game-of-thrones-cersei-queen.jpg

The greatest female villains of all time

Contributed by
Jan 29, 2019

January is a time of fresh starts and new beginnings. The way we kick off a new year informs the months that follow, and that's why we're living our best Capricorn-season lives and declaring it the Month of the GOAT, celebrating the Greatests of All Time in genre. From the best Star Trek captains to our favorite strong female characters, we're honoring the greats all month long.

We love to hate a great baddie, and in the realm of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, the best of the worst are female. From the cartoon villainesses who scared us as children and beyond to the iciest queen to grace our television screens, these women chill us to the bone. And in the way only the best villains can, they do so while also making us feel for them, even just a little bit.

Look, we're not saying we agree with their methods. But we certainly stan, with fear and love alike in our hearts.

These are the greatest female villains of all time.

SleepingBeautyMaleficent.jpg

Maleficent

Maleficent can turn into a dragon. Why is anyone else even on this list? She turns into a DRAGON. But Maleficent has villainess street cred even before that. For one thing, she goes around calling herself "the Mistress of All Evil." Like that's not a nickname, it's just how she refers to herself. For another, she is committed to an aesthetic best described as "Morticia Addams by way of the Khaleesi," and her familiar is a raven, which is cool because ravens are super smart and aren't friends with just anybody. But mostly what makes Maleficent a great villainess, besides the dragon thing, is that one time she didn't get invited to a party and she CURSED the birthday girl because of it. Maleficent LIVES for the drama of it all. Often the difference between a heroine and a villainess is an appropriate sense of drama, and no one is more into HIGH DRAMA than Maleficent.

Also, she can TURN INTO A DRAGON. - Sarah Marrs

BatmanReturns_Michelle_Pfeiffer.jpg

Catwoman

Before the men who "want to watch the world burn," there was the Catwoman who came to burn the patriarchy to the ground. In Tim Burton's Batman Returns, there were bad guys in evil industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and the plotting Penguin (Danny Devito). But it is in Catwoman that Batman met his match, on the battlefield and the dance floor. Selina Kyle once played by the rules of the men in power, bowing to her boss's every whim and waiting for some Batman to save her. But when pushed to her breaking point (and out a skyscraper's window), she discovered her inner bad girl in a makeover scene that is both dark and divine. In a skin-tight cat suit that oozed sex appeal and threat, she made a meal of mad men, kissed to kill, and rejected the cozy comforts of a billionaire do-gooder to be free and as fierce as she wants to be. She didn't crave wealth or prestige. She was born of rage to push back against the bad men. And in doing so, this Catwoman gave fangrrls an unexpected role model…or at least a welcomed outlet for our own outrage. Let the boys battle over Gotham. Catwoman is the villain this world deserves. - Kristy Puchko

GameofThronesCersei.jpg

Cersei Lannister

There is no set rulebook for what makes a great villain, but a killer look helps set the tone. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) knows this better than anyone, so when she finally gets to sit on the Iron Throne she has a to-die-for outfit to back it up. Gone are the red, pastels and even the rags she was forced to wear. Black is worn while in mourning, it is also worn by the bad guys. Cersei combines the two in the Game of Thrones sixth season finale; she blows things up in King’s Landing (literally) and the last of her children kills himself. She is childless, but has the power she craves; the crown is on her head and her butt is on the throne. Cersei is calculating, manipulative and has a voracious appetite for wine and her brother, even if the latter has chosen to abandon her. A bigger threat is coming, but Cersei cares not for the dead. - Emma Fraser

furies

The Female Furies

Although their roster shifts, every incarnation of the Female Furies has one thing in common: they are terrifying. While many supervillain groups comprise individual villains weary of getting trounced by a single superhero, the Female Furies are from the Hell-planet Apokolips and they are a squad of bodyguards that double as assassins, forming into a particularly murderous secret police force for Darkseid himself. Trained by Granny Goodness, who is exactly as scary as her name would imply, the Furies are mostly orphaned young women with nowhere else to go but into service for Darkseid. The only Fury known to have escaped Apokolips with her life was Barda, and it was anything but a clean break — she has been haunted by her former crew nonstop since her departure to Earth. No matter what book they show up in, the Female Furies are some of the most frightening women to ever grace the page of a superhero book, and that is exactly what makes them great villains. - Sara Century

Ursula-LittleMermaid

Ursula

If we’re talking villains, there’s one sea witch who reigns supreme. As the only character in The Little Mermaid who understands both humans and merefolk, Ursula is keenly aware that human men tend to be vapid misogynists who like a lady who is pretty, but not too chatty. She uses that knowledge to manipulate Ariel, while teaching her some pretty valuable lessons about the realities of womanhood, whether under the sea or on dry land. Add to that the fact she’s a badass sorcerer who can assume nearly any form and chooses to be a fat octopus-person, and you’ve got one impressive villain. In her recent Netflix special “Aggressively Adorable” comedian Nicole Byer points out, “Maybe Ursula’s just misunderstood. Maybe she took Ariel’s voice to teach her that having a voice is more important than looking like every other f*cking basic bitch. Maybe she’s onto something.” Sure seems like she might be. That’s the thing about Ursula as a villain. She’s relentless, she’s vicious, and her motivations make perfect sense. She’s also a feminist, a proud fat person, and someone who is really, really good at her job. You don’t have to like her to respect her, but this sea witch doesn’t give a f*ck if you do either. - S.E. Fleenor 

amora

Amora the Enchantress

Long-time Thor villain Amora the Enchantress is best known for two things: sporting killer green outfits and ruthlessly dominating all the men. What I’m saying is, she is my hero. The ethics behind her seductions get weird sometimes — she is written as using her sexiness in bids for power, but hear us out — this is an accusation leveled against women in the real world a lot, and is seldom the full truth. Amora is given credit for being a master manipulator but is always found out by the male hero and punished in the end, like a femme fatale in a noir movie. Yet, even with this trope at play, Amora still manages to be really interesting. Writers of decades past included suggestions of what they would consider misandry in her dialogue, which looking back reads as some of the most empowered language any female character had used in comics up to that point. By attempting to parody and ridicule the Women’s Movement of the ‘70s, writers gave us one of the more interesting villains of the time period. - Sara Century

yosaffbridge-hendricks

Saffron/Yolanda/Bridget

Move over, Mad Men fans — some of us had Christina Hendricks on our radar long before she wore a pen around her neck. While world-threatening villains are fun and scary for sure, sometimes the best stories are those with lower stakes. Firefly’s Saffron (aka Yolanda aka Bridget) didn’t have any specific designs of conquering the universe or amassing power; she just was trying to get by from one scheme to another. This space con artist was the perfect adversary, then, for the crew of the Serenity, usually trying to do exactly that themselves. She’s the perfect twisted reflection of Mal’s entire found family, the embodiment of what all of them could easily be if they didn’t have that nagging sense of personal scruples that our lovable misfits in space maintained. It’s a blessing that in the show’s short, short run we were able to squeeze out not one but two Saffron stories. And it's a tragedy that we didn’t get to see her use their own natures against them to unleash the special hell for years and years. - Riley Silverman

Umbridge.png

Dolores Umbridge

Forget villains with the power to destroy the universe. Forget the ones who kidnap princesses, or rule a realm with an iron fist. Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series is the one that’s going to get under your skin the most. She’s got the outward look of perfection, from her pink-on-pink attire to her little kitten plate collection to her correct manners and oh-so-perfect way of stirring her tea. She’ll annoy you to death. She’s the greatest villain of all time because, unlike Catwoman or Ursula, you don’t have a moment of wanting to be her. Dolores Umbridge is not cool. You want to destroy her, just for that annoying way she has of clearing her throat. On top of that, she’s cruel beyond measure and tows the party line. This is a pure monster of a woman, and her evil plate kittens are spies. She deserves everything she gets. - Jenna Busch

CallistoXenaWarriorPrincess

Callisto

Look, Xena the Warrior Princess was great and all but it’s hard not to stan a ruthless, revenge-driven warlord who’s dedicated her life to destroying her enemy. Callisto showed all kind of commitment, spending five seasons hounding Xena, the woman responsible for the slaughter of her family. She died, she came back to life, she died again, became a demon, an immortal, a goddess, and ultimately reincarnated herself as Xena’s daughter — a move that was framed as a resolution to the pair’s animosity but considering Xena’s daughter also became a bloodthirsty thorn in her side, it read more like the biggest middle finger possible in medieval fantasy times. Callisto was Xena’s equal on the battlefield and off. She had good reason to want her enemy to suffer and her maniacal dedication to carrying out that torment was a hell of a lot of fun to watch. - Jessica Toomer

O-Ren-Ishii-Lucy-Liu-Kill-Bill

O-Ren Ishii

For a lot of people, the real stand-out character of Kill Bill Volume One was O-Ren Ishii, whose traumatic backstory is told via a cut-away anime sequence. She watched her father be killed by his enemies while she hid under the bed, then dedicated a great portion of her own adolescence to tracking down the men responsible. A villain forged by a need for vengeance, much the same as the Bride had been, O-Ren gave us another angle on what revenge really does to a person, and the equally unjustifiable crimes they might commit in response to the cruelty of the world. The humanization given to O-Ren is unique among action movie villains, and the films benefited greatly from her presence. Her iconic fight against the Bride in the snow might have been visually lifted from the Japanese film Lady Snowblood, but that made it no less impactful for new audiences. O-Ren is a fantastic villain, not only due to her genuinely admirable ruthlessness but because we know exactly where that ruthlessness came from and are allowed to sympathize with her to some extent before she meets her bitter end. - Sara Century

Make Your Inbox Important

Get our newsletter and you’ll be delivered the most interesting stories, videos and interviews weekly.

Sign-up breaker
Sign out: