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In fiction, it's not uncommon for a given franchise to have a very uneven ratio of male to female characters, particularly when it comes to the Villain of the Week. But even among many franchises with a more even mix, the mix of genders within various character roles may also vary wildly from role to role. For example, a gang of villains might contain several male and several female villains, but wheras most of the male villains are of the card carrying variety, the female villains are all noble demons who were essentially forced into a life of crime.
That's where this trope comes in. In franchises that adhere to this trope, female villains will generally fall into one of two categories:
- They are basically minions. Whether The Baroness or a Minion with an F In Evil, these characters typically are given little choice by their superiors, and should The Hero invest the proper effort, they are very likely to make a High Heel Face Turn.
- They are working alone or are the boss, but have a Freudian Excuse for their actions and they're Never a Self-Made Woman. The typical belief is "behind every bitch, there's a man who made her that way".
In either case, the essence of this trope is the suggestion that, while male villains can be a Complete Monster by nature or by choice, such depths of evil are not natural for women, and so, if a female character has truly evil thoughts, a man must be ultimately responsible for putting them there, even if her actions and behavior don't hint at it. Thus, when facing in-universe justice, she is more likely to recieve a less severe fate for the same crimes as a male villain might.
The trope has Unfortunate Implications from both the male and female perspectives; it can be seen as suggesting that men have certain evil tendencies not found in women, and it can be seen as suggesting that a woman cannot be an effective bad guy on her own.
A long-running franchise that engages in this might occasionally show a woman who is maliciously evil, or motivated by money, greed, fame, intimidation, jealousy, power, or because she enjoys it. However, they will be extremely few and far between. A good indication that this trope is in force is if you can count the number of leading female villains on the show in the last three years on one hand.
This trope might be related to the "Double Deviance" theory that women are naturally passive/inneffective/"pure" and therefore a female criminal isn't just deviant against society, but against her sex and its "natural" passivity?
It's likely that this trope originated in the Victorian Era, when it was thought that any woman partaking in a bad act must have been Defiled Forever and there was a man responsible for her behavior.
- The Trope Codifier would probably be Sherlock Holmes, who never brought any woman to justice. He would always either allow her to escape or make sure no charges were filed against her. He would also come up with sometimes ludicrous explanations on why it was not her fault, like something must have hit her hand, causing the load stone of a structure to collapse, killing her ex-fiancé and she just took the money because she might be pregnant. This courtesy was sometimes extended to men if they had a female accomplice.
- The Adventures of Tintin ran for five decades, and in that time Tintin only met one female villain, who was aiding her husband (and both were quite insignificant even in the book they were in). Of course, Tintin has almost no female characters to begin with.
- The movies added another female villain, who merely spied on the heroes for the Big Bad.
- Doctor Who ran for a quarter century and had a large number of Big Bads, yet in that time period only about 10 were women, and only one or two of them appeared in the show's first 15 seasons.
- Some shows which fail the finger test are:
- Of the most famous Batman villainesses, Catwoman varies between being an Anti-Hero and Anti-Villain (and her villainy in Batman Returns is caused by an evil man trying to kill her), Harley Quinn is a sympathetic abuse victim of a far more evil man, Talia al Ghul was reared by an evil father and is noticably more sympathetic than him. Poison Ivy is less sympathetic but even her origin story has her being experimented on by an evil man.
- Law and Order Special Victims Unit is an interesting case as they have had enough bad women that that you would think that it is not the case. However, they continually subscribe to this theory, and look for anything that will get a woman who attacked a man off for her actions.
- In the game Bully you can seduce any female student to your side no matter how bad she is. True, there are also several boys you can seduce, but the gender ratio is around 6:1.
- In the Yakuza games, you never fight a female enemy (except for an optional encounter in the first and she looks like a man)
- In Terra Nova, It turns out that the female sixer leader Mira is working for associates of Lucas Taylor, and has more or less been coerced into the role in much the same way as another female "villain", sixer spy Skye Tate. Lucas Taylor, on the other hand, causes trouble for the colony largely out of a sense of Disproportionate Retribution for his father's decision years earlier that led to his mother's death, and the associates are doing it out of pure greed.
- In Oliver Twist, most of the women are wholesome, decent people (special mention goes to The Ingenue Rose), save for Nancy, who is a Love Martyr for Bill Sykes, someone who is less than pleasant.
- Marla McGivers of the Star Trek the Original Series episode "Space Seed" is perhaps the prototypical example of this. The episode's writers clearly want us to see her as a weak, innocent victim of Khan and maybe the audiences of 1967 saw her that way. To modern audiences, however, she often comes off as more of a Dirty Coward.
