I’ve always been a fan of the bad guys.
I loved Scar in The Lion King. My favorite characters in mythology were tricksters like Loki or witches like Circe. I was inappropriately drawn to Roger of Conté even after it turned out that he was the evil mastermind in Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet. I was seriously concerned about the vermin in Redwall, and indignant when Veil Sixclaw was cast out, and even more so when he redeemed himself by dying (the first of many encounters with a particular trope). I was drawn toward Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape in Harry Potter. You get the picture. Outcasts and rebels, those a little outside the lines of good.
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a signing by Marjorie Liu, writer of some of my favorite comics ever. I asked her a question about the theme throughout her work of monsters and women or girls – the monsters within women, or the ways in which women are told they are monstrous. She gave an incredibly insightful answer that I really wish I’d written down, focused on race and the ways in which, growing up as a biracial kid, she felt alienated and othered, and seeking representation for herself found it in the outsiders, the monsters.
I write about people who have been othered. Who have been told that they’re monsters, […] who are looking for love and acceptance.
It made me think about what pulls me toward villains and outcasts and monsters – after all, I’m white, cisgender, fairly privileged. Why does this resonate with me? Why should I turn, over and over, to the Lokis and Morrigans and Lucifers? Why are even the heroes I choose to love touched by a certain amount of darkness and violence, a certain aura of monstrosity?
There’s the obvious answer, of course: I’m queer. There is a long, long history of association between so-called “deviant” sexualities and evil – the taint of homosexuality around Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel, the queer-coded villains of decades of films. Bisexuality in particular, as I have discussed elsewhere, is frequently aligned with tropes about trickery and deceitfulness.
It’s hard not to be aware of – and to a certain extent to absorb – those stereotypes, and it certainly creates a sense of being outside or excluded. Easy, then, to feel a connection to the characters that share that sense of existing in a space outside the community, who are not a part of the “good” society. (Or those characters – like tricksters – who exist in a liminal capacity, never quite good or quite evil, a living challenge to binaries and dichotomies. But this is not a post about my obsession with trickster gods – that might be another essay.)
Then there’s the aspect of gender. My relationship with femininity and femaleness has been…weird. There was a period during my childhood when I wanted to be a boy. I played the boy in every pretend game my sister and I dreamed up; I asked my mom if I could get a buzz cut. I don’t remember what I thought I could have if I were a boy that I couldn’t have as a girl, but I know there was a conviction in me that it was what I wanted.
I haven’t, since then, experienced gender dysphoria in any significant way. Insecurity, absolutely – especially as a late bloomer, embarrassed by my apparently sexless body, eternally mistaken for a young boy with my short hair and flat chest. And more recently, when a hairdresser commented that she was shaping my hair to keep it “feminine”, I felt a flicker of anger, because no, dammit, I don’t want my hair to be feminine. At the same time, I love to wear A-Line skirts and dresses. I suppose what it comes down to is that I identify as a woman but not necessarily as feminine, which feels a little like splitting hairs but also somehow important.
In terms of monstrosity – there are the ways in which, of course, deviance from gender norms (like sexuality norms) is coded as villainous in nature. Women tip easily from good to evil, and I have always had a great deal of sympathy for the women who turn on the expectations of them to become monsters: Medea and Clytemnestra come to mind. Melisande Shahrizai from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series was an early formative antagonist: politically savvy and absolutely vicious. Women, all too often, are not allowed to be angry, vengeful, or violent, and I wanted that freedom. Villains could offer me that catharsis – freedom from the feeling that I was trapped in a mold that I didn’t fit. (No one does.)
But ultimately I think what connects me to antagonists most of all, why I keep coming back to the bad guys, has to do with mental illness.
There are two aspects to this. The first is that the qualities of mental illness – the qualities of “insanity” – don’t tend to get attached to protagonists. At least, not the unappealing ones. Obsessiveness, anger, outbursts of apparently excessive emotion – these aren’t qualities of the typical hero. (There are, of course, exceptions, but as a general trend mental illness tends to be the province of the antagonist – look no further than Batman’s rogues gallery, most of whom have stayed in Arkham Asylum at one time or another.) Madness makes you bad. It makes you wrong, and outside, and hard to relate to. It makes you separate from the people around you, makes you feel marked.
The thing about mental illness is that it changes how you see yourself. I have lived a lot of my life with the conviction that, deep down, I am a bad person. What this means varies from time to time, but the thought remains fairly consistent. And even outside of that abstract level of self doubt, there are other things: the fact that I am aware that my mental illness makes me often not a very nice person. In middle school, when my depression was at its worst, I lashed out at others because I couldn’t think of a better way to deal with my misery. I pushed others away and then got angry when they didn’t support me. I was angry, destructive and self-destructive.
For some people, they turn to heroes as a reminder that people can be better – that everything isn’t necessarily awful, and that there is such a thing as decency. Triumph over adversity is a powerful thing, and seeing protagonists beat the odds and win can make one’s own trials feel less insurmountable.
But for me, all too often my trials always felt insurmountable, and I couldn’t believe in something better. So I reached for the monsters, because in some perverse way they meant I wasn’t alone. They gave me a point of identification. And even when they lost, that was somehow cathartic, too. Because their loss was mine. In grieving their falls, their deaths (with or without redemption), I was grieving myself.
At the same time, though, some part of me always wanted better for these irredeemable characters. The moments I lived for, the moments I craved but too seldom got (or only got with death immediately following) were the lurch toward the light. The idea that being bad might not necessarily mean being bad forever. That even at my most monstrous, I might still be worth caring about; might still be worth saving.
It’s interesting: if you read my writing (which most people probably haven’t) there’s a certain trajectory. For a long time, my stories held a certain nihilism. One in particular sticks out – a novel, of sorts, written during middle school, which ended with every major character dead. That was a sort of nihilistic low, but it lingered – I killed a lot of fictional characters during high school. I didn’t write happy endings. No one found redemption.
That’s not the case anymore. Now, I’m more inclined to want to find an ending that gives those characters some kind of resolution. Maybe not happiness, maybe not redemption, but resolution. In some ways, I think I’m trying to back-write myself, to say: just because you feel like a monster, just because people might tell you you’re one, doesn’t mean that’s all you can be.
And even if that is what you are: isn’t everyone?
Note: The title of this post comes from a line in Marjorie Liu’s run on Black Widow: “And there are stories about wolves and girls. Girls in red. All alone in the woods. About to get eaten up. Wolves and girls. Both have sharp teeth.”
Further Reading: Fearing the Other – Within and Beyond by Timothy K. Beal; Monstress is a Gorgeous Comic Book About Racism, War, and Slavery by Evan Narcisse; In Brightest Day: Batman and the Problem with Mental Illness in Comics by Lady Geek Girl;