All Amoral, Oversexed Villainesses are Alike...

The conventional wisdom seems to be that I should give HBO's Rome a few more episodes to get its feet under it. I probably will--there's nothing to watch anyway these days except Battlestar Galactica--but at this point it's hard to escape the conclusion that the show is nothing more than an I, Claudius knockoff, and not a very good one at that. I like the 'man on the ground' idea that the show seems to be moving towards in theory, but if the second episode is any indication the writers' implementation of this concept has a Forrest Gump-ishness to it that's turning me right off the entire show.

Perversely enough, the character the writers are obviously hanging their hopes on to draw viewers in is the one who's most likely to drive me away. I imagine that somewhere in HBO's head offices, someone is chuckling over their 'innovative' and 'groundbreaking' decision to write a female villain who uses sex as a weapon and manipulates even her own children to achieve her ends. Someone who's never seen any television before, that is. I know Livia, I've watched Livia, and Atia of the Julii, Rome's Alexis Carrington clone, is no Livia. She's not even Alexis Carrington.

In a show with a defined hero or protagonist, a cartoonish villain isn't a big problem. It's nicer when the villains have layers (although usually 'layers' translates into 'a difficult childhood'), but as long as our point of view character is complex, we don't really need that complexity from their antagonists. Rome, thus far, doesn't have protagonists. Even the most compelling characters (and I'm grading on a curve here) don't come close to protagonism. In a show like this one, all the main characters have to be layered and believably human in order to keep the show from descending into a farce. One mustache-twirler can drag down the entire ensemble.

I suppose television reviewers are going to call Atia 'deliciously nasty' or 'fun to watch'. Whatever. I just find her boring and predictable, not to mention painfully familiar. Female villains are all the rage these days (presumably because TV writers still haven't gotten 'but women are all sweetness and light!' out of their systems), but rarely are they anything other than a stock type--The Oversexed Narcissist, The Ball-buster, or Lady Macbeth (I suspect that Rome's writers want us to think that Atia is the last, and most interesting, of the three, but guys, who are we kidding). I'm probably alone in finding characters like Atia or Battlestar Galactica's Six tedious, as they just keep cropping up and enjoying great popularity, but just once I'd like to see female villains enjoy the complexity of their male counterparts.

When we first meet Deadwood's Al Swearengen, he steps on the throat of one of his whores until she promises never to disobey him again (disobeying him, in this context, means shooting a customer who beat her). Later that same day we watch him con a New York dandy out of $20,000 and slit a man's throat in cold blood. In the episode's final scene, the same whore comes to Al's bedroom and gets into bed with him. The camera focuses on Al's face, showing just the barest hint of emotion at this unearned affection.

The lesson of that scene isn't that deep inside, Al is a big softy (unless, that is, you've watched Deadwood's second season, in which Al was transformed from a complicated villain into a lovable rogue), except in the sense that we all are. Even the worst villains among us are human, and like all of us they crave comfort, affection and safety. Al Swearengen is (or was) a brilliant villain because the writers acknowledged that, although his choices in life had all but calcified his soul, he was still a human being, with all the attendant foibles and weaknesses. The same is true of Tony Soprano. He's a frightening, dangerous man, but even this stone-cold killer often finds himself helpless and terrified by the cruelty and capriciousness of the world.

That's not something you see in female villains. Bad girls are never as human as bad guys. They are ruled completely by their villainous desires and by their coldly logical machinations. This might seem like a compliment (women are better villains than men) but it's actually just bad writing--an inability to conceive of a woman who is morally depraved and still human.

The only female villain I can think of who escaped this cliché is Angel's Lila Morgan during the show's superb fourth season. Lila, a lawyer for Wolfram & Hart, was a company girl to the core. She hated Angel and took great pleasure in causing him pain, and her other projects for her employers included robbing impoverished children, manipulating a young victim of sexual abuse into becoming an assassin for Wolfram & Hart, and securing the freedom of a mysoginistic serial killer. For all her depravity, however, Lila was still capable of something resembling love. She genuinely cared for Wesley, and their strange and twisted relationship was oddly romantic. I was actually rooting for them to work, but at the same time I knew that they never could, for the simple reason that love didn't save Lila--she was still a souless minion of evil even when she cared about Wesley, and that contradiction made her a fascinating character.

The reason that most of our TV villainesses are closer to Atia than to Lila Morgan is that television writers don't seem to have gotten a handle on that complexity. The ability of the mind to contradict itself, to hold on to mutually exclusive notions, is part of what makes us human beings, rather than just logical automatons. But when it comes to women, such contradictions aren't allowed. The problem isn't that women aren't allowed to be good or evil. It's that they're not allowed to be complicated.


Anonymous said…
I don't suppose you ever watched Blake's Seven? Servalan was a good strong villainess.
Paul Brown said…
Damn. I was going to say that. Servalan was, to me, one of the great villans of SF, irrelevant of gender, as we say her as others saw her (the one dimensional villan), but then saw some of her private moments that showed her internal motivations, including why she was never anything but one-dimensional in public.
Spot on with the Lila comment, btw, I was hoping through series four that Wesley would help Lila to save herself, even though I knew that it couldn't really happen. The most poignant moment, I felt, came in "Home" where Wesley tried to free Lila from W&H grasp.
There was genuine love in her face as she said, "It wouldn't have worked. But it means something that you tried."
Anonymous said…
YES! I am SO SICK of those off-the-shelf supersexy villainesses! Whenever I see one I'm starting to roll my eyes and yawn.
Zenchakra said…
I really liked the insightful post. It touched on many things that are hard to do in media. Whether it be literature, television, theatre or movies. It really depends on what purpose the villian or villianess is going to serve in response to the hero/heroine. One dimensional villians are well for your basic hero road bump, but for some really complicated issues and plots, you need a strong, developed character without falling into cliches. The hardest part is to make it repulsive and compelling without drawing too much sympathy. For a lot of writers, this tends to be lost because the overall arc of the hero plot. A good villian shakes that up and may even portray the hero in a light that may make him/her less than angelic. Even the reasons could be that the villain is liken to the fallen hero. He/She tried and failed to overcome and now wrapped in their vices refuses to let go and will impede anyone to their achievement. Maybe it also becomes too uncomfortable to design such a character because it sits so close to our own ideas and foibles. It's hard to feel comfy when you realize that you could very well become this person; that's predicated on the choices that led to them being a selfish and consuming being.
oddly enough, or, perhaps, not quite so oddly, you'll find the most convincing characterizations (including villainessesses) in comedies.

good comedies are exponentially better written than any old TV drama.

and they're funnier, too.

er, pardon my intrusion. i'd just wandered in via your M. John Harrison post.

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