Civilisation collapsed? Post-apocalyptic anarchy threatening to break out? The future is a grim place, especially in films adapted from Young Adult novels. The regime rules with an iron fist, teens are forced to fight each other to the death, and bright colours have been banned by the art department. Scariest of all, there’s a woman bossing everyone around.
In Insurgent, it’s Kate Winslet as Jeanine Matthews, looking spectacularly humourless in a figure-hugging blue Neoprene frock, killer heels and severe hair-do from which not a single whimsical tendril is allowed to escape. And, just to show she will brook no revolutionary nonsense from the likes of Shailene Woodley, she carries a clipboard and says things like, “The future belongs to those who know where they belong!”
Jeanine is only the latest example of one of the recurring motifs in today’s dystopic fantasies – the Evil Tiger Lady. No future-world worth its salt is without its resident harpy, who stalks the corridors of post-apocalyptic power looking stern. Indeed, the archetype has almost single-handedly provided actresses of a certain age with a role that doesn’t require them to play wives, mothers or other nurturing paragons.
Evil Tiger Lady wears fuck-me shoes, and is characterised by a resounding lack of moral scruple, which she passes off as acting for the Greater Good. She controls the population by dividing it into factions, or sets up bizarre and often lethal social games or experiments for reasons not entirely clear to anyone but herself.
Besides Winslet in Divergent and Insurgent, examples include Jodie Foster in serious Armani as Delacourt, adding an iffy French accent (or is that Afrikaans?) to the archetype while protecting the interests of the 1% in Elysium. “Evacuate him!” she barks when there’s a naysayer in the vicinity. Or how about Sigourney Weaver as Michelle Bradley, who doesn’t get as much screen time as we’d like in Chappie?
Or Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin (I keep wanting to call her Alma Cogan), leader of the District 13 rebels in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1? You think Alma is one of the good guys, with her long grey superannuated-hippy hair? Think again! Moore has been here before; in Children of Men she played Julian, leader of the Resistance, but with her own natural hair colour and a marginally “alternative” scruffy-chic look suggesting she’s one of the good guys. Or is she?
Aha, I hear you say, there is no Evil Tiger Lady in the first Maze Runner book! But do the makers of The Maze Runner movie let that stop them? No they do not! Because they’ve managed to shoehorn in a character from one of the later books in the series: Patricia Clarkson as Ava Paige, aka Miss Exposition. She’s head of an outfit known by the somewhat giveaway acrostic of WCKD, and she has been spying on the maze-running kids all through the movie. “WCKD is good,” she says, lest we start imagining she’s Softy Pussycat Lady. All it took for me to want to see the sequel was one tiny yet tantalising glimpse of her in one of the trailers for Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.
And if all these Tiger Ladies aren’t evil enough for you, there’s always Joan Allen, letting it all hang out as prison governor Hennessey in Death Race (2008). “Okay, cocksucker! Fuck with me and we’ll see who shits on the sidewalk!” she snarls at Jason Statham, whom she has had framed for his wife’s murder purely so her televised deathrace can get better viewing figures. Yes, yes, this is reprehensible behaviour. But don’t you love it?
Evil Tiger Lady is essentially a futuristic incarnation of Corporate Bitch, also known as Vicious Career Woman. Indeed, it’s hard to find career women in the movies who are not vicious. Because it’s not natural for women to have careers – they should be at home, cooking and cleaning and minding the baby. Allowing females to subvert the natural order can only result in destruction and heartbreak and – taken to its logical extreme – worldwide dystopia.
Meryl Streep somehow managed to invest fearsome glossy mag editrice Miranda Priestly with a few sympathetic traits in The Devil Wears Prada, but more typical is Faye Dunaway as beige sweater-wearing Diana Christensen, barely pausing to draw breath or put on a bra as she lays out her amoral TV strategy in Network. As Madeleine White, Inside Man‘s ambiguous fixer, Jodie Foster can be glimpsed exercising her fearsome calf muscles in killer heels as prep for Elysium. Demi Moore ruthlessly strips down to her lacy black undies as Meredith Johnson, all the better to sexually harass Michael Douglas as part of some insanely convoluted business plan in the preposterous office thriller Disclosure, though alas, she’s more pawn (or possibly ‘porn’, given her modus operandi) than mastermind in the scheme.
