Why has it become so difficult to spot who’s the villain in Disney films?

This is a guest post from Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen. Read his article, co-authored with Sarah Helene Schmidt, in ESIC 3.2: “Disney's Shifting Visions of Villainy from the 1990s to the 2010s: A Biocultural Analysis.”

Disney’s animated villains have always been wholly and irredeemably evil, with very few exceptions. They care for nothing but money and power and relish the suffering of pretty much anyone but themselves.

The inner evil of Disney villains was traditionally signaled by more superficial kinds of deviance. The villains typically spoke with a foreign accent, were physically unappealing, dressed in black and imposing garb, and had certain “queer” qualities—a feminine gait for a male character, for instance, or the drag queen-esque look of Ursula from 1989’s The Little Mermaid. They stood out in as many ways as possible.

As another example, the male lion-villain Scar from The Lion King (1994) is darker than the other lions and more effeminate in his mannerisms. Moreover, he speaks with a British English accent, whereas the other lions speak with a General American accent. It could hardly have been a coincidence that these particular features so often go hand-in-hand with villainy in Disney’s animated films, as scholars like Rosina Lippi-Green have pointed out in the past. We might term these features “villainous cues”: ways of suggesting moral deviance by way of social deviance.

Together with my collaborator, Sarah Helene Schmidt, I have found that Disney’s well-documented tendency to socially “other” (yes, that’s a verb) villainous characters has dropped in recent years. The shift was quite sudden, and it is on full display in the villains of more recent Disney outings—characters like Bellwether (Zootopia, 2015), King Candy (Wreck-It Ralph, 2012), and Hans (Frozen). These characters do not carry a mark of Cain; they are not visually and aurally coded as “others.” If anything, they are represented as “one of us” rather than “one of them.” Incredulous readers are invited to read our article, of course, and to attempt a fun little proof of concept:

Pick six major Disney animated feature films that you have not watched before, with three released in 1990s or earlier and three released in the 2010s. To make the exercise somewhat scientific, alternate between films from the two respective periods. After you are done watching the films, note how long it took you to identify the main villain of the film in the two respective periods, from the moment at which the villain first appeared on screen. We can all but guarantee that it will take you longer—much longer—for the more recent films. This is because the villains of these films hide their villainy. They don’t reveal their evil plans until late in the plot, and they are not flagged as villains by such overt features, such as a foreign accent or ugliness. Why did this major shift happen?

One of our main findings is that the villains have lost precisely those villainous cues that might be seen as socially sensitive. They no longer evoke racial and sexual minorities, and they don’t suggest that physical and moral ugliness go together. They blend in rather than stand out. This would seem like a laudable development: associating morally neutral characteristics, such as a foreign accent, with villainy could reinforce existing negative stereotypes and generate new ones. But regardless of any such direct effects, it just seems like a lousy thing to do.

We suggest that a politically progressive undertow may be what is doing the real work here. The popular representation of different social groups is a point of impassioned cultural and political concern, and it shouldn’t surprise us that Disney has changed its films in response—whether from a conscientious desire to embody a socially progressive sentiment, or, less nobly, to avoid offending against such a sentiment.

However, we also show that a subset of villainous cues remain in effect even in Disney’s more recent villains. Following the villainous reveal—the point at which the villain shows him- or herself to be just that—these characters do become antagonistically coded. But, crucially, they become so coded in ways that avoid associating them with socially marginalized groups. For example, they are enduringly and intensively angry, they operate under the cover of darkness, and they are in various ways associated with deadly, predatory animals. Thus, the scheming King Candy of Wreck-It Ralph (2012) transforms into a giant arachnoid creature towards the end of the film, when his cover has finally been blown. In this, he is similar to earlier generations of Disney villains. For example, Madam Mim of The Sword in the Stone (1963) transforms into a deadly snake, and so does Jafar in Aladdin.

These villainous cues are not conjured out of thin air, but are deeply rooted in the psychological defense mechanisms of our evolved human nature, as horror scholar Mathias Clasen has shown. The visible anger of another person may frighten us because it represents a real, physical threat—a threat that our ancestors would have done well to avoid, or at least to negotiate carefully. Darkness can hide danger, thus preventing effective coping, which is why humans cross-culturally fear and avoid darkness. Finally, large and/or poisonous predators have hunted humans and our hominin ancestors for millions of years, and we have adapted to notice and avoid them. Small wonder that these cues can be used to instill apprehension and antipathy. We also present new evidence that the villains lower their voice pitch following the villainous reveal, which may cause them to appear larger and more frightening.

At least some social characteristics may have similar evolutionary reasons for their being used as villainous cues: Accent can serve to distinguish “them” (the enemy or outsider) from “us,” (fellow cooperators) for instance, and physical deformity can signal the ravaging influence of infectious disease. Like it or not, our ancestors may have had good reason to pay close attention to such cues. But as noted, these and other socially suggestive cues have dropped out from recent Disney films. Thus, recent Disney villains become a study in how to exploit only those villainous cues that do not upset socially inclusive sentiment.

In line with this perspective, Disney is increasingly stressing the company’s awareness of representational issues and claims that its films seek to promote “inclusivity” and “social justice.” Such praiseworthy concerns are reflected in the modern Disney villain, whose social normativity coexists with his or her moral deviance. The “gotcha” of the villainous reveal brings the message home. Hans of Frozen initially appears like a modern Prince Charming, and his villainous reveal is all about subverting the moral expectations one might have of such a character. The lesson seems to be this: Don’t confuse the normal with the moral, nor the abnormal with the abject. Or, as the rabbit-protagonist Judy Hopps of Zootopia (2015) puts the same point, “I know plenty of bunnies who are jerks.”

Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen is a graduate student in the Department of English at Aarhus University, Denmark. His research is mainly concerned with the heroes and villains of popular culture. He applies a cognitive perspective to these characters to investigate their psychological functions and appeal. For more information, including contact information, detailed research interests, and a full list of publications, see http://au.dk/en/jkc@cc.