One of my heroines is Eleanor Audley. Despite the fact that most people have never heard of her, we’ve all heard her: She was the iconic voice behind such classic Disney villainesses as Maleficent and Lady Tremaine (aka, Cinderella’s stepmother). And even though many small children recognize her voice, with the release of Disney’s Maleficent, hopefully Eleanor Audley’s name will also become familiar to a whole new generation of Disney fairy tale fans.
Your next thought might be something like, “Well, knowing who played the villains is great but all little girls really want to be Disney princesses.” To which my inner Eleanor would offer a glinty-eyed smirk while my outer Southern Belle (not the Beast-loving kind) responded with the oh-so-open-to-interpretation: “Bless your heart!”
Because ever since I was little, I’ve always preferred the villains over the princesses. Back then, I appreciated them because they were multidimensional and seemed to have more going on behind the eyes than the dazzling damsels waiting to be rescued from the latest distress they’d managed to get themselves into.
Moreover, Audley’s early influence on me as a child even revealed itself throughout my theatrical acting career as an adult: With the exception of ‘Audrey’ in Little Shop of Horrors, every part I’ve ever played has been that of the villain. And it’s so much more fun than playing the princess.
But more than being fun, diving into the psyche of a supposed psycho is enlightening because very few of them are inherently evil and none of them view themselves as villains. More often than not they’re just misunderstood. It’s true: Rather than rushing to judgment, try to see things from their perspective for a moment.
To help you along, here are my top five most misunderstood fairy tale villainesses, and a look at their defensible responses to unjust circumstances from their points of view.
- #5: Lady Tremaine (from Cinderella)
Although she is commonly called Cinderella’s ‘wicked’ stepmother, Lady Tremaine is more accurately Cinderella’s “overworked” stepmother.
She was raising three kids all by herself and back then, a widow’s only hope for survival was to be taken care of by whomever married her daughters. So she was really just investing in her retirement plan by making sure Drusilla and Anastasia felt special.
She spent her days giving them voice lessons (“Sing, Sweet Nightingale” anyone?) and prepping them for their one shot at marrying into royalty, which left Cinderella to clean up the place. A little light cinder sweeping in exchange for room and board for you and your merry mice wasn’t illegal the last time I checked.
Bottom line: One episode of “Dance Moms” and you understand the depths that a mom will explore to make sure her kid ends up on top (of the pyramid…don’t act like you don’t know…). Maybe Cinderella’s wicked stepmother wasn’t so wicked after all. Maybe she was just a mom.
- #4: The Witch (from Hansel and Gretel)
All I can say about her is “That poor DIYer.” My husband and I just remodeled our house from top to bottom and if I came home to find some brats gnawing on the new 30-year gingerbread shingles of my dream home, I might have to toss their behinds into an oven, too! I’m not saying she should have tried to eat them, but I understand.
I mean seriously, were they raised in a barn? Why didn’t their parents teach them that stuffing their faces with someone else’s house constitutes destruction of property and vandalism?
- #3: The Witch (from Into the Woods/Rapunzel)
In my acting days, one of my favorite roles was playing the Witch in Into the Woods (also coming out as a major motion picture this year). Talk about getting a bad rap (and yep, I got to rap in the show).
If you’re not familiar with the story, the Witch acquires Rapunzel because her father, the Baker, helped himself to the Witch’s prized vegetable garden, eating his way through her painstakingly grown greens and stealing her magic beans.
So, in exchange for what he took from her, the Witch takes something from him. Sure, whether it’s a fair swap is debatable, but is it the Witch’s fault that the Baker was an idiot who traded his own kid for a garden salad? I think not.
- #2: The Wicked Witch of the West (from The Wizard of Oz)
Are we forgetting that the whole thing started when Dorothy ‘accidentally’ murdered her sister and then stole an extremely valuable pair of shoes? Why, Dorothy’s actions alone establish a case for Man 1 and Grand Larceny.
Even considering the stuff the Wicked Witch allegedly did to Dorothy’s sidekicks (the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow), having to listen to the Lollipop Guild warble out “Follow the Yellow Brick Road/You’re Off to See the Wizard” on a loop is punishment enough, and I’d recommend we let her off with time served.
- #1: Maleficent (from Sleeping Beauty)
How would you like it if you were the only person in town intentionally excluded from the biggest event in years? When Maleficent shows up to Aurora’s christening, she’s not met with an “Oh dear, your invitation must have gotten lost in the mail!” or even an “It’s nothing personal but when the guest list grew to 5,000, we had to cut it off somewhere and, ugh, it looks like you were 5,001.” Nope. Poor Maleficent is the recipient of a very publicly humiliating, “You weren’t wanted!”
And this, coming from Merryweather, the Good Fairy. That doesn’t sound like a very merry or good thing to say to someone, now does it? Maleficent had no other choice but to react harshly because besides being called out in front of the entire kingdom, she had to go back to her castle filled with male goblins, who were bound to hear what had happened. And do you think she kept them all in check by being pushed around?
Let’s not forget that these are the same minions who spent 16 years looking for a baby in a cradle. Really? Given the hopelessly idiotic henchmen she had to work with, is it any wonder she was a little quick to fly off the handle?
As a parent, you want to protect your children and shield them from the evils of the world but there are always those kids who insist on testing a hot stove to see if they’ll get burned. And even if the Good Fairies had warned Aurora about the dangers of touching sharp spindles atop glowing green spinning wheels, she still might have tested it out anyway.
Maybe that’s why I was so drawn to the villainesses as a kid – being told they were bad only made me like them more. But by paying more attention to them, I was able to understand them and they actually taught me more about empathy and kindness than those poufy little princesses ever did.
And since fairy tales are meant to teach morality and life lessons, some lessons learned from these villainesses include:
- Be kind to others because when people are mistreated, they become unpredictable and lash out (and sometimes turn into fire-breathing dragons). Many times when people (and animals) act like this, it’s because they’ve been hurt by someone else.
- Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you (like a bite out of someone’s house or garden) because everything comes with a price. When you realize what that price is, it might already be too late.
So don’t worry if your daughter shows more interest in the villainesses than the princesses, because they just might help her become the heroine of her own story. And if nothing else, every fairy tale needs a good villain so they can always find work following in Eleanor Audley’s footsteps.
Williams is an attorney-turned-writer and DIYer in Charleston, South Carolina. She writes about her projects at www.rheneywilliams.com
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