In Defense of Villainy
A shorter version of this piece was originally published in Asylum Magazine. They have been amazing supporters and deserve your attention.
As a kid, Disney and superhero movies seemed so simple. The heroes were morally good and deserved to win; the villains were the “bad guys” that deserved to be fought and conquered. The heroes were right, and the villains were wrong.
But now, watching these movies as an adult, I’ve begun to realize that the villains in the movies are usually right. Often, they make important - and accurate - points about society, the context of the story, and the other characters. I would even go so far as to say that they are the voice of reason.
One film that I recently saw, and absolutely loved, was Incredibles 2. The film’s villain, Evelyn, wants to outlaw all superheroes because she believes they make the world passive and compliant, neglecting to take any actions against injustice and instead sitting back and waiting for superheroes to step in. And she has a strong reason for feeling this way: as a child, her parents were killed in a home invasion. While her mother wished to hide out in a safe room, her father insisted on calling the superhero hotline and requesting to be saved. He was discovered on the phone and shot.
Evelyn makes some pretty good points. Like many villains, she understands that the world is not a good or safe place. She has seen and felt in a visceral, impactful way just how dangerous it can be to trust that one will be saved or that one will be okay in the end. And so she launches a shrewd, intricate plan to undermine the rest of the world’s faith in superheroes.
This is what I love about villains. So often, they see right through the bullshit narrative that so many believe in - that the world is just. While the function of the superhero is usually to protect the status quo, the villains are the ones who work tirelessly to challenge the status quo and upset the social order.
Superheroes are relentless defenders of the status quo, struggling day and night to ensure that nothing ever changes on their watch. The fundamental assumption underlying their life’s work is that the world is good and fair as it currently exists. Superheroes see themselves as enforcers of the Just World Hypothesis, which holds that a person's actions bring morally fair and fitting consequences to them. If heroes did not believe in the justness of the world and the moral necessity of their work, it would hardly make sense for them to risk their lives over and over on the world’s behalf.
Let’s look at an example from my all-time favorite superhero movie: Spiderman 2, starring the wonderful Tobey Maguire (who I will go to my grave defending). Peter Parker, who is constantly falling behind on rent, missing class, and losing the girl, operates on the assumption that if he put in more time, more effort, he could succeed at anything he put his mind to. He could win back Mary Jane if only he could get his act together and show up for her play, because that would morally befit the actions he has taken. But Peter chooses to expend his time and energy keeping the world safe for Mary Jane and his sweet old Aunt May, and accepts the consequences of that choice. Luckily for him it was a moral and just choice, and so he gets to have the girl anyways.
But his villains do not have those choices to make. Doctor Octopus is a deformed and discredited scientist with no remaining family and no hope of ever being able to live a halfway normal life in the world. The only way that he sees to redeem himself in our eyes (yes, us, the viewing public) is to finish the experiment that he started, hoping that if he proves he wasn’t wrong, he can re-enter society and maybe all of this trauma will have been worth it in some small way. And what choice has he been given? Unlike Peter Parker, he doesn’t have any illusion that he could succeed at anything he puts his mind to. He understands that he has been put into a specific box (a monster), and his only real choices are to accept or reject that box. The world was not just to Doctor Otto Octavius.
Ultimately, it is not Peter Parker but Otto Octavius who is correct in his assessment of the world. Every day, we place each other in very specific boxes. “He looks like such a shitty dudebro,” I think when I see a guy in a faded american-flag muscle shirt at Walmart. But I know a guy who wears those kinds of shirts and is somehow also an amazing filmmaker and also a high-level competitive gamer. No box can really contain the infinite complexity of him, but in he goes anyways. And that is to say nothing of racial stereotypes, gender norms, or our assessments of others’ sanity. To force someone in a box is to deny them all the other options outside that box. Otto was right to rebel against that intolerable cruelty.
Another film that I adore (although I’m a bit biased, as the musical was my parents’ first date) is Phantom of the Opera. In the film, the villain, the Phantom, has a facial disfigurement and was sold to a freak show at a very young age. He is treated cruelly throughout his life due to his appearance and grows up to be a pretty violent person. When asked to show some compassion, he says, “The world showed no compassion to me.” Unlike the protagonist of the film, who has had the privilege of being treated with compassion throughout most of her life, the Phantom has been treated with disgust, mockery, cruelty, violence, and shaming for every moment of his existence. He understands just how awful the world can be and works hard to match its awfulness.
