Sympathy with Evil Queens and Other Female Villains

There’s a sort of cultural critic who insists that fairy tales clearly distinguish, both morally and aesthetically, the wide chasm between the figures of good and the forces of evil.  I’m thinking of someone like Michael O’Brien.

I can easily imagine such a critic seeing relativism in Alyssa Rosenberg’s suggestion that we sympathize with fairy tale villainesses.  She asks, “if boys can grow up to sympathize with Tony Soprano, why shouldn’t women get a world where it’s permissible to sympathize with the stepmothers, crones, sorceresses and evil queens?”  Well, turning Maleficent or the Evil Queen in Snow White from images of real, powerful and deadly evil into morally-sophisticated anti-heroes blurs the line between the dark and the light and translates into aesthetic and moral confusion.  The evil soul becomes the misunderstood personality.  Or so this critic would say.

The thought occurred to me as well, but not as an expression of my own thinking.  I suppose sympathy with fairy tale villains and villainesses could lead into relativism’s dark woods if the villainy itself were considered to be something virtuous, but there’s nothing remotely relativistic in remaking images of unadulterated evil into morally-complex images of the human condition.  Which is, you know, morally complex.  Sure, Maleficent can turn into a dragon, laugh maniacally, and perform black magic, but she’s still a potential figure of humanity.  Flawed humanity, to be sure.  She really should have had staff meetings more than once every sixteen years: she would have learned early on that her orcish minions weren’t considering the aging process in their years long search for the princess Aurora.

Anyhow, for reasons Alyssa Rosenberg mentions, I’d like to see more sympathetic female villains and anti-heroes, in fairy tales and elsewhere.  Honestly, I’m just shy of taking milk baths in excited preparation for Charlize Theron’s portrayal the evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman.  On the flip side, I’m also interested in Kristen Stewart’s Snow White.  Contemporary cinema doesn’t have much difficulty capturing the horror of evil, but holiness and saintliness seem largely beyond its grasp.   Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, for example, did just fine depicting the orcs and goblins and black riders, but it butchered almost all the magnanimity of its heroes.   I’d like to see fairy tales and fantasy, in addition to starring more sympathetic female villains, feature morally and dramatically fascinating saintly types.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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13 Responses

  1. Kimmi says:

    You can do morally and dramatic mensh. You can’t do morally and dramatic saint. Soem things are contradictory.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      You can’t do morally and dramatic saint.

      Sure you can. Two reasons:

      1) Even the most virtuous and saintly of people have moral flaws and fail morally.
      2) Morally good actions can lead to conflict. The moral life isn’t simply a matter of choosing between good and evil; it also involves choosing between two evils and two conflicting goods. Two characters doing the right thing may end up working against one another.

      • Patrick Cahalan says:

        I thought Sam came out okay.

        Most of Frodo’s struggles are internal and didn’t translate well.

        • Mike Schilling says:

          The very worst was what Jackson did to Denethor: tragically broken hero to evil buffoon.

          • Patrick Cahalan says:

            The only reason why this was so bad was because they gave him so much screen time. They could have just chopped that down to a couple of scenes and it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            I was “meh” about Denethor, but the new character arcs of Aragorn and Faramir rubbed me like a cheese grater on my sensitive spots.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Yeah, Sam was okay, and Sean Bean actually improved the character of Boromir, but Aragorn, Faramir, Galadriel, Frodo, and most of the others lacked the nobility of soul that Tolkien had given them.

  2. Jaybird says:

    We can’t do it in the United States anymore. We’re past that.

    Check out Jet Li’s Hero and Jet Li’s Fearless. Maybe Donnie Yen’s Ip Man and Ip Man 2.
    Heck, anything where the main character is Wong Fei Hong will get you there too.

  3. Kolohe says:

    Never seen it, and not that familiar with it, but does Wicked do any of this?

  4. Scott says:

    I personally think there’s a place for simplistic fairytales where the Power of Friendship or the benevolence of the Fairy Godmother allows the heroes to blow the socks off some medieval member of the Evil League of Evil. I think it’s a truthful way to take the more internal struggles between good and evil and project them onto an obvious scene, at least if done well. And if not, well, there’s nothing wrong with entertainment for entertainment’s sake if it’s not outright wrong/bad in some other way.

    At the same time, I don’t think that’s the only way a story can be truthful. The real tricky thing about the struggle between good and evil, between our best qualities and our worst, is that it’s not so obvious in any of us. If a story, without trying to justify evil or excuse it, or worse yet excuse it and suggest the character is actually somehow noble for going down the darker path in response to whatever drove him there, nonetheless portrays the villains and/or anti-heroes as understandble human beings… that’s a good thing too. We need to recognise that most of the people we think of as awful monsters in real life think they’re the goodguys or at least a justifiable self-interested nuetral. If a story goes further and suggests that therefore there is no good or evil, just perspective or opinion, that’s fallacious; it doesn’t follow from confusion among humans that the truth is unknowable or doesn’t exist at all.

    It’s a good thing if a story allows you to see how its villain (or its antihero if the protagonist is the badguy) is human and understandable, maybe even sympathetic, while nonetheless seeing how he’s wrong, whether through honest misunderstanding or whether willfully. In fact, hopefully the story would show that even if the villain’s willfully in the wrong he/she may not even be aware of malice on his/her part — so often the things we do wrong as humans we do more out of self-interest and pride, wounded or otherwise, rather than out of any twisted reason for wanting others to suffer. Even hate is usually itself motivated by a sense of one’s own hurt, and even tyranny — real tyranny, the kind that doesn’t involve someone setting out to become an emperor and oppress the masses — is usually motivated by a deluded vision of one’s own ability to set things right for others.

    As for saintliness, the real trouble is that next to nobody knows what it is anymore (including people who really should, the ones who are supposed to believe in Saints); obviously you can’t know what’s dramatic about a thing if you don’t know what it is in the first palce. Half the tv shows I’ve seen that had a protagonist pursue anything like it were from Japan and the other half were written by a certain witty atheist. (And yes, there were only two in my experience. Though I guess that’s not saying much since I don’t normally watch tv.) I’d like to work to fix this, but at the moment all I have that isn’t at risk of careening into the corny is a videogame idea, and I don’t happen to be a writer for any major game company so obviously its influence would depend on the popularity of the indie market at whatever point that idea turned into an actual game.