Wentworth is the reimagined modern-day series of the 80’s show Prisoner and one of the most complex and poignant female-led dramas on television. (One could also call it Orange is the New Black‘s darker, colder Australian cousin.) The show’s premiere was the most watched Australian drama in Foxtel’s network history. Set in Wentworth prison in Australia, the show introduces a bevy of horrible, beautiful and complex inmates—including noteworthy villain Joan Ferguson.
Ferguson enters the show’s second season as a manipulative, sadistic and vindictive governor of Wentworth prison. She’s one of a growing number of women villains—but unlike many others, what makes Ferguson unique from infamous characters like Hannibal Lecter and Joffrey Baratheon isn’t her gender. Instead, it’s her lack of a female sensibility which so often accompanies characters like hers.
Take, for example, Game of Thrones‘ Cersei Lannister. No matter how vindictive, she puts her role as a mother first. She falls victim to female competitiveness—mostly with Margaery Tyrell—and jealousy, as well as some other tropes typical to women characters. Many male antagonists—outside of the anti-hero or badass-with-a-heart-of-gold profiles—are never victims because they are always two steps ahead and entirely in control of their emotions—or lack thereof—and everyone else’s actions as well as their own. In contrast, we have seen Lannister publicly shamed and defeated.
These kinds of depictions for female villains connect victimhood to womanhood. Joan Ferguson crushes that connection. She is scary. She is hated. She lacks empathy. And she is never a victim.
There are opportunities in the show for viewers to feel empathy or sympathy for Ferguson—moments which may appear to exhibit her weakness or her suffering. However, each time she has revealed that those moments were part of a larger, more diabolical plan. Ferguson is in control of everything. One never has to worry.
Take, for example, the most recent season of Wentworth, in which Ferguson seemingly falls victim to abuse by her doctor—but viewers soon after realize she planned that scenario in order to come a step closer in her plan to reinstate her power. Right when our impulse to feel for Ferguson kicks in, she confronts the man who was merely assumed to be her abuser and assures him they are very much alike—as she is blackmailing him.
Ferguson is a classic villain who just happens to be a woman, which in and of itself could be said to be a feminist characterization due to its subversive nature. However, though she defies stereotypes for women in media and breaks the gender boundaries of her fictional world, she herself is no feminist.
Joan Ferguson has no politics, no sensibility, no empathy and no fear. All she has in an insatiable thirst for power and revenge that cannot be contained by prison walls.