Let’s raise the bar and our cups to the stars… Why Disney Villains are better role models

While most of Gawker media’s outlets have deteriorated significantly in quality (I’m especially looking at you, io9 — although I still swoon over Esther’s articles), Jezebel is still worth reading.  On Saturday, they posted an article, ‘Screw Princesses — Disney Villains Are the Real Role Models‘.

Princesses are usually defined by their sexuality and fascination with pretty objects and cute baby animals. White Disney princesses wear puffy gowns with petticoats (Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, Aurora) and non-white princesses dress the same way sorority girls do for questionably-themed parties. (Jasmine, Pocahontas, even, to a lesser extent, Mulan.) I didn’t want to be saved; I wanted to drive the plot rather than be pushed into a happy ending.

So instead, I was fascinated by villains, particularly Maleficent, the self-proclaimed Mistress of All Evil. She’s cunning, she’s ruthless, and she has a sick wardrobe. Not to mention: DRAGONS. Maleficent demands respect, and I expected the same, which is why, as a four year old, I refused to answer to anything other than “Maleficent” for months. [Source: Baker, ‘Screw Princesses — Disney Villains Are the Real Role Models‘, Jezebel]

The article is great and discusses the Baker’s (the author) desire to grow up like a Disney villain instead of a Disney princess.  It’s great stuff.

But it also got me thinking.  Having had quite a bit of practice at reading waaaaay too much into things and a lifetime of mansplaining, I thought: ‘Why do we see the villains as villains in these movies?’

You might respond: ‘Mark, old buddy, there’s no extra level of meaning here.  Grimhilde tries to kill Snow White.  Maleficent tries to kill Sleeping Beauty.  Ursula tries to turn people into wormy things.  These characters are evil because they do bad things.  Open and shut.  Get back to doing real things.’

But I think you’re wrong.  You sort of knew that Grimhilde was evil long before she went all ‘Time to eat Snow White’s heart!’  Maleficent is clearly the villain of the play from the second she appears in an explosion of green smoke, long before she gave Aurora a pretty shitty birthday gift.  While Ursula is a bit more of the ‘Muahaha, I’m evil!’ type of villain, her big crime isn’t that sinister: allowing Ariel to enter into a contract when she’s clearly a minor.

I clang on a lot about the necessary laziness of storytellers.  For folklore and fairytales, you sometimes need shortcuts to point out to the audience who is the evildoer.  All too often, this requires the audience to fill in the blanks with their prejudices.

Thus, in an underwater world of slender Caucasian women, Ursula is clearly the enemy because she has darker colours and a BMI greater than 18.5.  Although having tentacles and two nasty looking eels doesn’t help her win friends, her legalism is also a sort of unnatural evil.  Resorting to contracts and legal negotiations is no place for a woman — even one with tentacles and ugly eels.  Women should be interested in thingamabobs, whozits and whatzits galore.  The final demonstration of her evil is that she wants King Triton’s symbol of power — the Trident.

And why freaking not?  Nowhere in The Little Mermaid does Triton explain why he’s the rightful ruler of his soggy kingdom.  But we take it on trust that he’s correct; after all, Ursula has darker colours, is a woman, and is a darker fat woman.

Maleficient also struggles against conceptions of the correct colour skin, but also against the idea of how women should behave.  Here are the fairy godmothers:

Sleeping Beauty movie image Walt Disney

Pinkish skin.  Pastel colours.  Not at all sexually intimidating.  Compare and contrast with Maleficent:

sleeping-beauty-disney-movie-image-maleficentA very different picture.  Green skin.  Black clothes.  Menacing looking bird for good measure.

The plot of Sleeping Beauty links again with these ideas of a woman being evil if she moves outside her designated space.  Sure, cursing an infant to die on her sixteenth birthday is a bit of a jerk move, but compare her with the heroine of the story, Aurora, and you start to wonder if Maleficent wasn’t doing her a favour.  Aurora is betrothed to some boneheaded prince for the purpose of uniting a kingdom which, for all you know, has a policy of stomping on kittens.  The movie plays on our intuition that unified kingdoms are Good Things and anything which jeopardises that Good Thing is a Bad Thing.

