembering a villainess in that one. I'll have to go back and reread (always a happy task when Jennifer Crusie's books are involved!)

      Thanks, Vicky.

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  2. One villainess that springs immediately to my mind is Melisande Shahrizai in Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel books. These are fantasy/alt-history with a healthy dose of romance thrown in (if you don't already know.)
    As to the larger picture I think a well-written villainess could work very well in a feminist romance. To me it all hinges on the "why" of her villainy; does she do bad things because she's sexually depraved/deprived? If so then that would likely be a big fail. If, however, she is more of an antagonist whose own worldview conflicts with our heroine's? That makes for a more compelling read to me. Recently I've read series of books where the woman cast as the villain in the first book becomes the heroine of her own book later in the series. (If I wasn't currently in the midst of 5 different things my brain might be able to come up with which books those were, but I am a little multi-task-frazzled at the moment!)

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    1. Have been meaning to read the Kushiel books for some time now, mepamelia, and your comment makes me even more eager to do so...

      I'm intrigued by your seque from the idea of a villainess who is in conflict with a heroine's worldview to the idea of books in series that feature a former villainess as the heroine. Does this suggest that the author allows readers to consider multiple world views valid? Or does the villainess have to change (adopt the worldview of the firs heroine) in order to qualify for heroine status?

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    2. @ Jackie: I believe the villainess to heroine transformation I read was in Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series. The 6th book "Kiss of a Demon King" features the "evil" queen of the Sorceri as the heroine.
      IIRC she begins the book as the adversary and they fall in love and I don't remember many more details (it's been a few years.)
      I was also able to find a few titles on this AAR list: http://www.likesbooks.com/villains.html -- of course the majority of transformations were of male villains to heroes later on -- go figure!
      I know that in the next Brown Family book by Lauren Dane Raven is the heroine and while I wouldn't exactly call her a villainess she has been a problematic influence in some of the previous books.
      I hope you do read the Kushiel books -- they're really great examples of female agency with a female protagonist and a female villain and many secondary characters who are women with power and influence. Plus they're entertaining and epic! Win!

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  3. I haven’t read Darius, but I’ve loved a few of Grace Burrowes’ other books. It’s interesting that she should include these characters. In romance the villainess is often there to embody the questionable characteristics we might otherwise assign to the heroine. In this case, it sounds like an outsider might accuse the heroine of being a gold digger for marrying an old rich guy, so we need a bad lady to take on that role in a grotesque form to reinforce the heroine’s innocence. Similarly, we might find ourselves judging the heroine for using the hero sexually, so we get two bad ladies who do so in the extreme, and deflect attention away from ways that the heroine might be using him (for sex and for an heir).

    A Jungian reading – which I think clicks with Modleski’s arguments – would suggest that the villainesses are darker parts of the heroine’s psyche, and by defeating them, she defeats these angry aspects of herself and gains mastery over them. This is one way to get around the perceived reluctance of readers to accept flawed heroines. You can split them into parts! And only the “good” parts win.

    The problem with villainess characters is that they so often serve as a counterpoint to heroines who are, in my opinion, too oversimplified and too good. We see a lot of asshole heroes in romance whose assholery actually makes them more interesting to us, but our heroines, in general, are not allowed to stray very far from the path of “good.” We use villainesses to shade in this female complexity instead, and that’s problematic in my opinion. It suggests that complex, difficult women are not worthy of the hero’s love or worth us rooting for. It reinforces a version of femininity that’s very self-negating.

    Personally, I would much rather see some of the villainess qualities integrated into heroines who are as complicated in their motivations as women are in real life. That may be an excellent way to not sell any books, but from a feminist perspective, I think it’s important.

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    1. Yes, I, too, have really enjoyed many of Burrowes' previous books, which is why I found these villainesses so frustrating. Your interpretation of the role they play for the reader (serving as a repository for blame that we might otherwise place on the heroine) seems dead-on, albeit as you note rather sad, self-negating, and not at all feminist.

