Debate recently raged over a question posed to women: would you rather be alone in the woods with a man or a bear? Strong views and heated exchanges revealed an uncomfortable truth – many women would feel safer with a bear. Cue gender wars and sexual politics and #notallmen and #MeToo, a bristling forest of vocal opinions.

Mother bear with cub

Hang on.

What sex is this hypothetical bear?

Received wisdom tells us some bears are harmless and others dangerous, but everyone knows which one to watch: Mama Bear. The trope of ferocious mother defending her young is as culturally embedded as the predatory male.

Is a woman’s role to nurture and protect or can she become the ultimate adversary? What makes a woman evil? Let’s look at some fictional females regarded as bad to the bone.

We grew up with fairy tales featuring an evil stepmother (Snow White) or bad fairy godmother (Sleeping Beauty) and wicked witches (from Hansel and Gretel to The Wizard of Oz). These represent malevolence towards children (or puppies – I’m looking at you, Cruella), the converse of maternal instincts.

Two polar bear cubs play fighting

A common theme between classic versions of mean girls is a lack of sisterhood. Woman’s cruelty to woman is at the heart of Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers, the Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the quintessence of sibling rivalry in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

As for female conflicts when the antagonists are more evenly matched, Kill Bill’s O-Ren Ishii and Elle Driver make fascinating adversaries for The Bride. In Killing Eve, the dynamic between Villanelle and Eve is the crux of the whole story. The characters’ backstories add so much to the audience’s understanding of their personalities they might almost be forgiven.

The abuse of power is another area where the reader or viewer often looks for reasons why she is this way. Annie Wilkes in Misery is a chilling study of how human sympathy erodes under a singular fixation. Griselda, based on the real-life cocaine queen Griselda Blanco, illustrates a similar point about ambition. Harder to excuse is Nurse Ratched (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) whose struggles to control McMurphy become sadistic.

For my money, one of the greatest showdowns between two females is in Aliens. Ripley returns to fight the mother of all battles against the biggest, baddest Mama Bear of them all.

Blood and Sand, Book 5 in the Run and Hide series, features our heroine’s final showdown with her nemesis. May the best woman win.

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