May 28, 2021   5 mins

Villains get all the best songs in Disney movies. Who’d bother with Beauty and the Beast without bad guy Gaston’s glorious hymn to strength and brilliance? What would be the point of The Little Mermaid without the sea witch Ursula pummelling her way through “Poor Unfortunate Souls”? “Go ahead! Make your choice!” she growls at tragic, bobble-headed, lovesick Ariel — who cannot help but choose the thing that moves the story on. You know you’re supposed to be the good girl, but wouldn’t you rather be the bad one? It’s villains who make stuff happen. Villains have charisma.

Now, they don’t just get individual songs; they get whole films to themselves. Cruella, out today, follows 2014’s Maleficent in offering a live-action retelling of a classic story from the villain’s point of view: the wicked fairy godmother we first met in Sleeping Beauty isn’t wilfully bad, she’s driven to it by a faithless human love. In Cruella, Emma Stone stars as the puppy-rustling avatar of evil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, who turns out to have a backstory that makes skinning dogs for coats — well, not exactly sympathetic, but definitely understandable.

After all, what would you do if your mother was knocked to her death from a clifftop by a pack of trained attack Dalmatians, at the behest of a vicious fashion designer (played by Emma Thompson)? Even if “scheme to kidnap every Dalmatian in England and turn them into stylish outerwear” isn’t your first thought, you’ve got to admit you’d consider it. “It’s her mum, innit, you’ve gotta cut her some slack,” as one of Cruella’s henchmen ruefully comments. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit: the cartoon Cruella wasn’t bad, she was just drawn that way.

The boring business-y reason for the rise of the “dark princess” story is that, given a set of intellectual properties as valuable as Disney’s, capitalism compels you to find new ways to use them: the animation, then the live action version, then the alternate perspective version, with extensive merchandising for each instalment. But that doesn’t explain their appeal, and it doesn’t explain why arguably the first of Disney’s antagonist-as-hero films was a completely new and standalone cartoon.

In the original conception of Frozen (based loosely on Hans Christan Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen”), Elsa was a straight-up baddie, unleashing snowy doom over the kingdom of Arendelle. Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez changed that. They saw Elsa as a girl frightened by her own powers and terrified of what she might become, rather than a character revelling in evil and spite; “Let It Go” is the moment she embraces who she is, and it’s so glorious that the film was reworked around it.

And the audience loved it. “Let It Go” started as a villain’s song, but after Frozen’s release in 2013, it was adopted as the soundtrack for becoming the hero of your own life — “an LGBT anthem… and a feminist call for freedom,” according to an article from the time by Dorian Lynskey. Elsa was the first baddie you could legitimately have on your lunchbox. A female character who acted out, and who you weren’t supposed to hate in the end.

And the trend goes beyond Disney. Comics have long dealt in ambivalence, but 2019’s Joker is essentially the boy version of Maleficent, filling out the history of Batman’s best enemy from a sympathetic angle. This version of the Joker, Arthur Fleck, is a victim of society — and specifically, a victim of his own controlling mother (his equivalent of a “Let It Go” moment is committing matricide, which precipitates his full embrace of the Joker persona). Sure, he’s violent and chaotic, but he was made that way, and the people who made him deserve everything he has to offer.

But the golden age of cancellation is a strange moment for the redemptive anti-hero arc to have become a thing. We live in unforgiving times outside of fiction. A lot of the same people who revel in the nuance of villain stories can be furiously doctrinaire when it comes to real life (I couldn’t count how many times I’ve blocked Twitter users with Joker avatars, but I think the Frozen avatars still have the edge). Maybe empathy for imaginary characters is a substitute for the compassionless judgement that actual humans seem to merit.

Look, for example, at the unfortunate Amy Cooper. She made the grave mistake of calling the police on a black man following an altercation in Central Park a year ago this week, and wound up becoming internet-infamous as “Central Park Karen”, representative of the allegedly manipulative and mendacious nature of white women everywhere.

The incident would have been fraught in any case; the fact that it happened the same day that white police officer Derek Chauvin murdered another black man, George Floyd, made it downright combustible. Cooper wasn’t just roundly reviled online, she also lost her job as a filing clerk. The only person who appeared able to muster any compassion for her at all in this was the man she’d originally clashed with. “I don’t know if her life needed to be torn apart,” Christian Cooper (no relation) told the New York Times.

Still, her life had been torn apart. Now Cooper is suing her former employer for, she says, firing her without due process. “Amy Cooper Didn’t Learn Much From Her Time As ‘Central Park Karen’,” gloated New York magazine’s headline on the story: “she is not ready to admit — after a year of racial reckoning started by the police murdering a Black man — being in the wrong for leveraging the police to threaten a Black man,” said the report, as though BLM should have made her more philosophical about her unemployment.

The tone is one of exasperated disappointment. Well, we did give you the opportunity to grow as a person by comprehensively trashing your reputation and destroying your career, yet here you are insisting that you might be owed justice. How incredibly Karen of her. No salvation is possible for Cooper, not even any crumb of understanding that might say — yes, you acted poorly, but as a woman who felt threatened by a man there might be something comprehensible in those actions. In the press telling of her, she’s as resolutely evil as the cartoon Cruella.

Of course, Cooper doesn’t believe that she’s the villain of her own existence, which is the condition being set on her rehabilitation. To have “learned” would have been to accept her status as the bad guy, and that would put anyone on the way to Arkham. (There is a Karen movie in the works, incidentally, but it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be an apologia for pushy white women: instead, the main character is described as a “titular touchstone of privilege”.)

It’s easier to have sympathy for Cruella than for a real, flawed woman like Cooper, not only because Cruella has the crucial advantage of being made-up, but also because the need to hate Cruella only extends as far as her part in the original story. The need to hate Cooper runs deep into real-life social schisms: the urgency of blaming someone for America’s racism, the blissful ease of choosing a woman to carry that can.

And it’s possible to identify with a vengeful Cruella, or a wounded Joker, or a frightened Elsa, because what they have, and what all but the most saintly want, is a licence for their own rage: the ecstasy of losing control, justified by circumstances in which they could hardly be anything else. It’s the same rage that can be safely unleashed against someone like Cooper — whether she truly deserved it or not. Monsters are mostly made not born, it’s true. We make them because we need someone to hate; we could unmake them, if we chose.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.