Erika Bean examines the inner workings of on screen villains. Whether born or made, what does that mean for their off screen counterparts? The Demonisation of the Innocent.
When we think of the tropes of darker forms of storytelling, one thing is almost universal; a tragic backstory for a villain driven by trauma. The ‘bad guy’ of the piece, in most cases, started their life as a normal person then something happens that corrupts them and they grow into a monster.
The Demonisation of the Innocent
There are exceptions of course, those who are born bad. Freddie Krueger takes revenge on the children of Elm Street after their parents murder him, but he was always an abuser and a paedophile who needed to be stopped. Michael Myers too was wrong from the start, murdering his sister silently as a child and having an unexplained lust for violence. But for every villain who was drawn with these faults from the start, we are given many more who became evil. A shun, a rejection, or a traumatic event cracks through them so thoroughly that they are permanently damaged.
Brian DePalma’s Carrie, based on the novel by Stephen King, is one such example. Carrie (Sissy Spacek) spends her time in high school taking multiple knocks from all sides, both in class and at home. Her mother (Piper Laurie), a religious fundamentalist, has her own issues as well, possibly some sort of personality disorder causing her to be overbearing and controlling. As Carrie begins to develop into a woman, she takes steps to regain control of her life from her mother but unfortunately her classmates have other ideas. A prank involving a crown and a bucket of pig’s blood triggers a killing spree that eliminates almost her entire year group, traumatising the lone survivor, Sue Snell (Amy Irving). This is a story we see often, where a female character cannot manage the power she has, and combined with outward stressors takes drastic steps that damage those around her.
Stephen King also has a woman on the edge as a villain in other stories, though not as sympathetically this time. Misery has Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who psychologists have theorised as having bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and various others among them. These illnesses lead her to an obsession with a favourite author so intense that she inflicts horrific injuries on him purely so he will write the next instalment of her favourite character’s story.
Season two of the Stephen King inspired anthology series Castle Rock posits an origin for Annie (in this case played by Lizzy Caplan), allowing some background and cause for her illness, but before this point she was compared to the Angel of Death nurses. These are often women who have secretly killed babies and young children in their care, usually having some of the biggest body counts of any serial killers. Castle Rock shows us Annie as a child, abused and controlled by her mother, and despite a positive relationship with her father, the damage her mother causes creates a cycle of control with Annie’s own daughter, alongside hallucinations that contribute to the wider plot.
It’s difficult to know whether this addition of a back story is really progress. Sometimes it is simpler to have our human monsters be monsters without reason, a metaphor for the human condition or a reflection of some sort of conflict that isn’t connected to the real world. In the name of progress though, we need depth to our monsters. Annie Wilkes being given this background makes her sympathetic as well as terrifying, and Carrie being the victim of a high school prank does the same. What does that suggest about the real people who go through these traumas?
Fatal Attraction is widely known as being a story about borderline personality disorder. After a one-night stand with Alex (Glenn Close), Dan (Michael Douglas) becomes more and more concerned with her insistence on remaining in his life. Her behaviour escalates and begins to affect Dan’s family, but ultimately, although he is the adulterer, Alex becomes the villain – and she is rarely described as sympathetic. Often in film, these stalker characters are women. The ultimate fear for a man apparently is to be caught out for their sexual indiscretions. The audience is expected to sympathise with these men, to allow them their simple mistakes. The women should know better – female obsession is what is dangerous here.
Another Michael Douglas film is a stunning example of this. Falling Down, has Douglas as D-Fens, a man on the edge, estranged from his wife. After getting stuck in traffic, he decides to travel across town to see his daughter on her birthday. As things progress, we see his ex-wife Beth’s (Barbara Hershey) growing fear as he approaches. There are references to a restraining order, an overbearing mother, previous moments of violence, and he is clearly established to be a pretty damn scary man. But what do people remember about Falling Down? He got pissed off because a burger place wouldn’t give him breakfast. We get where he’s coming from don’t we? What a guy!
Compare this representation in both films. Douglas has made some fundamental mistakes in his marriage, and in both films, audiences sympathise with him over the women involved. The overbearing mother trope too, is one often repeated in films where men are perpetrators of violent crimes, Psycho being the most famous. Most of this misplaced sympathy is down to the filmmaking – the way things are presented, makes a huge difference to audience perceptions, but that is on the filmmakers to repair.
Unfortunately, many aren’t doing that. Tate Taylor’s Ma has Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) as a damaged woman keen to ingratiate herself with the cool kids she meets outside a liquor store. Things escalate accordingly, a back story is developed, her trauma is revealed, but she is still the villain. She’s the bad guy. The racial implications of the events are only loosely or messily alluded to, in lieu of gruesome acts of violence that leave us in no doubt that Sue Ann is the one to blame here.
