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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

female villains we love to hate

If you’re not all that familiar with the story of The Golden Compass, you may not know that the character Nicole Kidman plays, Mrs. Coulter, is the villain of the piece. Female bad guys — alas that “bad girls” does not have the same connotation of treachery and vileness — are few and far between, but perhaps its their rarity that makes them so memorable when they do turn up. Here are some of my favorites:
• Kidman’s own Suzanne Stone in To Die For (1995): Her small-town girl takes ambition to extreme lengths in the pursuit of fame and fortune. Alternate title: Be Careful Who You Sleep With. [buy at Amazon]

• Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2006): She whispers all her evil, forcing you to lean in to listen to here even when your inclination is to run as far away as possible. [read my review] [buy at Amazon]

• Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939): She’ll get us, we little pretties, and our little dogs, too. Oh, her beautiful wickedness… [read my review] [buy at Amazon]

• the Alien queen in Aliens (1986): That bit where Ripley and Newt are running, running, running away and suddenly find themselves smack in the middle of the bitch’s egg nest? I have nightmares like that. [buy at Amazon]

• Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975): The character’s name instantly became synonymous with creepy, scary, evil in female uniform. Not many villians, guy or gal, can claim such an honor. [read my review] [buy at Amazon]

• Lucille La Verne’s Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): The ur evil stepmother, she’s so powerful that she still haunts our collective subconscious 70 years later. read my review] [buy at Amazon]

• Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990): Her refusal to use even the mildest swear words would be pretty funny if it weren’t matched by an equal and opposite proclivity for some of the most cruel nastiness film has ever seen. (Interesting, too, that she’s another nurse, preying men when they’re most vulnerable.) [read my review] [buy at Amazon]

• Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940): Creepy housekeeper! And creepily overprotective of her master. Makes you wonder who’s really in charge in that house. [read my review] [buy at Amazon]

• Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest: She ruined the reputation of wire hangers, and what did they ever do to her? [buy at Amazon]

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  • She’s not a grownup in the movie, but Patty McCormack’s performance as Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed (1956) was pretty damn chilling.

    And as long as you’re including crazies and not just mean women, what about Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction?

  • bitchen frizzy

    Bette Davis as Jane Hudson in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” immediately comes to mind for me.

  • bossy joe

    Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction is my fave…haven’t seen it in at least ten years, but it still sticks in my head.

  • Kate

    I realize she’s not the #1 baddie, more of a helpmeet to the big bad, but the nanny in “The Omen” comes to my mind! That starched white collar, perfectly straight part, and thin little smile….yikes.

  • You can’t leave out Cruella deVille. Maybe not a great movie, but a great villain!

    I’m not convinced that Meryl Streep was a villain. Maybe it’s just my own corporate background, but Meryl did such an excellent job of conveying the real human in the character that she didn’t feel evil to me; just demanding. Of course, incredibly demanding may seem evil if that’s your boss.

    Kidman was pretty good in Malice, too.

  • Johnny

    Natasha Henstridge in Species, I remember feeling mixed
    about this movie. She was hot, but yet she kills you after the sex. I think shes somebody I’d take my chances with regardless to the possibilities death by alien tentacle strangulation. I always thought maybe, just maybe I could convince her not to kill me.

  • amanohyo

    She might stand out because the movie itself is not so great, but the only Disney villain with a genuinely cool character design is Maleficent (played by Eleanor Audley). Every time I watched the movie as a child, I was hoping that she would kill that bland Prince and make a meal of Sleeping Beauty.

  • amanohyo

    Nausicaa’s Kushana was memorable for me as well. She’s about as badass as a princess can get.

  • JT

    More recently, I would add Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I didn’t actually read a hard copy of the book, I listened to the audiobook.. and Stephen Fry would start Dolores’ sentences with a soft *ahem* *ahem* that gave me chills. I think Imelda Staunton captured that perfectly.

  • MaryAnn

    I never said this list was exhaustive. :->

    Yes, Staunton in *Order of the Phoenix* is awesome, and that one’s almost on DVD…

    you’re including crazies and not just mean women, what about Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction?

    I freakin’ *hate* that movie…

  • When I look at this list, it seems that an inordinate number of classic Walt Disney films had an evil female villain. We didn’t even mention “Snow White”! Since most of us (and even many of our parents) grew up on Disney, what do you think the effect of all these evil women was on our tender psyches? Did Walt have an agenda? http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/19/051219fa_fact1

    this was the closest thing I could Google to an answer.

  • bitchen frizzy

    Walt’s agenda was to bring classic fairy tales and children’s stories to the big screen.

    He didn’t create the characters in those stories.

  • Mark

    Servalan, from Blake’s 7.

  • MBI

    God, I love Nicole Kidman in “To Die For.” She’s so good at communicating superficiality, and that’s not an insult, many great actors are incapable of it.

  • MaryAnn

    Servalan, absolutely. Unfortunately, B7 is not available on DVD in the States.

    Mark: You’re not my cousin Mark from the UK, are you? You sound exactly like him…

  • Mark

    Servalan, absolutely. Unfortunately, B7 is not available on DVD in the States.

