Why are women always portrayed as villains and victims?In Macbeth, why is Lady Macbeth a villain?  And in stories such as Things Fall Apart, why are victims female? So far, I understand that woman...

Why are women always portrayed as villains and victims?

In Macbeth, why is Lady Macbeth a villain?  And in stories such as Things Fall Apart, why are victims female?

So far, I understand that woman are disrespected and maintain a lower status in society, therefore they're victims to their superior male counterparts.

I also think they lack the bravery of males, which is what separates a villain from a tragic hero.

I don't know, can anyone verify my ideas or add to this idea? Thanks.

Expert Answers
Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You have a pretty fair understanding of the issues you mention, with the exception of bravery being what separates heroes from villains.  Shakespeare is full of brave villains:  Claudius, Laertes, Macbeth (he, too, is a villain, even though he's the tragic hero), even Lady Macbeth (when Macbeth argues against killing Duncan by asking what will happen if we get caught or lose, she responds with acceptance that that is a possibility, but the risk is worth taking--she shows no cowardice or tentativeness).  But that is a minor point in your question.  You're correct concerning the major issues you ask about.

Essentially, the literature that has been placed into the Western canon of literature that is sold and read and taught, is mostly written by wealthy white men.  The canon was decided on and standardized mostly by wealthy white men in the 1920s and 1930s and features wealthy white men.  Wealthy European and then American men have dominated literature for centuries.  Why are women presented as they are in almost everything you read?  Because the literature was written by men.  At least the African novel you mention presents characters other than wealthy white men in central roles.  That is a plus.

Women have traditionally been portrayed in literature written by men in several ways:

  • They have been pedestalized--put on a pedestal and valued for their beauty and the aid they give to men.  Often they are beings to be rescued or wooed by men.
  • As villains or scapegoats. 
  • As either virginal and Madonna-like, or fallen and whore-like.  Women are often placed in this dichotomy, with no inbetween.

This, of course, mirrors society's long-held view of women.  The Western world is extremely patriarchal--dominated by males.  Women have been subjugated for centuries, and literature reflects this. 

In some ways, of course, the situation for women has improved and is still improving, but there is still a long way to go.  I just heard someone use an old saying a little while ago:

There are two kinds of women:  those you date and those you marry.

The old dichotomy is still in effect:  women are either/or, one or the other, virginal or whorish.  Thinking like this is simplistic and warped, but unfortunately you still find it in literature and in society as a whole. 

kristenfusaro eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It's important to understand the setting of a book before determining the value of men or women. Remember that the setting includes the time period and the location, which drives far more than scenery, but including culture and attitude of the people. By comprehending the complete setting, you will understand the role and view of women. For example, Lady Macbeth appears as a brutish male-type force at the beginning of the play, clearly going against her 12th century queen expectations of a woman; however, ultimately ends up taking her own life because of the guilt she feels, thus never truly escaping her expected femininity. However, you can look at a novel, like The Secret Life of Bees, and the character of August, who is a strong, proud, successful black business woman in the Jim Crow racist South. When put up against her setting, August is pure strength. It's all relative to setting.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree.  Not all women in literature are portrayed as villains or victims.  You've heard some good explanations for that in addition to your own analysis, so I'll also play a bit of a devil's advocate for women as heroes who control their own fates (non-villains and non-victims).  How about Kate in The Taming of the Shrew or Eliza in Pygmalion.  Then there's Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Mama in A Raisin in the Sun.  All these women begin as potential victims, and perhaps they even are victims for a time; but they rise as strong, confident women in control of their own fates.  You can obviously find plenty of examples of oppressed women and villainous women in literature; however, there are also characters to admire and emulate, women who overcome their obstacles and persevere.

teachertaylor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Just to throw a spin on this discussion, there are always exceptions to the "rule."  I'm thinking particularly of Sophocles's Antigone.  By going against King Creon and deciding to give Polyneices a burial, Antigone acts bravely and accepts death as a consequence of her actions.  She cannot be labeled as a victim because she knows in advance what her punishment will be (plus she takes her own life rather than give Creon the hand in her death).

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In literature Eve is the prototype for many female characters.  As such, they serve narratives well when the hero is a tragic one as then the femal characters can assist his fall.  Since much Western literature involves the male as the central character, a woman serves the narrative well as a temptress, or as a character in a minor role which supports the hero, many times as a foil to better exhibit the main character's traits.

poetrymfa | Student

Women are always portrayed as villains and victims due to (as you said) their lower status in societies.  For centuries, the traditional role of a woman has revolved around domestic tasks--cleaning, cooking, childbearing and rearing, etc.--and not intellectual ones.  Women were forced to remain virtually powerless.  They lacked education opportunities, control over their own finances, and opportunities for personal advancement.  Thus, those women who broke the mold were automatically characterized as evil, while those who conformed to it were (acceptably so, mind you) weak.

Lady Macbeth is cast into the villain role due to her refusal to conform to these traditions and standards.  Her power over her husband is manifested in her ability to convince him to murder the monarch.  She then assumes the throne as the Queen of Scotland.  These actions are the ultimate act of defiance--defiance of her male counterparts and "superiors" and of her role as a female and wife.  If Lady Macbeth had been male, she would have been considered a tragic hero, one who aggressively pursued what (s)he wanted.  A male Macbeth's death would have been considered a tragic end; Lady Macbeth's death was merely viewed as justice for her wrongdoings.

Hence, those females (such as the ones in Things Fall Apart) who merely conformed to the qualities expected of them, were seen as victims.  As required, they were defenseless, weak, worthy of beatings, and incapable of standing up for themselves.  They are labeled as victims because they are consistently subjected to abuse, which they can only escape by being rescued by male figures (remember how Okonkwo is scolded for beating a wife on a day of peace?).

In all, the portrayal of women is a bit of a catch-22.  There seems to be no positive light in which they can be cast.  If you follow the rules, you are a victim; if you break them, you are a villain.


Hope that helps!