Heroine Fix is a monthly feature looking at the characters who I admire and who influence my own writing. (Warning: this article contains spoilers.)
Usually for my Heroine Fix, I like to root for the good gals, but sometimes a villainess comes along who deserves time in the spotlight. And Stahma Tarr was one of the most interesting and multi-dimensional bad gals that I've ever seen.
The television show Defiance had an intriguing concept. Set thirty years after a mass alien invasion, it showed a world where humans and aliens have to work together in a post-apocalyptic landscape. It was based on a game but still managed to have an interesting and character-driven plot. Stahma and her husband, Datak, are Castithan and run the equivalent of an organized crime ring.
Castithans are a layered society with strictly defined roles according to gender and caste. Stahma, as a female and member of a high caste, is expected to be deferential, self-effacing and serve the role of hostess and noble lady. Her husband, Datak, is of a low caste and is thus able to "soil" himself with business and criminal dealings.
For the first few episodes, Stahma plays her expected role brilliantly. She whispers in her husband's ear, soothing his rages and prompting him to consider new opportunities. The audience can see that she is clearly the brains of the operation, but she accomplishes her goals by working through her husband and manipulating the others around him.
As the series progresses, we learn more about Stahma's background. She used to be a performer of Castithan poetry with a devoted following but her father stopped her, saying such visibility was not proper for a woman of her rank. She and her family fled their dying planet. While on the journey, she was betrothed to another Castithan of high rank but when she saw Datak, they were immediately attracted to each other. Stahma's fiance challenged Datak to a blood-duel but had a fatal accident with an airlock before the duel could take place. As she shares the story, the audience is left with no doubt that Stahma is the one who arranged for the accident.
Since arriving on Earth and in the town of Defiance, Stahma coaxed her husband to work with the humans and other aliens, despite his adamant anti-human views. She persuaded him to allow their only son to marry a human, since the girl's father owns a valuable mine. When Datak found himself in jail, Stahma stepped into his role and discovered a taste for real power, rather than ruling from behind the curtain.
Stahma rarely raised her voice, speaking in soft, melodious tones. But she also showed a chilling level of ruthlessness, personally murdering any number of people in order to protect and promote her family. The combination of softness and brutality reflected each other, throwing each side into sharp relief.
I often found myself wondering how Stahma would have fared if she had been in a more gender-equal society. She is highly intelligent but also has an impressive level of insight into other people and society as a whole. She is persuasive and can bring people around to her point of view, as well as keep track of social connections and obligations. Is her viciousness a result of not being able to control her own life? If she could have pursued ambition for herself rather than needing to hide behind her father, husband and son, she could have achieved almost anything.
She is almost the perfect culmination of the manipulative female, using her femininity as a weapon. When she attacks, her opponents are left floundering because it wouldn't be honorable to attack her back. Or no one would believe them if they tried to accuse such a noble and soft-spoken lady. She can move openly in both the upper and lower levels of society, always watching and waiting for her next opportunity.
I think what makes her attractive as a character is that hint of vulnerability and stifled potential. It wasn't that long ago that our ancestresses had that same choice: if they wanted to exercise their talents, they needed to work through a man. Stahma's skills are both undeniable and impressive, but it is her husband who takes all the credit. After decades of being denied, is it any surprise that she takes advantage of opportunities to vent the rage that must be building up inside her? Anything that isn't allowed to live will go bad eventually. And Stahma never truly had a chance to live.
She is a great example of a powerful and dangerous woman existing in a male-dominated world and under strict restrictions. As such, she serves as an inspiration for any number of gals who would consider world domination to be the ultimate accessory.
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Next month, I'll be looking at Alice from the TV show: The Magicians.