Antagonists and the Details That Redeem Them

This was inspired by (and, in fact, supposed to be a comment to, before it turned post-length on me) the recent Hathor Legacy article “Pride and Possession”. In it, Gena responds to seeing a debate on whether or not Mother Gothel might not have been so bad after all (I’ll admit, this concept rather scares me) by doing a side by side comparison of Mother Gothel from Tangled and the titular Beast from Beauty and the Beast, noting that one main difference is treating surrogate-maternal love as irredeemably corrupt and romantic love as capable of creating redemption, then calling for ideas on how to do something about this concept. This got me thinking; all right, leaving aside the issues of whose love redeems and whose doesn’t, and the need to fit the original fairy-tale endings, what makes the Beast-as-captor eventually deserving of his Happily Ever After and Mother Gothel-as-captor not so much?

I’d been going to suggest that the Beast kept protagonist(ish) status by being more honest about his motivations, but then again, the closest anyone ever got to explaining what exactly was going on was the servants playing matchmaker, and that doesn’t really count. More honest about his selfishness, maybe; certainly, Gothel does a spectacular job of making it look like her every motivation is for Rapunzel’s benefit. (I’m pretty sure that’s what sparked the debate Gena references; Gothel’s sympathizers might not look as closely between the lines, so they figure she was being completely honest about her “motivations”–and given I spent most of the movie being rather wowed by how good Gothel was at what she did, in an “I want to write villains with those kinds of chops” way, I could see where an audience member might actually be taken in, and treat the end-bit as more a case of maternally-flavored psycho-jealous-love.) In some of my experiences running games, I’ve found that people tend to peg better to the bad guys who don’t really hide what they want and why they want it.

Then there’s the willingness to let go. “If you truly love something, you have to set it free” is a pretty popular message, right up there with self-sacrificing romantic love and how beautiful it is–and one of the big differences between the Beast and Gothel was that the Beast was willing to let Belle go when she needed to save someone she loved, whereas Gothel used Rapunzel’s need to save someone she loved as a way to ensure she stayed.

The Beast also had the advantage of having another, worse, antagonist to play off of–for people who aren’t much for shades of gray, it’s hard figuring out what to do with the one who was wrong for most of the plot but is now set against someone more wrong. And here you have Gaston, throwing his physical and social weight around, being willing to condemn Maurice to the loony bin if Belle won’t have him–moreso, right after the Beast was willing to give up his chance at salvation for her happiness–not afraid to kill innocent animated furniture in his rage. Gothel, meanwhile, is the most evil, and the most competently evil, thing in Tangled; sure, that bandit pair’s pretty unsavory, but they’re also justified in disliking Flynn (he did betray them in the first fifteen minutes, after all), the horse sees reason, and the horse’s rider is just doing his job.

There are other reasons, of course; Gena’s covered some big ones, her commenters are dropping more, but these are some of the most useful elements I can think of for determining whether a familial or romantic-flavored antagonist can come out smelling like roses or not.

3 comments

  1. UZ says:

    Haven’t seen Tangled, but I would make a general comment. In many old fairy tales involving an “evil woman”, they’re stated or at least implied to be trying to thwart patrilineal inheritance for their own gain – notice the “firstborn child” theme that often shows up. Evil women are evil for trying to get property, which would upset the natural order. (Consider also “birthright”, a popular fantasy subject, in the same context.)

    Re: Beauty and the Beast – Disney often casts plot elements in an interesting light. In 101 Dalmatians 2 (not 102 Dalmatians, that was something else), the main character falls in with Thunderbolt, a “heroic” dog. They do “hero stuff” together – I’m quoting from the movie here – which includes things like comically stealing meat. Weirdly, this is never addressed as wrong, and when Thunderbolt becomes less heroic later in the movie he is called a liar for not standing up to his heroic, sausage-thieving image. This leads to a bizarre moral where we basically learn that lying is wrong but stealing isn’t.

    In a similar way, there is more than one possible moral interpretation for Gaston threatening to have Belle’s father declared incompetent when he refuses to help them rescue her from a big angry monster, particularly when you consider the movie’s (maybe) unintentional subtext of domestic violence.

    I always liked Gaston as a character – he’s a complete slob, but he has the same incongrously operatic singing voice that Prince Philip from Sleeping Beauty does, even though he sings about slobby things in slobby English. The movie suggests that he’s cruel and moody, but also tends to demonize him with cinematic cues and the company he keeps. At worst, it’s implied that he’s a significantly more functional version of the regular scummy bandits that make up the rest of the population, and that basically no one in France is good enough for Belle until she meets the one tortured artist type who is also cruel and moody, but, uh… high-class and rich? I’m sure the Marxist interpretation of the movie is fascinating…

    Anyway, the message is pretty common in fairy tales – bad women try to get legal custody of rich people’s children, good women marry rich and let the men handle the money. Again, what would Karl-with-a-beard say?


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