Davis, (2006) adds that children are very likely to incorporate the things they see in films into their activities, thereby repeating, analysing, and incorporating into their subconscious the ideas and themes they take from them. Davis continues to explain that while there have been a number of studies in the past which have attempted to explore the effects of various media (mainly cinema) on children, these studies are of no use to modern-day researchers into media’s effect on children as they were often distorted by the attitudes towards race, ethnicity, and class during that period. Over time, specifically with reference to appearances, many animated female protagonists have always been displayed with the contemporary beauty of the era, an example being Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) who had a very ‘pin-up’ styled appearance in regards to her hair and make-up that reflected the desired beauty of the 1930s. However, it is interesting to note that since the beginning of animated family films the stereotypical female antagonists has remained, predominantly, the same, confirming the idea that the social stigma against women has also stayed the same.
A first impression is vital when establishing any character. For the antagonist, in particular, this first appearance needs to exude a lasting impression of fear and dread that will both captivate and haunt the audience with every exposure. Therefore, it comes as no surprise when animators design these villains the way they do, in order to maximise this reaction from their viewers. It may however be a cause for concern when these antagonists are designed using stereotypes that reflects our cultural prejudices and what our society deems as negative attributes, especially when it comes to appearances. It is very common for a villainous character to be designed with an extreme physique that aims to give the viewer a sense of discomfort. This is much more apparent in animated films as there is a lot more allowance for exaggeration, but it does not minimise the fact that these characters can influence children’s primary socialisation and can feed into negative stereotypes associated with body image later in their lives (Li-Vollmer & LaPoint, 2003).
When thinking about the typical depiction of a female villain the most obvious physical traits they possess are usually being tall and slender with short or no hair. One of the most well-known characters with these traits is Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians, 1961; see Figure 1). Emphasised by her incredibly oversized fur coat, De Vil’s body was designed to be extremely skeletal and gaunt. Her exaggerated cheek bones and long, bony fingers put a lot of emphasis on the idea that she is ‘truly what nightmares are made of’ (Disney Wiki, 2015). Cruella’s wickedness is amplified when comparing her appearance to that of the other, human, female characters whose features are a lot softer and more conventional, for that era (see Figure 2). In a lot of ways, the appearance of this ‘devil woman’ relates back to our societies negative views on body image extremely well. As we know from her fascination with clothing from her collection of fur coats, made from the innocent animals she has killed, Cruella has had a long association with the fashion industry (IMdB, 2008), and she is shown as “a wealthy, fashion-obsessed heiress who wishes to use the skins of 99 Dalmatian puppies for a fur coat” (Disney Wiki, 2015). Although her actual career is never officially stated, Cruella perfectly represents the stereotypical CEO or Editor-in-Chief of a fashion corporation who is very egotistical and has to look a certain way, and be a particular weight based on the strict rules within the industry. It is said that Cruella De Vil is partially based upon the famous original Hollywood bad girl; the chain-smoking, fur-wearing actress of the 1940s, Tallulah Bankhead (Darcy, 2016; see Figure 3). Whilst you can imagine a resemblance between their temperament, there is a distinct difference between their appearances. So why did Disney make the decision to manipulate Cruella’s design to become a much slender woman? Other than a change in era which introduced the popular “twig” physique of the 1960s that would fit a fashionable character who clearly follows trends, the misrepresentation of her emaciated body was avoidable. This idea presented to us in such a negative way, through the form of an evil character, can misrepresent women who are skinny, unhealthy or may have eating disorders. In turn, this could deem them as also being cruel and heartless, analogous to these villains, and it does make one question what an audience finds so nefarious about underweight characters. Other examples of female villains who carry these attributes could be Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty, 1959; see Figure 4), Scarlet Overkill (Minions, 2015; see Figure 5) and Captain Chantel DuBois (Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, 2012; see Figure 6). Whilst these particular characters are not nearly as extremely emaciated as Cruella De Vil, they all still display the same traits, especially in comparison to their protagonist counterpart(s) within the narrative.
