The Villainess Mystique

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Art Credit: Terra Grasser

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the June/July 2013 issue of Verily Magazine.

It takes a certain aplomb to work your way into someone's nightmares.

Two things, Gene Siskel once noted, are required to make a good movie villain. The villain needs to be smart, and the villain needs to enjoy what he or she does—in other words, the villain needs to laugh.

Disney villains [in particular] have both of these qualities in spades. And glancing at Disney's classic children's movies, it is hard not to be struck by how many of the top ten villains are women: The Evil Queen in Snow White. Cinderella's malignant stepmother. The Red Queen. Mother Gothel in Tangled.

You could make a compelling case placing any one of them atop the pyramid. Ursula, the hideously impressive gravel-voiced sea witch. Cruella de Ville, she of the unsubtle name, bicolored locks, and PETA-hostile wardrobe. The Evil Queen from Snow White, memorably reinterpreted by Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman.

And, of course, there’s Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty's bad fairy, the Mistress of All Evil, who transforms into a dragon whenever she likes; has green skin, strong cheekbones, and great teeth; and whom Angelina Jolie is set to take on next summer in Disney's Maleficent. Maleficent laughs. She laughs often, loudly and throatily—“MUA-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” She speaks in syntactically perfect sentences, her diction marked by neat, clipped consonants. Her insults are as polished as her fingernails. She is, in many ways, the ultimate villainess.

Angelina Jolie claims that the upcoming Disney movie will reveal Maleficent as capable of great warmth—that we will witness the villainess’s thwarted ambition, that we will understand the complexity of her character. This would make Maleficent the newest example of a recent Hollywood and Broadway trend: filling in villains’ back stories.

The theme makes for fascinating material, of course. But what changes when you add nuance to villainy, either fictional or real? What do we gain by empathizing with the denizens of the dark side?

 ***

Consider Maleficent.

In the Grimm fairytale that serves as the basis for Disney's Sleeping Beauty, the king and queen omit the invitation for the thirteenth fairy because they only have place settings for twelve and do not wish to embarrass themselves.

Nowadays, the thirteenth fairy would at least have received a birth announcement and an invite to join the GiftBabyAurora registry, but not then. That was a different time, when people still left spindles lying around the house unattended and named their children Briar unironically. And these days, the uninvited fairy would know all about the banquet, because her colleagues would all have checked in on FourSquare. She might be almost relieved. Who wants to attend more christenings than she can possibly help?

But not so in the fairy tale. In fairy tale and myth, failing to pay homage to supernatural beings is the unpardonable omission. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, when the altars of Diana are left uncensed just once, the virgin huntress becomes irate. "This shall not pass unpunished. No!" she cried. "I may be seen unhonoured, true, but never unavenged" (A. D. Melville translation).

And then there’s Eris. One of the first troublemakers in the history of storytelling, Eris is known as the goddess of discord. When Peleus and Thetis, the parents of the hero Achilles, were wed, Eris was—yes—omitted from the guest list. (But really, why on earth would you invite someone billed as the Goddess of Discord to your wedding?) Naturally, she showed up anyway. The reception came to a screeching halt when she flung a golden apple marked "For the Fairest" into the attendees’ midst. Three goddesses began vying for it, triggering all kinds of unpleasantness—unpleasantness that persisted until the Trojan War was over, and in some cases beyond that.

Moral of the story: Always double-check the guest list.

The parallels between Eris and Maleficent are substantial. When we meet Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, she has no back story. She is a fairy-tale antagonist, no more, no less. Her grudge need never be explained. In response to a slight no greater than a failure to invite her to what seems like a pretty staid christening, she wishes death-by-finger-pricking-on-spindle on the child and vanishes, leaving the hall echoing with her spiteful laughter. Over the course of the film, she wreaks plenty of havoc. She captures Aurora's betrothed, Prince Philip, and torments him. She creates a thorn fence around the castle where the princess lies asleep, her death forestalled by a benevolent fairy’s counterspell. And all the while, she laughs.

No wonder she's so popular. There is something oddly seductive about a villain who seems to be enjoying it. And in this story, the snake has all the lines; Maleficent is eminently quotable. "Well, quite a glittering assemblage, King Stefan," she tells the guests at Princess Aurora's christening. "Royalty, nobility, the gentry, and—how quaint! The rabble."

"You're a disgrace to the forces of evil," she reproves her minions, later.

But these days, straight-up evil is no longer enough. We demand a history. Even children's literature and games tempt us to reinterpretation. One always feels there must be more to the story. As you grow up, you want to know why that hippo was so very hungry, or how the cat came to don the hat in the first place.

In this desire for back story lies market share—and big profit. As a result, we live in the age of prequels. Darth Vader used to be a kid with floppy hair and the habit of saying "That's so wizard!" Are we better off knowing this? I submit that we are not.

Knowing why scary people do what they do makes them, as a general rule, less terrifying.  You see the pulleys and wires. "Aw," you say. "Javert, you had a tough upbringing, and the law was what you clung to." "Oh," you say, "Darth Vader had to suffer through two portrayals by highly mediocre actors. Poor guy." But in consequence, historied villains lose a little of their ferocity. (I defy you to find Darth as intimidating after watching him stagger around shouting "Nooooooooo." It takes a lot of effort.)

This strange vogue for knowing exactly what makes villains tick frankly makes me uneasy. Nothing is ever quite so scary when you've seen it as a baby. If you see the broken side of the villain, learn about the Horrible Thing That Scarred Him In His Youth, you can't help noticing the chink through which goodness can enter. Then you might pity the villain. And that would be the kiss of death.

  ***

But there is always a point before which the villainess becomes villainous.

"Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?" asks Good Witch Glinda in Wicked, another of those prequel musicals, this time retelling The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West. "After all, she had a mother and a father, as so many do." In the musical, we learn that the Wicked Witch of the West’s name was Elphaba, and that she roomed with Glinda at school. We discover that she knew love and disappointment and had hopes and dreams—all the things we have come to associate with protagonists. In a word, Baum’s archvillainess is no longer a force of nature; she is a human, bumbling, like the rest of us.

When we grow up, we begin to feel that being omitted from the guest list is not enough to make a plausible villain. After all, people are complex. "She did that because she is wicked" no longer suffices.

The current approach is arguably more subtle. Taken at face value, the great villains' quests could all be whittled down into absurdity. What typical women these villains are! Cruella just wants a coat. The Wicked Witch of the West wants some fancy shoes. The Evil Queen in Snow White is your typical beauty queen, sharp-elbowing a rival out of the way. Ursula just wants some Trident. Maleficent hates to miss a party.

And yet, subtle or not, back stories take the bite out of villainy. They beget empathy. Is it really a good thing to empathize with a villain? Or are we blurring the lines between good and evil because it makes us uncomfortable to acknowledge and confront the reality of darkness?

  ***

The obvious reason for Disney's large stable of female villains is that many of its classics are based on fairy tales. In fairy tales, female antagonists are standard issue. They are some of the most familiar archetypes—showing what happens when what mythologist Joseph Campbell called “the Universal Mother” mutates into crone/stepmother/witch. Whether or not it’s fair to women as a sex, female villains symbolize feminine fulfillment thwarted, the perversion of fertile lifegiver into barren destroyer.

Disney's fairy tales, simply by virtue of being movies with characters who have to hold our interest for two hours, not five minutes, exist in a world closer to our own than do written fairy tales. Written fairy tales are clearly fantastical, set in a different realm of existence from everyday life. Presented in black-and-white letters on the page, a fairy who takes vengeance for being omitted from a guest list might seem justified in her action. But in living (animated) color, with or without singing, such behavior seems like singular malice. Brought from the mythical realm of the written tale into the visual realm of stage and screen, these archetypal movers, lacking sufficiently explained motive, make terrifying villains.

W. H. Auden, in "The Joker in the Pack," his essay on Othello’s Iago, says that the most unnerving thing about Iago is his lack of any particular compelling grievance: what Coleridge calls "motiveless malignancy." This is why these scorned goddesses are so nightmarish to modern eyes. Their cruelty seems so disproportionate to the slights they suffer.

  ***

In the course of writing this essay, I went back and re-read all of Grimm's fairy tales. I spent the time in a fairly constant state of horror. ”How did any of this seem to make sense?!" I kept asking. "She just ate that kid! She just rolled her mother-in-law downhill in a barrel full of nails!" But fairy-tale logic is less child logic than it is dream logic. Fairy tales and dreams traffic in the same Jungian archetypes.

This is part of fairy tales’ point. These stories possess a fundamental simplicity—a quality of primal, pre-logical truth—that our more “adult,” nuanced, back-storied revisions lack. This is what makes fairy tales effective, and somewhat counterintuitively comforting.

Neil Gaiman noted that "fairy tales are more true than true—not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated."

In fairy tales, of course you kill the villain. Ursula is stabbed with a boat. Maleficent is pierced with a sword. Even the Wicked Witch of the West, proud antagonist of a more modern mythology, finds herself miserably melted. This decisive outcome is possible because these villains are monolithically bad. As far as we know, they have never been anything else; change, in fairy tales, is impossible. "The good end happily; the bad, unhappily," as Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism once said. "That is what fiction means."

Fairy tales offer, at least for the antagonist, no becoming. Villains come explicitly labeled. You can tell that the wicked witch is wicked: It says so in her name.

In fact, you wonder how these villains didn't see it coming. They should have taken a look at their birth certificates and realized they didn't stand a chance. One of the flippant lessons of these tales is never to name your child  "Cruel" with an A on the end—or, for that matter, anything else that sounds like a lead byproduct you wouldn't want in your water. Maleficent? Elphaba? At least the writers of Snow White and the Huntsman had the courtesy to rename the evil queen Ravenna, which only recalls the name of a former capital of the Roman empire. Name your child "Sidious" and see how she fares. To my knowledge, there are no St. Malignants. Your name, in fairy tales, is pretty much your destiny.

In childhood, archetypes make more sense. We assume that things have always been as they are: The old witch has always been old and a witch, the dragon has always been a dragon. Children have not yet experienced how time can transform things, do not understand that Maleficent was once just someone trying to wiggle out from underneath an especially unfortunate name.

  ***

Something happens to our understanding of archetypes—villains, especially—when we grow up.

Once we cross the Rubicon of puberty, the Noteworthy Villainesses melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West in a rainstorm.

Call it the glass-slipper ceiling. Children's villainesses have one thing in common, virtually across the board: their power. But except for a very few cases, this power is supernatural. Of the evil women who top Disney's antagonist list, only Cruella de Ville lacks magical ability. Her most noteworthy power is that she is an apocalyptically terrible driver.

The instant you take magic off the table, female antagonists vanish. You move away from the Universal Mother and motiveless malice and into the day-to-day realm of concrete threats. Denied the role of witch, villainous women become ice queens—Miranda Priestley, for example, or Robin Wright's Lady MacBeth on the Netflix series House of Cards.

In fairy tales, the threat does not need to be real. The scale of everything is different to a child. The size of a thing does not matter, only the size of the shadow it casts. Nightmares and fairy tales do not obey logic. And all the Disney villainesses are capable of casting long shadows.

It will be intriguing to see Disney, for the first time, put features on the face. Perhaps Jolie is right. Perhaps we will find more in Maleficent than has heretofore met the eye. But I will miss the days when she was only a terrifying shadow.