Villanelle: The Heroine we Deserve | Edward Howard
Well, it’s finally over. After 4 years and 4 successful seasons, the pop culture juggernaut that was Killing Eve is at an end – albeit with a finale so unexpected that the writer of the original novels that the show was based on claimed to have been taken ‘aback’ by it.
Now admittedly, despite its strong pedigree of critical acclaim and awards galore, I never found the show particularly engaging whenever it has crossed my path. Beyond anything else, its Tarantino-esque style I find rather boring and uninspired, not least of which because of the endless bad crime films that continue to pinch from it, but also that in many cases it is often used as a way to excuse style-over-substance storytelling, and Killing Eve was no exception to this. And just because it is on the TV during the supposed ‘second golden age of television’ instead of the big screen doesn’t somehow make it revolutionary, a trap many critics have seemed to fall into time and time again.
Another crucial reason for me however was that of antagonist Villanelle. Despite being played brilliantly by Jodie Comer (no doubt one of the most promising actresses of her generation), her psychopathic tendencies never endeared me – especially when they went too far, like her killing an orphaned child in the second season, something the show in its morally relativistic and sadistic manner played off as dark comedy. Now while this certainly does work for some viewers – one Times critic for instance described the aforementioned killing ‘as fresh as a new pair of knickers’ – others rightly have an issue with it. Most notably in the Times also, conservative commentator Melanie Phillips noted that:
‘We’re asked to admire her [Villanelle] in an ironic and blackly comic kind of way. So we are invited to stifle our own feelings of revulsion not just at the violence but at Villanelle’s chilling absence of moral sensibility, the thrill she gets from shedding blood, her enthusiasm for serial murder. We are invited to delight in her ingenuity and preternatural talent for killing; we become smiling voyeurs of psychopathic violence.’
It is for those reasons and more that many don’t find Killing Eve particularly endearing.
However, one notable facet of the character of Villanelle is that of her being seen as a feminist icon of modern pop culture. Harper’s Bazaar magazine noted that one of the successes of the show was that she ‘is reversing stereotypes and anti-feminist associations pinned to ‘femme fatales’’. The Atlantic magazine stated that she is a ‘categorically transgressive female character’. Mashable highlighted that a reason to ‘root’ for her was that she was a ‘rejection of the usual assumptions about what women are or are not capable of doing.’ The Huffington Post also argued that because of Villanelle, the show is ‘implicitly feminist because it rewrites the script of what we’re afforded to see women doing on TV: we see them powerful, controlled and stony, through the lens of murder and villainy.’
What’s telling is that the idea of Villanelle being a feminist is not her adopting feminine features to her advantage or being a powerful woman in a male-controlled environment – in fact, when it comes to the former at least, she is a feminist icon because she is the opposite of that; rejecting her feminity to become a cool and snarky killer woman, able to hold her own against the violence and fury of the killer underworld of which she is a part.
That seems to be what creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge had in mind for the character. As she noted during an interview on The Andrew Marr Show, that people were ‘slightly exhausted’ of seeing women harmed on screen and that ‘seeing women be violent — the flipside of that — there’s something instantly refreshing and oddly empowering.’
While this initially may sound contradictory, in the sea of modern feminist heroines, it isn’t actually that far off, as many of them adopt such traits; being cold sociopathic or psychopathic women who reject feminity to become more like their masculine counterparts. This is a trend that has become prominent since the new millennium, and there are countless examples of this.
The Bride from Kill Bill who murders many in her quest for revenge (including mothers) in an often brutal and callous manner – so much so that the eponymous Bill notes that she is unlikely to ever stop killing, as its in her nature carrying over from her life as a former assassin. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games whose sole aim is to get through her rough environments and rough terrain and has a cold and stoic air about her whereby her only concerns are her immediate family and completing her goals, initially not forming strong relationships with anyone outside of her limited social circle. Rey Palpatine in the sequel Star Wars trilogy of who is very single-minded and determined, and not easily trusting – no better displayed then when in The Force Awakens when she refuses to take Finn’s aid when she is in peril. Cassie Thomas from Promising Young Woman (of which Killing Eve alumni Emerald Fernell worked on) who is happy to put innocents in the way for her quest for revenge against the male-dominated environment which saw her friend sexually assaulted with no consequence.
In all cases, the ways that these heroines are feminine is not because they are inspirational women using their feminity to their advantage but rather the inverse of that; subverting their feminine traits to outdo their male counterparts and succeed in their journeys as characters, regardless of who is affected by it.
This may strike some as rather odd, and perverse. Such traits would usually make characters unsympathetic and unlikable, and some of those examples may be that to some. This is because those aren’t the obvious traits for protagonists, let alone female ones – ironically enough, such features were usually relegated to villains of the picture, like Asami Yamazaki in Audition or Julia Cotton in Hellbound: Hellraiser II. At best, when it did come to the heroines of the film, such movies were of the sleaze grindhouse variety not for the mainstream, like those of I Spit On Your Grave or Faster Pussycat… Kill! Kill!.
The reason that this only become a recent change is that it reflects the movement it claims to fight for; that of the feminist cause. Starting with third-wave feminism, much of the movement started to challenge traditional gender roles, something which would later be reflected in much of the pop culture environment. If first wave feminism was about fighting for rights, then the second wave about challenging social norms then the third wave would be about challenging gender norms under the guise of equality. When discussing such female characters when it came to the horror genre, author Heather L. Duda noted in The Monster Hunter in Modern Popular Culture that ‘[b]ecause of their refusal to play by traditional gender roles, female monster hunters are fraught with ambiguity, thus demonstrating that gender roles are never rigid.’
