On a New Generation of Villainous Women, From Witches to Wicked Stepmothers

How Contemporary Writers Are Reframing Narratives Around Female Characters

What do you call a villain when she finally gets to tell her own story?

Not a hero, certainly. A villain doesn’t automatically become a hero just because the point of view on her story shifts. No, what a villain becomes when she tells her own story is what anyone becomes when they control their own narrative: three-dimensional. What she becomes is someone with a past, whose life has been informed by, and further informs, the complexity of the world we messy humans have made. What she becomes is real.

The “she” here is important. Villains are not, by definition, women, nor are women, by definition, villainous. But women’s complexity has long been anathema to the kinds of simplistic tales our patriarchal, misogynistic culture has just as long preferred to tell. Whether they’re meant to document history or to entertain kids at bedtime, these stories villainize anything that doesn’t fit within the patriarchy’s limited, gender-essentialized boundaries. And complex women? The last thing they’re ever going to do is fit.

Recently, as #MeToo and Time’s Up have opened up space for women to tell their own stories to a public newly sensitive to the ruinous effects of misogyny, all kinds of women previously written off as the one-dimensional Big Bads in other people’s stories have become this kind of real. From Lorena Gallo to Monica Lewinsky to all the girls whose communities turned on them the the first time they tried to tell their own truth, these women’s accounts are finally being given the voice and context they ought to have had all along.

This recontextualization hasn’t been limited to the real world, either. Just as #MeToo and Time’s Up have given so many real women control of their own narratives, so too have contemporary novelists given the witches, evil queens, and wicked stepmothers of our childhoods a new voice, shifting each tale’s narrative frame just enough that the misogynistic forces at the root of the villainization of each of these infamous women is laid bare. Of course, no one would mistake myth and fairy tale for reality, but this reframing of archetypal villains we all know so intimately is just as important, as what we choose to mythologize shapes how we grow (or don’t) as a culture.

Of all the recent reframings of legendarily villainous women, Madeline Miller’s dreamy, incisive Circe has the biggest profile. Tracing the life of the nymph-witch, Circe, this newest of Miller’s retellings of Greek mythology takes a story made famous by a man and turns it around so that the villainous woman at its center is given the power to recount for herself the various crucibles that eventually lead her to infamy.

…these women’s accounts are finally being given the voice and context they ought to have had all along.

When Circe shows up in The Odyssey, it is as a witch-goddess whose very nature is treacherous: She drugs the wild beasts of the island to keep them docile and uses her feminine wiles to lure passing sailors ashore in order to transform them into swine—for no other reason, Hermes tells Odysseus, than to “plot mischief to hurt.” Her power is framed as little more than a capricious, unfeeling weapon meant to bring men to their knees, which in the end means it isn’t so powerful after all; when her undoing comes, it is not at the hands of a god, but in the face of one mortal man’s perseverance, womanly caprice having nothing on masculine fortitude.

Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. […] I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.  –Circe

Miller’s Circe, by contrast, is far from an avatar of feminine malevolence. In Miller’s telling, Circe is no capricious weapon, fulfilling the role fate has handed her to be a villain in various men’s Hero’s Journeys—she is a three-dimensional woman hemmed in on all sides by gods, doing what she must to survive. In the first many centuries of her life, shunned by her titan father’s court for constantly failing to fit their rigid standards of beauty and feminine grace, this means cultivating her nascent witchcraft to find a way to combat a huge, gnawing loneliness. In the latter half of her life, after Zeus is so threatened by her powers that he banishes her to the desert island of Aeaea, this means using her witchcraft to combat an even deeper chasm of loneliness, not by drugging the island’s wild beasts into submission, but by opening a companionable psychic link between them.

Now, Miller’s Circe is no hero—the spells she casts in her father’s court backfire so spectacularly that she accidentally transforms her romantic rival into the greatest sea monster of Greek mythology, and her violent rape by a marooned sailor later on Aeaea induces her to establish a preemptive and unforgiving swine now, ask questions later policy for male trespassers that lasts for decades. But the evils she does, given a proper context, are a far cry from treachery. They aren’t great, but neither are they inexplicable. There’s a reason so many fantasies written with women as a target audience center and celebrate witchcraft: if that was a power a woman could harness to combat the danger and abuse she’s constantly faced with, who among us wouldn’t want to take it and run?

This, of course, is the crux of the issue—why Zeus banishes Circe to Aeaea, why Homer fixes her in the cultural imagination as a man-hating she-devil, why a public swimming in misogyny has been so long happy to accept villain as her birthright: her power. It’s not just the magical power she cultivates as a self-taught witch; it’s her power as a fiery, independent woman who refuses to contort herself to fit the restrictive mold set for women by the patriarchal culture she ought to belong to, body and soul. Her power to not bend herself to any man’s will. Her power to make her own family, and find her own safety. That kind of power is scary, and is the real reason why Circe’s identity as a witch has been branded wicked for as long as it has.