- Dr. Janice Lester of "Turnabout Intruder" is a power-hungry psycho who, among other things, murders her entire research party and shows no sign of remorse for it. She should be considered a serious criminal, but the episode ends with the main characters regarding her with condescending pity. Granted, she's clearly mentally ill, so she could be legitimately pitied for that. However, the pity expressed for her was definitely more along the lines of, "Poor silly girl got too uppity."
- Family Guy seems to evoke Lois' flawed moments this way. A lot of her more self righteous or aggressive bouts are often provoked heavily by Peter's selfish or obnoxious antics, even if a lot of them are disproportionate. For example, she takes up martial arts and becomes outright abusive to Peter as a result of him belittling her power in the household. She also labels his and her father's objections to her being a model being unjust and opressive, despite the fact she is genuinely acting like a slut and on a self destructive path due to taking drugs. Later episodes seem to just skip the formalities and just make Lois an even bigger Jerkass than Peter, even if her losing it as a result of his behavior isn't that unlikely.
- This trend isn't rare in traditional sitcoms utilizing a Women Are Wiser dynamic. Even when it is time for the more rational female character to act Not So Above It All it will still often be heavily provoked by their more bumbling male costar's stupidity or arrogance.
- Definitely a common trope in older westerns, such as Bonanza.
- The anime Mai-Otome has very few male characters to begin with; however, most of the ones scene are villains. Both the Big Bad are men and they usually send male monsters of the week to fight the heroines. Also, all the evil heads of state are male while the good ones are female. It is true they all have female WMD but they are Just Following Orders. The main male in the series is Sergay Wang, who is a father figure and love interests of the protagonist, he is also The Dragon and completely loyal to his master. The only good men are the captain of the guard who is the Royal Brat queen's Butt Monkey, a one off prince and the Shallow Love Interest of a secondary character .There are a few female antagonists in the show but almost all of them are shown to be actually be good people and are redeemed by the end of the show (the only exception is a Karma Houdini).
- Definitely applies in the Saw film series. The only "original" villains are John Kramer and Hoffman, who are both male. The only woman who can seriously be counted as a villain is Amanda Young, who only became John Kramer's apprentice because she was "rehabilitated" by her and she sincerely believed that the experience "helped" her.
- Frequently happens in the Lifetime Movie of the Week, as well as in the 'Rape and Revenge' style flicks like I Spit on Your Grave.
- In Code Geass, most of the major male characters were presented as Anti Heroes at best and Complete Monsters at worst. As a result all most all of them are either killed or given a horrible punishment. With one exception the only men who get out of the conflict well are those that are subservient to women and several people even hate Ohgi because of it. The female characters on the other hand all seem to have a "Get Out of Jail Free" Card. Other examples include Villetta Nu and Cornelia who get off despite not being any better.
- In the song "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels", the lyrics state "From the start most every heart that's ever been broken Was because there always was a man to blame". It was written as a response song to "The Wild Side of Life", a song about a man who's fiancee left him for a man she met at a roadhouse
- Dragon Age Origins certainly seems to nod to this trope. Even among the demons, the female "Broodmothers" are ultimately seen as victims, abducted, raped and transformed into Mook Makers. Much the same holds true for many male Darkspawn, but excepting one instance in the Dalish Elf origin, this isn't stressed as much.
- In the Pet Shop of Horrors manga, although there aren't really "villains" per se, the guys who screw up their contracts normally do so out of greed or ambition (the Chinese mob boss who murders a little girl to obtain her tiger, the drifter whose pursuit of success makes a kitten cry) The women screw up out of more sympathetic emotional weakness (a mother who spoils her daughter, a girl who wants her pet bird to be happy).
- Played straight with Lucy in Elfen Lied. Lucy kills humans indiscriminately, but only because her abusive childhood created her as a split personality from Nyu.
- Modern versions of King Arthur legend seem to follow this trope very much. Most of the important female villains in Merlin have sympathetic backstories and are Well-Intentioned Extremist types; Morgana gets several Being Evil Sucks scenes. Likewise, in Camelot, Morgan gets a rather more sympathetic treatment than King Lot who is just a brutal warlord.
- Subverted in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations. At first, Dahlia's Complete Monster tendencies date back to being neglected as a child. But not only was she horrible even as a child (sending her twin sister Iris to a monastary just so she can be center of attention) but her issues go back to the turmoil within the women of the Fey Clan. The series in general averts this, as most female murderers are just as petty and greedy as the male murderers.
- The belief in this is the basis of many Double Standards such as Double Standard Abuse (Female on Male).
- Aversa in Fire Emblem Awakening, if you play her SpotPass chapter and recruit her. She was once an ordinary girl with magical talent, until Validar slaughtered her whole village and brainwashed her into believing she was an orphan and that Validar rescued her from the streets. This is how she became his dragon.
- Soi from Fushigi Yuugi. She's a decent person with a good heart, but follows Nakago around like a puppy because he saved her from being beaten by her pimp when she was a child prostitute.