We were a motley band of homeschoolers, playing on a sunny back porch while our mothers had a Bible study inside. We had been warned against coming in and interrupting, so we scuffed our Keds against the floor boards and broke sticks into little logs. Most of the girls wore ankle-length skirts or jumpers. They all had long hair, except me. I had mine cut short because I wouldn’t let my mom brush it, and she wanted it out of my face.
One of the older girls, her hair pulled up in a large bow that matched the trimming on her socks, glanced over us. “Let’s put on a play.” There were squeals, even a “huzzah” from the 9-year-old boy who was obsessed with studying the American Revolutionary War. Amid the shouts and skirt pulling, the older girl decided we would act out “Sleeping Beauty.”
Immediately, my friend LeeLee whispered, “I want to be Aurora.” She was blonde, with fair skin and blue eyes. I knew she would get picked. The handful of little girls in our group widened their eyes with hope and quickly raised their hands. “Me, please,” they said. “I want to be Aurora.”
I chewed my fingernails and felt my glasses slip down my nose. I wanted to be Aurora too. I wanted to be the center of the play. I wanted the woodland creatures to dance around me and the whole room to talk about my beauty, even if it was just pretend. But at seven, I was already hyper-aware of my skinned knees, my knobby elbows and my boy haircut. I stood up. “I’ll be Maleficent.”
The older girl who’d assumed the role of director nodded, then turned back around to count out woodland creatures from the small mass of younger children shuffling around her. I had no competition. In our group of carefully raised, Evangelical youth, no one else wanted to be evil.
As the play began, I sat in my chair and cackled with glee. When my evil accomplice, a quiet boy with glasses, came before me, I yelled “Off with his head!” and hit him with my magic wand—a feather duster. “Ouch,” he said wincing.
I shrugged. “Well, I am evil.” The director frowned, but no one challenged my acting.
Later, when I came face to face with Aurora, LeeLee, I struck her too, but this time I hit harder. She began to cry. One of the older girls went to get my mom.
“I was just being evil,” I told her as she dragged me out to our 16-passenger van, where I had to complete extra grammar exercises as punishment. As I circled prepositional phrases, I felt relieved, the way you do after you scream really loud for no reason at all. Being Maleficent allowed me to vent whatever it was that turned in my stomach every time I was told I had to be the husband when we played house or the prince when we played castle, because I didn’t look like a princess.
After being Maleficent, I got comfortable playing the villain. When all my friends were being Ariel in the pool, flipping their hair up out of the water and singing, I was Ursula; I lurked in the deep, yanked on their ankles, pulled them underwater. I learned that if you were the evil stepmother, you didn’t have the burden of coercing someone’s brother into pretending to be your Prince Charming.
In her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes about the evil stepmother/stepsister archetype in fairy tales, calling them “shadow elements” that reflect the darker things in us: rage, disappointment, envy, spite, the darker sides of our nature, the ones we seek to suppress in our attempt to sanitize our lives. As women we are told that we want to be princesses—bright, beautiful and kind. But the evil queens and stepmothers that lurk in the shadows of our fairy tales remind us that there are other parts of our nature we need to grapple with, darknesses we love to deny.
The true story of female aggression is an underground narrative. Books like Reviving Ophelia and Queen Bees and Wannabes have recast female aggression by arguing that it takes a different form than male aggression, the normal kind: female violence is gossiping, angry notes, texts, social media, exclusion.
But often—as evidenced by one recent elevator incident—female violence explodes out of the psychological trenches and manifests itself physically. And when it does, our society has no space for it. When we must grapple with violent women, we categorize them as victimized angels pushed to the brink, or jealous and jilted Jezebels. There is no precedent in the narrative for anything else.
In When She Was Bad, author Patricia Pearson argues that society gives evil women a pass by casting them as victims or mentally ill. The reality, Pearson argues, is that men who are cast as evil are also victims of child abuse, broken homes, drugs, and mental illness, yet society and the courts don’t allow victimhood to excuse criminal behavior. Pearson makes the case that women are just as capable of extreme violence as men. The reason our crime statistics don’t reflect this reality is because of what she terms “chivalry justice”—excusing women for their actions by casting them as mentally ill or victims of abuse.
