In fiction, it's not uncommon for a given franchise to have a very uneven ratio of male to female characters, particularly when it comes to the Villain of the Week, but even among many franchises with a more even mix, the mix of genders within various character roles may also vary wildly from role to role. For example, a gang of villains might contain several male and several female villains, but wheras most of the male villains are of the card carrying variety, the female villains are all noble demons who were forced into a life of crime.
That's where this trope comes in. In franchises that adhere to this trope, female villains will generally fall into one of two categories:
They are working alone or are the boss, but have a Freudian Excuse for their actions and they're Never a Self-Made Woman. The typical belief is "behind every bitch, there's a man who made her that way".
In either case, the essence of this trope is the suggestion that, while male villains can be evil by nature or by choice, such depths of evil are not natural for women, and so, if a female character has truly evil thoughts, a man must be ultimately responsible for putting them there, even if her actions and behavior don't hint at it. Thus, when facing in-universe justice, she is more likely to receive a less severe fate for the same crimes as a male villain might.
The trope has Unfortunate Implications from both the male and female perspectives; it can be seen as suggesting that men have certain evil tendencies not found in women, and it can be seen as suggesting that a woman cannot be an effective bad guy on her own.
A long-running franchise that engages in this might occasionally show a woman who is maliciously evil, or motivated by money, greed, fame, intimidation, jealousy, power, or because she enjoys it. However, they will be extremely few and far between. A good indication that this trope is in force is if you can count the number of leading female villains on the show in the last three years on one hand.
This trope might be related to the "Double Deviance" theory that women are naturally passive/ineffective/"pure" and therefore a female criminal isn't just deviant against society, but against her sex and its "natural" passivity. Here there are two ways to interpret the vicious character of a woman who really is doing bad things because of her own character, not because of the influence of those evil men: You could portray her such that she's still female and innocent, therefore not as bad as a man; or you could also say that she is even worse because men have the excuse of I'm a Man, I Can't Help It while a woman would have to be motivated by her own willpower—and therefore she has a more evil will than most men.
It's likely that this trope originated in the Victorian Era, when it was thought that any woman partaking in a bad act must have been Defiled Forever and there was a man responsible for her behavior.
Compare All Abusers Are Male, High Heel-Face Turn, Men Are the Expendable Gender, The Unfair Sex and Women Are Wiser. Contrast More Deadly Than The Male.
Needless to say, not really Truth in Television.
The Trope Codifier would probably be Sherlock Holmes, who never brought any woman to justice. He would always either allow her to escape or make sure no charges were filed against her. He would also come up with sometimes ludicrous explanations on why it was not her fault, like something must have hit her hand, causing the load stone of a structure to collapse, killing her ex-fiancÚ and she just took the money because she might be pregnant. This courtesy was sometimes extended to men if they had a female accomplice.
The movies added another female villain, who merely spied on the heroes for the Big Bad.
Doctor Who ran for a quarter century and had a large number of Big Bads, yet in that time period only about 10 were women, and only one or two of them appeared in the show's first 15 seasons. The revival series is starting to subvert it with more frequent female villains.
Of the most famous Batman villainesses, Catwoman varies between being an Anti-Hero and Anti-Villain (and her villainy in Batman Returns is caused by an evil man trying to kill her), Harley Quinn is a sympathetic abuse victim of a far more evil man, Talia al Ghul was reared by an evil father and is noticeably more sympathetic than him. Poison Ivy is less sympathetic but even her origin story has her being experimented on by an evil man.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is an interesting case as they have had enough bad women that that you would think that it is not the case. However, they continually subscribe to this theory, and look for anything that will get a woman who attacked a man off for her actions.
In the game Bully you can seduce any female student to your side no matter how bad she is. True, there are also several boys you can seduce, but the gender ratio is around 6:1.
Here's something to think about; try and come up with a list of games, movies and television shows that feature both men and women as members of the heroes' team/army but an all-male opposing force. Not main characters, just Mooks and Redshirt Armies. Final Fantasy VIII did this, for example, with Balamb Garden and the Galbadian Army. The 2009 Star Trek film featured both sexes as part of the heroic Federation but a single blink-and-you-miss-it villainous female Romulan as a background character. Play along at home!
In the Yakuza games, you never fight a female enemy (except for an optional encounter in the first and she looks like a man).
