Female protagonists are usually good girls. They are princesses and love-interests, sweethearts and best friends. They resolve conflicts and keep the peace. So it's wonderful to see Maleficent, starring Jolie as the Sleeping Beauty villain, break that pattern. Hollywood is filled with female characters who are complacent and nice, but the world isn't. Society is filled with women who are complicated, and some that are downright evil. Women deserve to be shown to be as complex and in-depth as male characters are. To do that, we need more female villains.
Of course, villainous men often get their due. From Darth Vader to Dexter, the bad guys of popular culture have been front and center for a long time. Whole books have been written about the "difficult men" of popular culture. But these male villains haven't been flat characters. They're given rich motivations and detailed backstories that let us empathize with them and make sense of their actions, however heinous their murders and other crimes may be. Take Norman Bates in Psycho, for example, who hauntingly illustrates the thin line between normal and completely evil.
Female villains, when they exist, have tended to get a flatter characterization. There are evil mothers like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, and Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate, who aren't given much of an identity beyond that. Louise Fletcher won an Oscar for her role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but despite how horrible and hateful she is, very little time is given to her personal story and how she became the woman that she is. The Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West is maybe the most iconic female villain, but her role is reduced to screeching and commanding a legion of flying monkeys. Even Maleficent herself is only the bare bones of a character in the original Sleeping Beauty. They are plot devices placed there to move someone else's story along, not evil people with serious problems.
To some extent this is a reflection of the general underrepresentation of women in movies. Male characters outnumber female characters 3 to 1 in family films. 41% of male television characters were shown "on the job" in comparison to only 28% of female characters. So far in 2014, only 9 films have passed the Bechdel Test (which evaluates movies by seeing if they feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man), despite the fact that films that pass the test perform better financially.
Anti-heroines aren't enough
Some observers think this is changing. Critics like Jennifer Keishin Armstrong have claimed that we are in a heyday for "difficult women", and certainly more anti-heroines are on screen now than they were in the age of Judy Cleaver. We have The Mindy Project, and Orange is the New Black, and Girls as anti-heroes. But an anti-hero isn't necessarily a villain. Weeds' Nancy Botwin was a horrible mother, and generally a horrible human being, but she wasn't killing people as a matter of course, like Dexter. She was just a bad person. Villains aren't supposed to be just "bad." They are supposed to be evil.
But for the most part, anti-heroes are still "nice." There are no women on the screen as morally corrupt as, say, Tony Soprano, no female villains as twisted as Hans Landa from Inglorious Bastards. How many women are as ruthless as Jason Bourne? How many women are as morally lost as Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange? In comparison with male protagonists, female villains are not only flat, they're tame.
We need female protagonists who show the ugly and the messy and the horrible parts of humanity as much as we need female protagonists to save the day. To deny women the ability to be bad on the screen is to continue to perpetuate a gendered myth that women are quiet and content and in need of saving. It is benevolent sexism that says that women are fragile creatures in need of male protection because they are weak.
To achieve equality, we need women who don't make women look good. We need lady mob-bosses, female serial killers, and women who are leaders of the dark side. And this year, we'll get some of them. Maleficent will be followed by Sweetheart, a story about a female assassin, and in October we'll get Gone Girl, featuring Rosamund Pike as a female sociopath. Even Jennifer Lawrence's X-Men character Mystique made the switch from light to dark this year.
Regardless of whether or not Maleficent is a great movie — and critics seem to agree it's not — people will see it. According to estimates, Maleficent is on track to make more than $60 million in ticket sales this opening weekend. Seeing a complex female villain on screen is a good thing. Frozen's Elsa was one of the first Disney princesses to show cruelty by continually pushing away her sister, and Maleficent could bring that kind of complicated cruelty to the next level. Hollywood needs to show this kind of cruelty from women: cruelty that stems from true anguish, and not from a need for a man.