In extremis, Corporate Bitch will show her true colours by initiating homicidal action, as does Linda Fiorentino as the sociopathic Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction. She smokes, she swears, she refuses to say please and thank you! “Still a lawyer, Frank?” she asks J.T. Walsh, to which he responds, without missing a beat: “Yeah, still a self-serving bitch?” For a fleeting moment there, you rather wish Frank and Bridget would get together and make evil tiger babies, though heaven help the world into which they are unleashed.
More vulnerable, though no less deadly, is Tilda Swinton, all panic attacks and sweaty armpits as Karen Crowder, taking out contracts on her law firm’s employees in Michael Clayton. And we mustn’t forget (I know this is TV but I love this character so much I’m including her here) Laura Fraser as Lydia Rodarte-Quayle in Breaking Bad. These women are all business, but they’re also highly-strung and paranoid – a lethal combination when their position of power is being threatened.
In her most immoderate form, Corporate Bitch is only a whisker away from being a fully-fledged Empress of Crime. We’re not talking about any old femme fatale or serial killer here; we’re talking about women running organised crime syndicates. This type of powerbroking requires public exhibitions of willpower, murderous capability and insatiable sexual appetite. Other indicators include the obligatory killer heels and the Slo-Mo March of Power shot, in which she advances purposefully towards the camera, flanked by flunkeys. There’s a prime example of this in Kill Bill: Vol 1 when Lucy Liu, as Sino-Japanese Yakuza queen and former assassin O-Ren Ishii, arrives at The House of Blue Leaves.
Also worthy of mention is Lena Olin as mob matriarch Mona DeMarkov, wrapping her thighs around corrupt cop Gary Oldman in Romeo is Bleeding and letting fly with one of the evillest laughs in the movies; she gets shot multiple times, even loses an arm, and still she keeps coming. Salma Hayek, as Elena in Savages, almost compensates for Blake Lively’s stoned passivity in the same movie by running a drugs cartel and flaunting a terrifying power fringe.
Or – nipping back to dystopias for a moment – Lena Headey, flaunting ferocious tattoos and facial scars as drug baroness Madeline Madrigal aka Ma-Ma in Dredd (“Block legend says she feminized the guy with her teeth”) and making you wonder whether Game of Thrones‘ Cersei Lannister isn’t simply Corporate Bitch in quasi-mediaeval mode. Wickedest of all, Cameron Diaz, as dead-eyed Malkina, does unmentionable things to a car bonnet before (SPOILER ALERT!) cold-bloodedly setting up the gruesome deaths of practically everyone in The Counsellor. “Nothing is crueller than a coward,” she says, talking in grim Cormac McCarthyisms, “And the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining.”
But my favourite Evil Tiger Lady is Parker Posey as Danica Talos in Blade: Trinity. Wesley Snipes is po-faced as ever, and the charisma-free Dracula reincarnation is lame, but Posey – draped in mangy fur, her dialogue mangled through a mouthful of vampire fangs and literally sticking her killer heels into people – is having the best fun sending up the entire Corporate Bitch archetype. As one of her victims says, “Unlike typical vampires, her fangs are located in her vagina.”
So what are we to make of this tendency, other than it provides a valuable source of income for mature actresses who would prefer not to settle for playing senile old biddies just yet? These are powerful female characters, yet at best they’re misguided, at worst downright evil, and their dress code can be disconcertingly rigid. In many of these cases, they’re opposed by younger characters who are trying to smash their tyrannical power, and the audience is supposed to root for these whippersnappers.
Yet I can’t help feeling a sneaking admiration for these women, who have clawed their way to the top, often over mounds of broken bodies. They have not had it easy, that’s for sure. They have lived-in faces, and more character in their eyebrows than all the ingenues laid end to end. What stories they could tell!
Go, Evil Tiger Lady, go!