The rise of well-developed villains and why people like them

In May of 2020, the new, reimagined She-Ra and the Princesses of Power ended on a sweet, happy ending, with something new and unexpected: the hero saved the day, and she won the girl.

As her childhood friend turned enemy, it is hard to see why Adora continuously pushed to see the good in a malicious villain like Catra. But to the viewers, it made perfect sense. As the show continued, the audience saw just as much about the villains as the heroes. They learned about their motives, friendships, what they cared about most, fears, and their dark pasts. The audience learned, through the lens the show decided to create, that Catra was emotionally and physically hurt as a kid by her caretaker whereas Adora was cherished and put up on a pedestal by that same caretaker. 

This trend of “redeemable villains” was not started by She-Ra, of course, but it is a brilliant example of how to make an audience root for and love the characters people have been told to hate throughout the entirety of their lives. It sets up a new precedent that not only are villains human in the best and worst ways possible but that because of help from others, they can make the right or “good” decisions.

People of all ages love a good villain, redeemable or otherwise, but teenagers in this generation especially crave content where the villain is interesting and three-dimensional. 

“A different perspective is nice, always, but you gain critical skills when you examine a villain’s side of the story such as observation skills, critical thinking, and social view thinking,” student Josie Ossenkop said. “Tsubaki from Servamp is pretty good too if you’re looking for a classic ‘bad guy,’ but lots of people seem to like Dabi from My Hero Academia.”

And it is not just the students. Teachers who love reading and watching media can see a villain’s side, too. Mrs. Butler, a teacher and anime club sponsor at Edmond North, was interviewed regarding this topic.

“Redeeming the villain is also self-redemption. We all have a darker side so it’s nice to see a villain as more than just the bad guy. There are times in my life, I can see myself in the villain. I got a redemption arc. Why shouldn’t they?” Butler said.

It is shown in psychological studies that what she explained is true for most people who love villains. People like to see themselves in the more morally gray character, because that makes it feel more real.

When a villain receives a good amount of screen time, people learn more about their interests and reasons for their evil actions. People are not one-sided creatures. They are complex, and flawed, and beautifully human. When people start to see the good in other people they do not believe would have any good in them to begin with, that transfers over to our real-life interactions. Whenever someone makes another’s bad day worse, they consider the possibility that they are going through something beyond their understanding, and they have empathy for that person. Even if they seem awful, someone might begin to understand that they must have a reason — not an excuse, but a reason — for all their anger and cruelty.

It is important to have entertainment, but it is also important not to let the lessons of entertainment go unused.

If you have any questions or concerns, contact Amelia Samuel at [email protected]