When I was very young, someone once told me that the characters we write reflect our own feelings about the world. What, they asked, does this tell you about your work?
That night, I went back and looked through my stack of black–and–white composition notebooks, my ugly, penciled–in scrawl. I found fierce, compassionate protagonists, snake–scaled dragons, and a wild range of adventures. But a constant presence, across the board, was the cunning, clever, powerful female villain. The earliest instance I discovered was a female shape–shifting monster, the main antagonist in a superhero story I wrote when I was seven years old.
Did this mean, I wondered as I stared down at the pages, I thought that women were monsters? Did this mean I hated them or was afraid of them?
(Even then, I knew the truth: I didn’t fear my monsters, I dreamed of being like them. I, too, wanted to be powerful and able to move outside of the boundaries society set for me. And I already knew what it was like to be stared at like I was some kind of strange animal, afflicted with an incurable, monstrous sense of otherness.)
But the question haunted me as I grew older and my writing shifted. Soon, all of my protagonists were male. It made sense to my adolescent brain; in the all the stories I read, boys were the ones who got to have adventures, save the world, fulfill prophecies without having to worry about being kidnapped and rescued by the real hero.
What does this tell you about your work?
Somewhere along the line, I began to believe that message.
1. When did you fall for your first problematic villain? (Fill in the blank below.)
2. Why did you fall for your favorite problematic villain?
A) Because you were so, so hungry, and when positive representations of people like you were nowhere to be found, negative representations were still preferable over the soul–rending void of not existing at all.
B) Because you were tired of heroism for people like you being defined as sacrificing yourself for the advancement of the story’s white, often male protagonist. Because you were tired of being only love interests or accessories, or props to further the hero’s journey. And because you knew you were so much more than the fragile Madame Butterfly or the gay kid who dies first in every horror movie.
C) Because you had become convinced, by society and churches and portrayals in media, people like you were bad. You had watched characters like you die, over and over, in patterns you could chart in your sleep. If people like you were bad, you reasoned, then perhaps you, too, were inherently bad. And like those villains loathed and feared by audiences, perhaps it was also true that no one could—or should—love you, either.
D) Because you got used to seeing people like you occupy these spaces in stories. You got used to watching brave white heroes gun you down in droves. You got used to being an extra on the side of Good, and maybe a sidekick who dies, at best, and what power does a sidekick have? None. And how much power in a story does a villain have until the hero brings them down? All of it.
E) Because you learned, early on, that it was better to be a villain than a victim.
It took until I was seventeen to find a book with a mixed race protagonist: Cassel from Holly Black’s White Cat. And it took until I was seventeen to find a single depiction of a queer character who wasn’t an evil child molester like Dune’s Baron Harkonnen or a deranged killer like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.
But that’s what happens when books lack a multiplicity of portrayals. That’s what happens when people around you demand that you choose “what” you are, racially, as if identifying in multiple categories is impossible. That’s what happens when you live in fear of your family sending you to conversion therapy upon finding out about your sexuality, in order to “save” you from demons, sin, and yourself. That’s what happens when large parts of mainstream society constantly campaign to stifle and repress people with your marginalizations, and more.
No, for most of my life, I didn’t see myself in heroes. But that made sense, because heroes didn’t look like me.
But villains? Villains were a different story.
I fell in love with O–Ren Ishii the first time I watched Kill Bill Vol. 1. She was beautiful, powerful, and utterly unapologetic. During her monologue, where she demanded that her men respect her Chinese–Japanese American heritage, I could barely breathe. Are you, like me, full of dangerous and righteous rage? Are you, like me, mixed race and half Chinese American? Are you like me? Are you like me?
Still, I watched her with a mix of fascination and dread, because I had never seen anyone like her on screen, and because it was only a matter of time before Uma Thurman’s character, The Bride, came to cut her down.
And when she was cut down by the movie’s hero, I thought, Of course. This is always how these stories end. We have power until we don’t. And despite her brave words, her self–made empire, her insistence on the importance of her Chinese American identity along with her Japanese heritage, she was slain by a white woman with a katana, the top of her head lopped off in a mockery of a samurai’s hairstyle.
It made sense, in my warped understanding of the world, she would inevitably fall to the greater dominant forces of justice and societal good. And I, who harbored this strangeness, this ache for agency in the face of the rules and roles imposed on me, knew it was only a matter of time before the hammer came down on my own head. There was no room for aberrant people like me in the dominant narrative. That was just the way stories worked.
But the impact of seeing someone who looked and felt like me, who refused to hide, who demanded her power be acknowledged, stayed with me for years. O–Ren Ishii defied societal scripts for Asian women in film by refusing to sacrifice herself for anyone else. No one would label her heroic for giving her life for the main character. When she died, she died for herself, cut to pieces but whole.
My grandmother once told me that her deep Catholic faith, which was part of the reason she had so many children and never formally got divorced from her serially cheating husband, was what gave her the strength and conviction to leave the situation of that marriage. “I kicked him out, hija,” she confessed to me. We were sitting at her breakfast table, the Manila air thick and hot around us even in December. She fanned herself with a magazine, and her eyes were sharp and bright as the diamond on the engagement ring she still wore. “I cried, and I prayed to God, and one day, I realized that I’d had enough. I told him to get his things and leave, and never come back.”
This was a permutation of the same faith that trapped my own family in a relationship with a church, back in Arizona, that continually abused its congregation’s trust, told me my sexuality was an aberration, and demanded unquestioning obedience. My grandmother’s religious faith, though, was what gave her independence—something I hadn’t been raised to think of as godly.
It was the same thing that had drawn me to villains in stories, especially those villains marginalized by the society they operated within. Whether it was discrimination due to gender, race, sexuality, degree of ableness, or some combination of the above, these characters fought for everything they got. What appealed to me was they worked against a system that demanded their compliance, or they bent and reordered the rules of the system to their advantage. What appealed was their agency. And until I was older, the only characters I saw with that agency, who refused to submit to social status quo, who held similar, discounted identities as me—queer, brown, woman—were villains.
Looking into my grandmother’s eyes that winter in Manila, I realized she embodied everything I admired, without contradiction. Looking at her, I realized some folks would always label her insistence on her own agency as selfish, wicked, and perhaps even villainous. But that didn’t mean I had to.
Last year, I visited my parents’ house for the holidays. When I was there, I dug up my childhood notebooks, along with printed manuscripts of the stories I’d painstakingly typed up when I was a kid. My stories were so unmistakably queer, and my characters struggled, even back then, between duty to the people they loved, and the ambition and potential power that offered an escape from the situations they were trapped in.
What I realized though, as I reread those stories, was that while most of those characters were villains, not all of them were.
When I learned the traits I had been taught to demonize in myself—my queerness, my gender, my discontent with the established order of my world, and my desire for agency—were aspects that heroes could have, too, I realized my love for villains had been admiration born of yearning. But it was a love that, like an outgrown sweater, didn’t fit my shoulders any more.
As problematic as they were, marginalized villains helped me begin to love myself. When I believed people like me didn’t deserve space on the page, these portrayals—from the poor ones to the complex ones—showed me that I was wrong. When I hated myself for the aspects of myself that my church community told me I should be ashamed of, villains reminded me that if they could love themselves, I could, too.
© 2016 by Alyssa Wong