As in Shakespeare, some of the best Disney characters are the villains. Most Disney villains are men; in MICKEY’S HOUSE OF VILLAINS (2001), only six of the 26 meanies featured were female. But to be fair, most Disney movies are centred on male characters (wait, did I say “fair”?).
Although the vixen villains of Disney are undoubtedly evil to the core, many of them represent the strongest female characters of the Disney canon. Despite their obvious shortcomings, the dastardly dames exhibit a confidence rarely expressed by their more feminine princess prey. A lot of the qualities young girls are encouraged to think of as bad, like being bossy or manipulative, are really just twisted ways of discouraging leadership qualities in girls.
While most of the princesses teach audiences to be modest, quiet, and obsessed with romance, the female villains are mostly independent, honest, forthright women with good sense and intelligence. In most cases, these women are also more in touch with their sexuality, as exhibited in their wardrobe choices. As Chris Haigh points out, some of these Female Disney Villains would have been awesome leads in their own feature-length movies.
The Evil Queen from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)
The Evil Queen is so obsessed with beauty that she literally wants to rip the heart out of her more pretty step-daughter. That’s messed up.
The Evil Queen is such a wiz at chemistry that she can make a delicious juicy red apple into sleeping death for the first dumb chick who bites into it. And although she is obsessed with being young and beautiful forever, she isn’t afraid to make herself look old and ugly to get what she wants. Talk about ambition.
Cruella de Vil from 101 DALMATIANS (1961)
Cruella is willing to murder hundreds of cute little puppies in the name of fashion. Not cool. I’m also a bit concerned about an eating disorder. And smoking can kill you, children.
Cruella is independently wealthy. In the live-action version of the film, starring Glenn Close (1996), she runs her own fashion design company. She scoffs when Anita wants to give up work to take become a housewife, even though she’s really talented. Like a lot of her Disney villainess colleagues, Cruella has two male cronies whom she bosses around – even though they are dumb as posts, she doesn’t hesitate to take a leadership role with her employees. Also – so glamorous she reminds me of Tallulah Bankhead.
Maleficent from SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)
She gets a little too wound up over not being invited to a party.
Talk about self-confidence. Maleficent exudes a self-confidence most little girls can only marvel at. Most of the movie is about her anyway because the sissy Aurora girl is asleep for most of it. Like her compatriots in the world of Disney villains, Maleficent is an unmarried professional woman (yes, being a sorceress is a profession). While the little princesses are falling in love with men they’ve never met before, Maleficent is doing magic. And she looks AMAZING doing it.
Madam Mim from THE SWORD AND THE STONE (1963)
She “finds delight in the gruesome and grim.”
Although she can easily transform herself into a stunning beauty, Mim is comfortable enough in her own skin to be shamelessly ugly. She doesn’t hesitate to express self-pride, either: “I’m the magnificent, marvellous, mad Madam Mim.” When many Disney princesses shy away from gloating and are overly humble about their abilities, Mim stands up for herself. She challenges Merlin to a veritable battle of the sexes wizards’ duel when he suggests he is a better sorcerer than she.
Ursula from THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989)
She cons the little man with her financial scheming.
Ursula is a pretty good businesswoman, despite the fact that she takes advantage of her customers. She is also one of the most honest Disney character, calling out the sexist double standards Disney puts on its female heroines. When Ariel questions how she will win over the man she has fallen in love with (after only seeing him once) without speaking with him, Ursula reminds her not to underestimate the power of body language. Body language is something Ursula understands very well. Poet Melissa May’s homage to the sea witch is the most articulate was to praise this vixen villain and all that she has meant to bigger girls.
At the end of the day…
It is interesting to note how many of these women have magical powers – of these five, only Cruella is a muggle. In today’s day and age, when women all over the world are fighting for rights to govern their own bodies, these four in particular display an unprecedented dominion over their size, shape, and sexuality. Their lack of feminine humility and chastity upsets traditional values forced upon young girls by the media. One can see how the female power held by these villains threatens the patriarchal order of things so much as to relegate these women to the status of “inherent evil.” When considering the latest Disney triumph, FROZEN (2013), it is essential to note that Elsa, the sister with the magical powers, was initially set up to play the villain of the movie – what a huge step forward that she should be allowed to ally with her “good” sister rather than war against her!