The power in mental illness for female villains

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May 30, 2018, 3:01 PM EDT

When it comes to genre, “villainy” and mental illness go hand-in-hand. In fact, in some cases, it can be argued a person’s strength, or “power,” comes from a mental health issue that’s been pushed to the side or refused proper treatment. 

All too often, the maniacal conqueror is a person suffering from some long-standing issue, and in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month we're taking a look at how mental illness has affected women in genre by ultimately being the source of their power — as well as their unrelenting downfall — particularly for two of our favorite yet oft misunderstood characters in genre: Avatar: The Last Airbender’s fiery Fire Nation Princess Azula and X-Men: The Last Stand’s Jean Grey.

Young and Old Azula

The connection between mental illness and extreme power is definitely key in Azula. When fans first meet Azula, she is sent by her father, Fire Lord Ozai, to clean up the mess of her brother, Prince Zuko. She is a bending prodigy, mastering the art of firebending and a pro at bending lightning. She is essentially the apple of her father’s eye.

As the show continues, we begin to learn more about Azula, and it’s clear the Fire Nation princess exhibits sociopathic tendencies: lack of empathy and deceitfulness, as well as being both manipulative and incredibly smart. She has absolutely no regard for the life and wellbeing of others, and even takes pleasure in the pain of those who she crushes beneath her boot heel (much like her dad). While this is all chalked up to Azula being a “villain” for the purposes of the show, it’s really a telltale sign of the character having a mental health disorder.

After years of being trained to be a perfectionist at all times, Azula has disassociated herself from everything in an attempt to seek her father’s approval. Because of this, Azula is the best at what she does: manipulating people and instilling fear into the hearts of others — even her own flesh and blood, Zuko.

As Avatar enters into its third and final season, we learn about a key component of Azula’s mental illness. In Season 3, Episode 5, “The Beach,” Azula makes mention of her mother Ursa never loving her, even fearing her. According to Azula, their mother thought she was a “monster,” and saw something evil in her. This backstory, coupled with a bloodthirsty leader nurturing her, signals that Azula’s mind had been corrupted from infancy. While her brother Zuko was given love by his mother and shunned by his father, Azula took pleasure in mocking her brother, which won the approval of her father. In order to overcompensate for the love she never received from her mother, she shaped her actions and expectations around what her father wanted: a reflection of himself. And in Azula mirroring her father, she became one of the most powerful women on the show.

In “The Beach,” Azula demonstrates her power even when her “friends” Ty Lee and Mai attempt to have a fun game of volleyball with some locals. Azula doesn’t feel complete unless she annihilates the opposing team. And when one young man shows a bit of interest in the bubbly Ty Lee, Azula grows incredibly jealous and uncomfortable with the idea that she’s not good at getting someone’s attention. However, when she finally gets the young guy to spend a little quality time with her, she immediately plans a future of destruction and chaos for them… while all he wanted was a little fun.

Again, Azula’s power is directly connected to her mental health disorder, but much like other powerful women, it’s her downfall. In Season 3, Episode 20, “Sozin’s Comet Part 3,” Azula prepares for her coronation day as Fire Lord. The once precise and carefully calculated Azula is shown to be “cracking” as she sees visions of her mother talking to her. By this time, Azula has lost control over her two friends (who turned on her in order to aid the Avatar), and her father has left her to conquer the rest of the world as the Phoenix King instead of having her by his side. The rejection of the one person she thought loved her, compounded with visions of her mother claiming to love her, knocks Azula off her perfect pedestal. Nothing is perfect enough for her including the cleanliness of her feet and the length of her hair. Azula begins to lose touch with reality.

Looking disheveled and erratic, Azula’s descent into schizophrenia is quickly recognized by Zuko, with whom she has a final fight to the death. Though she does manage to wound her brother, Azula is defeated by Katara. The failure is too much for her to stand and Azula bursts into tears.

Later on in the comics, Azula’s mental illness is still a major theme in her storyline, and it’s revealed she’s been placed in an asylum of sorts following the events of the final episode. She continues to hear the voice of her mother speaking to her and even accuses Zuko of being in league with their mother in order to destroy her.

Young and Old Jean Grey, X-Men The Last Stand

When Fox released the third installment of its X-Men franchise, X-Men: The Last Stand, primary character Jean Grey had gone missing and was presumed dead. However, audiences quickly learned she had survived her watery demise, and what emerged was another personality locked away when she was a child — a much stronger personality.

With this power, Jean’s telekinesis is amplified immeasurably, giving her the ability to disintegrate people and objects in the blink of an eye. After breaking free of the X-Mansion, the Brotherhood of Mutants (led by Magneto) take advantage of Jean’s immense strength in hopes of tipping the scale in their crusade against mutant-phobic humans.

At the start of the film, we learn Jean’s power isn’t merely a latent power at all. In fact, in a flashback with Professor Xavier, the movie explains that Jean essentially suffered from a multiple personality disorder, and it was the personality called "Phoenix" that was powerful yet totally out of control. Both the Professor and Magneto were fully aware of this and had semi-opposing views on how to tackle the issue. For years, the Professor would put blocks in Jean’s mind to keep the Phoenix at bay; however, when she “sacrificed” herself for their safety, she unlocked her alter-ego, who is now on a bloodlust quest of sorts.

It’s the Phoenix, not Jean, who has become the villain of the story with her cold, callous feelings towards those who stand in the way of her demonstrating her absolute power. With her transformation, Jean’s dissociative identity disorder is featured front and center. Her mental instability puts the world — and all the people in it— in jeopardy.  And as we head into the climax of the film, we see yet again that Jean's mental illness contributes to her downfall while also being the source of her impeccable abilities.

In the midst of destroying most of Alcatraz, it’s decided the only way to stop the all-powerful Phoenix is to kill her (since there’s no way whatsoever to repress the personality or have its host battle it). Logan, the only man who loves Jean as much as her late husband Scott Summers did, is tasked with the job. As he begins to take out the uncontrollable mutant, the "Jean" persona regains enough control to pop out amidst the chaos to give Logan permission to kill her. And so he does.

It's a shocking tale of what happens when there's an attempt to control something that can't be tamed, but it's also an even bigger allegory to what results when a Band-Aid is placed on a deeper wound that was never properly treated. The infection goes haywire and affects the body as a whole. 

In both scenarios we're met with two incredibly talented women, both of whom suffered from a mental illness that accounted for an immense strength, albeit at a cost. While the two were talented and powerful, it was shown their power came from their illness — in whichever way it was caused.

For Azula, her ability to disconnect her emotions was the cause of her mastery, but towards the end, the pressure to be perfect (coupled with her insecurities regarding her mom and sudden abandonment from her father) became her undoing. And for Jean, the release of her Phoenix personality unlocked her true potential, but the inability to control the power — or the personality as a whole — was the impetus for her death. While both women were deemed the villains of their worlds, they were also victims to an illness that couldn’t be resolved so quickly and led them to their doom.

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