Two other cases of female villains that show this same concept are Yzma (The Emperor’s New Groove, 2000; see Figure 7), and The Other Mother (Coraline, 2009; see Figure 8). These women also perfectly demonstrate the adversity of the cultural expectations of body image within our society. Yzma’s angular shape is exaggerated to the point where she is more creature than human, her long eyelashes and spindly body enhances the idea of an almost spider-like being. This notion is additionally very apparent with The Other Mother, as the entire narrative of Coraline is revolved around the idea of the ‘perfect’ family with the ‘perfect’ mother, and The Other Mother’s malnourished appearance opposes that concept. We see this during the conclusion of the film as The Other Mother begins to morph into her natural, demonic form; she becomes skinnier and skinnier, and with that, less of the ‘perfect mother’ she originally claimed to be. The relationship this character’s design has made between the slenderness of her body and her incapableness to be a mother is self-evident, distorting the idea that a woman who is disinterested in family life is considered deviant, cruel and inhumane. This notion can also be related back to Cruella De Vil and her unmotherly instincts towards animals, which is intriguing due to the similar physiques they have been designed with. The great contrast between the desolate villain and the family orientated protagonist is very clear, with many family films displaying the same idea that women without children are considered bad people. In conjunction with this, the common association with the unmotherly villain being portrayed through someone underweight.
Alternatively, characters such as Ursula the Sea Witch from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” (1989; see Figure 9), and The Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland” (1951; see Figure 10), show the antagonist as overweight, which again shows a very extreme body type in a negative way in comparison to the other characters involved in the plot. The heroines in these tales, Alice and Ariel, are both young girls who are slim with long wavy hair – the complete opposite of their villainous counterparts who are both much larger, middle aged women with very short hair. Ursula, in particular, is seen to completely overpower Ariel with her enormous body and the thick tentacles she uses to terrorize and intimidate her. However, Ursula wasn’t always depicted in this way. In the Little Mermaid’s original novel by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson, the Sea Witch was never given much description, but Charles Santore’s illustrations interprets her as much slimmer, almost commensurate to the “Little Mermaid” (Anderson, 1837). Despite also being depicted as a mermaid in this version instead of a Cecaelia , the only real difference between the two adaptations is their age. Although, at this time, the Sea Witch’s character was not yet a complete antagonist within this story, but more of a ‘neutral enabler ’, the reasoning as to why Ursula had to be transformed into a much larger female character is still unclear (Darcy, 2016). If Disney animators wanted to create an overweight character for this story, why couldn’t it be Ariel? There is a lot of leeway within children’s film, especially animation, as there is a suggestion that simple shapes and colours are presented to acquire certain adolescent responses. For example, a darker colour would naturally suggest something negative to a young child, whilst a lighter colour would suggest something positive. In the same way, it could be thought that a smaller shape is naturally considered more innocent in opposition to a larger shape, which is more likely to be considered strong and powerful (Simonson and Schmitt, 1997). With this idea in mind, one can understand that Ursula’s large design could only be to enhance her intimidating aura and her ginormous shape would heighten Ariel’s innocence in comparison. The extreme juxtaposition between the two characters physiques and the clear presentation of good and evil in these forms, gives a strong subconscious message to children, strengthening their negative societal stereotypes.
Recognising the other female villains in this chapter, there is another contrast between the representation of evil and the use of extreme body types, which can be seen as conflicting to a lot of audiences as the form of evil is being present through both extremely skinny, and extremely large characters. So where does this leave the protagonist? This idea teaches young girls that in order to fit into society and be considered ‘good’ or ‘innocent’ you have to remain slim, but not too skinny otherwise you will be considered wicked and unmotherly. Women must maintain a certain neutral weight otherwise a man won’t fall in love with them and they will be ostracised from society.
THE FEMME FATALE
“To meet these women is to meet your demise.” (Archetypes, 2016)
Blaser (2002) describes the ‘Femme Fatale’ or ‘Siren’ as a woman who is beautiful, seductive and dangerous. They refuse to follow social norms and considers marriage to be confining and dull, they use their sexuality to gain independence, seduce their male enemies and kill them. The idea of a female character of this nature occurred from complaints among the males who dominate the screenwriting industry who stated that it is ‘extremely difficult to write an interesting and compelling female character’ (Weeks, 2017). Similar to the points made in Part 1 of this study, the Femme Fatale character misrepresents women in modern society as it assumes unmarried women or overly sexual women as cunning and evil. They have no desire to be part of the traditional nuclear family and therefore have no place in our society. Children may subconsciously acknowledge this idea and will naturally apply this stereotype throughout their childhood as they grow within modern culture.
