When I was a little kid, I had this set of dolls from The Wizard of Oz. There were all of the popular characters: Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and, of course, the Wicked Witch of the West. I dressed like Dorothy all the time, I called my dog Toto, and, much to my family’s surprise, I carried the Wicked Witch doll everywhere. When anyone asked me why I chose the green witch to carry around instead of, well, any of the other character, I always said, “She’s misunderstood, she just needs a friend.” Given the Wicked Witch’s powers, you have to admit she’s kind of cool—I mean, she throws fireballs! All Dorothy does is follow cues from others, including her dog, and appear confused and bewildered. Not to hate on her, but if she hadn’t had her entourage, she would’ve been screwed. In addition to Dorothy’s general naïveté, there were also perfectly legit reasons for the witch’s perpetual bad mood and her disdain for her. I mean, after all, that brat stole her inheritance! Girl just wanted her shoes back, damn.
My love for villains didn’t end with the Wicked Witch of the West, however. When I was growing up, there weren’t a ton of heroines in kids media, or anywhere in the media in general. If you were a little girl who wanted to see yourself represented in mainstream media, representations you could dream and imagine yourself as, you generally had two choices: one, be a princess, or two, be a villianess. I’d be damned if I was going to be a princess, so I chose the latter. Let’s take a look at three memorable she-villain portrayals from the ’90s and where we are today with the emergence of the antihero.
1. Poison Ivy, Batman & Robin (1997) and Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995)
Poison Ivy had a rad back story of fighting the good fight only to be screwed over by her lab partner, surviving a near-death experience and morphing into a powerful villainess who more or less fights for nature and the earth. Not only does she overcome a douchey lab partner, she becomes insidious—and powerful. She’s able to use her quiet, unsuspecting human persona and appearance to blend in, gaining access to places she wouldn’t be able to if it weren’t for her wallflower persona. As a bad-ass supervillain, she’s unsuspecting partly because she’s a woman, and also because her plant based powers aren’t super intimidating to the naked eye. But she has prowess, she’s able to manipulate people—especially men—into doing what she wants, and she’s got stealth with her plant powers (e.g., the toxic kiss). Then there’s her friendship with Harley Quinn, which adds a layer of complexity to her story and persona, showing that she’s not all evil and and even not that bad at all, considering how she urges Harley to get out of and past her abusive relationship with the Joker, seen in Batman: The Animated Series. Considering her primary motivation for evildoing is to fight for nature and plants, it’s kind of hard to hate her, honestly. I mean, are we just supposed to hate her because she doesn’t work with Batman? I think the answer is yes, but clearly that’s not working out so well.
2. Harley Quinn, Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995)
It would be stating the obvious to say that Harley Quinn is a bad-ass character. In the animated series, she’s less terrifying than her more recent representations, but she’s still a pretty scary lady when you’re on the receiving end of her punches. She’s also incredibly lovable in this series, however. The first episode in which she meets Poison Ivy, we see she’s got some issues. Her self talk about taking a diamond for herself but clearly wanting to give it to the Joker show us that she’s tied up in a weird relationship dynamic. After she and Ivy grow their friendship, we see even more how messed up that relationship is and how she tries to fight it. Her loyalty to her shitty boyfriend makes her human, and easy to relate to. Who hasn’t been in a relationship where we love a person even though we know they’re terrible? But Harley also has a steadfast loyalty to Poison Ivy, and their friendship shows that sometimes romance takes a back seat to friendship and going after what you want. When you combine that level of complexity, that focus on strong female friendships, and a keen ability to kick ass, you get the truly remarkable and human character that is Harley Quinn.
3. Carmen Sandiego from the Carmen Sandiego Series and Games
It was my secret hope that Carmen Sandiego, of the PBS series Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego (among others), would always escape her captors and continue being evil and fabulous.
Carmen Sandiego holds a special place in my heart because, for one, Latinas represent, and two, she’s kick-ass! She was always independent and went after what she wanted unapologetically. She also had killer style, and as a young queer fledgling, that was a draw. A pretty woman who was also powerful and ballsy? In the early ’90s, there weren’t a ton of Latina role models or any other representations for young Latina kids. Sure, we had JLo, and Selena for the kids who were old enough to be alive during her glory (and, of course, JLo playing Selena). But outside of that, there wasn’t much. Carmen Sandiego represented something we Latina kids didn’t get to see often: a representation of our identity that wasn’t hypersexualized and was smart, independent, successful, and notorious. So much cultural representation even today has revolved around stereotypes and tropes of the “sexy Latina” or the “spicy Latina,” where the representations are more about the men gazing at them than the women who might identify with them. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with being sexy or feisty, when that is the only way society believes you exist, that gets tiring. Carmen Sandiego gave us a punchy and-much needed break from this social pothole, as kids and, for some of us, even as adults.
All of these women were fighters. All of them were scrappy, and bad-ass, and independent. None of them rode off into the sunset with a prince or hero, and they didn’t need to because in the end, they fought for themselves. When I was growing up, representations of women like this were few and far between, so I cherished what I found.
Today, though there’s still a long way to go in terms of representation (ahem, where my Latinas at?), there are far more heroines and scrappy women in the media for little girls to love and look up to. Characters like Marceline from Adventure Time, who’s cool, playful, and edgy, or Korra from Avatar: The Last Airbender (actually pretty much any of the women in that series), or even Merida from Brave (I say “even” because she’s still a princess), or Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass, or a wealth of other antiheroines. And loving bad girls doesn’t have to mean loving villainesses—it can simply mean loving the women who fall out of step with mainstream representations and who march to their own beat.
So here’s to loving the notorious bad girls!