I’ve been writing a couple of little cozy mysteries lately. Both my killers have been women, which has opened up a whole line of debate in my head: namely, why are female villains so much more frightening than male ones?
I was listening to Elizabeth Elliot over the weekend, and oddly enough, she touched on this very thing. She was talking about what it means to be a woman, and she had this interesting observation.
“I was having a conversation with my brother several years ago, discussing the topic of feminism. He pointed out that men are always the great generals, and statesmen, and artists. Women don’t do this because women are so much closer to the heart of things. They are occupied with helping, with nurturing, with caring for the weak, the hidden, the imprisoned, and the betrayed.” (Quoted verbatim because I can’t get back to that particular broadcast.)
But this gave me an interesting perspective. What makes the White Witch so scary? What made the original Maleficent so chilling? Why is the evil stepmother a universal trope throughout all fairy tales?
If women are closer to the heart of life, that makes them uniquely poised to strike and harm that heart.
King Solomon once observed, “A wise woman builds her house, but a foolish woman tears it down with her hands.”
There’s nothing more defenseless and harmless than a human child. Women have the wonderful power to birth and raise the next generation. But when a woman embraces selfishness rather than her innate power of helping and nurturing, she can also destroy that life–emotionally, physically, spiritually.
That’s where the evil stepmother trope comes in. The woman who takes in children who aren’t her own and works tirelessly to destroy them, whether it’s with poisoned apples, abandoning them in the woods, or condemning them to work in the ashes as a servant. Each of these things are carefully calculated to destroy the child either physically, spiritually, or emotionally.
What makes the White Witch so disturbing? Is it when she feeds Edmund the corrupting Turkish Delight? Is it when she turns the partying animal folk to stone? Or is it when she ceremonially kills Aslan?
In my opinion, it’s not the barefaced violence that makes her frightening. It’s the diabolical backstabbing, the curses, the poison, the lies. She’s even scarier in the Magician’s Nephew, because you get to see her talk about how destroying all life with the Deplorable Word (basically a magical nuke) was totally her right.
Men can be wicked, too. But a man will generally shoot you or rape you. A woman will poison your coffee. That’s the fun of the mystery genres. We WANT a diabolical killer who eludes the police with superior clue-hiding skills. That’s why men and women are both fair game for murderers–but a female killer is slightly more chilling. Because she’s reversed her role as a nurturing, caregiving woman and become the opposite–one who takes life instead of giving it.
The wicked stepmother is indeed wicked on many, many levels.