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Why it’s so satisfying to root for Disney villains

Characters like Cruella have grown beyond their stories.

Emma Stone stars as Cruella de Vil, one of Disney’s most beloved villains.
Walt Disney Motion Pictures
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

“If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will.”

The jauntily sinister lyrics to “Cruella de Vil,” from the 1961 Disney film One Hundred and One Dalmatians, might be one of the most well-remembered things about the film for many Disney fans — only slightly less well-known than Cruella de Vil herself.

The vengeful, fur-wearing villainess may seem like the epitome of a character few people could love; she kills puppies, for god’s sake! Instead, she’s the opposite. Over the years, she’s become one of Disney’s most beloved villains, popular enough to have fueled a live-action 1996 remake of One Hundred and One Dalmatians starring Glenn Close, and now a new live-action origin story, Cruella, starring Emma Stone.

Cruella is merely the latest example of Disney’s enthusiasm for catering to fans of the bad guys, a stance it has increasingly leaned into over the last decade as it’s started to craft franchises around villains after defining itself by its princesses. Frozen’s Elsa was originally intended to be the villain of that film, before the narrative shifted to make her the sympathetic antihero instead. Angelina Jolie headlined two live-action films exploring the backstory of Sleeping Beauty’s evil dragon Maleficent in 2014 and 2019. The company even took the gambit offscreen, launching a new board game franchise, Disney Villainous, in 2018, that encourages characters to play as its most popular evil characters and triumph over the forces of wholesomeness.

Since the first Disney stores opened in 1987, the company has had a robust line of villain merchandise designed to target fans of its most famous Big Bads, including Cruella, Maleficent, The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, The Lion King’s Scar, and Aladdin’s Jafar, among others. From there, it continued to expand its targeted marketing: In 1992, as part of the Walt Disney World Hollywood Studios attraction, it launched Villains in Vogue, a shop that served park guests for more than 20 years until it was rebranded in 2015. Since then, Disney has held special “villains” theme park events, launched the “Villains” Blu-Ray collection, and in 2020 released a limited-edition line of high-end villain dolls. The collection — check out the Ursula doll below quickly sold out.

Ursula is a witch under the sea but a goddess to all her fans.
Disney – Midnight Masquerade Limited Edition Collection

This marketing method seems to be working. Longstanding rumors of a theme park dedicated entirely to Disney villains have kept fans titillated for years — and though it’s apparently nothing more than an internet myth, it’s a telling sign of how popular Disney villains really are. The first Maleficent film grossed more than $758 million worldwide and came in sixth in domestic box office rankings in 2014, while the sequel respectably earned nearly $500 million worldwide (and came in 23rd domestically). The aforementioned Villainous board game keeps adding expansion packs. And those sold-out limited-edition dolls? They’re reselling for hundreds of dollars.

Clearly, this whole celebrating-the-villains thing is paying off for the Mouse, which may seem counterintuitive. Isn’t Disney, on celluloid at least, supposed to represent good triumphing over evil, and all that’s wholesome and morally upright about society?

To a degree, the popularity of Disney’s villains is part of the much broader cultural embrace of antiheroism as a way of understanding a world that revolves around assholes. But while antiheroes seem to have reached their peak with the denouement of Donald Trump, Disney villains occupy a different space in the cultural psyche, one that’s withstood the test of time.

In fiction, villain characters let us vicariously express and indulge our “taboo” and “deviant” sides

Traditionally, the villain in any story — Disney or otherwise — represents a behavior, character trait, or facet of identity that society has deemed to be taboo or immoral. Perhaps the villain commits one or more of the Biblical seven deadly sins, as explored in David Fincher’s 1995 movie Seven. Maybe they crave vengeance, like the long litany of horror movie villains who’ve come back from the dead or reached out from beyond the grave to destroy all the people who brought them to ruin. Or they might exhibit pure sociopathy and a desire for power, like the kind we sometimes see in real-life criminals.

Villainy gets even more complicated as a concept when we consider that, historically, the “villain” in any given story is villainous not because of something they do but because of something they are. Far too often, traditional narrative storytelling has worked to further marginalize people who are already marginalized in society by framing aspects of their identities as monstrous, inherently evil, or Other. One of the most famous examples is Frankenstein’s monster, Mary Shelley’s sympathetic but tortured creature who lashes out at his creator, Victor Frankenstein, by killing people around him. As the “villain” of Frankenstein, he has become a twofold cautionary tale: a warning against the vice of scientists playing god, and a tragic story about a freak who will never be able to fit into society.

