Is This The End Of The Stereotypical Villain In Popular Culture?

Is This The End Of The Stereotypical Villain In Popular Culture?

You don’t need to look very far before seeing villains at play in current affairs. From Donald Trump’s presidency to the constant threat of terrorism, extreme brutality and evil are no longer reserved for the big screen. Barely a day goes by without news reports of North Korean nuclear testing and Kim Jong-un’s paranoia, the rise of far-right groups since Brexit and civil unrest across the Middle East. However, wicked and violent characters continue to permeate popular culture in ways that aren’t just clichéd, but also racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic to name a few.

A recent study conducted by a team of US dermatologists and published in the journal JAMA Dermatology found that nefarious characters are more often than not portrayed with disfigurements or skin conditions. The researchers inspected images and the appearances of the top ten heroes and villains as rated by the American Film Institute. Their results show that six out of ten villains, such as Dr Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader and The Wicked Witch of the West had skin conditions ranging from warts, baldness and bulbous noses, to scars and dark circles under their eyes. Julie Amthor Croley, co-author of the research from the University of Texas, says that these associations “date back to the silent film age in a time when all filmmakers had to communicate [with] was visual cues, they didn’t have spoken word”. These connotations can be harmful in that they not only perpetuate “discrimination towards people with skin disease[s] but it also does affect the person on an individual basis”.

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These damaging associations and prejudices can just as easily be found in the enduring racism of villainous characterisations. Animated films produced by Disney in particular, are a classic example of how characters have long been designed in accordance with racial stereotypes and help instigate such prejudices in children. Aladdin (1992) portrays its Middle Eastern characters as ‘evil’ or ‘stupid’, while all the crows who doubt Dumbo’s flying ability are voiced by African-American actors. It’s not just Disney, Despicable Me 2 (2013) featured Eduardo, a medallion-wearing, mustachioed Mexican, also known as El Macho, not to mention Felonius Gru, the anti-hero whose accent falls somewhere between German and Russian – nationalities which have long been associated with antagonists. In 2014, it was reported that Batu Khasikov, a member of the culture committee at Russia’s Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, had told the Russian news agency Interfax that “movies where everything related to Russia is overtly demonized or shown in a primitive and silly way should be banned from theatrical distribution.” The Cold War unsurprisingly led to an increase in depicting Russians as a threat to the west, as well as the ideology of Soviet communism. Yet, these portrayals continue to persist in television and cinema today, particularly with reference to President Vladimir Putin’s administration: “I think particularly since the reemergence of Putin and a much more hardline regime, [especially] with the problems now in the Ukraine, there’s been this sense that Russia remains a geopolitical threat and a hostile power – even if it’s post-communist – and I think that’s really the reason you see this type of villainy,” says James Chapman, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester.

Hostility and fear are also deeply-rooted in the problematic presentation of queer characters throughout history. In a piece for the Guardian, Nico Lang scrutinises the effects of this “troubled legacy – which too often treats same-sex attraction as the cause of violent perversion – can be a burden for queer audiences looking for greater positive representation.” Going back to Disney animations, Lang highlights how “absurdly ubiquitous” the gay villain is within the Disney canon, such as the effeminate Jafar in Aladdin and the outrageous Ursula in The Little Mermaid (1989). The latter was even based on Divine, one of John Waters’ most frequent collaborators. Rather than focus on how misrepresentative or offensive these portrayals have been, Lang suggests a more subversive approach: “coming to terms with or even embracing cinema’s robust history of sissy villains and problematic queer archetypes engages in a radical act of what queerness is: taking something imperfect and transforming it.”

Marvel’s Black Panther, coming out early next year, similarly embraces its problematic origins while consciously destabilising racial stereotypes. Based on the comics of the same name, the film follows T’Challa, an African king/superhero, who must face off against forces conspiring against him. In a piece on Medium entitled Why Black Villains Matter, Shabazz Malikali writes: “if we are ever to reach that level of acceptance and diversity in pop culture we must also work hard to bring more black villains to the fore.” Indeed, where would the tension and drama be if a hero weren’t faced with a complex villain? Villains should be seductive in their destruction and behave in ways that we would never imagine behaving ourselves, but most of all, they should be multidimensional. Aside from poor storytelling, a one-dimensional character can alienate audiences and cause offence.

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The producers behind Black Panther are not only bringing the first black superhero to mainstream cinema, but they have also developed M’Baku, T’Challa’s enemy. In the comics, M’Baku is known as Man-Ape and wears a costume resembling a gorilla. Although this reflects his superpowers being gained from consuming sacred white gorilla flesh, they have chosen to avoid ‘racial implications’ by removing the use of Man-Ape and altering his costume. Executive producer Nate Moore has said: “Man-Ape is a problematic character for a lot of reasons, but the idea behind Man-Ape we thought was really fascinating. It’s a line I think we’re walking, and hopefully walking successfully.” In spite of this problematic nature, removing the character completely would have also removed the chance to develop them. Racism and its manifestation in popular culture shouldn’t be erased by way of political correctness, but it should serve as a reminder that these stereotypes are used to vilify real people on a daily basis. Malikali argues that “villains… allow black people to be flawed on the big screen. They allow black people to be relatable in stories and therefore redeemable in our minds.” The potential for Black Panther to bring this multifarious and dramatic story to mass audiences suggests Hollywood is slowly but surely taking a step in the right direction.

The need for greater diversity goes hand-in-hand with giving villains greater depth. Instead of continuing to write grotesque caricatures that are as predictable as they are prejudiced, we need to encourage the invention of composite baddies. However, some critics argue that greater nuance threatens dramatic purpose. In response to Suicide Squad’s collective of antiheroes, Phil Hoad says: “the danger is that this humanising impulse – every newly foregrounded baddie afforded the same kind of origin story as his do-gooding opponent – robs villains of their satanic majesty.” Are characters becoming less menacing because of this moral ambiguity? I don’t believe this to be the case. The Joker, an iconic supervillain, has always played with mystery as he constantly switches from one backstory to another. This unreliability makes his behaviour even more ominous and as Batman puts it: Like any other comedian, he uses whatever material will work”. The last few seasons of Orange is the New Black are also evidence that a diverse group of criminals can melt your heart one minute while you despise them the next and the recent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was particularly disturbing because it delved into the backstories of its cruelest characters; it scares us, even more, to realise we understand where these characters come from and that we might even relate to them on some level.

If the most sinister thing we can expect from villains is a reflection of ourselves, then society should be represented on screen – in all its complexity. We must ask more from our casting directors, screenwriters and commissioners. This shouldn’t mean dismissing problematic stereotypes entirely and pretending that they never existed, but as Lang put it, taking something imperfect and radically transforming it into humane depictions we can all embrace.

Written by Victoria Rodrigues O’Donnell


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