Who wants to be a damsel in distress? Sometimes it’s good to be bad, as these brilliant Disney villains make all too clear…
When we were younger, many of us idolised the Snow Whites, Cinderellas, Jasmines, and Sleeping Beauties of the Disney multiverse. These women – or girls, to be more accurate (Ariel is a mere slip of a mermaid at 16) – were the epitome of goodness in our eyes. They wore beautiful gowns, they endured terrible hardships, and they were rewarded every single time with true love’s first kiss.
Now that we’re adults, though, we’ve moved on from Disney princesses. Because, looking back, it’s all too clear that we have far more in common with the Magic Kingdom’s villains.
Yes, they were evil – but they were independent, outspoken, and goal-driven, too. They didn’t conform to societal beauty standards, either, and they were never afraid of hard work (usually because they had a bevy of minions to help them out, but… y’know). They refused to kowtow to any man, and they usually got one helluva of a #girlpower musical number, too.
So, why do they have such a bad rep? Well, as Professor Landon Storrs, who specialises in 20th century US social and political history, particularly in the history of women, puts it: “Women who look for power and do not cooperate with men are bad. I think the two extreme expressions of femininity, innocent princess and evil queen, in earlier Disney animated films are what sexists consider between appropriate women and (inappropriate) feminist women.”
All of this leaves us with one big burning question, then; who is the greatest Disney villain of them all?
To celebrate the upcoming release of Cruella – a new live-action prequel starring Emma Stone as the fur-loving fashionista – we’ve decided to take a look back at the women who were born to be bad, and rank them in terms of their feminist badassery.
You are welcome.
The Evil Queen – Snow White
“Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”
The unnamed villain of Snow White may be a queen – and, yes, she may have some degree of motivating force, aim, and ambition – but she is utterly obsessed with patriarchal beauty standards. Hell, she has a mirror that literally tells her she’s not good enough each and every single day. No wonder she loses sight of what’s important. No wonder she ends up being pitted against the younger Snow White, perceiving the naïve 14-year-old as an actual threat to the throne when, in actuality, all the girl wants is to sit around and wait for Prince Charming.
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Plus, the Evil Queen has no musical number whatsoever. Boring, right?
Lady Tremaine – Cinderella
In the live-action Cinderella, Cate Blanchett’s spin on Lady Tremaine offered us some insight into this much-maligned fairytale character. She fell wildly in love with a good man, had two daughters with him, and was left broken hearted when he died unexpectedly, leaving her and their children to fend for themselves in a world that doesn’t value single mothers one bit.
Eventually, she married again – this time to Cinderella’s father, a man still in mourning for his own dead wife, and who placed his daughter on a pedestal high above her. Naturally, she was jealous. And, when he passed away, she made it her business to help her own daughters marry well (yes, at the expense of Cinderella), so as to avoid a life of societal alienation.
Still, though, Lady Tremaine was unnecessarily cruel and abusive – even if her cruelty serves as an indictment not of her character, but of her world. And she could definitely have helped her own children to succeed without trampling all over Cinders’ dreams in the process; what’s wrong with teaching your girls a trade, Tremaine? Also, where’s your song at? Seriously?
Mother Gothel – Tangled
First things first, let’s all agree that Mother Knows Best is an absolute corker of a tune. Secondly, while kidnapping children is a crime that should absolutely be frowned upon, we’d all do well to remember that, while Mother Gothel exploits Rapunzel’s magical hair to keep herself looking young and beautiful, she doesn’t do it because she wants to look good for anyone else; it’s purely for her own happiness.
She also raises Rapunzel for 18 years as a single parent, making her delicious bowls of hazelnut soup and ensuring the princess’ life is enriched to the full with strict exercise regimes, boredom-busting hobbies, and important educational tools (who taught Rapunzel to read, hmm? Exactly).
Still, though… kidnap. It’s not a good look on anyone, is it?
Cruella De Vil – 101 Dalmatians
Confession time: this writer takes a very dim view on the fur trade (unless it’s of the faux variety, of course), so Cruella never really had much of a shot here. If we ignore her burning desire to kidnap, murder, and skin Dalmatian puppies for their spotted coats, though, she is a successful career woman who runs her own business.
She’s fabulously wealthy, too, and boasts a razor-sharp wit. And, if we look at Glenn Close’s portrayal of the villain in the OG 101 Dalmatians live-action movie, it’s also worth noting that she’s the sort of boss who isn’t afraid to shine a light on other talented women (here’s looking at you, Anita) and make room for them at the metaphorical table.
Cruella also seems to genuinely care about her colleague, popping round to see her at home while she’s on leave and informing her that she “misses the interaction” they usually have at work.
No wonder she doesn’t have time for Roland interrupting her and Anita’s long-anticipated catchup, eh? Although… well, she needs to get her head around the fact that a) fur is not fashion, and b) some women want to have children, and that’s more than OK.
Repeat after us, dear: “good for her, not for me.”
Queen of Hearts – Alice In Wonderland
Alice lacks any sense of real agency in Alice In Wonderland; she can’t control her own erratic growth spurts, let alone figure out where she’s going. The Queen Of Hearts, on the other hand, rules her kingdom with an iron fist. She knows exactly what she wants (heads in a guillotine, damn it!), and she’s not afraid to do whatever she must in order to get it. And the only reason she turns on Alice in the first place is because the little girl joins forces with the Cheshire Cat to humiliate the “fat, pompous, bad-tempered old tyrant” (Alice’s words, not ours).