In seriousness, why do we think the kingdom is so great that an arranged marriage is necessarily a good thing?  Because the non-threatening little women in the pastel colours are in its favour?  They are here in support of the arranged marriage.  Their gifts are to be pretty and have a great singing voice.  These are hardly the feminist icons or progressive philosophers.

Maleficent is clearly a utilitarian, viewing the removal of one person (the infant) as a necessary step in dismantling this insane feudalistic backwater where women are property to be traded for geopolitics.  That, of course, is really why she is evil: she sees Aurora as a means to an end rather than as an end in herself, and all consequentialists are evil or ignorant when you think about it, and Maleficent does not seem ignorant.

But back to the comparison with Aurora.  Maleficent has awesome powers.  Aurora is pretty.  Maleficent has ambitions.  Aurora wants to fall in love.  Maleficent gets shit done.  Aurora falls asleep and is awoken by a sufficiently aristocratic suitor.

But Grimhilde from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was the first and set the template.  All Grimhilde needed to do was look in a mirror and we knew she was evil.


Where Maleficent was all about breaking down the power structures of an oppressive kingdom, Grimhilde is in the position of tyrant (implied to be an illegitimate hold on the power).  In many ways reflecting the attitude of some women in senior positions towards younger women, Grimhilde is trying to kill off competition.  Even before she gets out the box and hires a woodsman, Grimhilde is considered vain, has the trappings of power, and — most importantly — is not in the company of men.  Snow White, in comparison, sings about finding true love, hangs out with cute animals, and ends up hanging out with seven men as their maid.

This gets us back to the Jezebel article:

Villains are goal-oriented, while princesses are content with a puffball dress and Ken doll beau. Villains don’t put virginal love on a pedestal. One could even argue that villains provide an opportunity to teach your children about making the right choices. (For example, don’t be covetous/kill Dalmatians. Also, chill out if you don’t get invited to a party! That was Maleficent’s chief issue, which I’ll admit is a tad superficial, although I’ll argue that there’s way more going on beneath the surface. And DRAGONS.)

Princesses are only princesses because of who their parents are or the man they marry. Villains don’t get it that easy. Villains shape their own lives. [Ibid.]

Looking at these three examples and seeing the similarities: they are transgressive characters, they are active participants in their story arc, they happily trash gender norms when it suits them, and happily utilise them when it suits (further, they have three entirely different understandings of attractiveness).  More than anything else, they are intelligent — much more intelligent than anybody else in their films.  If I had a daughter, these are the sorts of traits that I wish she’d emulate — not the vapidity and vacuity of the protagonists.

I’d tell my daughter: ‘They’re not considered evil because they do bad things.  They’re considered evil because ordinary — very ordinary — people don’t like women being anything other than mediocre.’

I’d hide the spinning wheels, though.

You came home for the endless summer… Comics, misogyny, and mythologising Claremont

Oh, you non-nerds have it so easy.  Up there in the mainstream, you only have to deal with the ordinary misogyny, homophobia, and racism which passes off as daily interactions or popular entertainment.  Down here in the nerd sub-culture (and, in truth, it is beneath culture) we invent whole new ways to be terrible human beings.

I recently ranted about Batman: Arkham City and its weird, weird, oh-so-weird inability to be women-friendly.  There was a game based on a popular franchise that went out of its way to make misogyny fun.  But there’s no need to rehash that.

Circulating the various nerd-blogs are two videos by The Escapist video-blogger, Movie Bob, which tries to discuss some of the big problems with Marvel superheroine, Ms Marvel.

The videos aren’t really worth watching (Movie Bob is insufferable and unfunny), but they cover a few issues which are worth discussing at length.

Quickly, here’s a run-down of the videos:

1.  Ms Marvel was a superhero in the Marvel Universe (the two big comic publishers are Marvel and DC: DC has all the characters you know — Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, &c. — but Marvel has the better movies — Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man… lots of men).

