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This Female Assassin Kills Stereotypes Too

 

Edited by Nidhi Munot 

 

I saw a recent Instagram post by Netflix India about the spy movies one can watch, and out of the twelve movies suggested, only one, The Tourist, had a woman at the focus of the movie poster. The lack of female representation reminded me of Killing Eve, a spy thriller series that I had just binge-watched, for which the posters for each season had not one, but two powerful women. Killing Eve has been a game-changer in the spy genre that has often been male dominated and riddled with cliches. The series follows the fierce cat and mouse chase of two women—Eve Polastri, a British intelligence officer fascinated by women in crime, and Villanelle, a delightful and dangerous trained assassin. 

 

 Based on a string of novellas by British author Luke Jennings and created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Killing Eve boasts of several well-developed female characters in prominent roles. Villanelle, however, stands out. She is a charismatic young woman who has a flair for, well, killing people. She’s highly skilled at it—she is talented and knows it. “I’m kind of a big deal in this industry,” she tells her protégé. Even though she is a cold-blooded assassin, there is something endearing about her. As an audience, we tend to dislike the villain from the beginning, however, that is not the case with Villanelle. We are intrigued by her personality and want to know more about her. Unpredictable and eccentric with a childish enthusiasm, she has a great sense of humour and an even better sense of fashion. Despite all the terrible things she does on the show, we find ourselves rooting for her. Villanelle is not concerned with the consequences of her killings and does not seem interested in learning why she has to do what she is asked by the mysterious organisation she works for. This kind of amorality is uncommon in female characters, even those who are villains. It’s refreshing to see Villanelle shatter several stereotypes about female characters in pivotal roles and defy the boundaries of the femme fatale trope. She embraces her sexuality but does not use it to kill her victims. “He may not have considered a passing woman a threat,” probes Eve in the first episode. Villanelle dons disguises of everyday women to take down her targets in the most unforeseeable ways. She uses her femininity as a weapon without rejecting it. 

 

It’s quite rare to come across a ruthless female assassin. In the first episode, we see that while Eve is certain that the suspect in the murder of a Russian politician is a woman, her colleagues disagree and dismiss her views. While there have been violent anti-heroines in the past, such as Cersei Lannister, none have been assigned to directly act on their violent tendencies, as Villanelle does. This is in part because the writers and creators of these characters have largely been men. It is also because most writers rely on the theories of biological essentialism that endorse gendered myths that women are kinder and gentler than men and are incapable of violence and amorality. Villanelle and other female characters in the show are free from the male gaze that female characters are usually bound by, and avow the existence of a female gaze. 

 

From Walter White to Dexter, Television characters with blurry morals have largely been cis men. Even thrillers and spy dramas host very few female villains, other than the occasional Mallory Knox from Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers or The Bride in Kill Bill. Despite initially being painted as a psychopath and the villain of the show, the development of Villanelle's character by the third season has us questioning whether she really is the heroine instead. Female antagonists are rarely given the same depth as their male counterparts. Villanelle, however, is given a compelling backstory that invites us to look deeper into who she is and understand the motivations behind her actions, however heinous they may be. 

 

Emmy award-winning actress Jodie Comer has been nominated again this year for her work as the lovable psychopath Villanelle. Killing Eve is a shining example of how women’s representation in media is changing for the better, with women replacing men in typically male- dominated roles and unshackling from the chains of gender stereotypes. Violence and darkness are a part of experiencing the full range of humanity and should not be restricted to men. Just as much as we need female protagonists coming to humanity’s rescue, we need female antagonists to represent the flawed and dark side of humanity as well.  

 

 

Ananya is a student at Ashoka University, majoring in Economics with a minor in Political Science.
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