Why I Love This Hated Character Trope

Photo: Dove/Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
If you want to be cynical, every movie and TV show is just a collection of tropes, shaken like Yahtzee dice and thrown onto the board of whatever world we want to live in that day. And while Hollywood is slowly but surely giving women more opportunities to expand beyond a limited selection of roles, there are a few staples that we just can't seem to shake: horrible stepmother, nagging spouse, gold digger. All of these fall under the general umbrella of "evil wife" — and I love them.
While yes, Wonder Woman is ~badass~ and, yes, I rooted for Reese Witherspoon in Wild along with the rest of you, my favorite character to stand behind is the kind we're not supposed to love at all. She's corrupt, she's ill-intentioned, she's the villain — but she's also perhaps the most fiercely feminist role an actress can portray.
Advertisement
Take Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, the most notorious of these characters. I'd argue she has stood the test of time because there's something in her we can't quite hate. She stands behind Macbeth, secretly pulling the strings for her own selfish, power-hungry gain. But in the 1600s, what other choice did a woman have? If she desired something beyond a life of serving someone else, she could either reluctantly extinguish that flame, or do whatever she needed to do to get it.
The same goes for Game Of Thrones' Cersei Lannister. The brilliance of that show is that there's no good side or bad side. Everyone has their own valid motivations for the Throne, but Cersei is the one painted as evil because she exerts whatever power she can to get it, whether that's at the brutal expense of one human life or an entire town that she sends up in flames. But picture this: You were forced to marry a man who abused you, all your children have been killed, and the person you actually love is the one person you can't be with — yeah, you're going to light some stuff on fire.
Then there's Serena Joy in The Handmaid's Tale, or Claire Underwood in House Of Cards. For women who are trapped in a patriarchal structure, turning quote-unquote evil is the ultimate feminist act. The next woman to join the club? Rachel Ashley.
My Cousin Rachel, based on the book by Daphne Du Maurier, stars Hunger Games' Sam Claflin as Philip and Rachel Weisz as Rachel, the widowed wife of Philip's cousin and guardian who died under mysterious circumstances. Based on a letter he received before his cousin's death, Philip begins the film convinced that Rachel is responsible for his cousin's demise, but coincidentally warms to her the moment she arrives in his home and starts making him her special tea.
What makes the film so gripping is that for every instance it seems Rachel is manipulating and poisoning Philip, there's another equally plausible, innocuous explanation. Whether or not Rachel is evil is completely up to the viewer, and it didn't take long for me to start rooting for it to be true.
Advertisement
Living in the 19th century, Rachel doesn't have much choice in her life than to be shuffled from suitor to suitor. As a woman, her livelihood can only come from family money or from her husbands, but taking advantage of that system immediately gives her a reputation. To live your whole life under the confines of being expected to marry well, only to be admonished when reaping the rewards of doing just that, is some Grade A level bullshit and reason enough, in my opinion, to start poisoning every idiot dude who tries to get in your way.
For instance, there were rumors that Rachel spent her first husband's money extravagantly: hell yeah. That she had loud and raunchy sex: hell yeah. That she gleefully accepted a clause in her late husband's will meaning she could never marry again, lest she lose her inheritance: hell! Yeah! Why would she? As she explains to Philip, being a woman means she doesn't have the luxury of living the life she wants. Her choices have to be calculated and sometimes cruel in order to ensure that she has a shred of independence. As a wife, she couldn't be in control of her own finances, couldn't transfer money to family abroad, had to lie on her back and suffer through sex straight-faced, or fake her orgasms loudly so she's known as a voracious lover.
As far as I'm concerned, seducing powerful men into giving her a sliver of their privilege, killing a husband or two in order to escape from the confines of patriarchy, and poisoning a dopey 25-year-old until he hands over his fortune doesn't make Rachel a villain. Rachel Ashley is a goddamn hero.
Advertisement