This is part 1 of a two part blog post. In this post I’ll be exploring the definition of media stereotypes and how they relate to Disney animated villains. In part 2 I’ll change up the audience perspective by looking at what Disney heroes would be like as villains and what Disney villains would be like as heroes.
** Disclaimer: When I mention Disney villains I’m referring to Disney animated movie villains only. This does not include Pixar movies. **
“The starting point in any class discussions of media stereotypes is neither to shame individuals for their knowledge of stereotypes or to uphold the belief that any of us escapes their influence.”Ellen Seiter, Keywords for Media Studies (p. 184-185)
Ellen Seiter defines stereotypes in media as various systematic representations based on physical appearances from a particular perspective or point of view (184). Seiter continues to say media stereotypes are often repeated in a variety of forms and serve as “cautionary images — warning who not to be — as well as models of available social identities” (184-185). To me this perfectly describes Disney villains. Disney villains, in my mind, have always been created for a Disney movie to uphold specific characteristics and physical features that make them easy to spot throughout the movie as being the villain character or at the very least different from the rest of the characters in the movie.
So what’s so bad about stereotypes, especially ones about villains? All stereotypes can be harmful in their own way because they create concrete ideas and groups that all people who look, act, or are a certain way only fit into one mold of a hero, villain, civilian, student, etc. when they are not. Everyone fits into multiple and numerous identities, roles, and more. As Seiter says, people can assume stereotypes are a systematic suggestion “… that all people of a group [or stereotype] are this way, and this way by nature, and that we should feel superior to them, whether we despise, fear, or laugh at the stereotype” is not an accurate representation of everyone and every situation / scenario (184-185). It also creates assumptions and biases when there are patterns of particular stereotypes being repeated over and over again like seeing Asians in media being portrayed as smart. While there are Asians who are smart that does not define the entire Asian population or give anyone the right to assume anyone who looks Asian is the smartest person in the room. Everyone is different and so is every Disney villain.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a Ted Talk in 2009 about the dangers of a single story. I think I’ve watched this video at least a dozen times for various professional development and diversity trainings for work and school. Adichie uses storytelling and examples to touch on assumptions and the danger of stories, stereotypes, and biases. The danger of a single story, according to Adichie, is that it creates stereotypes “… and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”. As with Disney villains Disney creators lead audiences to believe they are evil with no story of their own that shows anything other than their hatred and vengeance toward the Disney hero. Which is true… but if the movie Maleficent and the TV show Once Upon a Time are any indicator then it’s not really true.
There’s been more and more renditions and spin offs of Disney animated movies and characters in recent years. The most recent and popular ones in my mind are the movie Maleficent, the TV show Once Upon a Time, and the Youtube musical parody “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier”. All of these recreations of Disney animated movies touch on the Disney villain’s backstory and redemption to be the hero of their own story. Adichie also touches on the empowerment of stories and how they can humanize people and events. I find these more current renditions of the original Disney fairytales (from the Disney villain’s perspective) really empowers and humanizes a character that is often seen as monstrous and inhumane in the lens of a Disney audience and hero.
In Sarah Gailey’s article “In Defense of Villainesses” Gailey writes about the characteristics and behaviors of most American female villains across Disney, comic books, and more. Gailey compares these characteristics and behaviors to the expectations and standards society holds women to and questions why female villains can’t be role models to audiences and young girls. Female villains are the women in our lives who are not afraid to fight for what they want and get things done. Being a Disney princess will not necessarily get you anywhere in life and yet Disney princesses are the role models, not Disney villains.
“We fear them and we hate them and we envy them and we want to be them. What could we become, if we threw our heads back when we laughed? What could we become if we were willing to push aside everyone who stands in our way? What could we accomplish? What would happen to us, if we decided that we didn’t want to scrub floors during the day and wish on stars at night and wonder when the adventure is going to come find us?”Sarah Gailey, “In Defense of Villainesses”
So like the quote I started with stereotypes, especially Disney ones, are hard to escape. Even if any of us do not watch or consume Disney media there is someone else we know, encounter, or interact with who does. Disney is such a massive pop culture icon it’s hard to avoid, even secondhand. I don’t expect the stereotypes to stop, it’s a part of media entertainment unfortunately, but I do hope audiences will think about the content they are consuming and not internalize media stereotypes as fact.
Adichie, Chimamanda. “The Danger of a Single Story”. http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
Gailey, Sarah. “In Defense of Villainesses”. http://www.tor.com/2016/08/09/in-defense-of-villainesses/
Seiter, Ellen. “Stereotype”. Keywords for Media Studies, p. 184 – 185.