A big part of telling a story is establishing who the audience is intended to root for, and who we’re up against. Heroes and villains are vital pieces of the storytelling puzzle, and the way in which we portray, identify with and rally against those characters has a deep and profound impact on the way that we understand and perceive the world around us. That’s the fundamental truth of popular culture: no matter how trivial, how meaningless, how insignificant it seems, our media becomes a part of us and the way in which we experience the world.

Some of our beloved fictional characters have been sending us some damaging gender-coded messages for years. Particularly when it comes to villains in film, the bizarre use of gender performance and gender roles as tools for indicating villainous or devious behavior raises some serious questions about the way in which we regard gender, masculinity, and so-called normative behaviors.

Villains, Gender Roles and Gender Performance

As Andreea Coca lays out in A Reflection on the Development of Gender in ‘Classic’ Disney Films, “Starting with [Judith] Butler’s (1999[1990]) work, gender is understood as a performance, a set of codes, gestures and adornments used, rather than a ‘real’ aspect of individual identity.”

Here we’re talking about gender performance as an aspect of the characters we’re examining — the way in which they dress, speak, or behave in terms of “masculine” or “feminine” behaviors. How does, for instance, a Disney villain carry himself, if a young audience is supposed to recognize him as evil?

With Disney in particular, there’s a clear pattern of using gender performance as a coded shorthand for establishing antagonists. Villains like Jafar, Ursula, and Governor Ratcliffe all display exaggerated gender traits that don’t fall into the narrow expectations of the performance expected from their respective genders. Jafar wears jewelry and has a feminine silhouette, and Ursula is loud, brash and demanding.

Of these villains and their coded performances, Coca says, “Representing the villains and the outcasts in the plots, these characters’ display of unconventional gender performance becomes immediately ridiculed, stigmatised and labeled as ‘wrong’.” Children are intended, through social cues they’ve learned, to recognize Ursula as bad because she explains sensuality to Ariel shamelessly, because she laughs too loudly and makes a mess.

In Mean Ladies: Transgendered Villains in Disney Films, Amanda Putnam puts the way in which villains are portrayed and perceived in stark contrast to the hyper-heterosexuality displayed by princes and princesses, and addresses the troubling messages this villain coding sends in films that are intended for very young audiences.

Putnam says, “In many of Disney’s films, the villains portrayed are not only the bad guys in terms of nefarious choices and desires, but also due to their so-called deviant behaviors via their gender performance. By creating only wicked characters as transgendered, Disney constructs an implicit evaluation of transgenderism, unequivocally associating it with cruelty, selfishness, brutality, and greed.”

In Gender Transgression and Villainy in Animated Film Meredith Li-Vollmer and Mark E. LaPointe analyzed villains in Disney films based on their physical characteristics, costuming and props, nonverbal gestures and body position, activities and dialogue. What they found is that male villains often displayed gender transgressions” that painted them as girly caricatures of villains, giving way to a villainous archetype, which they dubbed “villain-as-sissy.”

Li-Vollmer and LaPointe go on to point out that this trend of making villains feminine may continue in order to help male heroes maintain the “masculinity and male standing”, and conclude, “This is troubling in that it not only reasserts a homonegative standard, but it invokes antifemininity as well.”

Gender In Today’s Heroes

We talk more and more about representation (and positive, meaningful, quality representation at that) more and more. So are things getting better? Are our societal views of gender progressing and evolving? Or are we still using gender performance to establish who’s good and who’s evil?

In some ways, things seem to be improving. More and more, our characters push the boundaries of what it means to be a woman or a man.

Female protagonists like Game of Thrones’s Brienne of Tarth, Alien’s Ellen Ripley, Captain Marvel, Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck and even Star Wars’s Rey and Jyn Erso prove that our female protagonists are no longer limited to the dresses and bows we often saw in “classic” Disney films. These women don’t fall inside the narrow parameters of stereotypical female gender performance that we might’ve seen defined by early Disney films, and they’re all clearly heroes. This suggests that, best case scenario, our ideas on gender are developing and progressing.

But male heroes may tell a different story. More and more, the male heroes we see on in film seem to fall in line with some of what may have motivated the Disney villains discussed above. A quick glance at most of our superheroes and the male movie stars proves that our idea of a male hero hasn’t evolved too terribly much. Our male heroes are often still hyper masculine, displaying strength, toughness, and a kind of “man’s man” persona.

There’s the hope that male heroes like Captain America may be new heroic antidote to hero culture’s toxic masculinity, though. Pre-Super Serum Steve Rogers stands as proof that heroes don’t come from muscles, but from who someone is at their core. He’s the kind of hero we need, but there’s only one real Cap in a sea of hyper masculine heroes.

As far as villains go, we seem to be seeing fewer and fewer human villains, finding them replaced instead by corporations, monsters, robots, aliens, and legions and organizations of baddies. What that says about us is a discussion for another time.

Our female heroes prove that at least when it comes to femininity and female protagonists, our views on gender performance, gender roles and heroics are evolving. Our male heroes, though, stand as proof that there’s still plenty of work to do when it comes to how we think about the relationship between gender performance and strength or heroics.

Photos via Disney / Lucasfilm