Pearson illustrates her point with the story of Guinevere Garcia, who was sentenced to death for killing her ex-husband. Fourteen hours before she was to be executed, Garcia’s sentence was commuted, due in part to the advocacy of Amnesty International, who argued that Garcia was a victim of an abusive husband and a tragic childhood. Garcia fought back, seeking to take responsibility for her crimes and insisting that she be put to death. In the end, the public narrative of Garcia as an abused angel won; Garcia’s self-determination was set aside.
Pearson notes that male murderers are also often victims of abuse. But, “by the time they come to public attention through extreme and destructive efforts at self-empowerment, the men are full-blown predators. The woman is the child abuse victim, grown taller. In essence, she is still a child.” As a society we may be shifting on this idea. Casey Anthony, cast as another victim of abuse, walked free after her trial for the murder of her daughter; still, she was forced into hiding, caught between the public desire to buy the narrative and resist it.
In May, Disney will release Maleficent, a movie that seeks to humanize the violence of the evil queen in the tale of Sleeping Beauty by recasting her as a woman betrayed and desperately seeking to protect the land she loves. Rehabilitating female villains is by now a literary trope—Wide Sargasso Sea, Wicked, Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples and every movie version of Beowulf that portrays Grendel’s mother as a beautiful seductress instead of the full-on demon she is in the story. I understand the motivation behind rehabbing Maleficent; it always seemed pretty sexist to chalk up her evil to vanity. I didn’t want her to be just another jealous fairy. But what happens when we take women out of one cliché just to send them to another?
Forensic psychiatrist Sigrun Rossmanith, who works with female murderers and recently wrote a book titled Sind Freuen die besseren Morder? (loosely translated: Women are Better Murderers), argues that the idea that female violence is reactive is a myth based in a false assumption that women are more gentle and kind. This myth, Rossmanith argues, denies women their dark side. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Rossmanith noted: “…one already assumes that men have the potential to be violent, brutal and egocentric. They don’t have to cover up that side of themselves. But we women are supposed to act as if it doesn’t exist in us. The specific female problem is how to deal with this dark side. If it’s always suppressed and never acknowledged, you can be overwhelmed by this dark force in drastic moments.”
By seeking the root of female aggression in victimization, we deny real women agency and we rob our stories and our myths of the full complex range of human experience and emotion. Women aren’t violent, we rationalize. Women are gossipers and backstabbers, but violent? No. Even when faced with the reality of a mother throwing her children out of a window, or a wife hiring a hitman to kill her husband, we give these women a pass. Surely they must be mentally ill. Surely, somehow, they cannot be this evil.
But our refusal to allow women a dark side has consequences that resonate not just in our understanding of human nature but the nature of violence itself. We’ll never address its root causes if we are pretending it doesn’t exist in one gender at all.
I wish I could end this with a personal anecdote that neatly ties everything together: perhaps a story about how seeking evil roles through play allowed me to excise personal demons. But I can’t. The interplay between evil and women is too complicated, too messy and too powerful. I can tell you that years later, when a family member told me about her abuse at the hands of a man (still alleged because no charges were ever filed, it was too late for that), I was quick to demand his jail time. Later, when that same girl grew into a woman and left behind her own trail of tears, I exonerated her. She was acting out of pain. She was wounded. I excused her. Once, a friend pointed out that the man who she said hurt her was also a victim. Statistically, it’s more than probable that he carries the ghosts of past evil. He too is wounded.
But even now, even knowing the double standard, I want to throw up at the thought of exonerating him. His actions have tampered with my family in every way. No words we say, no holiday meal of coagulated green bean casserole doesn’t carry his shadow. I used to believe if we could get rid of him, we’d all be better. If we could neatly divide our good versus his evil, my life might not be so complicated. I might have fewer panic attacks after Christmas gatherings. I might not throw up in a plastic Wal-Mart bag on an exit ramp as we drive home from Thanksgiving.
And that is all I’ve managed to learn, you can’t exonerate evil. You can’t extricate it. You can’t explain it away. It exists in all of us. And to reduce a woman’s evil to nothing more than a past wound, is frankly insulting to the complexity of character. Let Maleficent be evil.
Lyz’s essays have appeared on the New York Times online, Brain, Child, Geez magazine, and The Louisville Review. You can find her on Twitter @lyzl.