Who gets to be a villain?

As a child, I loved the Disney movie Sleeping Beauty — but probably not for the reason I was supposed to.

I suffered through Aurora’s sappy yearning for love. I yawned at the Prince (. . . um, Erik?) and his earnest escapades.

I loved the Flora, Fauna, and Merriwether of course — who doesn’t appreciate a gaggle of adorable witchy aunties who are just doing their best at adulting?

But I watched Sleeping Beauty for my idol.


She had power. She commanded minions. She was fierce and strong. She did whatever the hell she wanted.

Yes, cursing a baby to die is pretty terrible — especially when her beef was actually with the parents. But as a child I remember feeling awed by her strength, confidence, and casual assumption of power.

She was a boss bitch, and she was amazing. I’d rather be her than boring, sappy Aurora crying on her bed any day.

As a girl, I felt like I was offered two choices in Sleeping Beauty: sit around waiting to be saved, or turn into a literal dragon and set some shit on fire.

I wanted to be the dragon.

Cue Sirens…

A few weeks back, I mentioned Sirens Con, the feminist SFF convention I recently attended.

The theme of the conference was villains: Who gets cast as villains in our media? How are straight, cis male villains treated compared to female, nonbinary, and LGBTQ+ villains? What does a villain need to do to have a redemption arc? What does it mean to be morally gray?

Nearly every panel and talk touched somewhat on the theme. As a writer of sci-fi crime stories about space gangsters and pirates, you can bet I have a LOT of thoughts on how these topics relate to my own work.

My attempt to sit and write a quick recap of Sirens for you turned into a multi-part series of essays.

This specific blog post won’t have any spoilers for my books, but I did dig deeper into my world and characters in other essays — so I’m only send those to readers who are actually curious. (Read on for details.)

But first!

Maleficent didn’t become a villain by accident.

(And, no, I’m not talking about her character backstory, or the recent retelling with Angelina Jolie.)

Her character design in the animated film was deliberate, influenced by a Prohibition-era set of rules called the Hays Code — which we learned about at Sirens in a fascinating keynote talk given by Sarah Gailey.

The Hays Code was provided in 1927 by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America — it listed things that should not be included in movies, such as profanity and nudity, but also things like relationships between people of different races, scenes of childbirth, and the positive portrayal of sexual depravity.

The idea is based on something I completely agree with: stories expand our experiences and help us empathize with other perspectives. Stories teach us, whether we’re aware of it or not.

What the Hays Code said, though, was that we should only be teaching audiences to empathize with certain people.

As Sarah Gailey pointed out in their talk, the Hays Code wanted audiences to empathize with “model citizens.” White, Christian, straight, and hard-working.

Anyone who didn’t fit that box could only be portrayed in a negative light. They got to be villains.

No one empathizes with the villains, right?

Well, no one except for us misfits.

You’ll notice sexual depravity on the Hays Code no-no list, of course. Loose women and women who are confident in their sexuality obviously fall into this category — hence the trope of the femme fatale, or the voluptuous vixen who gets a humiliating downfall.

And, of course, the gays. Start listing off old movie villains in your head, and just notice how many are butch women and effeminate men.

Sticking with Disney villains for a moment, take take Ursula the sea witch, another of my Disney favorites. Sarah Gailey pointed out that Ursula’s character design, expressions, and movements were literally based off the famous drag queen Divine.

The Hays Code was generally abandoned by the 60s for the rating code we use today (at least in the US), but the reverberations linger.

Imagine it.

  • Think of the gay kids who are only ever allowed to glimpse themselves in Scar or Ursula or Javier Bardem’s depraved Bond villain.
  • Think of the Muslim kids who are only ever allowed to see themselves as terrorists.
  • Think of ambitious girls who are only allowed to see themselves as psychotic, power-hungry madwomen.

As a girl, I wanted to be the dragon.

In real life I’ve actually become the witchy auntie who’s doing her best at adulting — but Maleficent still inspires me.

I have a figurine of her on my desk, a gift from my sister. Every time I catch a glimpse of it, I remember that it’s okay for a woman to be a bit monstrous if it means advocating for herself and fully coming into her power.

And it reminds me to pay attention to the worlds I’m writing, and the implicit lessons I’m sharing about who can and cannot be a hero.

How about you – do you have a favorite villain?

Let me know in the comments!

Want to read the rest of this essay series?

Oh — and as I said, Sarah Gailey’s talk at Sirens was one of many many presentations that sparked a lot of thoughts for me.

Specifically, I want to dive more into Fonda Lee’s discussion about morally gray characters, and into the idea of villain redemption arcs which was discussed by multiple presenters.

However, I drew a lot off my own work, and I didn’t want to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t read all the Bulari Saga yet.

If you have read it — or don’t mind a few spoilers — I have another few emails I’d love to send your way. Click here to get a series of three more emails over the next three days:

  • Navigating the morally gray world of the Bulari Saga
  • What makes a good villain (and can you redeem them?)
  • And a super secret surprise 😉

Want a deeper dive on Disney villains?

Photo by Norbert Buduczki on Unsplash