Yet a lot of us feel closer to the freaks than to the society that’s keeping them at bay. This is why monsters like werewolves, shapeshifters, vampires, and fairies have also traditionally served as metaphors, standing in for our real-life experiences and identities. Many narratives recognize these connections by reclaiming and reaffirming their respective villains’ humanity and their place in society.

A well-crafted narrative often reflects viewers’ sympathy by allowing the “villain” to have a lot more fun than the virtuous main character. Often, whether intentionally or subconsciously, the villain also reflects some hidden aspect of the upstanding main character that the character has had to repress — think of virtuous Dr. Jekyll and his murderous alter-ego Mr. Hyde. This doubling is something psychologist Carl Jung famously referred to as the “shadow.”

“A lot of people tend to use the term shadow as interchangeable with evil, and I don’t think that that is the most helpful way to define shadow,” Dori Koehler, a humanities professor at Southern New Hampshire University, told Vox. Koehler has studied Disney’s storytelling as an example of modern-day Jungian mythology, and authored the 2017 book The Mouse and The Myth: Sacred Art and Secular Ritual of Disneyland. “What shadow really is is the things of which we are unaware, the things which we have not brought to consciousness.”

In one of my favorite examples of the villain as the shadow, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1950), one titular stranger, Bruno, functions as a doppelgänger to his heroic counterpart, Guy. He’s fearless, bold, unafraid to shock people by saying what others think, while Guy is straitlaced, uptight, and seething beneath his polite exterior. Bruno pushes his social deviance to an extreme by actually committing murder — but even when Guy is horrified by Bruno, he still likes and identifies with Bruno. That’s because, on some level, Guy is Bruno and Bruno is Guy — the hero can’t exist without the villain, and vice versa. This truth functions as the underlying foundation of countless villain/hero constructions in modern pop culture, from Batman and the Joker to Harry Potter and Voldemort to the entire plot of the 2000 movie Unbreakable (in which a villain engineers a hero’s origin story so he can finally have a nemesis).

In essence, feeling affection or admiration for a villain allows us to transgress without actually transgressing in the real world. We can identify with the fictional villain and with the taboo sides of ourselves that society typically forbids, discourages, or punishes us for showing.

But if villains in general allow us to safely transgress social mores, there’s an even more particular satisfaction in cheering on Disney villains — because Disney films typically draw on our most fundamental views of good and evil, and therefore tap into some of our most powerful subconscious desires.

Disney villains represent dramatic manifestations of deeply embedded cultural archetypes

“Disney [animation arose] out of the tradition of caricature and cartooning,” Koehler points out. “And there wasn’t a whole lot of space for nuance in that tradition. It was very gag-focused and quite dogmatic. It’s either everything or nothing — all colors, no colors.”

That literally two-dimensional creative landscape made Disney’s now-classic animated films the perfect vehicle for fairy tales: Not only does animation serve as a unique tool for depicting fantasy worlds, but its foundation of caricature aligns well with fairy tales built around straightforward depictions of good and evil.

This two-dimensionality also arguably allows animated Disney films to vividly depict many universal figures — those broadly held images of societal roles and various character types that most people recognize. Consider the queen and the princess, the mother and the maiden. Koehler notes that the very first humanoid character to appear in the pantheon of Disney animation was Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, in the 1934 short The Goddess of Spring. With her strange movements and inhumanly long arms, Persephone already looks a bit otherworldly — but Koehler points out that, technically, she might be the first Disney princess and that “all of the Disney princesses have been reiterations of that archetype across time.”

The Persephone myth, as the short depicts, involves her violent abduction to the underworld at the hands of Hades, against her will and over the strenuous objections of her mother, Demeter. So you could argue that from the start, Disney princesses were constructed from dual traumatic conflicts. As princesses, they typically have to learn to assert their agency within a restrictive, patriarchal society. They typically also have to do this without a mother to guide them. In the process, they often wind up battling a distorted matriarchal figure like the fabled “evil stepmother” — usually a woman who’s eschewed the traditional societal role that the princess seems destined to embrace and accept.

“Evil queens are just Disney princesses who worked in customer service too long.”

Disney is full of these figures, women who’ve essentially prioritized their careers and personal ambitions over family and domesticity. It’s easy to see how plenty of people could find those paths appealing rather than deviant. Disney’s female villains, then, are a reflection, according to Koehler, of “what happens when the feminine isn’t allowed continued renewal in a positive, healthy way.” Villains like Snow White’s evil queen, Cinderella’s evil stepmother, and Ursula the sea witch are jealous of the youth, beauty, and better social standing of their counterparts.

In contrast, male Disney villains are frequently portrayed as visibly effeminate. Pocahontas’s Governor Radcliffe sings about glitter, while Robin Hood’s Prince John sucks his thumb; Hercules’s Hades literally bursts into flames; Scar, Jafar, The Great Mouse Detective’s Rattigan, The Princess and the Frog’s Dr. Facilier, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Frollo are all of a type: elegant, debonair, coded as flamboyant and emasculated — as well as ruthless. And where most of the female Disney villains often fixate on destroying their younger, prettier princess counterparts, the male villains are usually consumed with power; they’re concerned with destroying whole realms and communities.

It’s also notable that Disney had a long pattern throughout the 20th century of coding its animal villains as racist stereotypes. It frequently modeled such characters on minstrel caricatures and often unconsciously framed entire cultures — like the notorious Siamese cats of Lady and the Tramp or the monkey tribe of The Jungle Book — through racist lenses. All of these villain portrayals lent an irony to Disney’s reputation: Even as the company branded itself as a moral arbiter for generations of children, its most popular films frequently drew on deeply regressive tropes about what we should fear and why.

If there’s one thing humans love to do, however, it’s to resist doing what they’re told. And that means Disney villains — unlawful, disobedient, and often depicted unfairly — are primed to be reclaimed and reinterpreted by the audience.

Disney villains have spawned a deeply interactive mode of fan engagement and interpretation

“Disney has historically had an interesting intersection between the stories that it tells and the way that the fans have engaged with the stories Disney tells,” Koehler explains. Indeed, over time, many of Disney’s most popular villains have become almost fully extricated from their original source texts, taking on entirely new cultural meanings outside of their storylines.

One big reason for this is the unique relationship many of them have to queerness and camp. Many Disney characters, from Mulan to Maleficent, have long been read as queer by fans. And perhaps because of the homophobic stereotypes in their portrayals, many of the villains discussed have become symbols for the gay community.

The most obvious examples here are Ursula, who was actually based on real-life drag queen Divine; Cruella, who was based on Hollywood star Tallulah Bankhead, herself a symbol of camp; and Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston, whose queer-coded portrayal was heavily influenced by the film’s queer lyricist, the late Howard Ashman. “Camp” is notoriously difficult to define, but as it relates to queer culture, I use it to mean that Bankhead, Divine, and their cartoon counterparts all represent performances of gender that are so at odds with typical cisgender expression that they become a kind of performance art, with inherent commentary on how slippery the notion of gender itself is.

Once again, the caricature aspect of Disney animation (which has often carried through to later live-adaptations) aids these queer readings, and since they’re each bound up with sex and sexuality, there’s a lot of metanarrative — the narrative about the character that exists outside of the actual story — that queer audiences attach to certain characters and what they stand for.

Sometimes, that metanarrative travels far. For example, at this point in the trajectory of Cruella de Vil, her character has almost nothing to do with puppies. In the new movie, a direct, if far-fetched, prequel to the original animated film, she’s been given a backstory straight out of The Devil Wears Prada that puts her in the fashion industry and pits her against a ruthless female executive (Emma Thompson). It’s clear that Disney is exploring the metanarrative about Cruella, building on her love of furs and fashion as well as fans’ interpretation of her as a fabulously camp performance artist. The film also draws on the current trend of reevaluating demonized women to give her a far more sympathetic persona. Cruella ultimately explains how we arrive at the original One Hundred and One Dalmatians storyline, but it has little connection to that storyline.

As an example of a reimagined villain who nevertheless still sports all the traits audiences originally celebrated, Cruella is the latest of Disney’s ongoing attempts to capitalize on and build off themes its audiences have layered onto its stories. But it should be noted that Disney’s celebration of such characters often feels exploitative; after all, while Disney is happy to market directly to queer Disney fans, there still isn’t a meaningful example of a queer character in the animated Disney canon.

And that’s another reason that villains, by default, have a part to play in fiction beyond reflecting societal fears and serving as an outlet for our deep-seated temptations: Embracing them allows us to find ourselves in narratives where many of us continue to be shunted to the side or rendered invisible. Rooting for Disney villains isn’t just an audience-centered way of interacting with a story. It also gives individual viewers — rather than Disney, with its many corporate obligations and strictures on what is and isn’t family-friendly — the agency to determine who we cheer for and identify with, and what version of the narrative we accept.

“Fictional tropes are the place where we find our healing,” Koehler tells me. “We need to see our villains transformed.”

When it comes to Disney’s villains, there’s real power in reclaiming their narratives to give them the win, for once, instead of watching them literally and inevitably fall to an oppressive society’s rules.

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