Another Look at Female Literary Villains

*UPDATE: A new interview between Winona Ryder and Tavi Gevinson (Mary Warren in the Broadway revival) added to the section on The Crucible!

American literature loves a good female villain. A woman who is too sexual, jealous, emotional, or ignorant. But isn’t there more to this stereotypical female villain? As an extension to the classics we read in class, I use informational texts and interviews with actresses to provide a female perspective to these male-dominated stories.

A blog about challenging students to question why we hate the females of Gatsby (Daisy Buchanan), Of Mice and Men (Curley's Wife), and The Crucible (Abigail Williams). Links to actress interview to help teach feminist criticism with current resources.

Of Mice and Men: Curley’s Wife

Sure, the setting of the story alone provides for male domination, but the worst is the male-dominated cast where the only female doesn’t even get a name. The informational text I use with this novel is actually a blog written by Leighton Meester, “I’m Not a Tart: The Feminist Subtext of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.” (click here for the entire article).

A blog encouraging teachers to have their students analyze why they really love to hate some of American literature's most infamous females. Excellent articles and resources for teaching feminist criticism of modern American lit.

In her blog, Meester provides the link-to-today with how current broadway audiences react to her performance as Curley’s wife. Published in 2014, the blog details how the audience laughs after Candy cusses at her and spits on her dead body. I’ve found the broadway audience is identical to my students. They both claim “she was asking for it,” and they both become indignant when Candy’s dog and Lennie are shot. But no one mourns for Curley’s wife.

After we read or watch the scene where Curley’s wife dies, I ask my students to write out their reaction. Most of the responses are some version of “good riddance” and “she got was she deserved.” I have my students read Meester’s blog at the end of the story. It has to be at the end of the book because it mentions Lennie’s death. We discuss the blog a bit and then I hand back their original responses. On the back I have them write out a new response: “Did Meester change your opinion? Why or why not?”

The biggest take-away from this activity is when students finally realize no woman is asking to be violently shaken to death or raped. It causes students to look back on themselves as to why they would cheer for an innocent woman’s death. Meester has written a powerful piece that deserves to be included in any Of Mice and Men unit.

*This is part of my movie guide for Of Mice and Men. Click here to see the whole guide*

The Crucible: Abigail Williams

Okay, so the play itself is full of women; however, clearly with the time period the action is taking place in a town ruled by men. In the article, “How Talent—and a Little Luck—Got Saoirse Ronan to Hollywood,” (click here for full article) actress Saoirse Ronan comments on her interpretation of Abigail Williams in the somewhat updated theater production of The Crucible. 

Each year when we read the play in class, my students place ALL blame on Abby and very little, if any, on John Proctor (or the rest of the town). They get emotional when John is hanged, but they care very little what happens to Abby. This is somewhat understandable given the number of deaths that result from Abby’s antics, but I like to offer another point of view for my students.

A blog encouraging teachers to have their students analyze why they really love to hate some of American literature's most infamous females. Excellent articles and resources for teaching feminist criticism of modern American lit.

Most of this article is about Ronan’s career, but the second paragraph details how Ronan often sees Abby portrayed and how she personally sees her. Spoiler, Ronan sees Abby as a normal, hormonal teenager who is struggling to make sense of John’s relationship with her.

Unlike the above article, this one will likely only be good for a quick writing prompt or bell ringer. With just one paragraph, it’s hard to get more in-depth with this one. Still, I like to keep it just in case I find myself in need a quick write or to include in a larger series of feminist criticisms in American literature.

UPDATE: I hate that the above article is so brief in regards to Ronan’s views on Abigail Williams. I’ve since found two longer articles – all due to the Broadway revival a few years back.

In this article (read it here) Winona Ryder is interviewed by friend, author, and actress Tavi Gevinson. Tavi was cast as Mary Warren in the most recent adaptation on Broadway, so she interviewed Ryder to get her thoughts on Abby, John, and the girls in general. The relevant portion of the interview is about a third of the way down and lasts about a third of the article.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview which was published in 2016:

RYDER: Yeah, but he was also talking to her like a peer. How special would you feel, if you were a girl who had been his servant and who had probably never been spoken to as an adult, you know? And so the infatuation and love or whatever—in her head, she actually thinks she’s got a shot. I mean, it was so tragic. I asked Arthur about the whore thing.

If you use this, only give the students the relevant portion out of the original interview. You don’t want them to be side-tracked with the other comments about Ryder’s career and Hollywood.

The Great Gatsby: Daisy Buchanan

Daisy is one of the most-hated female characters of the century. But is it entirely her fault? Is she absolutely 100% evil? Carey Mulligan, who played her in the most recent Gatsby reboot, felt the need to find something positive about her in order to bring Daisy to life on the bring screen. This 2013 article from Vogue, “Great Expectations: The Inimitable Carey Mulligan,” is the closet I found to an explanation for Daisy’s behavior. Click here for the full article.

A blog encouraging teachers to have their students analyze why they really love to hate some of American literature's most infamous females. Excellent articles and resources for teaching feminist criticism of modern American lit.

Of course, it mentions how Daisy is a product of her society and upbringing. However, Mulligan brings more to the table given that she needed to immerse herself in that societal role. Similar to Meester, she internalizes everyone’s perception of her as Daisy and attempts to explain how she views the ladies of Fitzgerald’s life: Zelda, Daisy, and King.

The article is spotty with relevant and irrelevant information (well, irrelevant for my purpose as an English teacher) but it’s a great look at the depths Mulligan went to to become Daisy.

 

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2 Replies to “Another Look at Female Literary Villains”

    1. Thanks! It really is so well written!! I wish some of the other actresses would write out something similar…

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