Like Doctor Octopus, the Phantom has been forced into a box. His appearance and his lifetime of trauma have left him without many options. He can either be the passive target of relentless cruelty and violence, or he can embody the cruelty and violence he has been victimized by and throw it back into the world. Rather than playing the role of the “perfect victim” - a victim who does not fight back, and who remains kind and moral despite the cruelty around them - the Phantom takes matters into his own hands and rebels against the social order.
The Phantom is vilified for his whole life, and so he embodies villainy.
One interesting film that contrasts with The Phantom of the Opera is The Elephant Man. Like the Phantom, John Merrick, the main character of The Elephant Man, has a facial disfigurement. In his early life, he is sold to a freak show and treated with disgust, mockery, and cruelty. Later, he is taken in by a hospital, where he is visited by celebrities and wealthy members of society. While these celebrities and wealthy members of society do not mock or taunt him, he is still objectified and put on display. During the entire film, Merrick retains his kindness and gentleness. Like a “good victim,” he does not respond with violence or aggression toward those who mock him in the freak show - the most “aggressive” or challenging reaction he expresses during the whole movie is declaring, “I am a human being!” He expresses nothing but gratitude toward the celebrities and elite members of society who visit him.
Ultimately, Merrick dies by suicide. While the Phantom responds to his vilification by unleashing villainy upon society, Merrick, in some ways, responds to being vilified and objectified by unleashing his villainy onto himself - or rather, choosing to escape by ending his life. And while both reactions are valid and understandable (and I am among the first to affirm suicide as a natural and justified reaction to marginalization!), I can’t help feeling more satisfied and vindicated by the Phantom’s reaction.
Merrick does not deserve to die. He does not deserve to be the one who is forced to find a way to escape. He as an individual should not be left to cope with the effects of a horrifically oppressive society.
On the other hand, the world - society at large - well, arguably, the institution of society deserves to have revenge enacted upon it. In refusing to be the “good victim,” in refusing to sacrifice himself, the Phantom gives the world a piece of what it deserves.
Being the Phantom is the dream, the fantasy. We wish we were bold enough to push back against the injustices of the world, but we’re not. We want to be the one to call BS on the system, the guy who quits his awful job with a the music of a rented mariachi band and the applause of our jealous coworkers guiding us on, but we’re not. Walter White, the protagonist of Breaking Bad, is. Walter has been cut out of the billion-dollar business he co-founded, has to work at a carwash to make ends meet, and then gets cancer. The world is not just to him, but everyone seems to keep acting like it must be. So he fights back, and we love him for it - even though he’s an asshole.
Many of us who consider ourselves to be more ‘discerning’ viewers (and yes, I have been one of them) sneer at people who actually like Walter, who root for him. “Don’t you get it? He’s an asshole! He’s the bad guy!” we say to them. But I suspect they don’t disagree that he’s an asshole or even a villain. They disagree that it disqualifies him from being a role model. After surviving 9/11 and the 2008 recession in the same decade, is it any wonder that people have lost faith in the “justness” of the world around them? Walter had every right to rebel against that with every fiber of his being; we have the right to savor every glorious moment of his rebellion.
So what does this have to do with Mad Pride activism?
I’ve always thought of the Mad Pride movement as being a movement full of people who comprehend just how horrible the world can be, and who have been punished for their comprehension of that fact.
While the rest of the world is “well-adjusted” to abuse and oppression - either because they do not know about it or are not affected by it - people who go “mad” cannot handle it. They cannot live well, smile and be happy, and function productively in a system rooted in violence, whether that is their family system, the capitalist system of society, or some other system. And instead of being valued for their insight into how oppressive the world is, and given opportunities to change the forms of systemic oppression that have affected them, they are told they are crazy. They are told they are wrong, they are mentally ill, their brains aren’t working, and they need treatment in order to function, smile and be happy, and be productive just like everyone else. Often they are locked up, forcibly drugged, discriminated against, and have further violence enacted upon them.
Movie villains, too, comprehend just how horrible the world can be. They have been made powerless and understand the impact of said powerlessness. But instead of being made even more powerless by psychiatrization and medicalization, they find ways to correct the power imbalance. In response to a violent system of oppression and cruelty, they launch a violent rebellion.
