Animated Children’s Films: The Evolution of the Disney Villainess

The Wicked Queen

This is a guest review by Rebecca Cohen. 

I’m not the first to note that the female protagonists of Disney animated features tend not to have mothers. When adult women do appear, they are evil wicked stepmothers, as in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, or evil sorceresses, as in Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid. Indeed, it almost seems as if Disney “princess” movies simply don’t have room for two sexually mature women to coexist. The benevolent maternal figures, like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother and Aurora’s three fairy guardians, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, are post-menopausal, grandmotherly – certainly not in sexual competition with the heroines. Other than those kindly figures, the only women around are usually powerful adult women who must be destroyed in order for the princess to take her place at her prince’s side. 
Yet all these wicked women are not all exactly the same. The role of the Disney princess’ adversary has changed over time in interesting ways. 
Let’s start with the Wicked Queen in 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Queen is in direct sexual competition with her stepdaughter. Her explicit goal is to be “the fairest in the land,” and her aim to destroy the younger woman is entirely in service of that goal. She is willing to risk everything to preserve her status as “fairest.” Her cold, angular beauty is contrasted with Snow White’s child-like, soft appearance. (Personally, I always thought the Queen was far prettier than Snow White.) The Queen is a mature, worldly, strong woman who stands in the way of Snow White’s ascension to marriage and adulthood. 
Lady Tremaine
The Disney Studio tried to recreate some of the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with the release of Cinderella in 1950. Cinderella contains many of the prominent elements of Snow White, including an evil stepmother and a protagonist forced to wear rags and perform domestic labor. Notably, the wicked stepmother in Cinderella, Lady Tremaine, is not vain and sexually competitive with her stepdaughter. Instead, Lady Tremaine aspires to wealth and status, and views Cinderella as a threat to that ambition. In a way, this villainess’ objectives have expanded beyond a shallow beauty contest. There is money and position on the line. Although Cinderella herself desires the exact same thing as her stepmother – to escape her present circumstances and live in the castle – the movie couches her ambition as hopeful dreaming, while Lady Tremaine’s desires are conniving and greedy. The wicked stepmother, being past marriageable age, doesn’t enter herself into direct rivalry for the princely prize. Instead she uses her daughters, Cinderella’s stepsisters, as proxies. The stepsisters are flat-chested and bratty, lacking the gentle curves that demonstrate Cinderella’s readiness for marriage. Yes, their appearance and behavior is designed to highlight their “ugliness,” but they also come across as juvenile. They are never real threats to Cinderella’s ascension to sexual maturity. They are only extensions of their scheming mother, who like Snow White’s Wicked Queen, sees the heroine’s inevitable eventual marriage as a personal threat. In the worlds of Snow White and Cinderella, princes are a finite resource and women will naturally compete for them. But only one can prevail. 
1959’s Sleeping Beauty breaks from the wicked stepmother mold. In fact, Princess Aurora actually has both a mother and a father, both of whom are on the side of good. But the king is a peripheral character and the queen, while lovely, barely speaks. They are both marginal to the story. The adversary in this case is Maleficent, a powerful sorceress. Maleficent does not view Aurora as a threat to her own ambitions, so much as a tool for revenge against Aurora’s parents. What exactly does Maleficent want? She was not invited to celebration of the princess’ birth, and she takes it as an affront and curses the child. The implication is not that the sorceress is truly that petty, but rather that she wants to instill fear and deference in the monarchs. Maleficent’s role in the kingdom is a little bit vague. She lives on the Forbidden Mountain, in her own castle, commanding her own small army of minions. She is clearly powerful, but she expresses no specific aspiration for more influence. In her own way, she just wants respect. But in the world of Sleeping Beauty, she is a mature adult woman with authority and agency. Naturally she must be destroyed before Aurora can become an adult herself (i.e., marry the prince). 
The next “princess” movie to come out of the Disney studio was The Little Mermaid in 1989. In The Little Mermaid, it’s not a woman holding the heroine back from adulthood, but rather an overprotective father. It’s hard to imagine a more obvious metaphor for sexual immaturity than being a mermaid. Ariel dreams of having legs, and if it weren’t clear that that means becoming sexually mature, her ambition to be human crystallizes in her desire to marry Prince Eric. The villain in this case is Ursula, “the sea witch.” Like the other villainesses before her, Ursula is a mature woman. She is a very sexual creature, with heavily lidded eyes, big red lips, prominent boobs, and lots of tentacles – down there. Yet she is to be understood as not sexy; she is heavy, and older. Unlike Snow White’s evil queen and Cinderella’s stepmother, Ursula doesn’t see the young princess herself as a threat, but as a tool to another end. But unlike Maleficent, she does have very specific designs on power. Ursula wants to rule the sea in place of King Triton, and Ariel’s campaign to be human (adult) provides a convenient lever for her to achieve this. Ursula is a sorceress, and therefore powerful, but apparently her strength cannot compare to that of King Triton’s mighty trident (ahem). Ursula’s perverse sexuality is of a piece with her perverse power aspirations. How un-subtle that she meets her end being impaled by the prow of a sunken ship piloted by Prince Eric. Once again the only sexually mature woman in sight must be defeated in order for the princess to become available for marriage. And in this case, the ambitious woman who wants more for herself than marriage must give way to the less worldly girl who wants only to land her man. 
Ursula was the last Disney villainess I can think of. With Beauty and the Beast in 1991, the studio abandoned the narrative of female competition in favor of an explicit male sexual threat – although it’s still notable that the only other woman in Belle’s world is a teapot. Since then, and probably in response to a fair amount of criticism, the studio has increasingly struggled to incorporate more progressive ideas about gender into their animated features, with varying levels of success. The image of a powerful adult woman in competition with an innocent girl on the cusp of maturity was an intrinsic element of the princess narrative for over 50 years. It continues to resonate in the imaginations of girls to this day, informing and possibly limiting their perspective on gender roles, relationships between women and the nature of feminine ambition.

