When I was a kid, my favorite cartoon characters were, in no particular order, Maleficent, Ursula, and Cinderella’s evil stepmother. Looking back, the reasons are clear to me now: They wore clothes that were both stylish and dominant, they had the best pets (who can forget Maleficent’s crow?), and they were as assertive as they were powerful. And, perhaps most importantly, they were unaided — or unhindered — by men. The fact that they were evil was, well, purely coincidental.
Throughout the decades, female baddies — let’s avoid a tempting portmanteau — have so often been the best-dressed characters. Sharp, tailored suits, cigarette holders, heels... Just think of Kill Bill’s O-Ren Ishii, who manages to keep her white kimono pristine even after a sword fight; or her righthand woman Sofie Fatale, wrapped in a severe black shift dress. Who hasn’t copied Nancy Downs from The Craft's babydoll cardigan and studded choker look, topped off with a maniacal layer (or six) of plum lipstick? More recently, we've fallen for cold-blooded Killing Eve assassin Villanelle, with her paradoxically whimsical fashion tastes. It makes sense, then, that these women might inspire our Halloween costume this year. But there's so much more to their character than their sense of style.
Of course, the other thing every one of these women has in common — cartoon ones included — is that their inception, direction, and narrative was formulated under the male gaze. Very often, these women are seen as 'man haters.' (O-Ren Ishii decapitated the Yakuza boss aged 11 before becoming a crack female assassin and, later, at the age of 20, the head of the Yakuza herself.) They often play with men’s emotions — by emasculating them, usually — and are simultaneously followed around by undertones of lesbianism.
In the opening scenes of Basic Instinct, we meet Catherine Tramell’s girlfriend, Roxy. Catherine (Sharon Stone) is under investigation for the murder of former rockstar Boz, but Roxy (herself a former murderer) provides an alibi. Catherine then starts a vicious affair with Nick (Michael Douglas), the determinedly pathetic ex-alcoholic cop who is investigating her. When Roxy dies (the gay narrative is never without grief or struggle, after all), Catherine grieves her death and tells Nick about another lesbian lover. Her wardrobe screams rich, elegant, and naturally stylish — she wears an array of neutrals (that off-white mini dress!) and simple cashmere sweaters. And while there were no issues with the fashion of the film, gay activists at the time of its release criticized its depiction of bisexual women as murderous, narcissistic, and psychopathic — personality types that, we can all agree, have nothing to do with who you’re intimate with.
What these characterizations make clear is that being both stylish and sexually confident are seen as inherently 'bad' things for women to be. By portraying women like this, the audience is to infer that being fabulous and free equates with being troublesome and dangerous. In Killing Eve, the BBC’s hit assassin-spy drama, Eve (Sandra Oh) is an MI5 officer who becomes obsessed with mysterious assassin Villanelle; Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a highly skilled and psychopathic killer, becomes obsessed with Eve in return. Eve often wears baggy trousers and loose and unstructured coats. She loses her bag. She doesn’t have her shit together. Villanelle, by contrast, has a fancy flat in Paris and a killer wardrobe that veers from pretty brocade tailoring to pussy bow blouses to that voluminous Molly Goddard dress.
While the show depicts every kind of queer trope going, it also shows that there’s room for an undefined lust that is unpredictable but interesting. Villanelle sleeps with men and women (killing off at least one boyfriend), but it’s Eve with whom she becomes infatuated on a deeper level. It's the kind of desire where you need to know every part of someone’s body and face because you are fascinated by them (when Villanelle buys Eve an expensive designer dress, it fits eerily well, as if it were tailored for her body). Importantly, while she is obsessing over Eve (and challenging the binary queer/straight storyline), Villanelle is also challenging the queer/straight wardrobe code, flouncing around in traditionally feminine clothing while plotting her daring, cold-hearted kills.
Killing Eve should mark a new beginning for complex women on screen, offering a thrilling and uncertain future, where a female character’s style and sexuality are no longer clues to her moral fiber, and every look (and every gaze!) can be deceiving. And while Halloween is often the time of year we're reminded of just how awesome these characters are, we should be looking to them all year long as a reminder that you can dress really well and be a complete badass.
I always thought it was kind of cool that I identified with these empowered, ballsy, stylish, and sexual female characters over their stereotyped heterosexual counterparts. But it makes sense: The female villains were always the most interesting and possessed a depth that is sadly rare in scripts for women. Plus, men feared them because they were powerless to them. And really, is that such a bad thing when the world is dominated by powerful men, and so many women and LGBTQ+ people live in fear?