A few days ago, I listed some of my favourite villains as represented by the Seven Biblical Sins in response to a Daily Post. Two things occurred to me while was compiling it. Firstly, that I could think of far fewer female characters representing those traditional seven deadly since of lust, avarice, gluttony, pride, envy, sloth and wrath than their male counterparts. Secondly, when it came to my proposed eighth deadly sin of cruelty, that I could think of many villainesses but far fewer of their male counterparts.
Granted, in my second choice for lust I put Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials. Her lust is not sexual as we would understand it, but lust for power. She does know, however, how to use feminine wiles to make men do her bidding – flirtatious behaviour for personal gain I would include as lust, even if sex is not the end game. Mrs Coulter is a charmer but she is also a cruel character.
I also included The Wicked Witch from Snow White as an example of an envious character but she is also vain (which would come under pride). Arguably, modern literature is promoting pride / vanity far more in female villains these days but cruelty still appears to trump it in memorable characters. I included Miss Havisham as an example of a prideful character in her determination of pushing her distorted view of what men are like because of the actions of just one – the one who jilted her on her wedding day.
As well as Narnia’s The White Witch for my proposed eighth sin of cruelty, I was also able to come up with these following cruel female characters: Cruella Deville (obviously!) Dolores Umbridge, Bellatrix Lestrange, both the mother and grandmother from Flowers in the Attic.
That’s not to say that cruelty is never portrayed as a character trait in male villains, merely that it seems to be far more common in female villains. Ignoring for a moment that Bellatrix Lestrange is a sociopath and is highly likely clinically insane, most of the others above are fully aware of their actions and take pleasure in their actions. Bellatrix, in our world, would simply be a life-long patient of Broadmoor.
I think cruelty is far more common as a female character trait because it is the antithesis of the ideals of motherhood: the carer, the nurturer, compassion etc. Is this right? Is the mother instinct – and the distortion of it – the fuel for the motivation of most of our female villains?