by Anne Billson
“I am woman, hear me roar!” says Emma Stone in the Cruella trailer. With poster artwork visibly straining to evoke the spirit of Nancy Spungen (in case you’re too young, or too forgetful, she was Sid Vicious’ doomed junkie girlfriend), Disney has been insinuating that its origins story of the 101 Dalmatians villainess, set in early 1980s London, has a “punk vibe”. Film sites and social media have been quick to parrot this idiocy, with no one pointing out that a Helen Reddy quote is rather less punk than one from, say, the Dead Kennedys. So, in a bid to redress the balance, here’s a quote from them now: “Fuck off!”.
Dodie Smith, who wrote the original novel, had no problem with her villainess being born bad – young de Vil was expelled from school for drinking ink – but what did Smith know? Cruella wasn’t always evil, according to the new Disney film, which depicts the future puppy-skinner driven mad by harsh treatment in the workplace. This is only the latest example of a fashionable revisionism in which classic villains are equipped with origin stories to show they’re not inherently nasty; it was parents or bullies or rotten luck that made them so. I blame this, mostly, on Gregory Maguire, whose novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, reveals that the green-skinned hellion from The Wizard of Oz was actually a well-meaning but misunderstood animal rights activist. Maguire’s book proved wildly popular, was turned into the second-highest-grossing Broadway musical of all time, and a film version has been in the works since 2004.
In the meantime, Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) pre-empted Wicked by filling in the witch’s backstory: she turned spiteful because her boyfriend was mean to her. It’s a boyfriend, too, whose cruelty turns Maleficent (2014) from a lefty environmentalist fairy into the embittered she-devil who curses the Sleeping Beauty in a fit of pique. Another case of a promising young woman allowing her character, destiny and morality to be shaped entirely by a boyfriend’s behaviour. So much for feminist agency.
But male villains can have their sharp edges sanded down too. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) reduces Vlad Dracul to a romantic softy who only behaves like a bloodsucking fiend because he’s pining for his long-lost paramour. Pussification is a problem endemic to prequels. In Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), Darth Vader is little more than a petulant Kevin the Teenager type who turns to the dark side when the Council won’t promote him to Jedi Master. In Hannibal Rising (2007), young Master Lecter gets a taste for anthropophagy only after Nazis trick him into eating his own little sister. So, you see, when the doctor cooked and ate all those people later on, it was really just his PTSD acting up.
Cruella wasn’t always evil, according to the new Disney film, which depicts the future puppy-skinner driven mad by mistreatment at work
Comics and their movie offshoots are rife with this sort of revisionism: Deadpool, Venom and Harley Quinn were all originally antagonists, later remodelled as antiheroes. Joker (2019) goes full-on psycho because no one laughs at his stand-up comedy. Boo-hoo! Television is packed with prequel shows about villains whose pasts are probed so we can see where they’re coming from: Bates Motel, Gotham, Ratched and (the gold standard of the baddie backstory) Better Call Saul. Even Lucifer – though one might argue that Milton got there first. If this revise-a-villain school has a godparent, it’s Jean Rhys, whose 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea showed the first Mrs Rochester wasn’t always the cackling pyromaniac of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, but was once an ingénue not unlike Jane herself. But Rhys’ novel is a genuine act of creativity, as opposed to a bid to cash in on an already established character with maximum name recognition because you’re too lazy to invent an original villain of your own.
Bruno Bettelheim writes, “good and evil are omnipresent in life and the propensities for both are present in every man. It is this duality which poses the moral problem, and requires the struggle to solve it.” But the more light you shine on a villain’s origins, the less of a moral problem they become. Put a name to your fears, analyse them in meretricious detail, and you’re well on the way towards robbing them not just of their terror, but also, potentially, of their usefulness.”
Writers’ manuals routinely urge sympathy for the devil. Among the writer’s tips on his blog, Ben Bova included: “In the real world there are no villains. No one actually sets out to do evil.” And Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers: “Every villain is a hero of his own story.” But giving bad guys nuance is not the same as turning them into misunderstood victims worthy of compassion, and I can’t help wondering if we’re taking empathy a little too far. It’s only a short step from this to: “Let’s hear what white supremacists have to say!” or “It’s only fair holocaust deniers get a platform to express their views!”.
Where will it end? If only Hitler had got into art college, World War II might never have happened?
Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer