Game of Thrones started this season with a mass murder. More specifically, a mass murder committed by a teenage girl. The scene, in which a female character takes dramatic and long-awaited revenge, stood as the cold open for the second season and was perhaps the single most satisfying moment in this television drama’s history. It took place in the same hall where one of the most surprising and tragic scenes of similar violence had taken place four seasons previous, but this time, instead of a tragedy, it was a triumph. For a certain, extremely vocal online sector of Game of Thrones’ viewership, this was the sporting event where their team went all the way, the whole damn championship. It was a stand-on-your-feet-and-cheer culmination, with our tiny girl hero walking out of a room full of dead men like a rock star dropping the mic and leaving the stage.
Game of Thrones has long been famous as a fictional world that treats women poorly, but it’s also one that’s always been invested in centering female supervillains, and one that’s often attempted to redeem itself by having women murder and slaughter people just the same way its men do. As it has moved beyond the source material from George R.R. Martin’s books and further into David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ own creation, the seventh season focused almost exclusively on female rulers, and was intent on making grand gestures toward a certain type of feminism. Every faction competing for the kingdom, each of them bloodthirsty and power-hungry in one way or another, is helmed either partially or wholly by a woman, and women this season are the ones doing the damage, razing the land, seeking revenge, and planning wars against one another. The majority of the male power players from earlier seasons have died, and the ones who survived are either fighting alongside or in the employ of female overlords.
There are, of course, differences between these individual female characters. Some are more obviously sympathetic—with more obvious humanity—than others. Some are seeking revenge more than power, or power more than revenge, although all of them are ultimately seeking both. All of them have suffered enormous traumas, and all of them have also done bloody and unconscionable acts. Game of Thrones has always been interesting because it is determinedly a story without heroes; the one character who might have been described as a classic hero was killed off in the first season, and everyone who came after him is logically more villain than hero, no matter what cause they claim to be fighting for. Everyone is ruthless, and everyone has blood on their hands.
That this villains-only narrative currently centers on women perhaps says less about female empowerment, and more about the way women are allowed to be seen in mainstream narratives. We are more comfortable with female monsters, it seems, than female heroes. Being the supervillain has historically been a way for people with marginalized identities to come in from the margins, to enter action movies, comic books, and even the journey epics of the Western canon. Where the hero is alway a straight white dude, the person matching the demographic being courted by producers, the supervillain is often “the other,” playing on the expectation that anything outside of this traditionally dominant category will somehow inherently carry with it a whiff of fear and violence. Queer villains, for example, are a staple of the comic book genre, even if they are never explicitly revealed as queer. Villains wear makeup and women’s clothes and refuse to have “normal” heterosexual relationships; being outside of the hero’s norm exemplifies both their danger and their sickness. It gives them both their wounds and their power. Villains’ origin stories are frequently darker, stranger, and more moving than those of heroes in stories—the trauma must pile up high enough to justify this person’s sadism and bloodlust, even if these traumas are only gestured at and never fully explained. Villainy becomes a sideways mechanism by which to examine the basically traumatic nature of living outside of the single dominantly approved identity in a racist and patriarchal society. Being the villain is a way into the central narrative without actually having to be granted centrality, to move in and assume power in the unmarked spaces while remaining a marked category. Villains are often far more compelling than heroes and are often the point of identification for many of us who, also, do not see ourselves in heroes. The villain is how we get into the story, how we recognize a person who has been warped by trauma and driven by desire, a human who wants and who fails and who lives outside of neat, upstanding categories.
In some ways, being a villain is an inroad to autonomy and personhood. The villain does not have to be a one-dimensional saint, nor are they required to groom themselves into an audience-friendly shape. Villains can take up space and openly express the human flaws we all try to hide in order to render ourselves acceptable. When a particular marginalized identity is cast as a highly visible villain, it is arguably a way to move beyond stereotypes, by offering an opportunity to be seen as fully human, more than just a symbol, complex instead of one-dimensional. Perhaps being the villain is freedom, permission, the chance for higher visibility. Perhaps all these female supervillains, on TV and in real life, show that women have done it—we have broken through and achieved some longed-for parity and full human permission, at long last.