*

The narrator of Danielle Teller’s All the Ever Afters, a quieter fairy tale revision published last year, is not a witch, but she is wicked. So wicked, in fact, that in most of the majority male-composed Aarne-Thompson Uther 510A-type stories to which All the Ever Afters is kin, she doesn’t get a name, just an archetypal title: Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, she is called, and the “wicked” there is important—you might get away with abbreviating your reference to her as the wicked stepmother or, if you grew up with a different qualitative preference, Cinderella’s EVIL stepmother, but you could never get away with just Cinderella’s stepmother. The important thing is, this woman is wicked.

Teller, kindly, gives her version of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother a name: Agnes. She also gives her life a context both historical (Charles Perrault’s 17th-century France, give or take) and social (Agnes is born a serf, then is apprenticed at age 10 to a local lord’s cruel laundress). The story that Teller paints of Agnes’s life as a French serf is not based in any one woman’s biography, but it is profoundly believable. By simply building out the historical and social context of a story that men like Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm left paper thin, Teller makes it easy for modern readers to discern the parallels between life as a woman in that time and today. These parallels are especially strong when you come to understand that, for Agnes to get to a point that she can even become stepmother to a lord’s daughter, she needs to make some seriously nimble moves up the social ladder. For Agnes to get to a point that she can become Cinderella’s stepmother, she has to be ambitious.

This ambition, of course, is the root of not just Agnes’s intrinsic wickedness, but all women’s. Ambition, as philosopher Kate Manne notes, is not one of the qualities acceptable for people who aren’t men to cultivate under patriarchy; the moment a woman shows a real desire to achieve more than what society has set up for her, misogyny rises up to explicitly enforce patriarchy’s implicit rules. (For just one example of this enforcement in early action, see this acid-bite title of Devorah Blachor’s barely-satirical McSweeney’s piece from the earliest winterbud days of the 2020 campaign season: “I don’t hate women candidates—I just hated Hillary and coincidentally I’m starting to hate Elizabeth Warren.”)

So, no, Agnes is not a witch. But in her striving for even the smallest measure of security for herself and her two daughters, she’s not far from one. Never mind that she gets pregnant after being taken advantage of by a known lothario, or that the entrepreneurial alewitch life she builds for her and her daughters is snatched from her the moment said lothario dies—the world she belongs to has no mechanism by which it can understand her as anything more than an opportunistic whore. (The purported ugliness of Agnes’ daughters, it is worth noting, operates as a separate, racist function of misogynistic villainization, with one unmarriageable daughter being “unacceptably dark skinned” like her foreign father, and the the other “fairer,” but deeply scarred from childhood pox.)

As despised as Agnes is for every desperate swipe she makes at a modestly better existence for herself while her daughters are still young and their father is still alive, it’s nothing compared to the seething resentment she faces when she eventually succeeds at marrying into a title. It doesn’t matter that, thanks to her successful nursing of fussy baby Ella and her effective management of the Aviceford estate and household accounts he has entirely let go, the drunk, depressed widower lord she eventually marries is the one who comes out furthest ahead in their union—for Agnes, a serf, to rise to the position of lady of the manor is an outrage. This, not her inadequate stepmothering of Ella, is what drives the society she rises into to hysteria. It is also what has made so many generations of 510A audiences so sympathetic to her villainization—like Circe’s terrifyingly powerful independence, the depth of Agnes’ ambition is a threat to the status quo patriarchy has always needed to keep in careful balance.

*

As refreshing (well, and bracing) as Agnes and Circe’s newly dimensionalized histories are when told from their own perspectives, they aren’t revolutionary. They reflect the complex reality of women’s lives under a patriarchy—a reality both Teller and Miller have the perfect vocabulary to evoke, living in the particular misogynistic moment that they do. Men don’t always tell women’s stories badly, but when so many of the myths and legends that have shaped modern culture have been told (and retold) by men who don’t seem to have been that interested in documenting feminine complexity, our toolbox for understanding the complex humanity of real women, in the real world, becomes dangerously limited.

Just as writers like Madeline Miller and Danielle Teller are working to complexify the women we have been trained since childhood to fear and distrust, so too are there writers working to complicate the stories of those we haven’t. This includes all of the anti-heroines whose numbers have grown exponentially since Gone Girl first introduced “cool girl” psychopath Amy Dunne to the world, but even those stories read as simple when compared to something as novel and fascinating as 2018’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, in which author Oyinkan Braithwaite starts from the exact same hypothesis Miller and Teller do—that a patriarchal society raised on the simplistic characterizations of myth and fairy tale is inherently incapable of diagnosing villainy in women—but comes at it from a much different angle. It is not just a woman’s power or ambition or outspoken contrariness that can get her misbranded as a villain, Braithwaite’s story argues; the danger goes even deeper.

