A brief glimpse into how my Borg-like mind works… recently I thought of making a list of my favorite Bond villains, but I’ve only sat through nine Bond films in their entirety (Goldeneye made me mad enough to turn it off within 20 minutes). But it gave me the idea to do a post about villains, and what makes one. And what doesn’t. No matter what the AFI’s Top 100 Heroes & Villains list says, the shark in Jaws is not a villain (the real villain of Jaws is clearly capitalism– just kidding!– sort of).
I’m getting ahead of myself.
The ever-faithful Oxford English Dictionary defines “villain” thusly: Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes (“villain, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 3 April 2017).
Class still plays a big part into the hero vs villain dynamic (a lot of heroes were born with a silver spoon and villains tend to have built up their empires from the ground, especially in comic books), but “villain” doesn’t necessarily mean lower-class anymore. So let’s throw that part of the definition out.
More interesting is that the definition of villain is very gendered… a villain is a “man” pretty much every time. I had to scroll all the way down the OED’s page to find a note that says the definition applies to womyn as well. My spelling, not theirs. But obviously, anyone of any gender can be a villain. And probably some of the first villains kids encounter were female: the witch from Hansel and Gretel, the step-mother in Cinderella, the queen from Snow White, Professor Umbridge…. But the male villain is still what most people associate with the title. Googling “top movie villains” as I write, I see one female villain– Annie Wilkes from Misery. It takes a couple clicks to get to Nurse Ratched, Alex Forrest, and the Wicked Witch of the West. (Disclaimer– Google is changeable, but my point is still valid.)
The rest of the definition concerns being unprincipled, depraved, and association with crime. The “crime” part of the definition is interesting, and certainly many villains are associated with it. Returning to the James Bond example, SPECTRE is obligingly clear about their motives (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion is their anagram). It’s even a little too on-the-nose.
The definition of crime itself is a knotty one. After all, as the memes point out… slavery was legal. And O’Brien from 1984 is a horrifying villain, but everything he does is legal and encouraged under Big Brother’s regime.
So it seems being “unprincipled” and “depraved” are the best ways to determine a villain. It’s still a bit knotty there, but then you can have a “straight-edge” villain who still has people messily murdered as a point of pride. Or the villain might not kill anybody, but still causes pain just because they can (which shows a lack of principles).
And of course, a chilling smile or laugh always helps. But it is almost overdone, so not a requirement.