But then again, we only have to look at the world around us to know that this just isn’t true. The real-life female villains in our culture, for all their money and their power, prove that just as well as anyone. And there are a lot of examples to draw from at this moment in history: It might be possible, in hindsight, to call 2016 the year of the female supervillain. And Game of Thrones is merely an example of an outgrowth from the existing trend, evidence of the way that reality seeps into fiction.
The American Dream is, of course, about con artists. Our cultural myths, right back to the Founding Fathers and beyond, are about tricksters and sweet-talkers, people who insisted on being given money and power and recognition, people who created themselves out of whole cloth, vaulting up into the places of power from out of nowhere. Women rarely figure into the American Dream because we think of women as dependent, as though all con artists weren’t definitionally dependent on the power and favor of people initially richer and more powerful than themselves, as though that weren’t literally the crux of Horatio Alger’s own story. We think that advancement by way of male attention somehow doesn’t count, is not part of the same narrative.
One figure prominent in the trend of female villainy in 2016 is a perfect example of the American con artist dream: Elizabeth Holmes, a female start-up founder briefly hailed as the second coming of Steve Jobs. In 2004, Holmes founded Theranos, a start-up supposedly meant to democratize health care, creating and offering access to early detection technology for health conditions, often through at-home blood tests—like Uber for knowing if you’re dying. By 2014, she had raised more than $400 million for the venture and was lauded by Forbes as the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire. Numerous glowing magazine profiles compared her to Jobs, and Holmes herself courted and invited this comparison, dressing in the same uniform of black turtlenecks and puffy jackets. She was pointed out as living proof that misogyny didn’t dominate Silicon Valley, that women, too, could be mysterious tech genius robber barons. It was perhaps much for this same reason—her youth, beauty, and whiteness may also have had something to do with it—that VC contributions to her start-up came pouring in and a cast of luminaries joined her company’s board, making her a wunderkind success story.
And then it turned out the whole thing was basically fake. At the same time as these glowing write-ups, Holmes had been beset by lawsuits and investigations, from which incredibly disturbing details about the faked research, threats to colleagues, and medical dangers of scientifically unproven experiments, NDAs, and lies, all came to light. Reporters made their names exposing her, while she attempted to double down on her story. Eventually, she mostly went quiet and passed out of importance or notoriety. (Though there are occasional schadenfreude-tinged follow-up stories.)
Holmes’ villainy has everything to do with her being a conventionally attractive white woman, and with a cultural hunger for a certain narrative. Many people, particularly men in power, want to absolve themselves of their sins by pointing to the ways in which women—some women—are doing fine. The space between an on-paper desire for female empowerment and the reality of how our society treats most women bred a lacuna into which a character like Holmes could launch her campaign. Holmes is a classic con artist, preying on people’s wants and their assumptions—what they wish were true and what they are willing to believe. She is fascinating because she is the whole tech boom-made manifest in a single perfect monster: She was able to con billions of dollars and literal gallons of human blood out of people by spitting out the approved heroic vocabularies. She is othered by virtue of being a woman, but just barely, just enough to allow her investors to congratulate themselves before making donations. She is such a perfect allegory that she doesn’t quite seem real.
The largest-looming female supervillain of last year is, of course, obvious. Hillary Clinton’s villainization has been an endless, gaping pit of content the last few years, like in a disaster movie when a crack opens in the earth and begins to swallow people whole, spewing noxious fumes and dragging them to some hellish nowhere. She has become the site of something much larger than herself, her name a symbol of myriad grudges, fears, archetypes, hopes, and repressed hatreds surrounding women in particular. She is just one aging wealthy suburban white lady, but she has taken on all our cultural anger and fears about women, and rich women, and aging women, about our moms, and about our wives, about the entrenched system that cannibalized its descendants, about power, and government, and long cons, and female bodies.
