Redressing redress: Retooling Disney’s problematic villains

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Disney has a problem. 

And it isn’t me standing outside one of its studios with a megaphone screaming “Give me a gay princess already, damn it.” No, this problem exceeds my persistent and redundant cries for diversity and inclusion.

Disney villains occupy an interesting place in pop culture — with enough fans relishing in their antagonistic antics to justify any number of programs, toys and book series devoted to the lovable underbelly of the Disney hero. And much of that comes from Disney’s ability to craft a likable yet irredeemable villain. Not to mention, a predetermined happy ending eases any severity these villains may carry. Yes, Jafar becomes an all-powerful genie, but he still gets shoved into the lamp. 

And this security in a wily villain’s deserved fate lends itself well to audience reception. Ursula can never win, so it’s alright if we succumb to her charisma a little bit. Plus, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” will now and forever be a bop.

Thus the story goes: The villain is bad, the villain gets it, but there are a plethora of memorable, merchable moments along the way.

Disney is in the business of making money, so it stands that its business model may take the shape of reusing something tried and true — almost as if its storytelling leans into the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” 

But the problem is, it is broken. And has been, like, always.

Because more often than not, there is an undercurrent of consistency among the way these villains look, act and speak. One that just so happens to look a lot like marginalized communities. Ursula is purple, her character design that of a drag queen. Hades is blue, long-nailed and literally aflame. Today this doesn’t read like subtext. 

The repeated conflations of these identifiable characteristics with evil are dangerous. 

Disney’s “The Lion King” reboot reduced the film’s villain to scraps of what the original offered. When Scar was robbed of the snaking and sustained “s” of his intonation that is so frequently associated with flamboyance, all that remained was the darker coat that signaled his villainy. Disney is also gearing up to release a live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid,” which exhibits a similar issue; it is rumored that the very white and straight Melissa McCarthy is stepping up to bat for the larger than life villain. And there’s power in that, perhaps, if you reduce Ursula to her existence as a big woman. 

But in doing so, one would fail to acknowledge that this particular detail is far from the only thing that defines the character. It’s a lie, and what’s more, it’s irresponsible. 

Instead of taking the time to find new ways to offer nuance to these villains — nuance that is not grounded in racist or homophobic practices —  these missteps are abandoned completely. This would be fine if Disney hadn’t already demonstrated a capacity to take previously one-note villains and create compelling and intricate stories that solve their problematic origins. 

The “Sleeping Beauty” villain Maleficent does not immediately lend herself to empathy. But in the character’s 2014 solo film, a careful reimagining of the witch’s motivation presented audiences with a cultural icon worthy of celebration; she was able to contribute to a critical conversation, as the graphic nature of her life served as an allegory for survivors of sexual assault. In an interview with HuffPost, writer Sady Doyle stated that rather than this character choice being tooled as merely a shock to audiences, the decision had its foundation in the way the oral and written tradition of “Sleeping Beauty” has always been rooted in rape culture. The film’s impulse to reappropriate problematic origins to tell a rich story is incredibly inspiring, so why aren’t we seeing more of it?

The key distinction in the re-representation of these villains lies in the fact that neither Ursula, Jafar nor Scar are being introduced in solo films, which would be an easy way to write off this discourse. But then the question becomes why more of those films aren’t being prioritized as a way to address these monstrous misrepresentations.

Cast a drag queen to play Ursula, but offer her the careful treatment she deserves so that a move like that doesn’t replicate the same detriments that her character design warranted in the first place. Disney, I implore you. Rather than simply putting a fancy new dress on the skeletons in your closet, why not take them out and give them some life experience? Show your villains what it means to be human, and return agency to the ones you inadvertently took it from in the first place.

Areyon Jolivette is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].