Ratched: The Power of Reclaiming An Iconic Female Villain

Sarah Paulson as Nurse Ratched
Sarah Paulson in Ratched courtesy Netflix

There are few villains who hold such a firm grip on the popular imagination as Nurse Ratched. The character is an invention of Ken Kesey’s, the main antagonist of his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Set in a psychiatric ward, this modern classic follows a power struggle between the authoritarian Nurse Ratched and Randle Patrick McMurphy, a rebellious patient who threatens to overthrow her tight system of control. Nurse Ratched’s ice-cold manner and brisk competence were first brought to life by Louise Fletcher, who starred opposite Jack Nicholson in the film adaptation. And now Sarah Paulson has taken up the mantle of this iconic female villain.

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Though Ratched is still shown through the male gaze, she has been resurrected by a gay director (Ryan Murphy) and a lesbian actress. And the series is seen from her perspective – not through the resentful eyes of the film’s protagonist, McMurphy, or the novel’s narrator, Chief Bromden. As a result, the character is altogether more sympathetic. This reimagining positions Mildred Ratched as an anti-hero, allowing for a level of nuance and moral complexity that is missing from previous versions of the story.

In Ratched we learn that Mildred was abused as a child. She experienced emotional, physical, and sexual violence at the hands of the adults who were meant to care for her. Violence that was overlooked and enabled by the state. The trauma Mildred endured in her early years doesn’t absolve the cruelties of her adult self. But this backstory does make the character more human. And chaos of her childhood explains Nurse Ratched’s thirst for order, the extreme powerlessness making sense of her hunger for control.

At the heart of Ratched lies the belief that villains are made, not born. Like Cuckoo’s Nest, it questions the legitimacy of branding people who are damaged or left behind by mainstream society as mentally ill. But Ratched goes deeper than the source material. Murphy’s drama shines a spotlight on the sexism, racism, and homophobia that push people to society’s margins. Whereas the story of Cuckoo’s Nest normalized those inequalities. Although it’s often held up as a countercultural masterpiece, Kesey’s novel is actually regressive. He dehumanizes the Black orderlies, and paints the book’s indigenous narrator as a sort of noble savage. And Kesey reduced women to two categories: “ball-cutters” and whores. It’s deeply misogynistic. 

With this in mind, there are two main reasons that Nurse Ratched was framed as the villain of Cuckoo’s Nest. The first is Ratched’s repeated medical mistreatment of patients in her care. This, all critics can agree, is a terrible abuse of power. But the second reason she’s so widely hated is much more of a moral gray area: Nurse Ratched represents a challenge to patriarchy. She revels in her authority as head nurse. And the patterns of behavior that uphold male dominance are given no place on her ward.

In the eyes of many readers, and indeed McMurphy, Nurse Ratched’s greatest crime is being a ball-buster. Throughout Cuckoo’s Nest she was depicted as mechanical and unfeeling – in other words, an unnatural woman. That she “pecks” at male inmates’ balls, punishes them for the behavior society usually rewards in men, is seen as a further transgression against the natural order. The swaggering machismo of McMurphy immediately sets him at odds with Ratched. As the conflict between them escalates, so too does the undercurrent of misogyny.

In the novel’s climax, McMurphy beats Nurse Ratched and rips her uniform to expose her breasts – a symbol of her womanhood. This attack isn’t framed as sexual assault and battery. It’s treated as a Christ-like sacrifice on the part of McMurphy, who is lobotomized in the aftermath. And the implication is clear: being punched and stripped is nothing more than what Nurse Ratched deserves.

McMurphy is a perpetrator of male violence against women. He’s a man who buys sex. The only women McMurphy likes are the ones he can fuck. And throughout the book he makes chauvinistic comments. There is just as much reason to consider McMurphy the villain of Cuckoo’s Nest as Nurse Ratched. But, because he is male, McMurphy’s pursuit of dominance is perceived as heroic rather than monstrous.

Having a gay male director and a lesbian actress reclaim the Ratched character subverts the sexism of Cuckoo’s Nest. And having lesbian characters played by women in committed same-sex relationships undoubtedly made a difference to how the show unfolded.

Over the course of the series, Mildred falls for Gwendolyn. The governor’s closest advisor, she is a shrewd and compassionate woman. More importantly; she is one of the few unambiguously good characters in a show where abuse and exploitation are the norm. Gwendolyn is played by Cynthia Nixon, best known for her role as Miranda in Sex and the City.

Cynthia Nixon in Ratched
Cynthia Nixon outside the secret Lesbian dive in Ratched

When it comes to the question of whether gay actors should play gay characters, Nixon is agnostic. But she’s prepared to admit that her own perspective as an out bisexual woman influenced the outcome of the show.

“There was a whole bunch of different things that happened, particularly later in the series, where Sarah and I went in and spoke to the writers and said, ‘This can’t happen. Can’t we have more of this? Why does this have to happen that way?’ They were originally going to have my character die at the end of season one, and she doesn’t. I think that’s a boon in and of itself.”

Having a lesbian and bisexual actress advocate for a lesbian character enabled Ratched to provide quality representation. Countless characters meet grisly fates in this series. After all, the looming threat of violence is an essential part of on-screen horror. But the lesbians all survive. Both lesbian couples escape, free to love one another. And that’s an incredibly rare thing in a world where the Bury Your Gays trope is alive and kicking.

Traditionally, film and television have made a sticky end the price of lesbian sexuality. Even in modern dramas where women hold the centre stage – think of Poussey in Orange is the New Black, or Commander Lexa of The 100 – lesbian characters have been killed off at an alarming rate. The message has always been clear: women’s perceived sexual deviance is punishable by violence, often lethal.

Despite its grotesque nature, Ratched is a symbol of hope. Hope that we are moving beyond stories where women are killed for loving other women, stories where women are punished for not submitting to men.

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