Portrayals of Villainy

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By Daniel Castro (he/him)

photograph anest williams she/her

“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.” – The Twits, Roald Dahl.

The idea that a person’s physical appearance is directly linked to the content of their character is a long withstanding ideology in many different cultures. This belief is so strongly prevalent in our society that it’s almost difficult to realise how deeply we internalise this aesthetic theory as truth. It’s an idea that manifests itself in many different ways; in many forms of modern media, it’s a fundamental technique that is used to convey to an audience which fictional characters are good, and which are evil. One of the earliest examples I can remember of this trope from my own childhood is in the Roald Dahl novel The Twits. Dahl asserts in his children’s book that wickedness can manifest physically, that if you have ugly thoughts, you are bound for ugliness. However, should you think good thoughts, even a ‘wonky nose and a crooked mouth’ couldn’t impede on your ability to look ‘lovely’. Some of the earliest examples of the perceived correlation between a person’s morality and their physical appearance appear in children’s television and literature, but it is doubtlessly a constant trope in depicting villainy even in media intended for adult audiences. What is the reason for this relationship between immorality and manifestation in the physical body? Why is it that it affects how villains are created and characterised, and where do these ideas stem from?

In sourcing inspiration for a villain, it’s natural to expect that a creator would exploit ideas surrounding existing cultural fears. This explains why Russian villains were all the rage in Hollywood film and television during (and even long after) the years of the Cold War conflict. In many cases, depictions of villainy have been known to perpetuate (sometimes on purpose in the case of propaganda work, occasionally inadvertently) harmful stereotypes as a result of consistently portraying a given demographic in an inherently villainous way. Often, the groups that are picked on to serve as the basis of moral bankruptcy are selected due to their social standing as inherently Other. In her video essay on villains and disfigurement, Jen Campbell discusses the ways in which the correlation between villainy and bodily deformity is a culturally entrenched belief, detailing the human tendency to grasp at straws to make sense out of something that lacks a clear explanation. In many cultures, especially before developments in modern science, being born with a deformity has been viewed as divine punishment. Perhaps there was witchcraft involved, or perhaps the child is a changeling, but the fact that a child has a bodily deformity means that moral malpractice was involved. Bolstered by religious messages surrounding the idea that certain ailments could be miraculously cured if a person repented or was ‘good enough’ (very prominent is Jesus’ curing of the leper), these ideas form a basis for the notion that disability and disfigurement are retribution for a certain malice, and that these things do not happen to ‘good’ people. 

And so, in the visual design of the villain, it isn’t uncommon to see an author or filmmaker using bodily deformity as a characterisation technique. Physical scarring, amputation, and other forms of physical disability serve to convey the message that a character is to be feared. These messages, however, have negative ramifications on the people for whom a physical deformity isn’t a symbol of their morality, but a lived experience. A recent controversy surrounding the 2020 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s own The Witches, left sufferers of ectrodactyly feeling singled out when the character of the Grand High Witch (‘the most evil and appalling woman in the world’) was depicted with limb differences in the hands (as opposed to clawed fingers as was originally detailed in the book). To link the experience of having a limb difference to witchcraft is something that has the potential to be ineffably damaging to a group of people who don’t deserve for their body to be portrayed as dangerous, or as something to be afraid of. Stylistic choices in works of fiction have the capacity to create a real-world effect, and do not exist in a cultural vacuum.

Drawing from fears of a socially Othered demographic doesn’t end with the vilification of bodily disfigurement. Many peoples will have seen themselves portrayed in a negative light, drawing heavily on things such as racial stereotypes and other cultural beliefs or fears. In his queer-coded effeminacy and flamboyance, The Powerpuff Girls’ HIM (a depiction of the devil), suggests that there is something to be feared about people who don’t conform to gender norms (and is based on the religious inclination to condemn certain sexualities as a sinful). Historically, anti-Semitic ideas have been imbued (sometimes subliminally, oftentimes overtly) in many of the most recognisable characters of English literature. Characters such as Fagin from Oliver Twist, or Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, are characterised according to antisemitic archetypes based around greed and moral depravity. Antiblack stereotypes and caricatures are present in the earliest instances of American film, which trickled down into children’s media – Disney’s original versions of Dumbo and Fantasia feature degrading depictions of certain characters that hearken back to traditions of blackface minstrelsy, informed by those harmful stereotypes of black people as inherently evil in earlier American film (most infamously, The Birth of a Nation). 

In effect, villains have often been characterised by dominant attitudes towards groups viewed as social outsiders, based on the fundamental principle that different people or different ways of life are to be feared. Does this mean that you can no longer watch your favourite shows and films featuring negative stereotypes? Not necessarily. It’s important to learn about the ways in which prejudices and stereotypes are created and enforced, to try to be aware of those queer-coded baddies or racially stereotyped villains. So, when you read a book, or watch a film, try to keep an eye out for any of those harmful stereotypes that you unknowingly consume.


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