Korede, the narrator of My Sister, the Serial Killer, has much in common with both Circe and Agnes. She is smart and independent and, in her own way small way within the hierarchy of nurses at the hospital where she works, professionally ambitious. Dark-skinned and round, she is also, physically, different from the standards of “ideal woman” in her Nigerian society. Unlike Circe and Agnes, though, these qualities haven’t cast Korede as a villain.

But then there is Ayoola, Korede’s beautiful, light-skinned, pathologically unambitious younger sister, who is, as the title says, a serial killer. She kills her boyfriends—quickly, easily, cheerfully, and, as the brief book goes on, with a distressing increase in frequency. And Korede, as her only mostly disapproving accessory-after-the-fact, lets her. She is a villain. But, like Korede, she is not cast as one. Because the thing is, no one—not even with Korede telling them point blank what Ayoola is doing—will believe that someone like Ayoola might ever be capable of such evil.

My Sister, the Serial Killer is good for the simple fact that it is good—zingy, tightly-plotted, shocking even when you go in knowing how much death there will be. But it is also good because it slides its knife so cleanly through the patriarchy’s heart to its pulsing weakness. “It’s because she is beautiful, you know,” Korede vents to a coma patient she has formed a special bond with for the express purpose of having someone all-but-braindead to tell her secrets to. “That’s all it is. They don’t really care about the rest of it. She gets a pass at life.”

But those women will be villains for reasons deeper and more interesting than the fact that some man…decided her realness didn’t fit the parameters patriarchy set up for her.

The message embedded here is so simple, it’s absurd: people are dying because the woman killing them is too close to a fairy tale ideal of femininity to be a threat. But this simplicity hides a kind of complex thesis that is a mirror image of that of Circe and All the Ever Afters. That is, when you can’t fathom the complex depths of women you’ve written off as villains, neither can you fathom the possible danger emanating from those you’ve written off as goddesses.

Opening up space for women to tell their own stories, that is to say, doesn’t just mean opening up space for villainous women to become heroes; it means opening up space for women to become anything. Heroes, maybe. Victims, often. And sometimes, yes, villains—just not always, as Braithwaite’s Ayoola illustrates, in the figures patriarchy has trained us to expect.

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While Miller, Teller, Braithwaite, and their peers continue working to recontextualize the ways in which literature treats complex women, villainous and otherwise, feminist culture critics like Rebecca Traister, Anne Helen Petersen, Doreen St. Felix, Jia Tolentino, and Lindy West are taking on similar work in contemporary nonfiction.

Of all these incisive writers, it is West whose current work most directly confronts the misogynistic structures embedded in generations of storytelling that first gave us our unjustly villainized Circes and Agneses (and kept us from justly villainizing all our Ayoolas). In “Yes, This is a Witch Hunt, I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You,” the New York Times op-ed she published by way of opening salvo in the earliest days of #MeToo, West leaned hard into the most archetypically villainous imagery of complex women available to her. “The witches are coming, but not for your life,” she wrote, casting a new kind of spell at men like Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen whose careers have been built on creating narratives that villainized so many of the untameable women in their lives. “We’re coming for your legacy.”

One of the co-creators of the decentralized, de-stigmatizing movement, Shout Your Abortion, West is acutely aware of the importance of women taking control of their own stories in all their messy complexity, and her forthcoming essay collection, The Witches Are Coming, promises to drill even deeper into the witchy imagery so long used to villainize women who haven’t fit the patriarchy’s narrative. Then, it promises to burn them to the ground, establishing for an audience that might not yet have gotten the message that giving women the power to shape their own narratives is not just creatively satisfying, but absolutely critical to the work of making the world a safer, more equitable place.

If, as essayists like West are suggesting and novelists like Miller, Teller, and Braithwaite are putting into practice, we can build for ourselves a better toolbox with which to understand our world simply by letting women give dimension to their own stories, then our world, our real world, might have a real shot at improvement. Will there still be villains? Absolutely. Villainous women? Of course. But those women will be villains for reasons deeper and more interesting than the fact that some man, coming up with a narratively simplistic story tens or hundreds or thousands of years ago, decided her realness didn’t fit the parameters patriarchy set up for her.

Or, as West wrote in that original op-ed: “We don’t have the justice system on our side; we don’t have institutional power; we don’t have millions of dollars or the presidency; but we have our stories, and we’re going to keep telling them.”

So, what do you call a villain when she finally gets to tell her own story?

Just listen. She’s about to tell you.

Alexis Gunderson
Alexis Gunderson
Alexis Gunderson is a writer who left the academic world of Russian Literature to join the secular one of television and cultural criticism. Her work appears regularly at Paste Magazine, and has also been found at Birth.Movies.Death, Syfy Wire, and Screener TV. She lives in the DC area.





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