“Although it’d be nice to see more female villains who don’t have to rely on their looks to be empowered, the femme fatale is aware of her sexuality and uses it to her own advantage in order to lure the avid hero into her web of danger.” (Pitts, 2015)
There is little representation of these women in children’s film due to the naturally explicit content usually associated with the Femme Fatale. The introduction of such females in animation is generally in a much subtler manner however, the underlying information being presented is still just as clear. Catwoman (Batman: The Animated Series, 1992-1995; see Figure 11), is a perfect example of a female villain with Femme Fatale traits. The Femme Fatale first emerged in the early 1940’s with the film genre ‘Film Noir’ (Dosser and Kaye, 2014), at the same time Catwoman was introduced into DC Comics (Peaty, 2012). Grossman (2009) suggests that the ‘femme fatale’ is a projection of post-war male anxiety about the change of ambiguous gender roles within this era. Catwoman’s design, costume and, in live action cases, the actress, has been slightly modified over the past 70 years through every new depiction of the character. However, in other examples such as Batman Returns (1992; see Figure 12) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012; see Figure 13), the overall design and sexual nature of the character has remained unchanged. The description of the Femme Fatale woman correlates undeviatingly to that of Catwoman: she too is often referred to as beautiful, mysterious and dangerous. Her full-body latex suit, as seen in Figures 12 & 13, can be easily associated with bondage or fetish wear, an inconspicuous way to introduce the idea of an over sexualised Femme Fatale woman. Poison Ivy (Batman & Robin, 1997; see Figure 14), is another example of a Femme Fatale within the Batman franchise. Whilst not being as obviously sexualised as Catwoman in regard to her costume, she regularly uses her knowledge of plants to create toxic elixirs that enthral her male prey and seduce them into a poisonous kiss (Batman Wiki, 2017). Their outfits, as well as their body language and low, flirtatious voices enhance the sex appeal of these characters, and whilst never actually having physical relations on screen, the seductive nature of these character is self-evident. To a young female audience, these over sexualised characters will subconsciously present the negative stigma linked with women who are proud of their sexuality and aren’t afraid to show it. Some might argue that in many of the DC and Marvel comics, with the ability to exaggerate features, most of the female characters both good and bad are illustrated to be very muscular and almost presented as equals in comparison to the male characters. However, one could argue that because of the sexualisation of their bodies, due to the unrealistic shape and size of their breasts, their small waists and their incredibly tight outfits, that these women are presented more as glamour models rather than athletes. This can be related to the idea of ‘glamorous beauty’, that is often seen as subordinate to ‘natural beauty’ which is what the female protagonists would usually possess. Although the Batman franchise nowadays is considered to be targeted at an older audience, the female villains have remained in the Femme Fatale role since its creation. It is also crucial to appreciate that many of the superhero films created by corporations such as DC Comics (1934) and Marvel Comics (1939) are often aimed at a male audience. This, therefore, could be the reason why so many female villains and antiheroes within these superhero franchises are designed in the Femme Fatal form, to attract their target audiences, much like they do to their male enemies within the narrative.
