Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Article: Are Fairy Tale Villainesses the New Anti-Hero?

There has been a fluttering around the blogosphere due to a recent post in thinkprogress from Alyssa Rosenberg who takes the stance that fairy tale villianesses are the new anti-heros. So many critically acclaimed shows center around a strong, complex, morally ambiguous middle-aged male character (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire). Middle-aged women more often than not have more success in comedies:

"But if middle-aged anti-heroes are what we’ve decided give us an opportunity for moral sophistication as viewers and for complex, intriguing storytelling, where would we start in creating these kinds of women? It’s possible that one answer lies in a rising boom: fairy tale villainesses. Fairy tales are full of older women who are trying to hold onto the kinds of things about which great dramas about men are made: their power within their professional setting, their sense of sexual desirability, their status within their personal communities. In the trailers for Snow White and the Huntsman, we’re clearly meant to side with Kristen Stewart’s insurgent Snow White. But I’m intrigued by Charlize Theron’s evil Queen, who speaks of giving her fallen world the ruler it deserves, who commands armies and welcomes challenges.
And as production ramps up on the Maleficent movie, Angelina Jolie told People Magazine that she felt some ambivalence about defending her character (the movie will be told from the perspective of Sleeping Beauty’s rival for the throne): “It sounds really crazy to say that there will be something that’s good for young girls in this, because it sounds like you’re saying they should be a villain. [Maleficent] is actually a great person. But she’s not perfect. She’s far from perfect.” But why should we be so squeamish about suggesting that we should sympathize with female villains? Especially in settings where women have to be unusually tough to hold on to power and authority (which, let’s be honest, is not so different from the tightrope women have to walk today)?
If boys can grow up to sympathize with Tony Soprano, why shouldn’t women get a world where it’s permissible to sympathize with the stepmothers, crones, sorceresses and evil queens we taught were lying in our paths growing up? Reclaiming fairy tale villainesses wouldn’t just give us a crop of powerful female anti-heroines—it would help break a cycle of storytelling that valorizes younger and prettier women overthrowing older ones. Sisterhood is weird, and complex, and powerful." (Full Article)

Kyle Cupp from the League of Ordinary Gentlemen pondered whether sympathizing with villains would create a moral relativism in fairy tales whose defining feature is often the clear distinction of good and evil:
"I suppose sympathy with fairy tale villains and villainesses could lead into relativism’s dark woods if the villainy itself were considered to be something virtuous, but there’s nothing remotely relativistic in remaking images of unadulterated evil into morally-complex images of the human condition.  Which is, you know, morally complex.  Sure, Maleficent can turn into a dragon, laugh maniacally, and perform black magic, but she’s still a potential figure of humanity.  Flawed humanity, to be sure.  She really should have had staff meetings more than once every sixteen years: she would have learned early on that her orcish minions weren’t considering the aging process in their years long search for the princess Aurora." (Full Article)
Forbes wrote about how they would love to see more complex female characters in general. While there are several great ones currently on television (Leslie Knope is deliciously flawed), they are often few and far between:
"In a very real sense, female characters face the same challenges that female politicians face. Strong women are given the “uppity” treatment far too often,  described as haughty or cold or in other less-friendly terms. This is a huge barrier to entry when it comes to crafting a female anti-hero. You can see how precarious this becomes in a show like Weeds, though to be fair that show suffers from a myriad other problems." (Full Article)
I definitely agree that more complex female characters in the media would be a great thing! We are more often than not relegated to the stereotypes of virgin, whore, mother, and crone. Wholly good or wholly evil. However, there are many notable exceptions. The entire female cast of Game of Thrones, for example. The women are there, we just need them to be the rule, not the exception.

As for fairy tale villianess as the new anti-hero, I have some reservations. I believe that as long as the women are infused with humanity, like Maleficent in the new movie, and Regina in Once Upon a Time, it is a great thing. I don't think we should be holding up purely evil women as role models. I think that morally complex women, strong women, women who you sympathize with, struggle with, and watch them make the wrong decisions are more what we need.

We live in an age of absolutes, especially during this election year. I keep being confronted with the attitude that if you are a Republican, all Democrats are evil, and if you are a Democrat, all Republicans are evil. There can be no negotiation and compromise because each side is completely assured that the opposing side is lying and cheating and stabbing them in the back.

I think that a little moral ambiguity might actually do us good. Humanize those we assume to be villains, find the motives behind their actions, and slowly begin to sympathize them. I do not think we should condone their actions, but I think there is a lot to be gained by looking at the why. I think there are very few people in the world who go out and decide to do some evil that day. "Villains" always think that what they are doing is right. Context and motivation are key.

Creating more complex, morally ambiguous women (and men), might actually allow us to see life from our "enemies'" perspective and open the way for negotiations and compromise.


  1. Interesting take, but I think Ms Rosenberg stacks the deck in her favor. She seems to be talking about role models for girls, but what age? "Boys" don't watch the Sopranos or Mad Men. Nor are they meant to. The young heroine defeats the older, wicked stepmother for 2 reasons: 1) that's how the original tale goes and 2) the aspirational empowerment is meant for the younger film audience. It's not literary. It's the business of ticket sales. I agree with you that character humanity is key, but if you prefer complexities to absolutes (as many of us do), mainstream Hollywood is probably not your best canvas. Nice blog. I followed a link from the book rat/Fairy Tale Fortnight.

  2. I agree, though I think young adults can appreciate a more complex "villain." Girls, it might be good to have good defeat evil, though it might be good to have more good older women who kick butt.

    I'm actually proud of Hollywood for getting a bit more complex with their villains: Cabin in the Woods, for example. I'm hoping it is a continuing trend. TV has certainly started doing that too, with shows like Game of Thrones. Fingers crossed that they keep giving us smart, complex material!

    I'm glad you like my blog! Yours looks awesome too! I'm definitely going to follow it! You might also like my other blog, Palimpsest (http://palimpsestlibrary.blogspot.com) which specifically reviews adaptation and mashup books of all genres!