There’s a sort of cultural critic who insists that fairy tales clearly distinguish, both morally and aesthetically, the wide chasm between the figures of good and the forces of evil. I’m thinking of someone like Michael O’Brien.
I can easily imagine such a critic seeing relativism in Alyssa Rosenberg’s suggestion that we sympathize with fairy tale villainesses. She asks, “if boys can grow up to sympathize with Tony Soprano, why shouldn’t women get a world where it’s permissible to sympathize with the stepmothers, crones, sorceresses and evil queens?” Well, turning Maleficent or the Evil Queen in Snow White from images of real, powerful and deadly evil into morally-sophisticated anti-heroes blurs the line between the dark and the light and translates into aesthetic and moral confusion. The evil soul becomes the misunderstood personality. Or so this critic would say.
The thought occurred to me as well, but not as an expression of my own thinking. I suppose sympathy with fairy tale villains and villainesses could lead into relativism’s dark woods if the villainy itself were considered to be something virtuous, but there’s nothing remotely relativistic in remaking images of unadulterated evil into morally-complex images of the human condition. Which is, you know, morally complex. Sure, Maleficent can turn into a dragon, laugh maniacally, and perform black magic, but she’s still a potential figure of humanity. Flawed humanity, to be sure. She really should have had staff meetings more than once every sixteen years: she would have learned early on that her orcish minions weren’t considering the aging process in their years long search for the princess Aurora.
Anyhow, for reasons Alyssa Rosenberg mentions, I’d like to see more sympathetic female villains and anti-heroes, in fairy tales and elsewhere. Honestly, I’m just shy of taking milk baths in excited preparation for Charlize Theron’s portrayal the evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman. On the flip side, I’m also interested in Kristen Stewart’s Snow White. Contemporary cinema doesn’t have much difficulty capturing the horror of evil, but holiness and saintliness seem largely beyond its grasp. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, for example, did just fine depicting the orcs and goblins and black riders, but it butchered almost all the magnanimity of its heroes. I’d like to see fairy tales and fantasy, in addition to starring more sympathetic female villains, feature morally and dramatically fascinating saintly types.