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Villains have never had it so good Cancel culture has made us unforgiving — unless you’re in a film


May 28, 2021   5 mins

Villains get all the best songs in Disney movies. Who’d bother with Beauty and the Beast without bad guy Gaston’s glorious hymn to strength and brilliance? What would be the point of The Little Mermaid without the sea witch Ursula pummelling her way through “Poor Unfortunate Souls”? “Go ahead! Make your choice!” she growls at tragic, bobble-headed, lovesick Ariel — who cannot help but choose the thing that moves the story on. You know you’re supposed to be the good girl, but wouldn’t you rather be the bad one? It’s villains who make stuff happen. Villains have charisma.

Now, they don’t just get individual songs; they get whole films to themselves. Cruella, out today, follows 2014’s Maleficent in offering a live-action retelling of a classic story from the villain’s point of view: the wicked fairy godmother we first met in Sleeping Beauty isn’t wilfully bad, she’s driven to it by a faithless human love. In Cruella, Emma Stone stars as the puppy-rustling avatar of evil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, who turns out to have a backstory that makes skinning dogs for coats — well, not exactly sympathetic, but definitely understandable.

After all, what would you do if your mother was knocked to her death from a clifftop by a pack of trained attack Dalmatians, at the behest of a vicious fashion designer (played by Emma Thompson)? Even if “scheme to kidnap every Dalmatian in England and turn them into stylish outerwear” isn’t your first thought, you’ve got to admit you’d consider it. “It’s her mum, innit, you’ve gotta cut her some slack,” as one of Cruella’s henchmen ruefully comments. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit: the cartoon Cruella wasn’t bad, she was just drawn that way.

The boring business-y reason for the rise of the “dark princess” story is that, given a set of intellectual properties as valuable as Disney’s, capitalism compels you to find new ways to use them: the animation, then the live action version, then the alternate perspective version, with extensive merchandising for each instalment. But that doesn’t explain their appeal, and it doesn’t explain why arguably the first of Disney’s antagonist-as-hero films was a completely new and standalone cartoon.

In the original conception of Frozen (based loosely on Hans Christan Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen”), Elsa was a straight-up baddie, unleashing snowy doom over the kingdom of Arendelle. Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez changed that. They saw Elsa as a girl frightened by her own powers and terrified of what she might become, rather than a character revelling in evil and spite; “Let It Go” is the moment she embraces who she is, and it’s so glorious that the film was reworked around it.

And the audience loved it. “Let It Go” started as a villain’s song, but after Frozen’s release in 2013, it was adopted as the soundtrack for becoming the hero of your own life — “an LGBT anthem… and a feminist call for freedom,” according to an article from the time by Dorian Lynskey. Elsa was the first baddie you could legitimately have on your lunchbox. A female character who acted out, and who you weren’t supposed to hate in the end.

And the trend goes beyond Disney. Comics have long dealt in ambivalence, but 2019’s Joker is essentially the boy version of Maleficent, filling out the history of Batman’s best enemy from a sympathetic angle. This version of the Joker, Arthur Fleck, is a victim of society — and specifically, a victim of his own controlling mother (his equivalent of a “Let It Go” moment is committing matricide, which precipitates his full embrace of the Joker persona). Sure, he’s violent and chaotic, but he was made that way, and the people who made him deserve everything he has to offer.

But the golden age of cancellation is a strange moment for the redemptive anti-hero arc to have become a thing. We live in unforgiving times outside of fiction. A lot of the same people who revel in the nuance of villain stories can be furiously doctrinaire when it comes to real life (I couldn’t count how many times I’ve blocked Twitter users with Joker avatars, but I think the Frozen avatars still have the edge). Maybe empathy for imaginary characters is a substitute for the compassionless judgement that actual humans seem to merit.

Look, for example, at the unfortunate Amy Cooper. She made the grave mistake of calling the police on a black man following an altercation in Central Park a year ago this week, and wound up becoming internet-infamous as “Central Park Karen”, representative of the allegedly manipulative and mendacious nature of white women everywhere.

The incident would have been fraught in any case; the fact that it happened the same day that white police officer Derek Chauvin murdered another black man, George Floyd, made it downright combustible. Cooper wasn’t just roundly reviled online, she also lost her job as a filing clerk. The only person who appeared able to muster any compassion for her at all in this was the man she’d originally clashed with. “I don’t know if her life needed to be torn apart,” Christian Cooper (no relation) told the New York Times.

Still, her life had been torn apart. Now Cooper is suing her former employer for, she says, firing her without due process. “Amy Cooper Didn’t Learn Much From Her Time As ‘Central Park Karen’,” gloated New York magazine’s headline on the story: “she is not ready to admit — after a year of racial reckoning started by the police murdering a Black man — being in the wrong for leveraging the police to threaten a Black man,” said the report, as though BLM should have made her more philosophical about her unemployment.

The tone is one of exasperated disappointment. Well, we did give you the opportunity to grow as a person by comprehensively trashing your reputation and destroying your career, yet here you are insisting that you might be owed justice. How incredibly Karen of her. No salvation is possible for Cooper, not even any crumb of understanding that might say — yes, you acted poorly, but as a woman who felt threatened by a man there might be something comprehensible in those actions. In the press telling of her, she’s as resolutely evil as the cartoon Cruella.

Of course, Cooper doesn’t believe that she’s the villain of her own existence, which is the condition being set on her rehabilitation. To have “learned” would have been to accept her status as the bad guy, and that would put anyone on the way to Arkham. (There is a Karen movie in the works, incidentally, but it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be an apologia for pushy white women: instead, the main character is described as a “titular touchstone of privilege”.)

It’s easier to have sympathy for Cruella than for a real, flawed woman like Cooper, not only because Cruella has the crucial advantage of being made-up, but also because the need to hate Cruella only extends as far as her part in the original story. The need to hate Cooper runs deep into real-life social schisms: the urgency of blaming someone for America’s racism, the blissful ease of choosing a woman to carry that can.

And it’s possible to identify with a vengeful Cruella, or a wounded Joker, or a frightened Elsa, because what they have, and what all but the most saintly want, is a licence for their own rage: the ecstasy of losing control, justified by circumstances in which they could hardly be anything else. It’s the same rage that can be safely unleashed against someone like Cooper — whether she truly deserved it or not. Monsters are mostly made not born, it’s true. We make them because we need someone to hate; we could unmake them, if we chose.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

After 5 plus years of awful remakes, reboots and crap adaptations of books and comics I like, I can no longer raise any enthusiasm for any film or tv series now.
Why?
Because they are routinely rubbish.
How has a multi billion pound entertainment industry become so creatively bankrupt?

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Yup, you can only keep reusing the same characters and stories for so long before it gets mind numbingly dull.

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

If people stopped watching they would stop making them

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

You can just watch the old ones anyway. Disney used to re-issue their films in the cinemas every few years and got a new audience-now you can watch the dvd.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Blame the committee, focus-group approach to movie making, now stronger than ever with the ever-increasing demand for content. To reach consensus around the table, it is necessary to shave away what is new and different to make sure every mediocrity is on board to share the blame for a flop. It is too risky to go with what is different.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

I don’t disagree, but not to put too fine a point on it maybe you’re not necessarily the target audience.

People routinely die, particularly older ones, but ‘the franchise’ lives on forever and evaaah…cue fading out wicked laughter on a loop.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Martin Price
Martin Price
3 years ago

“And it’s possible to identify with a vengeful Cruella, or a wounded Joker, or a frightened Elsa, because what they have, and what all but the most saintly want, is a licence for their own rage: the ecstasy of losing control”
Nope – you lost me here – and I am certainly not saintly. We used to encourage values and behaviour that brought out the best in people not give into base emotions. Perhaps I am missing the point that Disney now produces for adult children.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Price

Disney’s sick output now days shows there is an audience for it. This article shows that, the writer likes it. The entertainment industry is in another reality from mine. The Show ‘Saturday Night Live’ in the 1970s had some Humour, some wit, with the social commentary. Now it is anti-humour, where it seems (only glanced at it to see if news reports on how bad it su*ked were true.) they removed any wit and comedy and it is merely the actors pretending to be people, and we then are supposed to laugh at them, but wile not being funny. I do not get it, not comedy but jeering.

Entertainment is same, I try to find something streaming and I can find nothing – it is NOT entertainment – too stupid, or sick, or juvenile, or just inexplicable.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

It’s not much different with the long running ‘live’ major UK comedy shows on mainstream TV today.

I’ve just listened to a great interview which, I agree and believe, highlights why, and helps to explain my almost reflexive response to desperately search for the remote and switch channel when these insufferable programmes come on.

The highly predictable, right-on ‘message’ that is forever being shovelled down our throats is being given constant approval by the studio audiences.

This is increasingly less likely to be signalled through ‘laughter’ because it is rarely that funny, but rather through regular bouts of ‘applause’.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
MagentaPen 07mm
MagentaPen 07mm
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Try streaming “Derek” by Ricky Gervais. I find it thoughtful and fundamentally wholesome. And entertaining. Fair warning, though, the vulgar parts are off-scale vulgar, so that may put you off.

David Hartlin
David Hartlin
3 years ago

Meh, I’m so over modern TV and film. Jeebus, they even made a remake of Conan the Barbarian that was worse than the original.

Last edited 3 years ago by David Hartlin
Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
3 years ago

The need to hate Cooper runs deep into real-life social schisms: the urgency of blaming someone for America’s racism, the blissful ease of choosing a woman to carry that can.”
That phrase: “need to hate” is apt here. Central Park Karen is a symbol, whether she would have it or not, and hating her unites the various interest groups in America in a way that a fictitious character never could. Emmanuel Goldstein was presented to the masses as a real person, even though he may well have been made up wholly or in part (the fictitious nature of 1984 notwithstanding).

Kathy Prendergast
Kathy Prendergast
3 years ago
Reply to  Aaron Kevali

Re. the “Central Park Karen” incident, most of the public who vilified her seemed to completely ignore the reason she had for phoning the police, which was that the man, because he was angry at her for letting her dog off leash, had threatened to harm both her and the dog. He even admitted that himself, later.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago

Didn’t know that-makes story bit less b & w doesn’t it? However an enjoyable cancel story in American Thinker about one Emily Wilder who got a job in media only to lose it rather quickly when her college social media years were full of vile anti sem stuff. She still doesn’t think its wrong she lost her job & thinks its wrong to claim she is anti sem as she’s J ewish.

Sam T
Sam T
3 years ago

Do you have a source for that? The only “threat” he made was to feed the dog treats, a tactic he uses to make dog owners feel uncomfortable enough to to put their dog on a lead.

Surely if there was proof that he threatened Karen with violence, the author of this piece would have mentioned it here.

Last edited 3 years ago by Sam T
Kathy Prendergast
Kathy Prendergast
3 years ago
Reply to  Sam T

He admitted himself that he threatened her (although presumably he didn’t mean it), and his threats were also recorded.
So he only gave dogs treats to make dog owners “uncomfortable”; to terrorize them, in other words, with fears that their dog was being poisoned.
Whatever happened to just asking nicely?
Perhps you don’t own or have never owned a dog, so may not be aware of the etiquette, but giving a dog treats without asking their owners’ permission is bad behaviour under any circumstances. I walk my sister’s dog regularly, and I would be upset if someone – even another dog walker – did that; it’s as inappropriate as offering a stranger’s kid candy. If someone WITHOUT a dog did that, like that creep, I would be tempted to call the police. At best, it’s an assumption of unearned trust, because everyone knows there are hateful people out there who poison dogs. Also, some dogs (just like some people) have specific dietary restrictions, or allergies. Nobody has any damn business giving food to a dog that isn’t theirs, without permission.

Sam T
Sam T
3 years ago

I appreciate the reply. My intent was to clarify that the birdwatcher did not threaten either the dog or its owner with violence.
I agree its a low move to carry around dog treats to scare reckless owners into following the rules. It’s a shame that the birdwatcher felt it was necessary.
I have owned a dog so i can relate to the fear of strangers and all that. However, I would also have to admit some share of the blame if my animal approached a stranger (or ate a protected species of bird) when it should have been under my control.

Last edited 3 years ago by Sam T
MagentaPen 07mm
MagentaPen 07mm
3 years ago

I am very unfamiliar with this dog walking world, but curious if you’re 100% serious? I would have thought unleashed dogs in Central Park would be certain to eat all kinds of strange and unwelcome things, to the point that worrying about poisoned treats wouldn’t even come to mind?

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
3 years ago

Villains have charisma? They certainly do. The Devil incarnate has just knocked over Hartlepool and is enjoying the healthiest dose of majority support for years.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
3 years ago

And, say, what about that whole Brexit deal? And Trump for that matter. Both are essential to any subject being discussed.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago

Boris is Beelzebub the fallen angel? Well they might get better weather.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
3 years ago

I would argue that the rise in popular culture of anti-heroes who eventually find salvation is actually closely linked to cancel culture.
Quite often people do things today that no hero in a movie 50 years ago would do. They might hurt one or two people. But someone who supposedly hurts a whole race or category of people is by definition far worse than an ordinary jerk. Moreover, the jerk now has the role model of someone far worse than them–who still turns out to be the REAL hero.
It’s a way to salve the ego without lifting a finger. A very secular form of salvation.

Simon Newman
Simon Newman
3 years ago

The bad guys IRL want to feel morally justified as the ‘boot stamping on a human face forever’. Films like Cruella give them moral permission to do so.