For as long as I can remember the Walt Disney Company and particularly Disney animated films have been a big part of my childhood and are a big part of who I am today. As a child I would often watch the 1980s and 1990s Disney films (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, The Little Mermaid, and more) and every morning before school I would watch The Little Mermaid and Aladdin TV show spinoffs. As I grew older I would re-watch Disney animated films time and again and just bask in the nostalgia of my childhood. As an adult going through graduate school and a growing participant of more and more identity and equity-based discussions, I’ve realized that Disney is not the gold star mentor society may believe it to be… that I believed it to be. Often times as a society we may not think about the true pop culture icon that Disney is and its media influence in perpetuating certain ideals and values. Why do we trust Disney and the films Disney produces to educate our children on how to be good people in society? Where’s their list of credentials to raise children so we don’t have to?
What struck me the most as an adult was the generational pattern of Disney villains being modeled to children in the same way: having a skin color other than white, identifying as an adult or an older adult, having a non-standard United States accent or dialect when speaking, and more. Even with society’s slow move toward equality of all races, sexualities, genders, and more Disney is still producing villains with the same physical makeup and identities since the 1930s. Identities that are marginalized.
I personally believe that villains are the true heroes and the ones we as human beings relate to the most. Disney heroes follow a generational pattern of often being young, heterosexual, white, standard United States dialect speaking individuals who hold much privilege in their physical identities alone. Disney villains, on the other hand, represent the parts of humanity we wish to ignore (anger, jealousy, envy, lust, and selfishness) as well as the vulnerable and desperate aspects of ourselves we try to hide from society. For these reasons I’m writing a paper examining and analyzing what makes, or rather creates, a Disney villain. As previously mentioned, Disney villains represent the vulnerable and very real characteristics of every individual (i.e. mistakes; trying, failing, and then trying again; fighting for what you believe in; and advocating for oneself) whereas Disney heroes, in most cases, represent the privileged population of individuals who have everything handed to them and are successful without trying. I will be drawing information from scholarly books, scholarly articles, the parody musical “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier” on YouTube, fan art and parodies, scenes from Disney animated films (not including Pixar films), and scenes from the TV show Once Upon a Time to support my thesis that individuals might relate more to Disney villains than Disney heroes.
I have organized my paper into four sections with some of the sections having subsections. In the first section, I provide an overview of the common threads Disney animated films use to characterize a Disney villain. In the second section, I discuss the overrepresentation of Disney villains identifying with minority groups and the lack of minority representation in their Disney hero counterparts. I will touch on the following identity roles in this section: gender, sexuality, race, age, ideals of beauty, and mental health and disability. In the third section, I will explore how the TV show Once Upon a Time changes the audience viewer’s perspective of a Disney villain from villain to human being. I will examine some of the TV show’s main themes in this section: “evil isn’t born, it’s made”, not all heroes are good and not all villains are bad, and the road to redemption through second chances. I end my paper discussing the many ways individuals may relate and identify more with Disney villains than Disney heroes.
WHAT MAKES A DISNEY VILLAIN?
“When many people think of the Disney studio’s animated feature films, they think of princesses” (Davis 1). Disney animated films are more known for their heroes, generally princes and princesses, who go on a journey and defeat the villain in order to live happily ever after. Villains who are “evil to the point of monstrous” and whose “determination, jealousy, and dynamism nearly steal the show from the heroines who are the targets of their animosity” (Davis 1). But what makes a character a villain? Or, better yet, what makes a villain a Disney villain?
In the Disney Villain Deathmatch podcast, a podcast that pits Disney villains against each other to find out who the best Disney villain is, the hosts base their discussions on six categories to determine who the best Disney villain is: the villain’s purpose, motivation, lair, minions, what the villains were willing to do to accomplish their goals, and the villain’s death scene (Pezant and Stevens). A Disney villain with their own song is an added bonus (Pezant and Stevens). The podcast has reoccurring conversations around particular villains and how “their personal vendettas just sometimes get the better of them” (Pezant and Stevens 26:22-26:25). The Disney villains in each movie are strongly motivated and determined and will do almost anything to accomplish their goals. They are strongly opinionated, regularly self-advocating for their rights and potential at a happily ever after.
Disney villains do not get happy endings. The TV show Once Upon a Time, a TV show about Disney and fairytale characters living in a small town in Maine, does a great job showing each villain’s backstory and for once exposing the villains side of the stories we know and love. Each villain begins their life, generally as a citizen or potential future hero, but circumstance takes them from one bad decision to the next until they become the villain we know them to be through their respective Disney animated film. Most had good intentions but let the darkness get the best of them. Once Upon a Time often reiterates “villains don’t get happy endings” (“The Heart of the Truest Believer” 04:26-05:10). In the parody musical “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier” the citizens of the Magic Kingdom list the many ways Disney villains have faced their end and try to predict which ending Jafar will face. They tell each other “he could be skewered by a sailing ship or hanged in tangled jungle vines! Or eaten by hyenas! Or he’ll plummet to his death, from a castle! A clock! Or a cliff!” (Team Starkid 06:15 – 06:31). All are different endings for different Disney villains and not very happy ones at that.