In Terra Nova, It turns out that the female sixer leader Mira is working for associates of Lucas Taylor, and has more or less been coerced into the role in much the same way as another female "villain", sixer spy Skye Tate. Lucas Taylor, on the other hand, causes trouble for the colony largely out of a sense of Disproportionate Retribution for his father's decision years earlier that led to his mother's death, and the associates are doing it out of pure greed.
In Oliver Twist, most of the women are wholesome, decent people (special mention goes to The Ingenue Rose), save for Nancy, who is a Love Martyr for Bill Sykes, someone who is less than pleasant.
Dr. Janice Lester of "Turnabout Intruder" is a power-hungry psycho who, among other things, murders her entire research party and shows no sign of remorse for it. She should be considered a serious criminal, but the episode ends with the main characters regarding her with condescending pity. Granted, she's clearly mentally ill, so she could be legitimately pitied for that. However, the pity expressed for her was definitely more along the lines of, "Poor silly girl got too uppity."
Family Guy seems to evoke Lois' flawed moments this way. A lot of her more self righteous or aggressive bouts are often provoked heavily by Peter's selfish or obnoxious antics, even if a lot of them are disproportionate. For example, she takes up martial arts and becomes outright abusive to Peter as a result of him belittling her power in the household. She also labels his and her father's objections to her being a model being unjust and opressive, despite the fact she is genuinely acting like a slut and on a self destructive path due to taking drugs. Later episodes seem to just skip the formalities and just make Lois an even bigger Jerk Ass than Peter, even if her losing it as a result of his behavior isn't that unlikely.
This trend isn't rare in traditional sitcoms utilizing a Women Are Wiser dynamic. Even when it is time for the more rational female character to act Not so Above It All it will still often be heavily provoked by their more bumbling male costar's stupidity or arrogance.
Definitely a common trope in older westerns, such as Bonanza.
The anime Mai-Otome has very few male characters to begin with; however, most of the ones scene are villains. Both the Big Bad are men and they usually send male monsters of the week to fight the heroines. Also, all the evil heads of state are male while the good ones are female. It is true they all have female WMD but they are Just Following Orders. The main male in the series is Sergay Wang, who is a father figure and love interests of the protagonist, he is also The Dragon and completely loyal to his master. The only good men are the captain of the guard who is the Royal Brat queen's Butt Monkey, a one off prince and the Satellite Love Interest of a secondary character .There are a few female antagonists in the show but almost all of them are shown to be actually be good people and are redeemed by the end of the show (the only exception is a Karma Houdini).
Zigzagged in the Saw film series. The only "original" villains are John Kramer and Hoffman, who are both male. The only woman who can seriously be counted as a villain is Amanda Young, who only became John Kramer's apprentice because she was "rehabilitated" by him and sincerely believed that the experience "helped" her. On the other hand, many of the female victims were Jerkasses including a thief, a loan shark, a woman who pimped out younger girls, and several con artists.
In Code Geass, most of the major male characters were presented as Anti Heroes at best. As a result most of them are either killed or given a horrible punishment. With one exception the only men who get out of the conflict well are those that are subservient to women; Ohgi is hated because for this reason. The female characters on the other hand all get a "Get Out of Jail Free" Card. Other examples include Villetta Nu and Cornelia who get off despite not being any better.
In the song "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels", the lyrics state "From the start most every heart that's ever been broken Was because there always was a man to blame". It was written as a response song to "The Wild Side of Life", a song about a man who's fiancee left him for a man she met at a roadhouse
Dragon Age: Origins certainly seems to nod to this trope. Even among the demons, the female "Broodmothers" are ultimately seen as victims, abducted, raped and transformed into Mook Makers. Much the same holds true for many male Darkspawn, but excepting one instance in the Dalish Elf origin, this isn't stressed as much.
Subverted with Anora. Among all the possible candidates for the throne, she is presented as a Reasonable Authority Figure unless she betrays the warden to Ser Cauthrien or suspects she won't get her way at the Landsmeet. Of course, shrewd doesn't equal innocent.
Flemmeth can be this depending on who's story you believe. If you believe Lelianna's story, she started out a winsome young bride who escaped an arranged marriage to be with her one true love. If you believe Morrigan's story, she was a shrewd dealer who got screwed over and did what she had to do to survive.
In the Pet Shop of Horrors manga, although there aren't really "villains" per se, the guys who screw up their contracts normally do so out of greed or ambition (the Chinese mob boss who murders a little girl to obtain her tiger, the drifter whose pursuit of success makes a kitten cry) The women screw up out of more sympathetic emotional weakness (a mother who spoils her daughter, a girl who wants her pet bird to be happy).
