In Defense of Villainesses

My over coffee read this morning was an editorial in defense of female cartoon villains.

It argues that there is something admirable about Ursula or Lady Tremaine or any of the evil ladies in cartoons. Especially when comparing them to the heroines in the same cartoons.


Female cartoon villains define transgression. We look at thin-wristed shy-smiling nice-haired female protagonists and we see what’s expected of us: wait. Be patient. Be nice. Be happy with your lot, enjoy what you’re given, and don’t look for more. Make wishes, not plans. Have animal friends, never henchmen. No one should work for you, but everyone must love you. Look soft and small and breakable, and cry with your head flung into your arms so no one has to see your puffy eyes. Be afraid that no one will ever rescue you. Be afraid that you’ll have to live your whole life without adventure ever finding you.

My first reaction to a piece like this is, come on, feminist reading of Disney movies? That’s beating a dead horse, and dismissal. But I like reading about cartoons and I trust the feminist project for gender equality too. So why do I find myself ambivalent to the argument here?

Even the best cartoons are simple storytelling. Cartoons are flat, a context that does not lend itself to deep analysis. Attempts to lock down meanings beyond the surface in cartoons take a conspiratorial tone. That’s because they are empty, same as fairy tales, they don’t have a “true meaning.” They are not crafted to be meaningful but to carry it.

I get the argument and I agree with it up to a point. Princesses are passive, reacting to what is going on around them. The stepmothers of the cartoon/story world are much more interesting, they’re doers, ambitious, smart. But what makes me uncomfortable about the article is the idea of modeling behavior after characters from cartoons/tales at all. This is using stories as moral lessons for dumb children and dumb women, it’s a creepy side effect of the Grimm’s publishing folk tales and having to market them. Very few people took them seriously as literature to study, so they became little lesson books for wifey and baby. It’s crazy really.

Here’s a thought experiment

Imagine someone transcribing the best standup bits from the top dozen or so comedians in the past few years. Now re-work them them so they are clean, appropriate for children and have the same voice and the same point of view. Edit them so that the moral voice is unambiguous. Now adapt one into a cartoon. Now show that to your children. Now your kid grows up and writes an interesting essay on how the characters in the cartoon ring false and she can interpret them differently after all.

See what I’m getting at? The finger pointing at the producers of these cartoon lady-villains has to point all the way back to moralists messing with folk traditions 200 years ago. In any case, Disney has been addressing the Princess problem in newer movies. The witch in Tangled was driven by fear and protectiveness, Elsa in Frozen is a mean magic princess, Maleficent hates humans because she was betrayed. These more recent cartoons feel more generous to me. They serve ambiguity, show a little more of the why of badness than old Disney was able to. Because when the story stops ringing true you can’t blame the story, you just retell it.