In the very few children’s films that contain a Femme Fatale role, they tend to be a major character within the story. Characters such as Lola (Shark Tale, 2004; see Figure 15), are introduced, in the first instance, with a slow motion, promiscuous walk to the song “Gold Digger” by Bobby Wilson, which fittingly foreshadows her role within the plot (AllMusic, 2017). Already displaying signs of Femme Fatale characteristics, Lola quickly starts to reveal her mean-spirited nature, and isn’t afraid to express it as she states “Look, deep down, I’m really superficial” (Shark Tale, 2004). We are introduced to this character immediately after the protagonist, Oscar, places a large bet on a race horse, “Lucky Day”. Assuming his wealth, Lola quickly makes herself known to him, seducing him with her body language and slow, seductive voice, similar to Catwoman and Poison Ivy. Whilst Lola’s appearance has many differences compare to the other females within the film, such as Angie (see Figure 16), especially recognising their hair/fins and head shape which enhances Lola’s femininity in comparison, there is a much more distinguishable contrast between their personalities. Angie, who we meet before Lola, is quick to show us her goofy personality which is able to completely juxtapose Lola’s much calmer and more subdued attitude, which further represents the Femme Fatale woman. Again, this characterisation may influence young girls into believing that seduction and flirtatiousness are not good characteristic to possess in today’s modern society, which may cause women to supress natural sexual feelings. Whilst some may agree that, much like the other points in this chapter, Lola’s character gives a negative representation of women in society, you could argue that her Femme Fatal design could, in fact, have a positive outcome on young girl’s primary socialisation as it can teach them about self-worth and self-respect. Simply because the idea of Lola and her idealisms are presented in such a negative way through the narrative, it can suggest that the idea of a woman chasing after a man for his wealth is a foolish thing for woman to strive for. This is especially apparent through the resolution of the plot when Oscar chooses Angie, over Lola’s seductive charm. Nethertheless, characters such as Catwoman who have sexualised Femme Fatale traits, also portray the qualities of indolence self-reliance, which may be perceived as negative attributes purely because they are villains.
Although Ursula (see Figure 9), would not be considered the average Femme Fatale in terms of her appearance, she shows countless reference to Femme Fatal qualities through her attitude. Whilst not being overly explicit or sexual, she is very aware of her appearance and her sexuality and despite being a larger woman, she uses this to her advantage during the narrative of the film. This is particularly highlighted within the plot when the protagonist, Ariel, first meets the Sea Witch. Here, Ariel agrees to give up her voice in exchange for human legs in hopes that her prince will fall in love with her. Ariel begins to ask, “But without my voice, how will I…?” to which Ursula interrupts “You have your looks, your pretty face, and don’t underestimate the importance of body language… they’re not all that impressed with conversation…” (The Little Mermaid, 1989). This quote, whilst having an element of humour suggested through it, is a clear magnification of the stereotype that men are not interested in a woman who is interesting or garrulous, but instead only interested in a “withdrawn” girl who looks pretty. Coming from the antagonist of this film, this quote, taken out of context, can be harmless, what is unfortunate is the fact that Ursula’s predictions about men is actualized throughout the plot of the film as Ariel and Eric fall in love based only on a beautiful face and fluttering eyelashes. This, in consequence, shows young girls that intelligence and communication are not what interests a man, and with that, society. The views on this issue are quite conflicting as it proposes that society wants women to be attractive with not much personality or ‘an object’, however the objectified, attractive, Femme Fatale women aren’t what society desires women to be like. It is suggested that society will only accept naturally beautiful woman, but do not consent to artificially attractive women who have sexualised personalities, which is how the Femme Fatale is often described. They are not accepted because this doesn’t represent a stereotypical motherly figure that would fit into a typical nuclear family .
The notion of a Femme Fatale woman, as previously stated, is not often associated within children’s film, making it difficult to analyse, but the demonstration of these traits is widely exposed to children within the general media. The negative stereotypes these characters have brought to women who are not part of a nuclear family is very evident and a promiscuous woman is often considered anomalous and against our culture. A comparison between Catwoman and Batman would be of benefit here: whilst Batman lives alone in his mansion. He is able to bring home as many women as he chooses and his disregard for family life is cousinly referred to – yet because he is a man, he is portrayed as ‘good’, whereas Catwoman, who has similar characteristics and life style, is portrayed as a villain. The femme fatale also teaches young girls that the only way to gain respect or power is by using their appearance and sexuality; however, by being presented through these villains, this concept would receive a negative perception which could actually be beneficial for children’s socialisation to become more independent women. On the other hand, these profligate female characters could also be seen to discourage body confidence and flirtatiousness in any means, because of the type of characters that display these traits. To help change negative perceptions about women, children’s cinema should be focusing the attention on ‘good’ women that are strong and independent despite the ability to attract a man, and should create the idea of ‘bad’ women through their morals and motives within the narrative, rather than their appearances. These female villains should instead possess negative personality traits such as being manipulative and aggressive, rather than being flirtatious and overly sexual as this will provide young girls a better idea of how not to behave.
