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Lady Tremaine: The Insecure Second Wife Who Wants It All
The idea that a stepmother will stop at nothing to sever the relationship between father and child is so pervasive, it has almost entirely shaped our understanding of what to expect from a second wife. (Case in point: It Takes Two and The Parent Trap.) As someone who has the best stepmother anyone could ever ask for, I take offense. (That being said, Lady Tremaine does not follow my stepmom's excellent example.)
Despite her understandable motives, Lady Tremaine's actions are anything but. In fact, she's the classic embodiment of the "Wicked Stepmother" trope. She's twisted, and jealous and doesn't quite know how to express those emotions in a rational way. But the thing to remember is that while her actions are evil, she herself is not. As a single woman fending for herself and her less-than-capable daughters in a society that values marriage and position, she has no other choice than to prioritize. That's what makes an interesting character. She's not just just an archetype, or a run-of-the-mill villain. She's human. Cinderella is defined by her good nature and dainty feet. Forgive me, but that sounds bland AF. Give me some plotting and scheming over Happily Ever After any day.
Others that fall into this category: Madame Medusa from "The Rescuers."
Ursula: The Devious Sorceress
The Sea Witch is present, but tangential, in the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson — she doesn't even have a name. In the Disney re-imagining, she is Ursula, the half-octopus witch who tricks sea creatures into signing their souls over to her in exchange for granting their deepest, darkest wishes. Basically, she is the devil.
Or is she? If one only looks at her actions, Ursula doesn't look so good. But the real evil in this story lies potential. Ursula is bad because she represents what an innocent Ariel could become. As J.R. Thorpe over at Bustle points out, the "sea witch isn't the enemy, human (and mermaid) nature is." Also, let's face it, "Poor Unfortunate Souls" totally trumps "Part Of Your World."
Others that fall into this category: Madam Mim from "The Sorcerer's Stone."
Evil Queen: The Jealous Older Woman
The tale as old as time has its beginnings here. You probably know the story, but here's a quick recap. Every day, the Evil Queen asks her enchanted mirror on the wall who is the fairest of them all. All is good in Evil Queen land, until the day the mirror tells her that someone else has taken her place: her stepdaughter, Snow White. (Again with the stepmother vs. stepdaughter trope!)
Once again, the Evil Queen's response to this problem is what bestows villain status upon her. By attempting to have Snow White killed, she sealed her Disney fate. But if you look past that, her true motives shine through. The Evil Queen's actions are fueled by fear. More specifically, the fear that is ingrained into all women, that one day, someone younger and prettier will inevitably replace you. By excluding older beauty from the equation, we're creating a competition, one which, in this case, ends with a poisoned apple.
Others that fall into this category: Mother Gothel from "Tangled."
Maleficent: The Woman Who'd Rather Kill Than Forget A Snub
When you really think about it, the moral takeaway of Sleeping Beauty is: don't forget to invite that scary lady to your daughter's christening, or she'll curse her to "prick her finger on the spindle of a wheel and die."(Raise your hand if you've ever fantasized of doing that to your high school frenemy who "forgot" to invite you to her sleepover birthday party.)
Obviously, Aurora doesn't die, and falls into a deep sleep instead, thus giving the story its name, Sleeping Beauty.
Maleficent is a difficult villain to defend because we don't know very much about her motives aside from the snub. But the trope of the woman scorned who must take revenge on those all around her is one that needs to take a long, long nap. Preferably forever.
Others that fall into this category: Yzma from "The Emperor's New Groove."
Elsa: The Frigid Woman Who Needs Love
The symbolism isn't even subtle here. Elsa LITERALLY freezes out the world. And I see your brows furrowing: Is Elsa really a villain? Frozen is interesting in that it lets us into the antagonist's mindset, allowing us to see the vulnerabilities prompting her villainous actions. This turns the villain trope on its head. With a little love and understanding from a supportive sister, her blond boyfriend, and a very chatty snowman, Elsa manages to control her powers.
When it comes to villains, a little support can go a long way.