This post was in part inspired by Cait @ Paper Fury’s post “Are You a Fan of Gender Swaps?” Thinking about her post made me start looking at which characters in popular stories transcend their gender boundaries, or exhibit traits of different genders, which I found to almost always be villains. If you like this post, go check out Cait’s discussion as well!
Looking at popular stories, villains always have more of a license to break social norms and taboos, as they’re already “bad,” and such “misbehavior” won’t cause readers too much discomfort because they’re not supposed to root for the villain. One boundary in particular they’re able transcend that protagonists rarely do is gender. Whether in fairy tales, urban legend, or YA novels, villainous characters often are not confined to exhibiting traits of strictly one gender, making them fascinating to analyze and often more multidimensional than the heroes they’re pitted against. In this post I’m going to break down some villains who transcend “gender boundaries” and how this adds to their character and, in some cases, emphasizes the protagonist’s character.
Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog
More commonly known as “The Shadow Man,” Dr. Facilier is the antagonist in this southern Disney tale. A villain who constantly misappropriates Vodoo culture (but that’s a topic for a whole different post…) he portrays a lot of feminine qualities. His body is lithe and willowy with an extremely small waist, a body type usually desired for women in Western culture, though with exaggerated sized hands and feet. His outfit is primarily consisted of red, black, and purple (as most Disney villains’ clothing is) with a midriff baring top. His shop in the movie is decorated in a fairly feminine manner, with chintz arm chairs and frilly rugs. In 2010, MAC cosmetics did a Disney Villain themed line, “Venomous Villains,” where Dr. Facilier was the only male to be featured, alongside Maleficient, The Evil Queen, and Cruella De Vil.
Dr. Facilier could arguable have feminine attributes to contrast him against Tiana, who is seen as much more hardworking and less frivolous (attributes usually given to males in traditional Disney films) than her friends, who dress like flappers and want to go out and party, and constantly seeks to emulate her father. Tiana is snubbed by real estate agents when she tries to buy a property, and it’s not so subtly implied that that they the idea of a female buying property is ridiculous. Dr. Facilier’s feminine features help emphasize sturdy, logical, and good Tiana (Charlotte and Naveen also arguably do so as well).
Ursula from The Little Mermaid
Ursula is the sea witch made antagonist who originally appeared as more of a neutral character in the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale, but she was actually inspired by the famous drag queen, Divine. She wears a lot of make-up and has over exaggerated feminine movements and gestures, and is so much larger than all of the other female mermaids that she appears to be a caricature of a female rather than a female herself. When she transforms herself into “Vanessa” to lure Eric away from a mute Ariel, she is the perfect woman, but then sheds that skin at the final battle for a giant version of her true self, which is deep-voiced and seeks to destroy Triton’s reign at all costs.
Ursula’s masculine undertones serve to emphasize the delicate and dainty nature of Ariel (headstrong personality aside). Ariel is always described as the most beautiful of Triton’s daughters, with the best singing voice and the one most coveted by suitors. Her femininity balances her impulsive and stubborn personality and next to Ursula, she is clearly painted as the hero of the story. (If Ursula looked like Vanessa during the entirety of the movie, she’d probably be less fun to hate, and it would unbalance the classic villain/hero relationship if the antagonist was as pretty as the protagonist.)
Voldemort from Harry Potter
Voledmort is a highly feminized character, mostly due to the fact that he is Orientalized greatly in comparison to Harry and the rest of the Western wizarding world. Voldemort is described as having a “cold, high voice” with long, almost delicate fingers and pale, pale skin. His foremost association is with snakes, which were often associated with Near Eastern goddesses as symbols of fertility (Ishtar) and even female biblical figures (Lilith). Voldemort’s animal familiar, Nagini, herself is a female. Voldemort is associated with primitive magic that uses elements of the earth (such as using dirt from his father’s grave during his resurrection in Goblet of Fire) which parallels him to goddesses who were tied to the earth because the earth was a symbol of fertility, of birth and death, while male deities were often tied to the celestial, heavenly realm.
Voldemort’s Othering to a more Orientalized and feminine being serves to more firmly root Harry as a male protagonist on the classic hero’s journey. While Harry is deeply invested in his emotions and compassion, he is firmly a masculine character as it’s always emphasized that he is the spitting image of James, often in looks and personality. Voldemort is much more of a mix of feminine and masculine attributes, and it serves to enhance his taboo nature.
President Snow from The Hunger Games
President Snow is harder to dissect in terms of gendered attributes as readers don’t spend as much time with him as a character like Voldemort. Yet there are certain attributes that are strikingly more feminine about him. Firstly, his name “Snow” calls upon gentle imagery, such as “Snow White,” and associations such as gentle, quiet, and purity. He is often surrounded or symbolized by roses (for the purpose of concealing the scent of the rotting sores in his mouth), a twist on the often romanticized flower. Snow is constantly coughing up blood, which is often associated with females and fertility cycles.
These more feminine associations make Snow an even more captivating villain because the juxtaposition of his heinous crimes against usually delicate words and objects (snow, roses, etc) make his actions even more disturbing. Snow is a study in contrasts, a kindly grandfather and an evil dictator, and his status as a villain is perhaps enhanced by his non traditionally male attributes.
Looking at these villains, it’s fascinating how they all encapsulate a blend of different gendered attributes that add so many more layers to their character. Yet it’s problematic that villains are so often the only characters who are not constrained by gender roles because it insinuates that firmly set gender roles are preferred and heroic, and that gender fluidity and crossing gender roles, whether in behavior or appearance, is bad. One could argue that there’s been strides toward less stringent gender roles in YA literature with protagonists such as Katniss or Tris who can wield weapons and lead revolutions just as well as any male, but I would argue that the “strong female character” has become a feminine trope itself rather than such characters rejecting gender norms. It would be fascinating to see more characters who were written as a blend of traits that crossed traditional gender roles for more multi-dimensional characters (who doesn’t love that Caelena from the Throne of Glass series is a kick-butt assassin who also loves fashion?). If villains cross gender boundaries and emphasize their villainous nature, couldn’t heroes do the same and emphasize their compassion and altruism? I’d also love to see characters who focus on more “human” struggles that are not tied to specific genders, or who participate in stories where their gender isn’t much of a concern so their personality can really shine (one character that comes to mind is Elsa from Frozen, as she is already a princess and then a queen without any concern about her gender and the line of succession to the throne, and she struggles more with her inner personality conflict as to whether to be a protagonist or antagonist to her own kingdom and her human fears and anxieties).
Have you noticed that villains often cross the boundaries of their genders or have both feminine and masculine qualities? Do you think it adds to their characters? Do you think heroes abide by stricter gender roles and conventions then villains do? What characters do you think really break gender roles and norms (whether protagonists or antagonists)? Do you think that gender attributes are used to juxtapose heros and villains sometimes? Do you think gender roles still play a large part in YA literature? Tell me what you think in the comments!