Villains and Otherness in Cartoons

I recently read this comic by Alex Graudins that’s been making the rounds across social media, about how you can be a patriot without being proud of or loving your country. Graudins makes excellent points, but being the cartoon-lover that I am, the panel that struck me the hardest was the sixth panel. It points out how lots of villains in American cartoons are given foreign accents, with Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls pictured. While it’s true that Mojo speaks with what’s supposed to pass as a Japanese accent, I never thought much of it before. Then I realized, maybe that’s the point. We’re not supposed to think about why the villains have foreign accents, or even what those accents are supposed to be; we’re just supposed to recognize that they’re not like us, not American. Even in cartoon universes where America doesn’t exist, this trope still stands. In the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode “The Blind Bandit,” there’s a character called Fire Nation Man, a heel who speaks with a fake Russian-esque accent to indicate that he’s a “bad guy,” despite the fact that actual Fire Nation citizens don’t have accents that set them apart from the rest of the world. His accent only serves to let us, the viewers, know that he’s Not Like the rest of the people in this Earth Kingdom town.

This othering of villains doesn’t stop just with their accents; it’s also coded in their appearances. Let’s look at Scar from The Lion King. He’s Mufasa’s brother, yet he looks absolutely nothing like him, or the other lions. His mane is black, his fur is darker than the golden color of the other lions, and he’s got a British accent, to boot. And it’s definitely been pointed out many times how Ursula from The Little Mermaid is the only fat character in the movie, who proceeds to become even bigger at the pinnacle of her villainy.

Of course, not every villain has an accent or strays from what’s typically considered attractive or desirable. Personally, I think villains that are what society considers “desirable” are much more insidious and convincing. The best example I can think of is Darla Dimple from Cats Don’t Dance. She’s a “sweet” little blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl who has Hollywood wrapped around her finger. No one would ever think she had an evil bone in her body, right? But at the thought of a bunch of animals coming to town to become actors and upstage her, she absolutely snaps and tries to sabotage them in the worst ways possible. The new season of Netflix’s Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts has kind of a double whammy; one villain is Scarlemagne, a British-accented mandrill who makes a truly awesome villain, but given his backstory, one that we, or at least I, would really like to see redeemed. The other is Dr. Emilia, an evil scientist, and one of the few white characters in a show that has no white characters at all in the main cast.

It’s easy to fall back on the stereotypes of “otherness” when it comes to creating villains. We’re already conditioned to hear a foreign accent or see someone with a different skin tone or a physical disability and think, “this person is not like me.” But it’s so much more challenging, and rewarding, to portray villains as those who hold power in society. Maybe instead of seeing the “other” as villainous, it would do society some good to see the “desirable” ones as bad for once.