If you have an evil cackle, malicious facial expressions, the odd wart or two or green-colored skin, and pick fights with heroic, selfless individuals, chances are: you are a storybook villain, and my son just adores you.
For the past few months, my 3 ½-year-old has been utterly entranced by the “bad guy” in everything from biblical stories and children’s books to comic strips and movies. In discussing the Purim holiday, he perked up only when we told him of Haman, asking numerous questions: “Mommy, is he a bad guy?” “But why is he mean to Mordechai?” “How come he wants to hurt the Jewish people?” Though he is interested in Batman and other masked heroes of his ilk, my son is way more transfixed by the Joker, as made evident when he pulls his pants down several times a day, bends over to prominently display his character underwear to me, and asks, “Mommy, who do YOU want to be on my underwear? I want to be the Joker because he’s mean!”
We all love a good story, with the usual suspects: protagonist, antagonist, and adversity before the ultimate triumph of good over evil. It’s a simple formula, interpreted time and again in so many interesting ways, and it goes without saying that most of us tend to root for the protagonist. But almost without fail, my child cheers on his or her crooked counterpart. And while it’s cute to watch him practice his mean face by scrunching up his nose and squinting his eyes, and playact at being the villain by using the best threats he knows–“I’m going to…. take away your snack and put you in a time-out, Mommy! BOO AHH AHH!”–I wonder if there’s something amiss in the fact that he seems so drawn toward the antihero.
It happened again last night. I’ve been impatiently waiting to watch the Disney movies of my youth with my children. Because my son is also currently fascinated by sharks and sea life, I decided it was time to start with The Little Mermaid, perhaps against my better judgment. There’s possibly no Disney villain as frightening as Ursula, along with her eel minions, Flotsam and Jetsam, but God invented the fast-forward button for a reason, I figured. With a bowl of freshly-popped popcorn that we generously split 90/10 (you can guess who belongs with which ratio), we settled on the couch to watch Ariel’s adventure under the sea.
When Ursula appeared onscreen, even more terrifying than I remember, I hurriedly glanced over at my son, worried that this would be the baddie that finally scares him. He was leaning forward, his eyes wide with marvel, and he was eagerly lapping up her every throaty word and began peppering me with questions about Ursula’s actions and motives. Goofy and loveable Flounder, pretentious but doting Sebastian, wisecracking and hilarious Scuttle, but no–it was the scary sea witch who captured his heart. Aside from obvious problems with Disney that I missed the first time but am now disappointingly aware of (like Ursula’s assurance that Ariel has no need of her voice to catch Eric’s attention; she has her pretty face!), I was left to further muse on my son’s devotion to the rebels and reprobates.
Yes, they tend to be more richly-drawn characters, certainly more theatrical (does anyone else see Harvey Fierstein acting the shiznit out of Ursula in a staged production of the movie?), and possessing more compelling back stories than the typical heroes. And Google, my trusty guide to life, found me many links to sites explaining that childhood fascination with the bad guy is part and parcel of children’s normal moral development, their attempt to work out the difference between right and wrong, and to master each side so they can gain control over things and people they might find scary.
But maybe there’s more to it. In looking back on my son’s fascination with various villains, I unearthed one common vein among his curiosity: “What made that person so mean, Mommy?”
The question of what makes a man a monster is one I, too, have been obsessed with since I first learned of the Holocaust, obviously involving a much larger-scale and a genuine, truly evil villain.
And it’s a real-life question that parents unfortunately have had to contend with more and more of late. I remember when one place, one word, was uttered, and visions of murder and pure terror were conveyed instantly. I remember the date that Columbine happened: April 20, 1999. And before the media seized upon the association, I already knew it was the date of Hitler’s birthday.
Though it’s not always clear-cut when questions of mental illness are raised, our children have seen too many “bad guys” commit heinous and senseless acts. And while my own very young children have been shielded from those media images in our home, and I have been careful not to speak of the events around them, maybe my son’s absorbing interest in storybook villains is the first step to him learning that there exists real evil in this world. It’s a lesson I wish he’d never have to learn, and a lesson I am saddened to know that he, and other children, probably will at some point.
Come to think of it, let’s stick to Ursula, Scar, and Maleficent for as long as possible.
Photo credit: Flickr/samlavi