What’s the first image that comes to mind when you picture a villain?
Does it include a bloodthirst for vengeance and bloodshot raccoon eyes?
Does this character have a long history of pain and unresolved grudges dealt with only through a mastery of weapons and a dramatic cape? (In their defense, capes—*cough cough*—are pretty great for this...not that I would know.)
Do you picture a dark head of hair to match the mysterious, convoluted past that "no one would understand?"
Found anywhere from the Bible to various tropes in today’s media, the theme of light vs. dark has followed us around with a seemingly unshakeable presence. Light = good, and dark = bad. Heck, picture a baby cherub right now and tell me you don’t envision a blonde-haired, blue-eyed infant playing lyre. (Where did those angel wings even come from??) Still, this keeps coming back around as the spitting image of innocence, purity, and all those other things that makes any protagonist "morally good" and therefore "picture perfect." In many of our favorite books, movies, you name it, villains (as well as our favorite morally gray anti-heroes) do not see an escape from this label, or from the dark hair that marks them as "the bad guys."
A pattern, or a flat-out stereotype?
Why does it come as such a surprise when our villains don’t necessarily “look” the part, by whatever so-called "standards" we’ve conjured up overtime?
This question comes from @author.tbwiese on Tiktok, who has challenged us to think critically about the way we naturally see these characters portrayed.
So, what do YOU think?
I asked through a series of polls for people's takes on dark-haired villains compared to those with more "fair" facial features. The results are as follows:
"Do you expect villains to have dark hair?" (12 Yes / 12 No)
"Do you expect villains to have light hair?" (4 Yes / 20 No)
"From what you have seen (in writing, media, etc.), is the color of villains' hair more often..." (5 Light / 22 Dark)
"Are there typically noticeable physical contrasts between villains and protagonists?" (24 Yes / 1 No)
"When you visualize a villain in a book (before physical description is given), you picture..." (4 Light-Haired / 22 Dark-Haired)
The shocker for me: when respondents were asked if they expected villains to have dark hair, the answer wasn't not no—in fact, the vote was evenly split. However, when asked if they expected villains to have light hair, the consensus: definitely no.
Respondents also commented on other patterns that they have seen in villains across the board: sharper/darker facial features, grumpier demeanor, darker, edgier clothes—just to name a few. As for protagonists, they always seem to be a bit too well put together, from their clothes to their walk to their early morning "bedhead" that "Oh, my goodness...looks so bad...I'm so embarrassed." No matter what their tragic circumstance, they, unlike the antagonists, have something about them that simply makes them more appealing to the general audience.
(You guys can speak for yourselves. I prefer a good villain any day.)
So then, is there reasoning for these tropes that have become so interconnected with the stories we tell? Maybe. It may not be all that surprising when you think about it. In any case, light-haired villains do exist! Not only that, but they have a strong presence, even if they may be more uncommon.
The older, the wiser?
Age: classic TV trope. The roles that we typically see older people playing in movies (and books, of course) include the Yoda-like mentors of the world—including sweet grandmothers and protectors—and, on the other hand, the villains who never saw justice served in their youths. Because the villain has experienced more, they are likely stronger physically and (more importantly) know how to best manipulate their playing field and get whatever they want out of the protagonist. On the other side of the power dynamic, the hero is inexperienced at first, stupid, and has to undergo serious training in order to get to a level where they can even stand face-to-face with their opposition. Because the hero is younger, they’re expected to lose otherwise (see David and Goliath). Because of this disadvantage, the protagonist has to find out a way to outsmart the villain/find the area of weakness that they have expertly hidden away from the eyes of the public.
Things also associated with sweet old Grandma? White/gray hair. That's just natural. However, you normally don't expect her to also have a lust for human destruction. It honestly can be a breath of fresh air sometimes when her famed apple pies turn out to be poisonous.
Personally, I’ve always liked my villains like I like my broken door: a bit unhinged. The idea of a person’s hair “going gray” (exaggerated greatly in cartoons) from too much mental strain/aging gives our villains all the more reason to turn dark on the inside and stop caring about anything that isn't wreaking havoc.
If I was a rich girl...
The color blond(e) looks a lot like the color gold. Things that we normally picture being gold: crowns, thrones, and golden doubloons. Or, even simpler put, just gold itself—the universal symbol of wealth. After all, Heaven itself boasts its “streets paved of gold,” and that has to mean something, doesn't it? Whether it’s from royalty or general well-to-do families with affluence and influence (aka the Malfoys), anyone with money also has some sort of notoriety, for the most part. In these scenarios, dark hair is often associated with a tainted bloodline, or a ruining of the perfect, clean family image that the prim and proper have spent generations maintaining. Or maybe all light-haired people just have a superiority complex when it comes to facing anyone else in society, and money allows them to monopolize those who try to expose their hidden pasts. Sounds like a pretty good villain origin story to me.
"The whole world according to moi"
High School Musical just happens to be one of the most memorable movie series of my childhood—and with good reason. I mean, anyone could recognize Sharpay's "Fabulous" from a mile away, no? Of course, as the resident blondie, she is heavily antagonized for plotting against the obvious true love between Gabriella and Troy, whose relationship was definitely not problematic, ever. She also happens to present super feminine, which, for whatever reason, is a darkness that makes it easier to hate her? (Again, speak for yourselves.) She and Regina George, to point out another prime example, are both blonde, skinny, rich (again), and—well, Lady Gaga said it best. (Just a bit.) Although definitely not exclusive to others, the stereotype belongs mainly to teenage girls of this nature—the popular, attractive ones who every coming-of-age female protagonist swears she’s “not like" and "better than."
For the record, girliness is not a crime, and many would be lying by saying this hatred for other girls doesn't stem from a bit of envy and jealousy. Even if not, it's definitely strange that some females are so set on antagonizing each other sometimes just based on looks. Internalized misogyny is at it again, I'm afraid.
So then, is it really a surprise?
There will always be a place in my heart for my favorite villains, regardless of hair color. It never really made a difference to me how these characters appear, but I still love when general audience expectations are played with so heartlessly. When I asked what things are looked for when deciding a character's physical traits, respondents' number one answer? Personality. Whether or not a certain hair color matches the dark, brooding personality that a villain is so notorious for is up to interpretation, really. If you really want to portray these morals (or even those left unclear), why not juxtapose a villain's evil roots with a bit of light from time to time?
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