Ultimately the implication is that popular people have so much influence over those they abuse that it affects their victims entire lives. Sure, it does to an extent, you’d be hard pushed to find someone who hasn’t been altered by bullying. But does a bullied child logically turn into a villain? A monster? Do they turn that violence around on those who wronged them? Do they spend their lives wishing, and hoping, to be in that in crowd?
What do you think?
Women, in particular, are once again reduced to; vapid, insecure, obsessive and controlling harpies. These characters are often overweight, they are infantilised, and they are dangerous. Popular people are the victims, innocent, they were only children after all. They didn’t know any better.
Who is the real villain here?
It is the job of filmmakers to challenge our expectations, and do things audiences don’t expect. There have been attempts, no doubt. Roger Michell directs Enduring Love, based on the book by Ian McEwan, and has Rhys Ifans’ Jed as stalker to Daniel Craig’s Joe, his attachment triggered by a shared traumatic experience. However, this feels as though it’s the exception that proves the rule rather than a sign of another branch of storytelling. It is also worth noting that even in this case, it is Joe’s girlfriend Claire (Samantha Morton) who faces injury in this story, not Joe himself. Nosy neighbour stories such as Rear Window, and Fright Night, and even The Burbs lend some credence and justification to male paranoia. Their duty to snoop and repair things precludes their innocence. Their crimes are ones they must commit (or encourage others to commit) to find out the truth.
Men are born bad?
There is a clear pattern across storytelling, where women are given more of a back story and a reasoning for their misdeeds, where men are born bad. We can see this in crime films, horror, thrillers, action, you name it. Generally, a female villain will be broken, a man was born this way. This is what he was always meant to be. This undermines the ability of both genders to be either evil without justification or for trauma to change them, and acts to provide a stigma to those (women especially) living with the very real illnesses that these fictional characters are designed to represent.
There is also the continued representation of women as weak minded and more likely to suffer mental health issues in times of stress. That’s not to say that having mental illnesses are a sign of weakness, but they are presented as such. The biggest crime in the final season of Game of Thrones was for Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to suddenly become unable to handle the power she has amassed, lose her hold on logic and slaughter an entire town. While this action in Carrie felt justified, as the rift between the titular character and her classmates has been well established, this was not the case for Daenerys. Her final act amounted to an over-egged plot device. We see this time and time again.
There are exceptions to this of course, we are always reminded by helpful people that Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) don’t fit in to this stereotype. But unfortunately for them, two characters in a sea of thousands is really not enough.
There are exceptions slowly creeping into storytelling, and those with mental health issues are beginning to be presented in a more rounded and empowered way. Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman takes a traumatic event and shows how damaging it can be, but at no point do you sympathise with Cassie’s (Carey Mulligan) victims. She is a black widow, there’s no doubt of that, but these men are far from innocent, and they could have easily avoided the circumstances they find themselves in by not being a walking, talking, exploitative, cliché.
Cathy Yan’s DC Sequel, Birds Of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn too, took the character of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a foil to the Joker in Suicide Squad, and empowered her and a group of other women to fight their own battles, support each other, and finally eat a truly amazing sandwich. What more could a woman want?
So, there are attempts in recent years to address this trend. There’s no doubt that Harley Quinn and the other Birds of Prey are unwell and have trauma driving some of their decisions but they are not defined by their illness, they are not driven by that illness, they are not turned into monsters by illness, and the people they hurt are not victims to it. They are simply in the way, often deserving the punishment doled out to them. Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge has her lead Jen (Matilda Lutz) practically developing superpowers in response to her abuse. She is made immortal, strengthened and branded with a winged focus that would make D-Fens weep.
We can see that there are recent attempts to address this trope and end the stigmatisation of mental illness in fiction. But, of course, there will occasionally be stories that still use it. It works on screen – it’s compelling, it’s scary, and it allows for believable but unpredictable behaviour. Recent hashtag based awareness campaigns have shown that you would be hard pushed to find any woman who has not experienced at least some of the things that movies would have you believe turn them into monsters. The realistic answer, in an age of #metoo and #notallmen, is for those who have experienced these awful things to get angry, to get strong, and to get even.
There are and always has been real women taking steps to empower themselves and others, from Emmeline Pankhurst of the women’s Suffrage movement, to Nadya Tolokonnikova of Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot. These women used their trauma to create their strength. Many of them are hurt, damaged and forever changed by their experiences, but the people they fought were not the victims, nor should they be portrayed as such. There are still films being made which posit the blame of the actions of people on mental illness and traumatic experiences, and there likely always will be. With any luck though, it won’t be the only representation we get, and when we do, they won’t be demonised.