Played straight with Lucy in Elfen Lied. Lucy kills humans indiscriminately, but only because her abusive childhood created her as a split personality from Nyu.
Modern versions of King Arthur legend seem to follow this trope very much. Most of the important female villains in Merlin have sympathetic backstories and are Well-Intentioned Extremist types; Morgana gets several Being Evil Sucks scenes. Likewise, in Camelot, Morgan gets a rather more sympathetic treatment than King Uther who is just a brutal warlord.
Debatable as Merlin goes on; not only is there an overwhelming number of evil magical women on the show (compared to good magical men), but the likes of Morgana and Morgause are portrayed as consistently more one-dimensional, whilst King Uther grows considerably more sympathetic.
Subverted in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations. At first, Dahlia's tendencies date back to being neglected as a child. But not only was she horrible even as a child (sending her twin sister Iris to a monastery just so she can be center of attention) but her issues go back to the turmoil within the women of the Fey Clan. The series in general averts this, as most female murderers are just as petty and greedy as the male murderers.
The Bourne Series enthusiastically embraces this trope. To date no female character has been portrayed as truly villainous; at worst they are simply misled by evil male superiors about the true nature of Bourne and Treadstone.
Speaking of The Baroness, her film incarnation's sin are apparently all attributable to brainwashing. Can't a lady just be a bad guy anymore?
Judge Dredd does this in a couple of ways. There have been all manner of criminals across a whole spectrum of sympatheticness, but only three major villains have been women. Of these, only the Sisters of Death, creators of the Dark Judges, were outright evil; the others were Judge Edgar, who was a knight templar, and America Jara, a hero antagonist. Within Justice Department, there is a tendency for women to be more sympathetic and kind as foils to Dredd himself, most notably Anderson, Hershey, and more recently Beeny.
Selvaria; her body count is in the hundreds of thousands, but it's made very clear that all the bad things she does are Maximilian's fault. All the other generals under him are male; the only one who isn't portrayed as utterly evil is Jaeger, and even he's at least responsible for the actions he takes under duress. Selvaria is a tragic character who, despite being by and large the most powerful being in the game, is doomed by Maximilian's mishandling of her; this is reinforced in her DLC mission, where all she wants to do to thank one of her subordinates is cook a meal for him.
In the pilot of Supernatural, Sam tries to explain the actions of the Woman in White by saying the woman was temporarily insane because of her husband's infidelity when she killed her children.
Legacy of the Dragokin: The only reason the Kthonian knights want to wipe out all the men in the world is because they were horrifically abused by men and so they think all of them are evil. Even Ktonia herself fits this trope; Jihadain, her daughter, attacks Daniar, Kalak's wife, and is killed by him for it. Ktonia watches this happen and thinks everything is Kalak's fault.
Fire Emblem Awakening seems to only have one truly evil woman (two if you count a Grima-possessed female Avatar) throughout the game, with any other women merely being antagonists and/or mooks. But if you receive the SpotPass chapters you suddenly find out that she was practically mind controlled for the entire game, she then joins your team. To compare, Gangrel was a genuinely messed up individual, with a long list of atrocities to his name; he joins too, but he actually has to bear responsibility for his actions, instead of shifting the blame to someone else.
The Karate Kid The Animated Series, "Homecoming": Tina helps her jerk boyfriend Brick steal the shrine, but she clearly doesn't like doing it and tries to keep him from hurting Daniel in the process.
This is constantly used as an argument as to why women need to be shielded from the vices of the world in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Helen vehemently argues against this idea, knowing from experience that keeping women innocent will only set them up for future problems.
The Bible often averts this with women who initiate the temptation against men: Eve encouraged Adam to bite the apple after she did it first (although, the serpent may count as a male tempter), Jezebel was the driving force behind the persecution of the prophets while her husband Ahab just went along with it, and the "strange woman" of Proverbs 5 is definitely The Vamp seducing a virtuous man rather than being herself an innocent victim of seduction. On the other hand, it's easier to see it as played straight with that other famous Vamp Delilah (it seems she was really led on by bribes from the Philistine); or Hosea's extremely unfaithful wife Gomer, who surely can be interpreted as being more of a low-self-esteem woman who is easily influenced by any man who offers her a gift.
Frozen has two female leads who are depicted as entirely sympathetic, despite one having a reckless attitude and the other repeatedly endangering her subjects with Power Incontinence. The only people depicted as morally grey or unsympathetic are from the all-male supporting cast.