There is little more satisfying than watching someone who has previously been rendered powerless reclaiming their power, fighting back, and reversing the power imbalance. Yes, it is violent, it is evil, it is immoral, it is wicked - but that is what the world deserves. Sometimes, the world deserves villainy. A world in which children witness their parents being killed right in front of them, a world in which a child can be sold into a freak show and in which people face lifelong shaming due to their appearance - these worlds deserve villainy.
Similarly, the real world deserves madness. A crazy-making world - i.e. ours - merits a crazy reaction.
If we as a society can begin to see the world as unjust, then maybe we can humanize reactions to that unjust world - including madness. And there is hope that this will come to pass, and it is in motion already. In the 2000s, we learned to accept that the protagonist of our favorite show might not have to be the hero. We found it in our hearts to understand Walter White as both a murdering sociopath and a scared father trying to do his best for his family. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and the legendary Sopranos brought legitimacy and critical accolades to a new breed of TV show - one that wasn’t afraid to build a gritty, shitty version of the world and give us the perfect villain to rage against it.
But their rise was only the beginning. The desire for grounded, flawed characters struggling against an unfair world has rippled out to more than villains. This new wave of characters have trauma, have deep problems, and, funnily enough, react to that trauma in ways that could be considered ‘mad.’ But they’re not handled as psych patients or as dangerous wackos. They’re just… people.
Jessica Jones, an alcoholic superhero, was orphaned, kidnapped, raped, and coerced into murder. But instead of being the one-off “crazy bitch down the hall,” she gets her own show where we are shown all that, and come to understand how that has shaped the woman we see before us. Bojack Horseman is a washed up actor filled with self-loathing and regret struggling to find meaningful connection in the shallow, status-focused culture of Hollywood, and who embodies the effects of intergenerational trauma. And in 13 Reasons Why, we witness a variety of characters go “mad” in response to oppressive dynamics like bullying and sexual violence in the school system. The catalyst for all of the events in the show, Hannah Baker’s suicide, is not shown as “crazy,” “irrational,” or a symptom of “mental illness” but as a human response to layers upon layers of ostracization, objectification, and abuse.
Through all of these shows, we are fundamentally redefining the traditional role of “hero.” A hero doesn’t have to be a goody-two-shoes anymore. A hero can also just be a person reacting to a messed up world in a way that we find relatable and understandable. I don’t think we even really believe in true heroes anymore - look no further than 2013’s Man of Steel, where even Superman is bullied, traumatized, and morally compromised. The villains are right to rage against the system - it is flawed, oppressive, and downright cruel. And now that even the stories we tell about Superman, the ultimate do-gooder, acknowledge that, we might finally be able to talk about how reasonable madness and villainy can be.
This has certainly proven to be true in my own life. Recognizing just how horrible the world can be has helped me connect with and humanize movie villains, which in turn has helped me taking a more accepting, validating, and prideful stance toward my madness. Viewing movie villains in a humanizing way has led me in part to embrace my role as a Madwoman and more specifically, as a borderline. In the past, I have distanced myself from these categories, or attempted to redefine them - for example, by showing that I can be a Madwoman or a person diagnosed/labeled with “Borderline Personality Disorder” but also an Ivy League graduate, full-time employee, PhD student, and generally an “upstanding citizen.” I have long appreciated and aligned with activist efforts to redefine “Borderline Personality Disorder” and show that it is not indicative of “craziness” or “manipulativeness” but rather pain and trauma.
Lately, though, I have been embracing and embodying every stereotype in the book associated with being a “borderline.” I am manipulative, I am impulsive, I am rageful, I am hysterical, I am fragile, and I am downright crazy. Because, to be honest, that is what the world deserves. We live in a world that is fucked up beyond belief and manipulativeness, impulsiveness, ragefulness (especially ragefulness), hysteria, fragility, and downright craziness are absolutely called for. And I truly feel that having to deal with all the world’s bullshit has given me (and all of us Mad people) the right to throw back that bullshit at the world in the most crazy, rebellious way imaginable.
At the end of the day, villains are just trying to survive. While superheroes represent the impossible, the idealistic - the notion of saving the world from any threat or injustice - villains represent the attainable, the realistic - the act of finding some small way to regain power in a fundamentally disempowering, overpowering society.
And so do we. In many ways, “madness” represents the act of finding some small way to regain power in a world that has made us intensely powerless. Instead of being pathologized or psychiatrized, this act should be celebrated. In a capitalist, racist, sexist, queer-antagonistic, ableist, sizeist, lookist society, we have found our way to a small, tiny victory. Let’s celebrate.