Clinton has, aside from the occasional day of unfortunate Twitter jokes and an upcoming, likely ill-considered book, mostly faded from view. Her much-debated villainy has been replaced by more insidious examples, by figures who present as far less aggressive and do greater harm. Ivanka Trump has spent most of her time in Washington so far engaged in a sort of pathetic and inconclusive PR campaign, sending out statement after statement in the most avoidant possible language, letting anyone who cares to listen know that she disagrees with her father’s agenda, shortly before doing absolutely nothing to stop it. Like Holmes, she preys on the world’s longing for female heroes, on the general desire for female ambition to be re-centered and made proud rather than shameful. She published a hilariously out-of-touch book, supposedly concerned with the working woman, that seems mostly to have been about how little she is aware of how much money she has. She makes statements that throw vague, empowerment-feminism truisms into a cynical, breezy blender and churn out something that sounds, to the absolute least discerning possible audience, perhaps like feminism. She demonstrates, almost too perfectly to be real, the absolute emptiness of corporate, consumer-driven empowerment feminism, the pure void at its core.
Ivanka’s status as a villain is a Schrodingerian black box. Whether she is actively and viciously working behind the scenes to support her father’s staggeringly cruel agenda, or whether she really is a victim of her circumstances and subject to abuse by the men around her, is impossible for us to know. But her passivity itself, the warm face offered up as a facade for the evil behind it, is itself villainous, a dark story about what lurks beneath the Barbie Dream House.
The other high femme power player in Washington, Kellyanne Conway, is a far more delicious villain. If Kellyanne were a character in a comic book movie, instead of a real person, she would be the role actors would most hope to get to play, a high-femme politics version of Joker, all claws and teeth and bleached blonde blowout. I find Conway terrifying in a bone-deep, beyond-words way; her image on TV accesses some elemental part of my brain that yells at me to run. Like Ann Coulter before her, Kellyanne is a parody of the feminine ideal: thin, blonde, tan, making a clear effort to halt the aging process by throwing money at it. Her cartoon femininity is a reminder of how closely our society codes femaleness to a cartoon house of horrors, how a woman who does exactly what men want a woman to do becomes, by doing so, a monster.
Villainy is the guise in which people are comfortable seeing women. We can have more power as long as we trade it for villainy, as long as that power is framed as evil. Much of feminism currently is about empowerment, and villainy is where empowerment goes sideways, says too much, takes off the mask. In some ways, these are the monsters that a culture willing to accept feminism as long as they can limit its achievements to superficial and overhyped gains produces. The roles are just as limited, but they superficially resemble advances because they offer access to power.
Powerful men are always monsters, so much that monster isn’t a marked category for men. We create heroes out of powerful men, the story disguising the villainy beneath. But no powerful woman is a happy warrior; she’s a trauma monster. The depictions of female villains in both fiction and reality are a reminder that female-ness itself is scary, shrill, and hysterical, either oversexualized or monstrous for its failure to be invitingly sexual. To put women in power without changing our whole society means raising them up as fantasy villains. To have a TV show for a male audience in which female characters dominate the landscape, the female characters must be murderers and psychopaths; everybody can be comfortable with that.
We have reached sort of a fractional progress in terms of women’s equality. We are ready for women in roles of power, but not ready to accept that women in power will still be corrupt, bloodthirsty, and incompetent because that’s what power does to the people who seek it regardless of gender. As has forever been the case, female-identified figures act as cultural sin-eaters. In this case, women demonstrate the difficulty of gaining any kind of power without sliding into villainy, con artistry, selfishness, and mayhem. What these women do is no more than what men in positions of heroism, whether fictional or real and governmental, have done for all of history and continue to do. The point is perhaps not to, therefore, rewrite these women villains as heroes, but to use them as a lens to comprehend that what is told by history as heroism is more often and more accurately villainy.
If men can be accepted as powerful warriors, as complex figures capable of fighting for power without losing sight of integrity, capable of seeking glory without that seeking turning into a bloodbath of betrayal, then the hope is that women, in fiction, in life, and in the places somewhere in between the two, might one day be allowed the same consideration. Female heroes—the proverbial “strong female characters”—exist, but in both fiction and life, they are portrayed as one-dimensional, or fail to rouse any real belief or excitement, falling quickly back into what reads as villainy, such as Game of Thrones’ mostly botched attempts to write Daenerys, the closest thing they have to strong female character who isn’t evil, as an inspiring leader. Their flaws quickly disqualify them from heroism, rather than offering the complexity we seek out in male characters. Flawed male heroes are still heroes, but a flawed female character immediately becomes a villain. Villains are often more fascinating and more honest characters than heroes, but in consigning female characters to these roles, women are once again asked to bear the burden of the ugly truths of both heroism and villainy.