In romances, villains can be redeemed, but few villainesses get that opportunity. The villainess in a classic romance may try to control or ruin the heroine’s life, but her real purpose is to win the hero away from the heroine. It’s a tougher job description than just being a villain. And she almost never gets a sequel book in which the writer shows her mending her ways.
In modern contemporary romances set in America, we don’t see a lot of villainesses anymore. The reason is that women’s and men’s lives intersect much less formally today than they used to. Women and men often have the same jobs and work together as equals. They may exercise at the same fitness centers or in the same running club. They may meet up socially in groups, and mingle freely. They have access to each other via Internet sites. And they can join the same community associations as equals, not necessarily as gender-separated subgroups such as the ladies’ auxiliaries of old.
Why does all this access mean fewer villainesses? Because in a world in which women are not competing with each other directly in some female-only social pool (it used to be the typing pool) for the attention of men who are on a higher social and financial rung than they are, woman-to-woman competition just isn’t all that important. If women can leave their small towns and have thousands of men to choose from in big cities, they don’t need to compete with their elementary school nemesis or the boss’s daughter or the town rich girl for the few attractive young men who go to their high school. If the primary meeting place between the sexes is not a formal dance, there is no belle of the ball. The matriarchs of the old social world wield little or no social power to exclude today’s young women from access to eligible men by reason of lack of birth, wealth, or social graces.
Which is not to say that all of these ages-old situations don’t still apply in some locales or social subsets. A young woman living in an ethnic community with strong bonds may be constrained to follow all kinds of traditions, some of which may put her in direct competition with other women, and some of which may insist that she be subservient to other women who rank higher in the social structure, including women of her own family. And this can work to her disadvantage in winning her hero. But for the majority of American women, meeting new men is the issue, finding attractive ones, and establishing serious relationships. None of which has anything to do with a villainess. Unless she happens to be your best friend who is so hot that the guys at the club prefer her and ignore you. Still, that does not make her a genuine villainess.
A romance villainess isn’t an accidental spoiler. She deliberately sets out to improve her own chances of success with the hero by actively sabotaging the heroine. She does everything she can to highlight her social perfection, as opposed to the gaucherie of the heroine. She dresses provocatively when the heroine does not, and she has wealthy social and business contacts that could be a dowry to the hero, all of which make her more valuable to him. What the romance villainess does not have is a heart. She doesn’t do love. She does money and power, expressed as fame, connections, appearances, and deals. Romance heroes classically have been quite willing to have liaisons with villainesses. Mr. Rochester toyed with a brilliant heiress, deliberately making poor Jane Eyre sick with jealousy. But although uninterested in exploring their own hearts, villainesses have a shrewd ability to recognize the emotions of others. Think of all the catty remarks Miss Bingley makes about Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, hoping to convince Mr. Darcy that the heroine is beneath his notice. Does it work? No. Darcy is drawn to Elizabeth by the power of love, a power so strong that even he unwillingly admits it is totally against common sense.
With the disappearance of the older social structures, the villainess in modern romances changed from being the socialite or boss’s daughter to being a cold-hearted career woman. They were all over romances for a while, a backlash against feminism. The problem was that as a type, even that woman was sympathetic. The women reading romances slowly learned how hard it was to be a career woman, regardless of all the media hype about superwoman. Even the most conservative of romance readers soon had friends or relatives who were career women, or were themselves. Wanting a career just didn’t seem so bad or unfeminine anymore. So romance writers upped the ante. The villainess wasn’t just cold and ruthless in business. She became cold and ruthless in her intimate life.
And that leads us to the most twisted of all romance clichés, the abortion. It’s a controversial topic, but not in romances because just about 100% of the time it is described with horror as something the heroine would never, ever consider. And as something the villainess did. She was the hero’s first wife and she had an abortion because she cared more about her career than her husband or baby. She was his whacko (ex-)girlfriend and she was moving up, man by man, and refused to be slowed down by a baby. She was an utterly selfish movie star or model who refused to mess up her figure with a pregnancy. And so on. Although in real life, many decent women have had abortions for various reasons that they felt were morally justifiable or economically necessary or simply life-saving, in romances abortion is always portrayed only as the selfish action of a cold-hearted villainess. Romance readers are mostly looking for an optimistic, even sugar-coated view of life, and this isn't it. They don't want to be slapped in the face by a brutal reality, or be judged as bad themselves. I have known a lot of real-life women who have had abortions, none of them is a villainess. And all of them have expressed regret, something that a romance villainess never shows. It's a cliché whose time has passed.
Now that romances have moved beyond the melodramatic clichés of a closed society with few options or opportunities for women, we don't need to reconsider the role of the villainess. Is the other woman who wants the hero a villainess? Or just the wrong woman for him because she will not make him happy? Or is another woman a villainess because she wants to foil the endeavors of the heroine or the hero, irrespective of romantic considerations? As our society changes and women openly achieve positions of power different from those they held in the past (such as matriarch or social arbiter), it is quite possible that the romance villainess could become a powerful antagonist without being a romantic rival to the heroine. What if a woman is the head of the company? Or the powerful senator who manipulates political outcomes? If women’s roles expand as antagonists, the romance villainess wouldn’t just be the cliché glamorous bitch from hell with the heart of ice. And then maybe the romance villainess would have the potential to be redeemable.