MASCULINITY VS FEMININITY
Aside from their appearance, one of the most common aspects to almost every villain, both male and female, is the idea that they are outcasts and have no place in our society in accordance to the era. It doesn’t come as much surprise when these evil characters are depicted in this way, as there is a natural negative response from viewers when something or someone seems out of place or abnormal. Especially in the mid twentieth century when nuclear families were the norm and single parents were deemed as outcasts and considered socially unacceptable. A great example of this idea is The Evil Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1951) who was never designed to look particularly evil, but because she lived alone in her castle with no family she was portrayed as dissolute throughout the narrative. This, in turn, gave her a negative aura that was only supplied by the stereotypes within society at the time. It is a very common theme running through most animated films that the female villain is presented as vagabond, with further examples including Ursula, Maleficent and Cruella De Vil who’s only companions are irrelevant henchmen.
Decades ago, it was a lot more acceptable to play on these stereotypes within film as it coordinated with the era, it amplifies the assumption that it is a negative attribute for a woman to be alone. This idea is then heightened further through the characteristics of the protagonists, specifically referring to the Disney princesses and their infatuation with finding love. Consequently, if you have no desire to find love or to be loved you may be considered evil and don’t fit into modern society. This then makes these evil characters an illustration of subcultures in our community, representing them in a negative way, through an antagonistic character. One particular subculture that many villains are depicted as part of is the LGBTQ community. Although a lot of our societies acceptances of subcultures have changed throughout the years, the underlining messages within cinema that show an association between queerness and wickedness, whether that’s explicit homosexuality or a gay coding that signalled a character’s unspoken affections, is still very active today (Lang, 2015).
Through almost every children’s story there is the battle between good and evil, but it is often overlooked that there is a simultaneous battle between masculine and feminine, which doesn’t specifically mean male vs female. In many cases, there is a masculine male hero who is either challenged by an equally masculine female antagonist or an extremely feminine male antagonist. Additionally, the overly feminine heroine is challenged by either a masculine female villain or a feminine male villain. It quickly becomes quite clear that the villains are not only cast as despicable evil-doers, but are also coded as queer (Martinez, 2015). Ursula and Ariel’s relationship is a perfect example here, whilst already being much larger than Ariel, Ursula’s short hair, broad shoulders and masculine facial structure (see Figure 9) enhances her masculinity in contract to Ariel’s graceful and dainty presence. Designed after famed drag performer ‘Divine’ (see Figure 17), Ursula’s macho physique and exaggerated, un-feminine make up was inevitable. And this amalgamation of gender mixed with her menacing personality is what makes her character so memorable but all so repugnant to women of a similar stature. The undoing and the pleasures of The Little Mermaid are found in Ursula, who destabilizes gender as she performs it and is the “dark continent” of the feminine (Bell, Haas and Sells, 1995).
Animated cinema has always reinforced stereotypes of women and especially the suggestion that good women should be very feminine and petite, which puts more emphasis on the female villains, not conforming to societies standards. Evil women being presented as overly masculine demonstrates to audiences the transgression of these women and their rejection by modern society due to the social stigma against untraditional women. Therefore, numerous connections can be made between characters like Ursula, and transgendered women, lesbians, or even heterosexual women who are more masculine and have more typically masculine interests. Like many other elements within television and film, this teaches young children to strictly adhere to the given stereotypes of their gender: if a girl is considered to be masculine or boyish she may become an outsider to society, just like Ursula. Too often the media treats same-sex attraction as the cause of violent perversion and can be a burden for queer audiences looking for a range of positive representation in society (Lang, 2015). This same idea can be identified in many other family animation films, with another example of a masculine female antagonist being Mrs Tweedy (Chicken Run, 2000; see Figure 18). Like, Ursula, Mrs Tweedy has a very masculine structured face as well as a more masculine hairline that almost resembles male receding hair that mirrors previous examples such as Ursula, Yzma (see Figure 7), and Maleficent (see Figure 4). And whilst she is married to Mr Tweedy, proving her heterosexuality, she evidently shows her disinterest in their relationship and shows no affection towards him.
