Queer villains have always existed. I Care A Lot updates the trope with Marla Grayson.
About halfway through the film Young Man With A Horn (1950), Lauren Bacall’s character Amy North snaps, “I’d like to kill you,” during an argument with her husband. He retorts, “You almost did,” and it’s clear who the audience is supposed to side with. After all, we’ve been watching Amy flippantly undermine her husband’s confidence throughout much of the movie. Yet, Amy’s cardinal sin is one that goes unspoken; she’s been carrying on a subtextual affair with an artist who has invited her to move to Paris. Though Amy is shallow and indecisive, it’s difficult to fully view her as a villain when her primary offense was to simply shrug off her marital obligations in favor of pursuing a love affair with a woman.
This is only one example of a queer-coded femme fatale in classic cinema. From lesbian vampires to haunted housekeepers and incestuous bisexuals, the villainization of queer people in fiction has been written about at length over many decades. Queer critics are regularly torn over whether or not these clunky renditions of conniving and villainous lesbians and bisexuals are up for reclamation or simply the fetish of straight male directors. The fact is, they can be a little bit of both.
Regardless of the character’s moral standing, their queerness is no longer the motivating factor behind their villainy, and therein lies all the difference.
Today, we continue to see villainized takes that are generally told from the perspective of people who don’t necessarily identify as queer, and perhaps it goes without saying that this can feel a little inappropriate at times. Yet, there is a difference in direction when it comes to queer women in films today. To begin with, there are infinitely more movies about queer people overall, so no one character or story will be expected to define the canon at this point. Perhaps most importantly, regardless of the character’s moral standing, their queerness is no longer the motivating factor behind their villainy, and therein lies all the difference.
To this end, we have I Care A Lot (2021). Part of the film’s opening sequence is a monologue from the beautiful Marla Grayson (Rosemund Pike), in which she proposes that everyone falls into the category of predator or prey, proudly declaring, “I’m a lioness.” She goes up against a belligerent man in court, who follows her to the parking lot and screams misogynist insults at her to the point that her girlfriend and business partner Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) feels compelled to step in. Marla doesn’t need the help, and she threatens to destroy him if he comes anywhere near her again.
Yet, even as we are captivated by Marla’s dynamic presence, we see that the man is a grieving son trying desperately to free his mother from being held against her will by the state, and Marla is the one person fighting to keep that from ever happening again.
I Care A Lot fits the mold of a darkly comedic action thriller, but its driving force is its commentary on Marla’s callous exploitation of others under the veneer of an empowered queer woman. She gains legal guardianship of elderly people, separates them from their families, and forces them into state homes against their will to cash in on their savings. Her quest for wealth sees her taking on a “client” named Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest). Seemingly vulnerable and alone, we quickly discover that there’s a lot more to Jennifer than meets the eye, and she has powerful friends on the outside, including her crime boss son Roman (Peter Dinklage), who will stop at nothing to see her freed.
The iconic femme fatales were queer-coded, and so there is some catharsis in seeing a queer villain operating with the level of malice Marla brings to the table without blaming it on her queerness.
Perhaps it goes without saying that there are a lot of twists and turns along the way, but by the end of the story, Marla’s story becomes a classic Hollywood morality tale, with the unrepentant woman destroyed by a physical manifestation of her crimes. So often, the iconic femme fatales were queer-coded, and so there is some catharsis in seeing a queer villain operating with the level of malice Marla brings to the table without blaming it on her queerness. In many ways, her queerness is the only even remotely “good” thing about her, as it gives us sparse moments of emotional vulnerability. Yet, Fran nearly dies as a direct result of Marla’s unwillingness to concede, and the flicker of fear that Marla experiences at the idea of losing her turns her into a villain many times more destructive than when we first met her.
It has been said that I Care A Lot is a deeply cynical movie, and with a title like that, it would be difficult to argue. This is a film that is skeptical of a lot of things, from market feminism to the healthcare system to people in general. Yet, its strength is in making its audience want Marla to be a more sympathetic villain despite the fact that it clearly tells us who she is at every turn. By digging its heels in and refusing to give Marla a more relatable arc, it just helps it prove a key point; most of us are guilty at some point in our lives of wanting to believe in someone so much that we ignore glaring red flags. Marla uses feminist catchphrases, she fights the system, and she wins, and yet there is no point in the story in which she is not clearly the villain.
Femme fatales like Amy North were regularly presented with little context outside of their identity as unrepentant women, and the final nail in the coffin was their same-sex pursuits. The queer subtext that was written into the script and the performance, but which could never be spoken aloud, defined this sort of absence of words that would embody queer presence in cinema for many years. The reflexive desire to tell more positive and true-to-life stories is not one to dismiss, but in many ways, queer villains embodied us without ever saying the words. Marla never openly refers to herself as a lesbian, but her interest in women is obvious. It doesn’t make her a likeable character, but that’s not the point. By embodying the classic qualities of Amy North and refusing to be bogged down by a male partner along the way, Marla becomes in herself an interesting update to an old trope.
Where more recent takes diverge from classic morality tales of old is that the queerness of the characters is the motivating factor for their descent into depravity. Marla is created simply by existing in a world run by ruthless men that seek to subjugate her, and her retaliation puts her among the very worst of them. Yet, there are times when the “evil” lesbian emerges as altruistic. In the novel They Never Learn (2020), the protagonist Scarlett is a serial killer that murders rapists. This continues the concept of a serial killer with “good” motivations seen in shows like Dexter, but it gives her a specifically queer backstory. Watching her friend and crush undergo a disturbing attack is what motivates Scarlett to become who she is, and when she finds love in the arms of her nemesis’ ex-wife, she doesn’t stop doing what she does. Instead, she continues on with a supportive partner, which makes her truly unstoppable.
In the end, the answer to villainizing queer people isn’t necessarily to stop having queer villains, it’s just to have more interesting ones that don’t posit their sexuality as the cause behind their criminal actions. By opening ourselves up to sympathize with people that do bad things, our understanding of major ethical questions can only be enhanced, not undermined. Amy North never got a chance to tell us why she despised men, while Marla turned it into an excuse for absolute lawlessness, but Scarlett showed us that there are some things that are simply unforgivable that would have gone unpunished if someone didn’t step in. These are all queer villains, but their motivations set them apart, and that opens the door for better queer stories, all around.