There are some elements of the early Disney Princess films that don’t quite sit right with me. One of those things is how Disney characterizes their early female antagonists. Their motivations (when they have them) are shallow, their characters are lacking in depth, and the naming for the first two is incredibly troubling. Why is that? Well, we’re going to delve into labels, motivations, and the other messy aspects of Disney’s earliest villains and find out.
Evil Queen, Cinderella’s Stepmother, and the Problematic Aspects
Snow White and Cinderella existed in the early days of Disney, when the writers were still finding their footing with developing characters. This is especially evident in their antagonists, who are given titles rather than names, and motivations that feel very flat. They’re also very much a product of their times, where much of a women’s worth in story revolves around her beauty and her status.
Snow White’s stepmother is named the Evil Queen, a simplistic title that paints her as an antagonist. Meanwhile, Cinderella’s stepmother is often referred to as, well, Cinderella’s stepmother. Cinderella even calls her “Stepmother” in the movie. Interestingly, her stepmother does have an actual name – it’s Lady Tremaine, which is really badass and sounds awesome – but it’s never used. Instead, the movie focuses on her title: Stepmother.
Both movies share similar plots at the start: farther loses his wife and wants to provide his daughter with a motherly figure, so he marries a wealthy woman. But the father inevitably dies (because Disney has this weird stigma against families being happy, I guess) and the daughter is treated cruelly because the stepmother is envious of her beauty.
I’ve never liked the terrible reputation stepmothers get in older fairytales. They’re painted with this very weird canvas, where they’re evil and dislike children and end up being antagonists. Which, first of all, it’s very awkward that stepmothers were evil, since this was a time when a lot of children had stepparents due to losing family to disease. Second of all, the fact that these are older women who are villainized for their envy of their younger, more beautiful children points to a deeper societal issue.
We live in a society where a woman’s worth lies in her beauty, rather than her intellect, or her talent, or her compassion. Think about Hollywood: how many older actresses get fulfilling roles in movies, verses male actors, who have a longer shelf life? For men, appearance isn’t as big of a factor, but for women, it’s a huge aspect, and it’s very biased. For example, think about the Oscars: how many women were asked about their appearance on the Red Carpet, while men were asked about their roles or their career? There’s a huge messy double standard here, and Snow White and Cinderella both have it.
In Snow White, we have the Evil Queen, who is so envious of Snow White’s beauty that she wants to eliminate her from the picture. A mirror tells her she’s not the fairest woman in the land anymore, and she decides that the logical solution would be to send her Huntsman to kill Snow White. There is so much wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start.
One thing that really bothers me about this movie is that the mirror is a man, so we have a man judging a woman’s self-worth and beauty, and deeming another woman as better than her.
We also have this weird, uncomfortable message about how it’s okay if you’re young and beautiful, and that makes you a good person, but if you’re an older woman, and you strive for beauty, well, that makes you horrible and evil and cruel. (And in the Evil Queen’s case, you lose your beauty and die as a punishment.) It villainizes the older woman, and puts the younger woman on a pedestal. It gives us an uncomfortable message that says: “you should be beautiful, but you shouldn’t focus on your beauty, because that makes you evil.” It’s not right, and it’s jarring that Snow White came out almost 60 years ago, yet this is still an issue in our society today.
Cinderella focuses a bit more on status, but beauty still factors in. While Lady Tremaine doesn’t straight up tell us that she’s jealous of Cinderella, she doesn’t have to! Because the narration flat out tells us that Lady Tremaine is “bitterly jealous of Cinderella’s charm and beauty” as she lurks in the shadows and glowers at her.
So Cinderella becomes her stepmother and stepsisters’ servant and has her status revoked just because Lady Tremaine is jealous of her beauty and charm. It’s just as messy as the Snow White/Evil Queen situation.
Lady Tremaine isn’t trying to murder Cinderella, which is progress I guess, but she’s treating her stepdaughter like dirt just so that she can feel above her and feel more beautiful than her. It’s about status and beauty, and competition between women, and it’s sickening. Of course, it doesn’t even work out in Lady Tremaine’s favor, because no matter how hard she pushes to keep Cinderella beneath her and her children, Cinderella rises above and even elevates past her status by marrying a prince.
While I do think Cinderella sends some great messages, like never giving up on your dreams, it also has that same ugly undercurrent of competition that Snow White had, and a more uncomfortable message that beauty = good, but wanting beauty/status is unacceptable.
Cinderella gets a higher status, yes, but she doesn’t strive for it in any way, she kind of walks into it once she meets the prince. And Snow White’s prince just pops up out of nowhere to rescue her and elevate her to a higher status as well. Both movies suggest that beauty is something you should be born with and if you’re not that’s too bad, that status is something that should be gained through a man, and working for either negates you as a cruel person who deserves the worst to happen to you.
That’s not a healthy message to send whatsoever.
We get off the weird status/beauty boat with Maleficent, but unfortunately, we also don’t see a ton of development antagonist-wise either.
Maleficent: Badass and Not Much Else
Maleficent is a step up from our two previous villains. She has a name that is not a title, and she is addressed by it throughout! She isn’t only her title, the way that the Evil Queen and Cinderella’s stepmother are, so that’s progress already.
There also isn’t the weird envious undercurrent about beauty and competition with Maleficent and Aurora. Maleficent doesn’t really even seem to have anything against Aurora herself; she just curses her to spite her parents, who didn’t invite her to the christening for Aurora. Which kind of leads us to her only motive being…well, that she’s petty. You don’t invite her to your party? She’ll curse your infant! Sucks for you, maybe you should’ve invited her so she didn’t ruin your life.
While her motives aren’t that fleshed out, it’s a step-up from before, considering the lack of female-on-female hate. Maleficent may be petty, but it’s not solely focused on women. Remember that great speech she gave to Phillip when she took him captive, about how she’d keep him locked up until he was old, then let him go rescue Aurora? Her revenge and malevolence extends to everyone, so at least in that regard she’s pretty equal about it.
Unfortunately, Maleficent just doesn’t have a ton of depth, period. Is she an awesome villain that is a great obstacle for our characters? Yes, definitely; she has a great presence and she’s incredibly chilling in a wonderful way. But beyond her pettiness and her badass nature, she doesn’t really have a reason for why she does what she does. She just seems to be in it to mess with everyone else, which I guess is valid.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about Maleficent’s lack of depth. She is definitely a step up from the Evil Queen and the Stepmother, but it’s clear that at this point, there’s still a lot of room for improvement antagonist-wise in the Disney catalogue. She is a cool stepping stone to observe, though. Sleeping Beauty came out nine years after Cinderella, in 1959, and in between the two, Robin Hood, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp all came out, which is where we started to see a bit of improvement on the antagonist scale.
It’s also interesting to point out that all three female villainesses have the same manipulative undercurrent. They all have this knack for subtlety, and convincing others to do what they want, and a cunning that’s very impressive. That aspect carries onto a lot of later Disney villains, so in that regard, some good things did come out of our early villainesses.
While no one can deny that all three of the early antagonists in the Disney Princess films have a chilling presence and some impressive skills of manipulation, their lack of depth and the uncomfortable messages sent in their conflicts with the protagonists show where Disney hadn’t quite found their niche.
What do you guys think? Do the portrayals of the Evil Queen, Lady Tremaine and Maleficent have some issues? Which of these three ladies is your favorite villainess?