Jafar (Aladdin, 1992; see Figure 19), is an example of a male antagonist who possesses these same elements, in the opposite way. His elongated feminine face, caused by his high cheekbones, arched eyebrows and sharp feline eyes, aid this notion of a gender bending villain. In comparison to Aladdin’s macho physique and physical strength, Jafar’s averse attitude to physical labour intensifies his feminine essence as he prefers to use sorcery as to keep his hands literally, though not metaphorically, clean (Martinez, 2015). Heroes often represent heteronormative behaviour, which can only be defined through the understanding that the villain’s behaviour is somehow deviant or queer. (Li-Vollmer and LaPoint, 2003). Many of these feminine traits within other male villains can be found in franchises like Shrek (2001, 2007, 2010). Characters such as Prince Charming, Lord Farquaad and Rumplestiltskin all possess flamboyant, womanly mannerisms. Although, these characters are not necessarily designed to have physical qualities of the opposite gender, like earlier examples in this chapter, the suggestion of what TV Tropes describes as a “sissy villain” is extremely clear, particularly in comparison to the hyper-masculine nature of Shrek himself. Due to the social stigmas against femininity and “unmanliness”, there is a strong tendency in fiction to assign effeminate traits to villains: flamboyant mannerisms, delicate voices, light builds, love for theatre and impeccable fashion sense (TV Tropes, 2018). This plays into the belief that men must be manly regardless of any other characteristics and these antagonistic characters associated with homosexual men comes across as awfully homophobic. When separating these characters from conventional societal norms, these subcultures become connected to villainy and wickedness. This queerness, therefore, quickly become an instrument to teach young children how not to be, which reflects the societal discrimination within our western culture that equates queerness with violence.
Despite the fact that society’s view on these stereotypical issues have evolved and improved over the past 6 decades, there are still many aspects within the media that reflects the overall anxiety our culture has about queer individuals. Referring back to Shrek (2001), Princess Fiona (see Figure 20), the traditional fairy-tale damsel with in the story, is audaciously masculine which is the element that assists Shrek to fall in love with her. This can be seen as a great step in the right direction in the equality of gender expression within cinema, although the representation of the male antagonist, especially, is still evidently a concern. The notion of these villains, who distinctively blend between both genders through either their mannerisms or appearances highlight the belief that ‘good’ men should be manly and ‘good’ women should be womanly.
Film and television, as with any public media platform, has always influenced the opinion of its audience. This impact is particular important in children who develop their understanding of societal roles and stereotyping during their early pre- and primary school years. As children’s entertainment, whether animated or otherwise, becomes more widely averrable through digital means, this influence can either reinforce or contradict the learning children receive from more traditional sources such as parents and teachers. Whist the primary function of animated family films is for entertainment, these forms of communication are powerful ways to educate and influence primary socialisation. They can subconsciously teach young people about the negative and positive attributes within our society using multiple characters that reflect stereotypes. Introducing issues such as body image, gender and sexuality through the antagonist relates these aspects to villainy and our societies anxiety about sub-cultures.
For years women in particular have been misrepresented within the media, and children’s films are no exception. The female role models that can shape young girl’s minds, demonstrate societies standards of women within modern culture. Stating that in order to be considered a respectable woman they cannot be too fat or too thin, they should be naturally beautiful and feminine to attract a male partner that they can begin a family with. The female villains, on the other hand, indicate that to oppose these aspects of women-hood by not conforming to traditional societal norms, they will become an evil outcast from society. These recurrent traits associated with villainous women can change perceptions about women with a disdained sexuality, race, age or physique. The concept of good vs evil has consistently resided within fiction, and has always seemed to additionally mirror the conventional against the unconventional, and the culturally desirable always wins. Because the objectification of women is crucial to the functioning of the patriarchal order (Creed, 1993) we will continue to misrepresent them through the media. It is important for corporations such as Disney, Warner Bros, Pixar, DreamWorks to appreciate their responsibility to not only represent gender in current culturally acceptable ways but to also balance this with positive representation of the minority groups in our society irrespective whether that’s because of race, age, gender, sexuality or religion. This is particularly the case for young, queer, body conscious adolescents who are seeking to find positive validation of themselves on the screen, only to find evil staring back at them (Martinez, 2015).
...(download the rest of the essay above)