2. To celebrate a milestone in Marvel’s publishing history, they decided to centre a story around Ms Marvel.  Ms Marvel wakes up one day and discovers that she’s pregnant.  She doesn’t know how it happened.  The foetus undergoes rapid development, is born, then matures to adulthood quickly.  The child explains that Ms Marvel was kidnapped by a villain, put under mind control and impregnated.  For reasons unexplained, she had her mind wiped and was returned.  Due to cosmic woo-woo she gives birth to the guy who kidnapped, brainwashed, and impregnated her.  Ms Marvel falls in love with her rapist/child and they go off into the sunset.

3. Nobody in-universe thinks (2) is weird.

4. The video then makes a bunch of funny noises which might be the author trying to make a point.

5. One writer at Marvel, Chris Claremont, thought this treatment of Ms Marvel was rubbish, so wrote a story where Ms Marvel returns and lectures everybody for treating her rape like it was romantic.

6. Video declares Chris Claremont to be a hero (‘Joss Whedon 1.0’).

The broader issue is the portrayal of women in comics.  I recently hosted our monthly book club meeting, and set Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta as the book under discussion.  I am the only regular comics-reader in our group, and I thought it would be interesting to choose a book from a radically different genre.  The feedback from the others was that the format was alienating, and then when you overcame that hurdle, the story had a fundamental problem with women which was further alienating.

There’s a recurring set of storylines for women in comics: they are raped, tortured, or have babies. It’s the only way the characters develop.  In V for Vendetta, Evey has to be tortured in order to have her character develop.

The Ms Marvel plot is not incongruous with the pervasive misogyny of comic books.  There have been concerted efforts to stop this from happening but, as I discussed in the Batman post, whenever there’s progress, the comic book publishers regress back into their adolescent boy stage.

From the videos, you’d think that Chris Claremont was somehow a revolutionary progressive of the industry.  Described as ‘Joss Whedon 1.0’ (and, well, it’s not like Whedon doesn’t have his problematic years when it comes to the portrayal of women), Movie Bob explains how Claremont reclaimed Ms Marvel for womens lib and lovers of non-rapey plotlines everywhere.

Earlier in this post, I mentioned that nerds had found new ways to be terrible human beings.  Chief inventor was Chris Claremont who, during the dark times of the late ’80s and early ’90s (long story short: DC and Marvel tanked the industry by running a weird scheme where they thought printing comics was basically the same as printing money…), was given free reign to print story after story dedicated to his women-degrading fetishes.

Whoa.  Those are some lawsuit worthy words right there.  I better have some good evidence to back them up.

Claremont’s stock plot is: ‘Courageous, empowered woman with large muscles and larger breasts combats a character with some sort of transformation power.  Said character uses transformation power on the courageous woman, making her some sort of slave or object.  Courageous, empowered woman is either saved or becomes a recurring character as a slave or object.’

Case in point: Spiral.  Spiral was originally a woman called Rita who was kidnapped by the interdimensional being Mojo.  Despite being brave and courageous and in love with her partner, Mojo performs magical surgery and brainwashes her to become Spiral.

Case in point: Rachel Summers.  Rachel Summers was born a super-powered mutant (daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey in a future timeline).  She’s kidnapped by the government, brainwashed, tattooed, and forced into some sort of fetish wear.  She’s called a ‘hound’ and is used to hunt down other mutants.

Case in point: Spiral and Rachel Summers.  Mojo uses Spiral to kidnap Rachel Summers and manipulated her into working for him.

Case in point: Storm.  Storm battles Magneto who uses his ability to manipulate metal to encase Storm as a statue.

It’s not just me who thinks Claremont might be on the wrong side of the strong female character debate.  TV Tropes handwaves some of his other exciting storylines (all women are bisexual, for example).

If Claremont invented a female character, he’s found a way to tie them up or brainwash them (or both).  He’s creative in his misogyny.

Really, the only thing that can save comics is to get women into top jobs in Marvel and DC.  In 70 years of Marvel’s publishing history, there’s never been a female editor and only one female editor-in-chief (Bobbie Chase was part of the one-year experiment where there were several editors-in-chief; she headed up Marvel Edge which was basically ‘Tales from the Universe Next Door’).  There’s never been a female executive of Marvel.  DC fares slightly better.  Diane Nelson is the president, but I can’t think of any female editors or editors-in-chief.