‘Maleficent,’ ‘Snow White and the Huntsman,’ and Fairy Tale Villainesses as the New Anti-Heroes

There’s been a lot of debate recently about how to define the Golden Age of television, whether it’s through Vulture’s Drama Derby, which set up a March Madness contest between great shows of the last quarter-century, or conversations between critics like NPR’s Linda Holmes, the Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman, and Time’s James Poniewozik on Twitter. But wherever the conversations are taking place, they keep coming back to a central question. When we’re picking the pool of shows, why does the critical consensus tend to come up with a list that’s, well, awfully dudely?

The best answer anyone seems to have come up with is that there are more male characters of a particular variety that we’ve come to hold up as a gold standard: the middle-aged anti-hero. There are a number of answers as to why that’s the case: the number of middle-aged men who have been given the opportunities to make their dream shows; the fact that female characters are still under pressure to be perfect in every area of their lives, much less downright evil or morally depraved in one of them; or the fact that women, even as Christopher Hitchens said we aren’t funny, have found a great deal of creative life in comedy rather than in drama. Addressing all of these elements are important, and I’ll have some thoughts on them in weeks to come.

But if middle-aged anti-heroes are what we’ve decided give us an opportunity for moral sophistication as viewers and for complex, intriguing storytelling, where would we start in creating these kinds of women? It’s possible that one answer lies in a rising boom: fairy tale villainesses. Fairy tales are full of older women who are trying to hold onto the kinds of things about which great dramas about men are made: their power within their professional setting, their sense of sexual desirability, their status within their personal communities. In the trailers for Snow White and the Huntsman, we’re clearly meant to side with Kristen Stewart’s insurgent Snow White. But I’m intrigued by Charlize Theron’s evil Queen, who speaks of giving her fallen world the ruler it deserves, who commands armies and welcomes challenges.

And as production ramps up on the Maleficent movie, Angelina Jolie told People Magazine that she felt some ambivalence about defending her character (the movie will be told from the perspective of Sleeping Beauty’s rival for the throne): “It sounds really crazy to say that there will be something that’s good for young girls in this, because it sounds like you’re saying they should be a villain. [Maleficent] is actually a great person. But she’s not perfect. She’s far from perfect.” But why should we be so squeamish about suggesting that we should sympathize with female villains? Especially in settings where women have to be unusually tough to hold on to power and authority (which, let’s be honest, is not so different from the tightrope women have to walk today)?

If boys can grow up to sympathize with Tony Soprano, why shouldn’t women get a world where it’s permissible to sympathize with the stepmothers, crones, sorceresses and evil queens we taught were lying in our paths growing up? Reclaiming fairy tale villainesses wouldn’t just give us a crop of powerful female anti-heroines—it would help break a cycle of storytelling that valorizes younger and prettier women overthrowing older ones. Sisterhood is weird, and complex, and powerful.