On The Violent Lesbian: Part 1
‘You should never call a psychopath a psychopath. It upsets them.’
Joder Comer as Villanelle, Killing Eve (2018)
Hello reader. My name is Rosie Dahlstrom, I’m an artist from Glasgow currently studying in London. My practice concerns gender, beauty, ambiguity, fantasy and metamorphoses, using the narrative framework of the monster from ancient mythologies to contemporary incarnations. I’m going to be discussing in this and future posts a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time: stories of violent women and their representations and interpretations in wider culture.
The Violent Lesbian is a character I have thought a lot about over the years, as I’ve come to believe the transgressive and conservative ways in which she is represented tell us a huge deal about the perception of the relationships between violence, sexuality and femininity in the collective consciousness of our world – female queerness is so rarely found in culture that lesbians pretty much always have to be murderers to be visible. It’s titillating; any online search for ‘violent lesbian’ brings up nothing but porn. But is the trope as simple as it appears?
This starting point is prompted by the recent TV phenomenon, Killing Eve, which has as its central plot a cat and mouse game between international assassin Villanelle and MI5 agent Eve. Between the two characters there is an interesting sexually charged dynamic involving shifts in power, the invasion of the private (Villanelle going through Eve’s suitcase), the uncovering of past secrets, and betrayal. Eve is obsessed with Villanelle in a way that goes way beyond wanting to catch a killer; Villanelle becomes intrigued by this game and reciprocates playfully and violently.
What I wanted to draw attention to is the almost immediate portrayal of Villanelle, female psycho-killer assassin, as sexually aggressive, and non-heterosexual. In the first episode you see her casually in bed post-threesome with a male and a female playmate; she callously initiates sex with a neighbour; her history involves an unreciprocated love affair with a female teacher (whose husband she murders). You get the feeling with her that sex, like killing, is just a fun way to pass the time, to delay boredom, and she’s good at it; the exception to this is her infatuation with Eve and her predecessor, Annie the languages teacher, who share the same hairstyle which she fetishizes. This obsession differentiates from her other casual encounters, and suggests a slant towards genuine queerness, in its ferocity and longevity. But generally in Villanelle, there is still an intriguing mix of motivations and at the heart of it a mystery: what really drives her? Survival, power, excitement, sex, revenge? Is there anything behind the mask but another mask, or a void?
“These representations carry with them, and work overtime to disavow, the unconscious weight of a culture that has made the lesbian and the female criminal synonymous by displacing women’s aggression onto the sexual deviant.”
Lynda Hart, Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression (Princeton University Press, 1994)
But once more, we can’t seem to ever have a psychotic or violent female character without the association of lesbianism (“a history of identification between the female outlaw and the lesbian” (Hart, Fatal Women, 1994). This is an ancient association: women who kill must be un-feminine, as violent is un-feminine, so they must be masculine by default, so they must be lesbian and look at ‘women’ as ‘men’ look at ‘women’. Assertiveness is also a masculine trait, so a sexually aggressive woman is also a lesbian. It’s a simplistic misogynist equation that essentially denies female characters and by extension women the ability to be complex, three-dimensional, ethically questionable, ambiguous; as every female character has to fit nicely into a little box.
Villanelle’s box is that of The Violent Lesbian, and she’s in there with Thelma and Louise, Aileen Wuornos, Lisbeth Salander, Basic Instinct and many, many more ‘real’ or fictional characters from over the decades. I am unsure how much Villanelle pushes against the restrictions of this box: she definitely plays excitingly with feminine masks (see pink dress above) and remains essentially unknowable, which is very queer. The show falls down by not permitting Eve, the goody, to commit to her homoerotic feelings. In the final scene of the first series, it seems that the pair are confessing their feelings of desire to each other (Eve: “I think about your eyes, and your mouth, and what you feel when you kill someone.” Villanelle: “I think about you, too. I mean, I masturbate about you a lot.”) But when Eve stabs Villanelle, I read it as queerbaiting; how are we to know that Eve really feels sexual desire for Villanelle when she was probably lying to get her revenge?
Killing Eve is a very good TV show, well-acted, well-written, enjoyably frantic, and it’s not up to one piece of art to fix everything that’s wrong with all culture, even if it could have gone farther. I see that its main success is in depicting sexual desire as being comprised of many complex factors, such as power, intimacy, mystery, fear and obsession, which can transcend gender and other ‘restrictions’. So, what it may not do for the cause of LGBTQ+ representation in the media, it does ‘queer’ and complicate the depiction of more general sexuality.