Rebecca Cohen is the creator of the webcomic “The Adventures of Gyno-Star,” the world’s first (and possibly only) explicitly feminist superhero comic.


  • Posted December 9, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    What a shame that this is not a complete list. I was really looking forward to an analysis of Yzma from “The Emperor’s New Groove” and Zira from “The Lion King 2”. Especially Zira as a single mother is a fantastic villainess, in my opinion.

    There would also be Cruella de Vil, and Mother Gothel in “Tangled”.

    I can’t help but feel like I don’t really care about all of these. Every movie in this review is based on a centuries old fairy tale. We see in “Tangled”, which is based on one of those, that the basic idea is the same no matter when the Disney movie was made. Perhaps Mother Gothel 30 years ago would have been more traditionally evil and less of a mother figure, but it’s still about beauty and about competition. (This only becomes really interesting when you realise that this wasn’t the case in the original story, which was again about respect, but there you go)

    I’d like to see an analysis of a Disney villainess that isn’t a traditional fairy tale witch. Just to see what Disney does to its women antagonists without having to work with a very old blueprint.

  • r
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    You know I can’t help but think about what you said about Triton’s Trident vs Ursula venomous encompassing tentacles spewing a lot of dark ink. I mean, why choose Ursula to be an octopus? Its so Freudian at so many levels its a bit gross in fact. Slippery Freudian. Ekh.

  • Posted December 10, 2011 at 2:46 am | Permalink


    I’m glad you brought up Tangled. I admit I haven’t seen that film! I don’t think of it when I think of Disney “princess” movies, maybe because it’s computer animated. I’ll have to check it out, because I’m very curious about how Mother Gothel fits into the evolution that I outlined here.

    I chose not to include Cruella de Vil, nor Madam Mim from “the Sword in the Stone,” nor Madame Medusa from “the Rescuers,” even though all three are very compelling characters who make rich topics for discussion and analysis. I decided instead to concentrate on the villains in the princess movies specifically, because I was interested in the changing dynamic between the princess and her adversary.

    To dismiss these villains because their stories are based on centuries old fairy tales makes no sense at all to me. The studio has exercised 100% freedom in deciding what stories it wants to tell, and how it wants to tell them. Even you acknowledge that female sexual competition is NOT the theme of the folkloric Rapunzel story. The studio CHANGED the story to include that theme! Disney has never had a problem changing big or small elements of classic fairy tales when they adapt them to the screen. This indicates that they’re not working off of a “very old blueprint” at all. Instead, each of these films is reflecting the patriarchal attitudes of its own time. And generations of women have grown up, and are continuing to grow up, forming their fantasy lives around these depictions. So it seems nonsensical to dismiss them as irrelevant because it’s just the nature of the original source material (which itself has largely been eclipsed by the Disney versions anyway).