      I, too, would much rather see more "villainess" qualities incorporated into heroines than see them split off so I as a reader can safely hate them (or really, deny them in myself) rather than embrace them as part of the contradictions of a full human being. I don't believe creating such heroines is an "excellent way not to sell ANY books"; "fewer" books, perhaps, but there ARE romance readers looking for more nuanced heroines, rather than flat cardboard cut-outs they can feel safe for liking.

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    2. I was joking but yes, fewer is more accurate. And who can say what will or won't sell? There's certainly a strong audience out there.

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  4. This discussion of problems in erotic romance over on DEAR AUTHOR discusses a similar point re: villains and sexual perversity I mentioned in my blog:

    http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/why-i-now-hate-erotic-romance/

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  5. I'd say the Evil Other Woman of category romance has been somewhat, but not entirely, surplanted by the Evil Mother. Evil sisters (of the heroine) continue to be popular.

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    1. Do you have any favorite Evil Mother/Evil sister romances Willaful? Or is the trope just as problematic in category romance as the Evil Other Woman was?

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    2. I'd say they're about equally problematic. Evil Mother is shortcut for hero to hate women. Evil sister is shortcut for heroine to look even more awesome by comparison. I did encounter one "good" evil sister, let me see if I can dig it up.

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    3. Found it, Gentle Persuasion by Claudia Jameson: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/192406926

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  6. Modelski termed pregnancy and motherhood as two of the three aspects of a woman's life which normally rendered her most helpless??? I am floored by this. Truly floored. Was it simply stated in her analysis as a given that these were helpless aspects of womanhood?


    For villains...mothers, sisters, rivals all can be negative influences on a heroine or challenges to her self-realization certainly. (I find it a bit facile when they are simply challenges for the hero's attention and not actually challenges to who and what *she* is.) I like to think that every character in a story should be able to become the main character in her own story with a little twitch of POV, since in real life we are all our own main characters, but that can be hard to pull off.


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    1. "Similarly, on soap operas, the villainess seizes those aspects of a woman's life which normally render her most helpless and tries to turn them into weapons for manipulating other characters. She is especially good at manipulating pregnancy, unlike most women, who, as Mary Ellmann wittily points out, tend to feel manipulated by it" (Modleski 87).

      "Furthermore, the villainess, far from allowing her children to rule her life, often uses them in order to further her own selfish ambitions. One of her typical ploys is to threaten the father or the woman possessing custody of the child with the deprivation of that child. She is the opposite of the woman at home, who at first is forced to have her children constantly with her, and later is forced to let them go—for a time on a daily recurring basis and then permanently" (Modleski 88).

      I think of a villainess in folklore/fairy tale terms -- a flat character, with no redeeming qualities, evil to the core. But novels typically work to flesh out the flatness of folklore with more round character depictions. I wonder if thinking of category romance in terms of the flatness of folklore might be an interesting avenue to explore?

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    2. Hmm...okay, well I see where she is coming from, with more of her context, but we almost seem to be missing an intermediary: the normally strong, capable woman who is, in fact, powerful as a mother in a healthy way and not a dichotomy between the manipulative mother and the victim-mother (who would then be the good mother?). Interesting.

      Yes, I think you're right about category romance and the flatness of folklore. While there are many authors who challenge that flatness in different ways, I also think the longstanding appeal of a clear dichotomy shouldn't be underestimated, and we see it over and over again, in all genres. In terms of the way that dichotomy manifests itself in romances in particular...well, you could do a whole Women Who Run with the Wolves type book on category romances, you really could!

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  7. Thanks to recent Young Adult and New Adult books, the villainess (always a beautiful, busty blonde) is definitely back. I find it sexist and infuriating (especially being a blonde who gets enough ‘jokes’ hurled at me about my supposed low IQ), but unfortunately if it’s the younger readers gobbling this stuff up, I have no doubt it will be leaking back into adult romances in the very near future…

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  8. Well, I'm starting to see the function of the Evil Other Woman, because I'm reading A Perfect Marriage by Laurey Bright and am desperately sorry for the non-evil other woman. Not comfortable reading, that's for sure.

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    1. Your comments here and on Goodreads make me really want to read this one....

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