Who would Snow White be without the evil queen? Or Cinderella without her stepmother? Villains are as essential as heros, they just get less of the glory. It takes skill, style and cunning to become a formidable foe. Imagine Cruella de Vil without her iconic red lip and matching sneer! She’d just be your average, crusty-lipped psychopath.
In the spirit of celebrating our vices this month, we’d be remiss to not examine what such evil figures can teach us about survival. It’s not the most hopepunk of endeavors, but it’s a worthy one nonetheless. Below, starting with de Vil herself, find an emotional and aesthetic interpretation of three classic villains, styled by Leandra Medine and written by long-time villain-fan Cate Young.
Cruella de Vil
It’s easy to find fault with a “difficult” woman, and there’s none more difficult that Ms. de Vil. But peel back the layers and layers (and layers!) of fur, and you’ll find a ruthless pragmatist who is simply living out the adage that some fashion is literally “to die for.” Cruella has existed in many incarnations over the years, but in the original novel she is a proto-feminist scammer queen, marrying a furrier solely for his access to this luxury and insisting he take her name in order to continue her family line.
Her style is one of gaudy excess. She is brash and coarse and revels in the searing heat of a fur coat in the summer. In the Disney animated classic, she’s cast as manic, crazed and braless, cementing her villainy. But the live-action adaptation in which she is depicted by Glenn Close, presents her as nothing more than an unrelenting capitalist. She doesn’t hate puppies, she just loves her fashion empire and the money it earns her. She was leaning in long before Sheryl Sandberg. Sure, she skins animals for their fur and maybe kidnapped a rare Siberian tiger directly from the zoo, but Cruella’s brand of casual, easy sex appeal doesn’t come without hard work and dedication. Her signature black and white looks featuring a bold red lip as a stylistic flourish are a fitting example of a fashion signature; a calling card that evokes the very essence of her being. Perhaps she really is the devil. Or maybe she’s just dressed to kill.
As with most other properties they get their hands on, Disney has monopolized our conception of Captain Hook, swashbuckling pirate and arch-nemesis to Peter Pan. In the animated classic, he is a coward and a fop who is bested by a child time and time again. His conflicts with Peter Pan are presented as those of an obsessive dandy. But Peter Pan is not a hero, and Captain Hook can hardly be blamed for disliking the boy who rendered him disabled and set a crocodile on his path. Another in the long line of queer-coded villains, his fancy dress and flowing locks are meant to situate him as a silly and unserious, but it’s easy to reframe him as a besieged underdog tormented by a near-feral child. Captain Hook is the aggrieved party and his refusal to relent shows his fundamental belief in fairness. How did he become the villain for seeking justice?
Supposedly, Ursula is the villain of The Little Mermaid, but is it really her fault these skinny young things don’t read? The large-and-in-charge aquatic icon runs a profitable business under the sea, and manages to look gorgeous while doing it. Disney’s conception of Ursula as a buxom beauty who gains power by trading it away from others shows that she is savvy, but misunderstood. Her famous contract with Ariel is touted as unfair, but Ursula never demurred as to the terms of the agreement: Ariel turned to another woman for help when her father tried to control her. It would be easy to cast her as a malicious sea-witch hell-bent on taking King Triton’s throne, but the truth is that Ursula is simply politically gifted; a cartoon Littlefinger more keen to succeed. Can you really blame Ursula for trying to institute the matriarchy by force? Ursula sets goals and achieves them and is honest about her methods. She can’t be blamed for other people’s choice to give up their voice and their power.