It’s time to take a step forward with the animated villain and representation

Annabelle Bartz, Staff Writer

Picture a princess. For a more specific example, picture Ariel from The Little Mermaid. As pale as humanly possible, not a blemish on her skin, blue eyes, perfect hair, and a tiny waist. Now on the opposite end of that spectrum, picture Ursula from that same movie, the complete opposite of Ariel in every way possible. 

Movies use societal norms to emphasize the difference between the hero and the villain. Ariel is the picture of the white cishet beauty standard while Ursula has a more realistic body shape and is queer coded like there is no tomorrow. 

Queer coding is an act defined by Wikipedia as, “the subtextual coding of a character in media as queer. Though such a character’s sexual identity may not be explicitly confirmed within their respective work, a character might be coded as queer through use of stereotypes recognizable to the audience.” Although queer coding started as a way to include queer people in a space that wouldn’t allow it, it has turned into a less-than-positive practice within the movie industry. 

Disney is one of the worst at upholding these concepts, oftentimes using them to add an extra layer of villainy to a character. From Ursula, a character based on the real life drag queen Divine, to Hades from the movie Hercules, Disney tends to put the cis straight character on a pedestal while villainizing characters that appear queer or gender nonconforming. 

Animated movies in particular use the physical appearance and behavior of a character to show what is and isn’t acceptable within society. Creating protagonists that feature “socially-desirable” characteristics and antagonists who embody the opposite is a harmful practice that results in kids who are part of those minoritized groups only being able to see themselves in the villains. 

One particularly insidious example of this is giving bodily or facial deformities to a villain. Whether it is Scar from The Lion King or Voldemort from Harry Potter, characters like this create a societal norm of punishing people for things that are beyond their control and giving them the idea that they are undeserving of love, support, and forgiveness. Body type can also be weaponized in depictions of movie villains, such as the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland or Jafar from Aladdin. Anyone that isn’t average height and the generic body type generally falls within the villain category. 

The film industry, especially the giants creating content primarily for children, like Disney, needs to put more diverse groups of people on screen. Just having a diverse group of people in the background while centering a white cishet protagonist isn’t enough. Characters should reflect the people that exist in the real world, and spoiler alert: those people aren’t all the same. They have diverse body types, defining characteristics, are part of the LGBTQ community, and everything in between. All of that should be reflected in the main characters on screen, because no matter who a small child is, they should be able to find a character that positively represents them.