    You can order region-2 DVDs from Amazon UK; shipping is only about £3 to the US. Then all you need is a region-free player, or you can watch them on a computer with region-free player software (that’s how I watch the Spaced and Mighty Boosh DVDs I ordered a few months ago).

    The B7 20-disk giganto-boxed set (all four seasons) is just shy of £78, which with the current exchange rate is … well, still pretty expensive. But if you already have what you need to play UK DVDs, don’t let the fact that they aren’t for sale here stop you from buying them.

    Mark: You’re not my cousin Mark from the UK, are you? You sound exactly like him…

    I have neither the honor of being related to you nor the pleasure of living in the UK. I’m just a longtime reader of the site.

  • MaryAnn

    You can order region-2 DVDs from Amazon UK

    Obviously, you haven’t been reading the many postings in which I’ve covered my newfound romance with my region-free DVD player and Amazon UK. *B7* was one of the first things I ordered from England — I fell in love with it as a teenager when it aired on PBS here, and I’m considering writing a “Totally Geeky Guide to B7.*

  • onty

    Unfortunately there a few, few female villains in film. Because of the Hayes Act (forced on Hollywood by the Women’s Catholic League), portraying females as evil became taboo in America. Only men were painted as bad. This mysandry infiltrated our justice system, school system and our beliefs.

    When a movie dares to liberate women and give them all the emotions and sicknesses of the other gender, the actress usually gets an academy award and often deserves it.

    Since the Hayes Act American movies had been more or less a one note tune.

  • CB

    The White Witch. For serious. Her cruelty and brutality, yet eerily manipulative seductiveness were amazing in a movie I otherwise don’t have much use for.

    Meryl Streep was also incredibly chilling in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate.

    Gotta give another shout out for the alien queen. It’s kinda great that something that alien could be so readily defined by — and have much of her menace come from — her femaleness.

    Oh, and mad props to amanohyo for mentioning Kushana. Though in the graphic novel (and even the movie to an extent) her status as villain is debatable. Similar to Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke. Though let’s just cut to the chase — Miyazaki’s work is a treasure trove of powerful and complicated female characters, both heroines and villains.

  • CB

    I should pay more attention to dates. :(

  • bree

    I’d add Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate, Charlize Theron as Aileen Wournos in Monster, Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons, Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Burton’s Catwoman.

  • Accounting Ninja

    Dolores Umbridge is my favorite female villian, hands down, but only in the book. I haven’t seen the film version.
    She’s cruel, but sneaky, so she can get away with it. She is not sexualized (god, I hate that), BUT, neither is she overly vilified for being ugly. They describe her as toad-like, but emphasis is always placed on her horrible actions, not her looks. And, most disturbing of all, she seems like a normal (if not anal-retentive) teacher, but underneath she’s evil. She has the veneer of respectability and I really felt for that little puke Potter, and how helpless he was against her. It was quite a feat to make me sympathize with him in the 5th book, where he reached critical emo mass. :)

    @amanohyo: One of my favorite things about Miyazaki is his willingness to use women and girls as villians AND heroes, but make them very grey and multi-faceted. Good villians are hard to come by, good FEMALE villains more so.

    I hated Fatal Attraction, too. I couldn’t watch it. I started it, but…no. Just no. It says so many vile things about women that I hated it even BEFORE I identified as feminist.

  • Accounting Ninja

    Michelle Pfeiffer as Burton’s Catwoman

    Sorry for the double post, but aww, I’ve got a soft spot for her. I saw that movie in the theater as a young teenage Ninja, and it BLEW me away back then.

    She was one of the first outright feminist characters I ever encountered. Sure, it was ham-fisted feminism and there were definitely flaws in how it was presented, but the seeds were planted. And she vamped around in that outfit like so many female villains are forced to do and I hate that, BUT, she radiated such bitterness and sorrow at the realization that her “hot body” was her primary “weapon” being a woman…I felt that when she was enticing men, there was always contempt beneath it, condemning them for objectifying and underestimating her. And, showing that she was very dangerous when they did. Plus, the movie never treated her like just another “sexy bad girl”. They gave her as much depth as Batman and the Penguin.

    I loved her so much. I gotta go watch that move again! :)

  • Unfortunately there a few, few female villains in film. Because of the Hayes Act (forced on Hollywood by the Women’s Catholic League), portraying females as evil became taboo in America. Only men were painted as bad. This mysandry infiltrated our justice system, school system and our beliefs.

    When a movie dares to liberate women and give them all the emotions and sicknesses of the other gender, the actress usually gets an academy award and often deserves it.

    Since the Hayes Act American movies had been more or less a one note tune.

    First of all, it’s the Hays Act.

    And yes, it was an obstacle in the making of many a movie but it hasn’t been a real factor in Hollywood since the 1960s.

    Nor did it deter actresses like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck from becoming quite famous playing the sort of evil women this act supposedly discouraged.

    Then, as is now, smart filmmakers found a way to work around censorship while most mediocrities used it as an excuse to stick with the status quo.

    As for misandry…

    For every Hays Era movie in which men are portrayed as villains, there are many more in which women
    are portrayed as morons or worse. And don’t get me started on how nonwhite women were often portrayed…

  • tomservo

    I know it’s not in a movie, but Snoop from The Wire was pretty terrifying.

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