Sure, she’s not a benevolent ruler – but neither was Prince Adam. In fact, his selfishness and bad temper is what led to him being turned into the Beast in the first place. So let’s live and let live, yeah?
Madam Mim – The Sword In The Stone
This writer has a soft spot for The Sword In The Stone’s Mad Madam Mim. A powerful witch, she is disturbed when Arthur breaks into her house and informs her that Merlin is a far greater practitioner of magic than she is, prompting her to enter a duel against the wizard and dazzle us with her shape-shifting abilities.
Yes, she cheats a little, but so does Merlin (are we really calling a virus an animal? Really?). And, in this writer’s opinion, Mim’s only real character flaw appears to be… well, a glut of overconfidence, and is that really so bad?
Ursula – The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid’s Ursula is, to use her own words, a very busy woman. Sure, she’s been banished by King Triton and forced to live in a grim underwater cave with two other societal outcasts, Flotsam and Jetsam. However, the ingenious witch has turned this none-too-small setback into the opportunity of a lifetime, launching a wildly successful business (see all of her previous “customers” if you don’t believe us) with a USP.
Now, nobody’s denying the fact that stealing the voice of a 16-year-old mermaid and gifting her legs so she can impress a human isn’t evil. We promise. But how often does Disney offer up a plus-sized character (Ursula was largely inspired by American actor and drag queen Divine) that’s comfortable with her body and her sexuality, eh? And, on that same note, how often do we get a villain with such an impressive awareness for the patriarchal construct of the human world?
That’s right; as Ursula points out to Ariel ahead of their dark bargain, “it’s preferred for ladies not to say a word… [because men] dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn.” And, somewhat annoyingly, she turns out to be 100% correct; Ariel and Eric’s romance is almost entirely built on her demure silence and longing looks… almost resulting in a contract-breaking kiss, much to Ursula’s horror.
Throw in the unadulterated brilliance of Poor Unfortunate Souls, and it’s not too difficult to see why so many people rank Ursula over Ariel.
Te Kā/Te Fiti – Moana
Te Kā is the terrifying volcanic demon that Moana faces down in her spirited adventure of a movie, but is that her fault? No!
As it turns out, Te Kā was once the goddess of creation, Te Fiti. She bestowed gifts upon humanity in the form of crystal clear oceans, lush green islands, and an abundance of natural goods. And, for a very long time, humanity treated her with the utmost respect. When Maui waltzed in and stole her heart (aka the source of her power) from her, though, she was transformed into the embodiment of climate change itself; not something evil within itself, but something brought about by the evil and carelessness of others.
And, fair play to Te Fiti, she doesn’t hold a grudge. When her heart is restored, she does what’s best for everyone involved and restores the world to its aforementioned glory. Legend.
Maleficent – Sleeping Beauty
In the original cartoon, Maleficent’s descent into darkness came about because literally everyone in the kingdom was invited to a party except her (fair enough, to be honest). However, in the live-action remake, starring Angelina Jolie, we learn that Maleficent was actually a very kindly and protective fairy until she was cruelly betrayed and mutilated by her childhood friend Stefan.
Yes, she lashes out and curses his newborn daughter, Aurora. But, despite this, Maleficent proves to be a multifaceted female character – one that doesn’t just make mistakes, but can learn and grow from them, too. She sees the good in Aurora, and grows to care for the girl. She attempts to undo the curse, too, but soon learns that only true love’s kiss can do that.
And so (spoilers), come the end, she realises that true love doesn’t have to be romantic; instead, she plants a kiss on the sleeping child’s head herself, and creates a beautiful alliance between the two women in the process. Nothing like watching one woman help out another, eh?
Yzma – The Emperor’s New Groove
Beloved by millennials everywhere, Yzma is the so-called villain of The Emperor’s New Groove because she a) plots to murder Kuzco so she can take control of his empire, and b) only fails in her plan because her bumbling sidekick accidentally turns him into a llama instead. Shock twist, eh?
All that being said, though, we need to face facts; Yzma isn’t the bad guy in this movie. She raised Kuzco like her own son, ran the kingdom for him in his stead because he was truly terrible at it, and was left shaken when he fired her for being… old? He literally fired her for being old (and having spinach in her teeth). Age shaming at its absolute worst, right?
So, yes, this writer believes that Yzma’s anger at Kuzco is entirely justified. In fact, it makes absolute sense that she ventures on a quest to set things right and teach him a valuable lesson.
Not enough for you? How about the fact that Yzma is brilliantly witty, incredibly smart, and a total pro at delegation and teamwork? Or that she’s utterly unwilling to slink into the shadows of old age as society dictates (our girl wants to keep working, not to mention surround herself with beautiful men)? Or that she’s sick of being described as “scary beyond all reason” when her body is a temple to be worshipped at, god damn it?
Most important of all, though, is the fact that Yzma is voiced by none other than Eartha Kitt – as in, yes, the international political provocateur herself. She even has a (sadly deleted) banger of a song in Snuff Out The Light, which is all about women reaching a certain age and being shunted aside by idiotic men. So don’t you dare try to tell us she’s not the hero of this story. Don’t you dare.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.