Friday, May 24, 2024

The Value of Humanizing Villains

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Since last Wednesday’s release of The Handmaid’s Tale episode 6 “A Woman’s Place,” I have seen a fair bit of backlash on social media (mostly Tumblr, rather predictably) questioning the decision to focus primarily on Serena Joy Waterford and her life prior to and during the government coup. The impression these people seem to have is that the creators are trying to make them like Serena Joy or feel bad for her when she actually represents much of what is wrong with the regime. This is an understandable reaction, but a misguided one. The point of humanizing Serena Joy is not to make her likeable, but to make her relatable.

Unfortunately, some modern branches of social justice politics mock and degrade people who are able to find and engage with the humanity in their oppressors as a way to create change (and a very effective way at that—I would know). Perhaps that is why this was such a common reaction; feeling any empathy at all for someone who is an unintentional analogue of a Trump remorse voter might be awkward. Here’s the thing, though. Empathy is a great quality to possess if one wants to be any good at self-reflection. And shows like The Handmaid’s Tale are meant to make us reflect on ourselves and our society.

I should clarify here that empathy and sympathy are not one in the same. Sympathy in general means feeling sorry for someone, whereas empathy is better described as: “identification with, understanding of, and vicarious experience of another person’s situation, feelings, and motives.” One need not feel bad for a person or character to be able to put themselves in that person’s shoes and understand their feelings or motives.

The point of humanizing Serena Joy is not to make her likeable, but to make her relatable.

I completely understand why people hate Serena Joy—I kind of do too. There’s reason enough early on in the series, as she plays the bad cop to her husband Fred’s milder temperment, often snapping at the protagonist June (a.k.a. Offred) and confining her to her room for weeks when she ‘fails’ to get pregnant by Fred. Then in 1×06, it is revealed that Serena Joy is not just any other victim of the Gileadian regime, but that she helped put it into place. We see her and Fred discussing the attacks on the government before they happen, and Fred expresses regret for her being shut out of the leadership once the government falls, saying she has been part of it from the start and should be part of these decisions.

This episode left me in a very confused and ambivalent headspace. It made me dislike Serena Joy more, but also understand her more. And yes, it did make me feel sorry for her. Most surprising of all, it made me like Aunt Lydia of all people for a hot second when she defended her disfigured handmaids’ right to go to the banquet and comforted a distraught Janine with tenderness, even using her real name (a big no no). Perhaps the only way to make Aunt Lydia the Sadist at all likeable was to contrast her with Serena Joy the ice queen.

But Serena Joy is more than that, and in 1×06 we get insight into who she really is: a lonely woman who was betrayed by her own beliefs and longs for intimacy with her husband, whom she is no longer permitted to touch because sex is for procreation only. She vehemently believed that a woman’s place was in the home, yet was an esteemed speaker and author who travelled to rallies, hardly the picture of the life she was promoting. Such is the paradox of Serena Joy. The lifestyle she promoted was incompatible with the life she lived, and somehow she was unable to see that until it was too late and the former was forced upon her. “She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her,” notes Offred in the book by Margaret Atwood. “How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.”

Unfortunately for Serena Joy, her willingness to let her own sex be subjugated turned out far worse than she expected. She admits to Ambassador Castillo that she never envisioned Gilead being a society where women could not read her book, or anything at all. She may have argued for reproduction as a moral imperative, but admits to Offred that the things they do together (the state-sanctioned rape, the baby snatching, etc.) are terrible. It seems her arguments were taken well beyond what she had intended, but she had already given up any power to stop this perversion of her ideals.

This article puts it particularly well: “Atwood reminds such women that they might not like the results of their labor; that by the time they come to regret it, the culture they helped create will have developed far beyond their control. Serena Joy is a warning, not only to her feminist antagonists, but to conservatives, too.” This warning is especially salient in the show, versus in the book where Serena Joy was a travelling televangelist but not part of the takeover. It is a more blatant betrayal by the men she helped put in power.

On the other hand, making Serena part of the coup may have made her less relatable to the women she is supposed to serve as a warning to. Few women of the conservative persuasion are the type to get highly involved with politics or incite riots. Most of them just go along with it, and that is one of the many themes of the book and TV series: complacency kills, wake up before it’s too late.

If a piece of media is intended to be social commentary, it is imperative that the creator make us feel empathy for their villains. […] Otherwise, we learn nothing from their mistakes.

Even for those who do not directly relate to Serena Joy, there is value to unpacking her story and psyche. It is very easy to hate cartoony villains who have no humanity and exist only to be defeated, but shows like this make the villains uncomfortably fleshed out and relatable on purpose. Instead of looking down on them and thinking how we’re so much better than them, we’re forced to reflect and realize… we’re not.

In general, a well-characterized villain will always be undeniably human, with motivations that make sense and are relatable to the audience. And if a piece of media is intended to be social commentary, it is imperative that the creator make us feel empathy for their villains. Not sympathy necessarily, but empathy. We don’t have to feel sorry for them, but we do need to understand how they got to this point. Otherwise, we learn nothing from their mistakes.

The 100 is a show that is often terrible at establishing motivations for characters, but they do have a good track record of humanizing their villains and showing how morally gray most people are. Marcus Kane and John Murphy were both vying for villain of the year in season 1, but now in season 4 they are both popular characters because they have been on these great redemption arcs and the show has really dug into their psyches. However, there was also a villain who never got much of a redemption arc but was still humanized very well by the time he met his end. His name was Charles Pike.


I really hated Pike, especially when he was first introduced. I think most of the fandom did. He was kind of a throwback to how most of Skaikru (the supposed protagonists) used to feel about the Grounders before they became allies. Following a terrorist attack of sorts by the Ice Nation, he brought those feelings back to the surface and took power. He was militantly xenophobic and orchestrated a massacre of an army of (not Ice Nation) Grounders who were stationed near Skaikru’s home to protect them. He was a pig-headed bigot, and in my opinion, he was the one of the nastiest antagonists the show has seen. However, he was also extremely human, and his motivations were always clear: protect his own people at all costs from a group who had attacked them before. We came to learn more of his backstory as season 3 progressed, and though I never stopped hating him, by the time he died I felt I understood him.

The fact that I could come to empathize with a character like Pike is uncomfortable and scary. But that’s the point. Humanized villains fulfill two important purposes outside of the narrative: 1) make the audience evaluate a situation from an alternative point of view and maybe open our minds a bit as to why people are the way they are and 2) make the audience realize what we have in common with these characters and how easily we too can become villains. And it’s not just common ground in terms of beliefs, but in terms of attitude and willingness to let others suffer to accomplish our objectives, however righteous we may feel they are.

Even if we find nothing to relate to in Charles Pike or Serena Joy Waterford, seeing complex humanized villains onscreen forces us to evaluate our own morality. And in a polarized society full of close-minded, holier-than-thou extremists on all sides, that perspective is invaluable.

Images courtesy of Hulu (unless otherwise specified)

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