Disney villains come from many different backgrounds. Some are from worlds of fantasy and magic and often embrace the magical side of themselves (the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Jafar from Aladdin, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, and more). Others are not magical but they come from a place in which magic exists (Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, Captain Hook from Peter Pan, Lady Tremaine from Cinderella, and more). And some Disney villains (Claude Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Cruella de Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Shan-Yu from Mulan) do not have magical properties and come from the same world we all share.
Many, if not all, Disney villains are scene stealers. According to Helmsing “Their bodies take up the full display of the shot and the colors and lighting change drastically to highlight their disruptive arrival in the film” (64). The impact of Disney villains as showstoppers and scene stealers is evident in their large fan base through social media platforms such as YouTube, Tumblr, and Instagram. Disney villains have a “surprisingly high number of viral videos on YouTube that remix and re-imagine the diva villain in contemporary tropes — from Todrick Hall’s (2014) ‘Spell Block Tango’ to Oh My Disney’s (2014), ‘Counting Scars,’ their villainous version of One Republic’s ‘Counting Stars’” (Helmsing 59-60). Team Starkid created a full-length parody musical called “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier” on YouTube about the Disney villain Jafar from Aladdin. Aside from YouTube, social media platforms like Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram are ways for fans and artists to share their Disney villain fan art with others around the world. Disney villain fan art glamorizes villain characters and brings to light the human qualities we relate and feel strongly connected to (selfishness, vulnerability, confidence, vain, etc.). In society these qualities are often suppressed because of societal expectations but are a natural part of being human.
DISNEY VILLAINS MINORITY OVERREPRESENTATION
Being the pop culture icon that it is, the Walt Disney Company has had to change and develop their productions to match what is considered popular and entertaining in the zeitgeist of the particular era. Many of the older Disney films dating before 1990 show the journey of a man or a woman defeating a villain to get to their happily ever after. Often times the man saves the day even if the movie is based on the journey of a woman (Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and more). Before the past thirty years, having a person of color as a main character was not common and even in the modern day it is not nearly as common as it could be. Until the movie Aladdin premiered there were very few characters across all the Disney animated films that identified as people of color. The character Tiger Lily from Peter Pan is likely one of the only characters of color with a significant part in a Disney film before 1992. In most Disney animated films Disney villains identify with one or more marginalized minority groups whereas their Disney hero counterparts may possibly identify with no marginalized groups.
There is a pattern of Disney villains who identify with the same minority groups throughout the 1900s and into the 2000s: villains who are twice the age of their Disney hero counterparts (Lady Tremaine from Cinderella, Captain Hook from Peter Pan, Mother Gothel from Tangled), villains who have a unique dialect or foreign accent to their hero counterparts (Jafar from Aladdin, Shere Khan from The Jungle Book, Governor Ratcliffe from Pocahontas), villains who do not fall into the standards of being beautiful and thin (Ursula from The Little Mermaid, the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, Hades from Hercules), and many more that will be discussed below.
Gender: There are More Than Just Two Gender Identities. Over the years Disney animated films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty have expressed society’s expectations of women throughout history. Before the 1990s, female characters were shown in Disney animated films as people who only cook and clean or take care of children or animals (Wendy from Peter Pan, Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella from Cinderella, and the list goes on). Around the 1990s, Disney animated films started showing strong female characters who did not need a man to come and save the day (although a man would still come and do so). Providing strong female characters for children to look up to provided children, especially little girls, opportunities to think beyond someone who cooks or cleans. As the importance of feminism, women’s rights, and equality have grown over the years so have the independence, strength, and depth of female characters and Disney princesses. In more recent Disney films (Frozen, Tangled, and Moana), female characters are no longer cleaning and cooking but are going on adventures and being part of the battles only male characters would participate in.
Throughout the decades, Disney animated films have shown Disney female characters as dependent on their male counterparts to lead them to their happily ever after. Even in the past ten years with Disney portraying stronger female characters the female characters are often saved by male characters. Flynn Rider helped Rapunzel escape her tower in Tangled, Aladdin freed Princess Jasmine from the confines of the palace walls in Aladdin, Kristoff helped Anna find her sister Elsa in Frozen, and the list goes on and on. Disney female villains are quite the opposite. They are in charge and advocate for their own happy endings. Sometimes female villains become villains because of their independence and wanting to be something more than what society tells them to be, an obedient woman dependent on a man. In the parody musical “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier” Ursula from The Little Mermaid is able to share her untold story with the audience. According to Ursula, she was the ruler of the ocean until her brother, King Triton, “held the antiquated notion that women should be seen and never heard” (Team Starkid 01:37:48-01:37:55). Ursula goes on to say King Triton “dethroned me then disowned me and on top of that rezoned me to the outskirts of the kingdom in a cave” all because she was a female ruler (Team Starkid 01:37:57-01:38:04).
In my opinion, all Disney animated films take place in a patriarchal society where Disney female villains are accused of being villains because they are independent, take action, and advocate for their beliefs and dreams. Even Mulan was considered a bad person, not necessarily a villain, in her own movie Mulan when she stole her father’s armor, ran away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived her commanding officer, dishonored the Chinese army and destroyed the Emperor’s palace (Mulan 01:15:57-01:16:18). As a Chinese woman, Mulan was expected to be quiet and obedient; her character was considered outspoken and a dishonor to her family name. Mulan could have had her story twisted by others into a story of a villain rather than a hero like how Ursula is perceived to be in the parody musical “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier”. If not for saving all of China from Shan Yu and being recognized by the Emperor for it Mulan may have turned into a story about a villain.
While the patriarchal dominance of Disney animated films may perpetuate some women into being perceived as villains, the opposite effect can happen with men being perceived as heroes when they should be villains. In the movie Moana, Maui is seen as a funny character and hero but his actions represent those of a villain. The entire movie begins with Maui stealing the heart of the goddess, Te Fiti, for humanity (Moana 01:50-02:45). The goddess Te Fiti’s heart held the power to create even life itself and she “shared it with the world” (Moana 01:04-01:18). Maui had no right to steal Te Fiti’s life source which was already shared with everyone including humanity. When the heart of Te Fiti was taken Te Fiti disintegrated and a lava demon, known as Te Ka, was born, plunging the world into a dark age (Network 1901 0:51-1:01). Throughout the whole movie, Maui is seen as a selfish demigod with a lack of emotion and no sense of vulnerability which in and of itself can be seen as portraying the expectations of men in society to be tough and show no emotions. When Maui first meets Moana he sings to her to trick her into a cave, traps her there, and attempts to steal her canoe to escape the island they are trapped on (Moana 38:24-41:12). It can be said that “Moana is about women overcoming the obstacle of men” as Moana does with Maui throughout the entire movie with his continuous attempts to get rid of her by pushing her off the canoe and attempting to sacrifice her to the giant crab to get his fish hook back (Network 1901 04:40-04:44). But Maui is not seen as a villain, rather, he’s see––-n as a hero. If Maui was a woman what are the chances she would be seen as a hero and not a mean and bitter woman if she did the same things?
Sexuality: Who can Romantically Love Whom in a Disney Film and Why? While American society has been evolving their knowledge and awareness of other identities outside of a heterosexual norm Disney animated films still show a heterosexual form of romantic love. Almost all Disney animated films that have any form of a love story or love interest show a man with a woman. Mulan could have been one of those movies that turned out differently. As Paint expresses in his parody video “After Ever After 2”, a singing video sequel where he portrays Disney princesses after the happy endings Disney audiences know, Mulan finds struggle in balancing her life as a woman and pretending to be a man and decides to change genders (Paint, “After Ever After 2” 0:20-1:25). This would have changed Disney’s standard of only male and female genders and would also provide opportunities to explore alternative forms of romance to the standard heterosexual one Disney always portrays. In the Once Upon a Time TV series, Mulan identifies as a lesbian and struggles with telling the love of her life, Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, how she feels about her (TimeandMonotony 00:44-02:23). Other fairytale characters like Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and Little Red Riding Hood from the Little Red Riding Hood story also identify as lesbian in the Once Upon a Time TV series. Currently there are rumors that the Frozen sequel will identify Elsa as a lesbian character but it is not confirmed. If that happens, Elsa will be the first in Disney animated film and Disney princess, or rather Disney queen, history to not identify as heterosexual.
While next to no Disney protagonists are assumed to be part of the LGBTQ community most Disney villains are. Disney villains are rarely seen in any type of love interest or romantic relationship to confirm their sexuality but there are forms of speaking, body language, and more that hint at the possibility of Disney villains identifying with LGBTQ identities. Ursula from The Little Mermaid is one of the more well-known characters to discuss in this context because of the inspiration for her appearance and demeanor which was inspired by the drag queen Divine (Dart). Other popular mentions in Disney queer scholarship are Scar from The Lion King, Jafar from Aladdin, Governor Ratcliffe from Pocahontas, Hades from Hercules, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, Lady Tremaine from Cinderella, and the Evil Queen (also known as Grimhilde) from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Disney villains teach audiences, particularly queer audiences, “how to embrace failure fabulously” and how to not let being queer, frail, and weird keep individuals, particularly queer individuals, “from succeeding in the straight, normal world of Prince Charming and Aladdin” (Helmsing 60). Mark Helmsing argues that even though Disney villains are viewed as an “incomprehensible evil” in their respective films they are really “the victim of social oppression” just like the queer audience viewer and many other audience viewers who identify with marginalized communities (61). Through the journey and failure of the Disney villain, Disney audiences can take away “how to make a queerly ‘happy’ life out of dejection and abandonment” (Helmsing 68). Life goes on despite the failures. Disney villains teach viewers that failure is inevitable and can happen in anything we do, even the things we strive the hardest for. For example, “Ursula lives in a dark grotto, still “under the sea” with the annoyingly happy singing fish and crustaceans, but in her own private space” (Helmsing 68). She was banished but makes the most of her situation until Ariel arrives giving her a golden opportunity to strive for something better.
Race: Why Does Ethnicity and Skin (or Fur) Color Matter? Disney animated films are predominately films starring white protagonists with United States dialects and villains with different skin colors and non-United States dialects. Even films starring characters of color have the protagonist speaking with a United States accent and the villain speaking with what seems to be a foreign dialect. Why are Disney heroes, even in recent animated films, depicted as white and/or with United States dialects? Why are Disney villains represented as the exact opposite in those same animated films?
Different forms of Disney fan art and Disney parodies have brought to light the big topic of race and skin color in two ways. Disney parodies and some forms of Disney fan art represent and call out race and skin color diversity in Disney animated films. Disney fan art specifically shows how race and skin diversity could be better and more widely represented if reflected in today’s society. In particular, the lack of racial and skin color diversity in hero characters and the overrepresentation of racial and skin color diversity in villain characters. The parody musical “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier” touches on this with their introductory song about the Magic Kingdom (Disneyland) when one of the citizens asks “why is everyone in the kingdom white?” (Team Starkid 04:05-04:16). All the citizens look around at each other realizing everyone is white and blame everyone being white on wealth and the villain Jafar (Team Starkid 04:05-04:16). Another example is in the YouTube parody video “After Ever After”, a singing video where the artist, Paint, portrays what happens to Disney princesses after the happy endings Disney audiences know. In the song, Paint portrays Princess Jasmine from the movie Aladdin and sings how Aladdin has been mistaken for a terrorist by the American government and pleads the United States to set him free from interrogation (Paint, “After Ever After” 01:06-01:54). Other forms of media like fan art have entire Tumblr and Pinterest pages dedicated to what is called Disney racebending, changing a Disney character’s original race and skin color from their respective animated film to a completely different one.
Disney animated films, and really just children movies in general, tend to use non-standard dialects and accents to voice villains (Fattal). One example of this is in the movie The Lion King. The villain of the movie Scar “masterfully voices scheming and betrayal using a British accent that contrasts with the all-American intonation of the ruddy-maned hero, Simba” (Giroux and Pollock 102). Sociolinguist Calvin Gidney, associate professor in child study and human development, noticed Scar’s henchmen, the hyenas, “spoke in either African American English or English with a Spanish accent” (Fattal). “Henchmen or assistants to villains often spoke in dialects associated with low socioeconomic status, including working-class Eastern European dialects or regional American dialects” according to Gidney and Julie Dobrow’s research on language patterns in animated children’s TV shows (Fattal). Gidney says “villainy is marked just by sounding different” which could partially explain why villains sound so different from their hero counterparts (Fattal). But what does this say about the Walt Disney and United States perspective on foreigners in the United States?
There are many characters throughout all Disney animated films (heroes, villains, sidekicks, parents, etc.) who fall into a pattern of similar or same racial and ethnic identities. Parents are not all one ethnicity, sidekicks are not all one ethnicity, and the list goes on. So why are they often portrayed time and again to be the same? As an example, most Disney heroes are portrayed to be white with their villain counterparts identifying as people of color (brown skin, green skin, purple skin, blue skin, etc.). Even in remakes of fairytales and Disney animated films characters that are not gender or race specific will only be portrayed by a specific race and gender. In the Once Upon a Time TV show, however, characters normally viewed as white, Merlin from The Sword in the Stone and Rapunzel from the fairytale Rapunzel (separate from the Disney version Tangled), identify as people of color. Once Upon a Time shows and proves that most Disney characters, with the exception of films like Mulan, Moana and Aladdin being ethnically specific films, can be portrayed in infinite ethnicities, shapes and sizes. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1997 version of Cinderella holds a strong and racially diverse cast in what is often portrayed as a white character film (Disney’s Cinderella and the live remake in 2015). A white actor versus an actor of color playing Cinderella, the Prince, Lady Tremaine, the Fairy Godmother and more does not change the purpose or plot of this particular story. So why doesn’t it happen more often?
Age: Why do Disney Films Constantly Frame Children Against Adults? Everyone knows Disney produces films for a mostly child-based audience. Animated films like Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, Hercules and more are coming of age films showing the journey of the main protagonist from a child into a young adult. Disney often portrays adults as villains in these movies who create obstacles and barriers to the young hero’s journey. The villains attempt to stop them from growing into the person they are trying or wanting to become (Hades from Hercules, Maui from Moana, and more), they create barriers so it’s more challenging for the hero to achieve their dreams (Mother Gothel from Tangled, Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog, and more), and they purposely abuse them through their parental rights as adults (Lady Tremaine from Cinderella, The Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and more).
Disney villains are almost always portrayed as adult characters, many of them being twice as old as the protagonist (Captain Hook from Peter Pan, Lady Tremaine from Cinderella, Mother Gothel from Tangled, and more). “In Disney films, ‘older women are backgrounded as loving (preferably deceased) mothers (Haas, 1995) or, if powerful and independent, vilified as evil femme fatales or ugly hags’” (Kirker 207). With the idea of having young heroes for young children to identify with in these films why not also have young villains and antagonists? Reiterating that only adults or stepmothers are bad people can create a Disney stereotype that all adults and stepmothers are villains in Disney animated films. This could be impacted in real life through unconscious bias, social biases individuals have that they are not consciously aware of. With the reiteration that adults and stepmothers are often bad people there could be some form of unconscious bias alerting individuals that adults and stepmothers can’t be trusted.
Ideals of Beauty: Where are the Realistic Body Proportions? Disney animated films hold a high standard when it comes to body image and beauty. All Disney princesses must fit the mold of being beautiful and slim. All Disney princes must be physically fit and taller than their female love interests. The requirements to work at any Disney theme park as a character from a Disney animated film is one example of how Disney’s standards of beauty and physical appearance are reinforced. To be a Disney princess at a Disney theme park, one must be between the height of 5’4 and 5’7, be between 18-27 years old, be a dress size 10 or less, and be able to smile at all times “because princesses are never sad or upset” (“13 Inscrutable Requirements”). This particular example reinforces that only certain women, who meet the physical criteria above, can be a Disney princess and once someone grows, ages, frowns, or packs on a few pounds, they can no longer be a Disney princess. This, along with the standard of how characters in Disney animated films are portrayed often reinforce society’s standards of beauty in hero roles and the exact opposite in villain roles.
Beauty and the Beast is the one contradiction to Disney’s standards of beauty (for women: slim, big eyes, long flowing hair, petite figure; for men: tall, physically fit, and bigger proportions like hands and feet than their female counterpart) with Gaston, supposedly the definition of beauty, being the villain and Beast, a man cursed to look like a monster, being the female heroine’s love interest. Beauty and the Beast shows that not all people who look like monsters are bad people and that not all good looking people, or what is considered good looking by society, are good people. It changed the dynamic of past Disney animated films and is even reinvented later in Frozen with Prince Hans being the main villain when audience viewers may have assumed he would be the hero who would marry Princess Anna.
For the majority of Disney animated films, even after Beauty and the Beast was released, heroes are showcased as attractive and villains are showcased as unattractive. There are a few exceptions in both hero and villain categories but not enough to stop the reinforcement that characters who are considered unattractive or ugly are often made out to be Disney villains and characters who are considered attractive are often assumed and confirmed to be Disney heroes. Villain characters and sidekicks like Cinderella’s stepsisters, Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove, Clayton from Tarzan, LeFou from Beauty and the Beast, and more ooze a villain essence from the first time audiences see them on the screen because of Disney’s standards and predictability. Whenever we see a character who is not the stereotypically attractive character audiences may make the assumption that the character will be the villain and, often with Disney, that’s true. Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast are the few hero characters who do not fit into society’s stereotype of an attractive individual. However, the Beast ends up turning into a handsome prince so, realistically, of the two only Quasimodo fits into the mold of being a non-standard Disney hero.
With villain characters and their physical appearance body fat or lack thereof can play a big and often unpredictable factor in Disney films. Overweight characters in Disney animated films, for example, have never played a hero or protagonist role. Even looking at mainstream TV shows and movies the topic of body positivity and seeing actors with larger areas of body fat is not common. In Disney animated films male villain characters are either very thin to the point of scrawny (Jafar from Aladdin, Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog, Scar from The Lion King, and more) or big and bulky (Clayton from Tarzan, Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, Shan Yu from Mulan, and more). In the same sense female villain characters are often slim (Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, Cruella de Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and more) just like their female hero counterparts. There are not many female characters throughout Disney films who are overweight, Ursula from The Little Mermaid and the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland being some of the very few overweight villains in Disney animated films. This also applies to all female characters in Disney animated films. Those who are considered to be on the bigger side are often grandmothers to the protagonists. In the same way, male overweight characters are often sidekicks to heroes or villains (Smee from Peter Pan, Chien-Po from Mulan, Gus from Cinderella, and more) or fathers to protagonists (Sultan from Aladdin, Maurice from Beauty and the Beast, King Hubert from Sleeping Beauty, and more).
Mental Health and Disability. Disney does not often touch on mental health in their animated films and if they do so it is done discreetly. An example of this is in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Each character expresses certain mental health disorders that fans have pointed out through the FanTheories Wiki website. According to this website, Winnie the Pooh has an eating disorder, Piglet has anxiety, Eeyore has depression, Tigger has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Rabbit has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) (Fandom). The awareness of said mental disorders is never acknowledged by the characters themselves, however, it’s clear to see the symptoms in each character and why audiences may assume such things. For example, Winnie the Pooh is known for eating honey frequently and in large quantities which could, potentially, be an indicator of an eating disorder.
Often times remakes or retellings of certain Disney stories and characters can show audiences a more serious version of a character struggling with mental health and internal conflict. One of the best examples of this is the character Alice from Alice in Wonderland. In the live remake of Alice Through the Looking Glass Alice wakes up in the middle of her quest in a mental institution (01:09:35-01:11:11). This scene shows society going against what Alice believes and knows to be true. The mental institution and whoever brought her there are claiming she must have mental health problems because talking cats and mad hatters don’t exist. The staff member lists off her symptoms stating she is prone to fantasy and has “the textbook case of female hysteria” (Alice Through the Looking Glass 01:10:23-01:10:33). Even though the audience knows her adventures and stories to be real the characters in the movie who are not from Wonderland do not know this. Season 7 of the TV series Once Upon a Time takes place in Seattle where all fairytale characters no longer remember who they really are and live alternate lives. Alice, who goes by Tilly in Seattle, starts to remember who she really is when she stops taking her pills or rather Tilly’s pills (OUAT epic tales, “Weaver”). At the surface, without the background knowledge Tilly is really a completely different character named Alice, it may seem like someone is having mental health concerns because they stopped taking their medication. From the TV show’s perspective the pills are making Alice forget who she really is so she can’t interfere with breaking the curse that brought all the characters to Seattle (OUAT epic tales, “Weaver”). In the beginning of the Once Upon a Time spinoff series titled Once Upon a Time in Wonderland Alice is introduced in a mental institution. She had recently returned home from her adventures in Wonderland and told her family of the adventures she went on and the people she had met. Her father thought she was going mad and decided to lock her in a mental institution which she later breaks out of to go back to Wonderland (That Tuba Guy). In all the portrayals of Alice across movies, stories, and TV shows, Alice is often misunderstood by the people around her. She’s a curious adventure seeker who believes in the impossible and doesn’t need someone else’s help to get things done.
Aside from Alice and the assumption of the characters from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh there are very few Disney characters who show signs of mental health issues. Cruella de Vil is a character who is made out to have mental health concerns in almost every version and remake of the character. In the live remake 101 Dalmatians and the sequel 102 Dalmatians Cruella has a clear obsession to kill Dalmatian puppies for her fur coat collection. At the beginning of the live remake sequel Cruella is seen in a mental institution for wanting to kill the Dalmatian puppies from the end of the 101 Dalmatians movie. In the TV show Once Upon a Time Cruella de Vil loves killing people, animals, and anything that is considered alive. According to her mother she’s had this passion for killing since she was a little girl when she killed her father. After that she grew up killing all of her mother’s future partners and as an adult killed her mother and her mother’s dalmatians (making a fur coat out of the dogs). In the parody musical “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier” Cruella de Vil makes a brief cameo while the other Disney villains are telling Jafar how their story became twisted from the truth. They talk of how they wanted to be invited, save the love of their life, advocate for citizens, help people, and more (Team Starkid 01:40:30-01:41:09). Cruella de Vil shows up to their gathering saying “I only wished to have a coat made out of puppies!” (Team Starkid 01:41:13-01:41:18). Jafar and the other Disney villains are disgusted by her, to her surprise, and make remarks while she rushes off stage saying “Just leave! Why would you do that? That’s insane! They’re babies.” (Team Starkid 01:41:18-01:41:24).
With all the examples mentioned above it’s clear that Disney animated films have not touched on topics of mental health and disability. Many of the examples above were from live remakes and parodies of the Disney animated films and characters. Fan art and fan theories are big promoters of Disney characters identifying with mental health disorders. On social media platforms such as Pinterest, Tumblr, and more, almost every single Disney character can be identified as having a medical condition or mental health disorder. Why is mental health such a big identity in fan theories and fan art but not in the actual Disney animated films?
There are many people in the world who identify with physical disabilities, invisible disabilities, learning disabilities and mental disabilities. Pixar movies such as Finding Nemo and Finding Dory have many characters who identify with a physical, somewhat invisible, learning or mental disability. However, in Disney animated films Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Captain Hook from Peter Pan, and Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame are a few of the only Disney characters associated with any form of a physical, invisible, or learning disability. Why is that? Why are all heroes, sidekicks, villains, and more physically able bodied with perfect vision and hearing? What about characters with missing limbs like Captain Hook? What about characters with mental disabilities that are challenging to control?
ONCE UPON A TIME BRIDGING DISNEY VILLAINS WITH REAL LIFE
The TV show Once Upon a Time is a seven-season series about fairytale characters, mainly from Disney animated films, who have been cursed to our world and live interchangeably between our world and other fantasy worlds (Neverland, Wonderland, Oz, Agrabah, and more). If anything, Once Upon a Time has taught viewers that “the world has failed to allow the villains to live and co-exist” (Helmsing 70). When a new villain arrives in the series there is an episode dedicated to the villain’s backstory. The backstory proves to audience viewers that villains were born into the world like any other individual. Due to circumstances, events, and more these individuals walked down a dark path resulting in bad behavior and the title of a villain. The sections to follow have spoilers from the seven seasons of the TV series.
“Evil isn’t born, it’s made”. One of the main themes throughout the TV series is that “evil isn’t born, it’s made” (“Kansas” 34:05-34:08). Each season has a dedicated episode to the villains’ backstory which gives audience viewers insight into the villains’ journey and goals. Rumplestiltskin is the one exception as his backstory is revealed little by little throughout the entirety of the seven seasons. Characters like The Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I will be referring to her by her real name Regina, Captain Hook from Peter Pan, and Ursula from The Little Mermaid are initially seen as vile villain characters. They ruin the lives of their enemies to make themselves happy. The longer the show progresses the more we see these so-called villain characters weren’t born wanting to ruin the lives of others. Their worlds were crushed. They wanted others to feel the way they did, or worse. For example, in season 1 of Once Upon a Time a young Regina told a young child, named Snow White, that she loves the stable boy even though she’s in an arranged marriage with Snow White’s father. Snow White told this secret to Regina’s mother who then went and killed the stable boy in front of Regina. Since then Regina has hated Snow White for revealing her secret love and vowed to make her pay for what she did.
Some characters from Once Upon a Time like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, I will be referring to her by her real name Zelena, and the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, I will be referring to her by her real name Cora, were oppressed and verbally abused to believe they’re evil, or in Zelena’s case “wicked”, and that they deserve to be miserable. Zelena, for example, was born with magic, magic she couldn’t control but only used for good. The people of Oz, including her father, believed her to be wicked and oppressed her into believing she was a wicked person who didn’t deserve happiness all because of her magic.
Sometimes, as Once Upon a Time shows, the darkness comes out when people lose the thing or person they love most, like in the example with Regina. Other times, like in the example with Zelena, the darkness comes out from being oppressed and bullied with no concept of what it’s like to feel love. Villain characters can become desperate to be happy or to get back the love and happiness they previously had. In season seven, for example, Rapunzel sacrifices her freedom for her husband to be cured of his sickness and her daughters to live in a home and well fed. Years later when she escapes her tower Rapunzel finds her husband remarried and now has a stepdaughter named Ella, who is later known as Cinderella. Rapunzel’s two daughters now see Cinderella’s mother as their own mother since Rapunzel was locked in a tower for most of their childhood. To get back the life she had with her husband and children she poisons Cinderella’s mother and becomes Lady Tremaine, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother. Rapunzel is a character who was initially a hero but turned into a villain to get her family back and be happy again. All characters can have those same or similar experiences and goals, not just characters defined as villains. Once Upon a Time shows viewers the mistakes and hard decisions these villains make, even the mistakes and hard decisions heroes make. The difference between heroes and villains making hard decisions is that villains “make themselves happy at the expense of others” and so they use selfish tactics to get what they want (“Operation Mongoose: Part 2” 30:48-30:53).
Not all heroes are good and not all villains are bad. Throughout the seven seasons, Once Upon a Time has portrayed heroes doing terrible things and villains saving lives, which is unlike Disney’s stereotypical heroes and villains. Audience viewers can see heroes who make mistakes and selfish decisions. They can also see villains siding with heroes and changing their morals to be a better person for their child or self. There is no black and white box, every character has their ups and downs, their successes and failures, etc. Some examples include Snow White killing the Queen of Hearts out of vengeance for the death of her mother and nanny, Pinocchio promising Geppetto (Pinocchio’s father and creator) he would watch over and raise Snow White’s daughter but left her in the foster care system to travel the world, Regina saving Robin Hood’s son from a flying monkey, Rumplestiltskin almost murdering Robin Hood until he discovers Robin Hood’s wife is expecting, and many more.
In season 4 episode 9 of Once Upon a Time, Snow White and Regina have a conversation about good versus evil, heroes versus villains, villains not getting their happy endings, and the chance at redemption (“Smash the Mirror: Part 2” 11:27-13:29). At this point in the series Regina believes her efforts in becoming a better person and having a second chance at life are for nothing. Snow White tells Regina she believes in her and that her past will be forgiven through her efforts now. She tells Regina “you are not all evil and I am not all good. Things are not that simple.” (“Smash the Mirror: Part 2” 12:44-12:48). To which Regina replies to Snow White “you’re the hero and I’m the villain. Free will be damned. It’s all in the book and we both know how it plays out” (“Smash the Mirror: Part 2” 12:54-13:06). Those initially defined as villains in Once Upon a Time strive hard to change their lives for love, children, and a good life. Most are given a second chance, and sometimes a second-second chance, at life to redeem themselves and make up for all the bad things they’ve done in their past.
Second Chances: Road to Redemption. Second chances, especially second-second chances, are hard to come by and the road to redemption can be long and tiring. As Rumplestiltskin shows audience viewers, change is hard and old habits die hard. Being given the opportunity at a second chance or multiple second chances, as is the case with most villains, is faith and hope for them to become and continue to be better people. Characters like Rumplestiltskin struggle with their addiction to power and magic and keep losing loved ones to it. Just like everyday addictions to alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, video games, and more these characters can relate to the mistakes and everyday hardships everyone faces in life. Characters like Rumplestiltskin and Regina who don’t want to give up their power and magic sacrifice the relationships and love for their sons and life partners. Characters like Zelena, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, Drizella from Cinderella, and more just want someone willing to give them a second chance to prove they can change and be trusted.
Once Upon a Time shows every character’s storyline with opportunities for a happy ending no matter how many terrible things a character may have done. At first glance terrible characters are seen ruining lives, killing people for fun, and interfering in relationships and the smooth process of events (such as weddings or, as is the case with Once Upon a Time, giving birth). Characters like the Snow Queen, Regina, Zelena, Maleficent, Cora, and more all did terrible things but wanted to be better people and changed for a child, whether their own child or someone they treated like their own child. Rumplestiltskin and Captain Hook strived to be better individuals for their wives, Drizella changed for her sister, Anastasia, and Ursula changed when the last memory of her mother was restored to her. Change is not the best word to use for these transformations but the point is the reason they all wanted to be something other than the label of a villain. All the villains wanted to change because of, and sometimes for, the one person who did believe and love them. The one who was willing to give them a second chance. As Regina says to Drizella, “my gift to you is what I always wanted, someone to believe I can change” (OUAT epic tales, “Regina” 1:40-1:48).
WHY INDIVIDUALS MAY IDENTIFY MORE WITH DISNEY VILLAINS IN DISNEY ANIMATED FILMS
In analyzing the characteristics, qualities, and identities Disney villains possess, embrace, and suppress throughout this paper, Disney villains are initially good people who had bad things happen to them. As Sirius Black says to Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, “you’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to” (manuel solans 0:56-1:05). This is also true for Disney villains… until they start letting those bad things influence them to be bad people. Characters depicted as Disney villains are just trying to survive and prove that “evil isn’t born, it’s made”. They are not born bad people but they’re people who have bad things happen to them. Jafar from Aladdin is one example of someone trying to survive despite all the bad things in life. According to Wotso Videos, in the rough draft versions of the movie Aladdin, Jafar grew up in poverty and was bullied by the people of Agrabah (Wotso Videos, “Jafar” 0:37-1:00). He strived hard to be educated and work as the Sultan’s royal vizier so he would never have to live in poverty and oppression again (Wotso Videos, “Jafar” 0:37-1:00). Eric Kahn Gale, one of the writers of the parody musical “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier” explained why he thinks Jafar is the true hero in the movie Aladdin. Gale said “the most likeable character in the movie, I think I can argue with you to prove, is Jafar. Yeah, he does want to take over the kingdom, but from who? A drug adult idiot of a Sultan who sits on the throne and stacks toys of animals. That’s no way to run a kingdom” (A Very Starkid Reunion 01:33:11 – 01:33:32).
Disney villains glorify the human qualities society wants to suppress or ignore. Some examples include being vulnerable, being frustrated, feeling lust for another, feeling jealous or envious of another, and more. They represent the individuals who have to try and fail multiple times to be successful, the individuals who are too proud to admit being wrong, and the individuals who will do anything to protect what is close and dear to them. Everyone can, or does, feel these things. Everyone faces temptation and battles inner demons. Disney villains believe that what they are doing is the right way, or the best way, to be successful and survive.
From examining and discussing the above identities, characteristics, and experiences of Disney villains it’s pretty evident that Disney animated films are one sided stories. Helmsing states that while Disney villains live “within the White patriarchal world of Disney” their “vainglorious quests for beauty and power are no different from the conforming public desires in the dominant culture” (63). If anything, Disney villains are the sides of humanity that people wish to ignore: the anger, jealousy, lust, self-investment, and more. People may wish to ignore these feelings, thoughts, or ideas, but they’re still there inside them. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to be successful, happy, and be able to express one’s own opinion but there is wrong in accomplishing such desires at the expense of others. I personally believe everyone can identify with a Disney villain, whether it’s their identity, characteristic, attitude, appearance, or experience. While it may not be Disney’s intent for audiences to identity or cheer for the Disney villains there is much to learn from them (Helmsing 60). Sometimes it’s “better to be fabulous and have gone out big (as a dragon or a witch) than a dowdy, boring scullery maid or servile housemother to ungrateful dwarfs” (Helmsing 62-63).
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