This change was also no doubt in part due to much of the backlash much of popular culture had back in the 1980s and 1990s by second and third wave feminists when it came to such portrayals, with many at best seeing such roles as pandering to sexist stereotypes or at worst pandering to male expectations and standards. This criticism was encapsulated by academic Carol Clover, when she noted on such a subject in her iconic book Men, Women and Chainsaws:
‘The fact that female monsters and females heroes… are masculine in dress and behaviour…. Would seem to suggest that gender inheres to the function itself – that there is something about the victim function that wants manifestation in a female, and something about the monster and hero functions that wants an expression in a male.’
This would also explain why much of the popular culture of the 1990s and beyond would have female characters who would differ from the heroines of the past by having a more confident air surrounding them usually reserved for male characters. Casein point, writer Katrin Berndt would end up describing Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series as a postfeminist icon, combining humanist values with challenging gender stereotypes.
These more modern heroines are simply the next logical step in that, with the likes of Villanelle adopting the most shallow feminine traits when it is convenient to her – as writer Catherine Brown noted when discussing the series ‘[b]y contrast third wave feminism is more apparent in Villanelle’s confident promiscuity, weaponization of her attractiveness, and frank embrace of consumer luxuries… In theory these modes clash, and both clash with the misogynist association of lesbianism and psychopathy… which Villanelle’s character apparently amply reinforces.’
However, the notable problem with this is that while that makes characters like Villanelle unique, they do not necessarily make her likable or sympathetic, all the while being a legitimate bad feminist icon for presumably those supporting the cause to champion, given her abhorrent actions and what she does throughout the series – least of all the several innocents that she slays in order to get her way, as if she was Jason Voorhees in the next Friday the 13th sequel.
This is in sharp contrast to the female heroines of the past, of who were endearing not only because they were strong and powerful women, but because they used their feminity to their advantage as a way to make themselves feel more human and relatable to the audience. Ellen Ripley from the Alien series with her strong determination and survival smarts and her warm side, caring about the lives of those around her, least of all the child character Newt of who she becomes a mother figure to. Such tropes can be seen in similar characters, like Marion Ravenwood in the Indiana Jones movies or Mulan from the eponymous Disney film series, which also makes them similarly compelling and likable as protagonists. This even applies to underrated characters too – take for instance Kirsty Cotton in the Hellraiser series whose sense of intuitiveness and risk combined with a vulnerable and selfless side makes her a sympathetic protagonist to buck in part the ‘final girl’ trope.
There is also a dark irony in how such characters, while rejecting feminine traits become more like male anti-heroes than anything else, and that isn’t even is the worst part. While complex examples of such characters, whether it be Eddie Doyle in The French Connection, Rorschach in Watchmen or your typical Sam Peckinpah protagonist among many others, may have been no-nonsense stoic men, they at least some moral compass and would usually refrain from hurting innocents, making them not necessarily the good guys but not the antagonists either. In the case of Villanelle and other female characters like her, her lack of a moral compass and lack of empathy towards others makes her hard to sympathise with because there is no emotional connection there that is needed to be engaged in their story and struggles.
What makes Villanelle much more telling is the fourth wave feminist traits she adopts, and not because of the movement’s mingling with queer theory, reflected in the show by her on-off romance with protagonist Eve Polastri.
It is because fourth wave feminism seems more interested in self-autonomy than collective good – not least of which because in a post #MeToo world, ideas surrounding ‘my truth’ and ‘believe all women’ gained mainstream prominence both within the movement and popular culture itself. What feminism seems to be about in this wave more than anything else is what is good for you personally, not women as a group, when it comes to subjects like sex, the workplace or societal roles among other things – a microcosm of this can be seen in a Medium article by writer Patsy Ferguson, when she noted that when it came to marriage ‘[y]ou can’t be yourself in a hierarchical relationship. It’s impossible. So ceding authority to a partner is always a bad idea.’ [author emphasis in original text]
Villanelle adopts all of this to a tee. Whatever is good for her goes, and she adopts her own moral code, killing anyone unworthy to get in her way. Lasting relationships to her come and go, and when she clings onto them, it is usually deliberately confrontational at best or ends in death to the other party at worst. What makes this worse is that the show aids in her worldview, giving just cause to whoever and whatever she kills, either in the form of a dark comedic effect or making the other party intent on killing her. In short, she is the captain of her own ship, and anyone trying to steer her off course is the villain of the picture. When she dies at the end of the series, she is portrayed as a devilish angel of sorts who died a martyr.
This is perhaps more embellic of our popular culture at large, described by the late, great conservative philosopher Roger Scruton in his documentary Why Beauty Matters as one where doing well for the self is the ultimate good where it celebrates ‘my prophets, my desires, my pleasures’. He also warned that in such a culture we would lose ‘beauty’ and from that ‘the meaning of life’ itself. In short, life according to the popular culture is best lived as a hedonistic tailspin where long-term goals don’t matter, provided you’ve lived your life to the full according to your own terms, disregarding any responsibility or notion of care to the world around you. Someone like Villanelle, as do the characters who are like here, no doubt represents all of this to a tee.
All of this in the end makes someone like Villanelle the heroine our culture deserves. When it celebrates the idea of ‘my truth’ and attempts to make women more masculine under the guise of challenging gender roles, why wouldn’t it celebrate a character like Villanelle, to the point where British MPs dress up as her for Halloween?
The picture this paints speaks far more to the narcissistic and hedonistic popular culture that we have currently than the overhyped show it comes from. And at the very least, it is not pretty.