I Was Banned from Disney Films — It was for the Better : The Mythology of Righteous Revenge
Growing up, my parents kept a close eye on the media my siblings and I consumed. “There are things that you cannot un-see, once something is in your head it never leaves,” they’d say. I certainly wish that were true on some of my tests in high school, but as an adult, I think they have a point: the media you consume contributes to the mythology that shapes your view of reality. I wasn’t permitted to watch Disney films because my mother reasoned it was too violent that the villains always had to die at the end of the film.
Death, this inevitable conclusion to the struggle between good and evil, is an essential tool in our culture to rationalize violence. From a young age, many of the popular stories we consume — from Beauty and the Beast to Star Wars — resolve with the absolutely evil antagonist falling to their doom. Gravity literally and metaphorically, catches up with them and can only bring them in one final direction.
Most of the Abrahamic religions are built on this foundation of good versus evil, so this concept isn’t unknown to us. What is more important to note in this dualism is that the character who symbolizes evil must be destroyed. Gaston, Ursula, Scar, almost every antagonist is killed rather than learning the error in their ways. Sometimes the opportunity to reform arises, but they deny it, typically with deadly results moments later. We teach this concept from a very young age.
We must ask why is it necessary that the antagonist must die rather than repent? Not all great narratives end this way after all. Hayao Miyazaki, often directly compared to Walt Disney as an all-time great animation director, often concludes his stories with antagonists turning good, such as Zeniba the witch, who, upon losing her powers, becomes an ally. Miyazaki’s films are filled with wonderfully ambiguous characters, yet they retain a strong sense of right and wrong.
This idea of the righteous destroying their enemy is a unique and specific concept to our culture. To understand it, I found Daniel Quinn’s view of how a culture’s mythology shapes its destiny helpful. Quinn describes a cultural mythology as a story that explains the origins and ultimate “goal” for a culture. He stresses that this mythology becomes pervasive in everything the culture does.
Quinn notes that in the natural world, nearly every creature (humans included) practices a system of “limited competition.” Predators may hunt, but they only kill what they need. Herds may graze, but they move on before exhausting the soil. Lions and hyenas may compete for food and territory, but the hyenas don’t sneak into the lions’ den at night and kill them in their sleep, they just stalk the same prey when they have to. Without doing so consciously, these creatures live in harmony.
But our culture defies this. In practicing agriculture, we spread pesticides to kill other animals that would eat our crops. We have exterminated species such as the thylacine because they posed a threat to our livestock. Wars and genocides have eliminated whole ethnic groups of people. When our culture competes we want to do it absolutely until the “other” is wiped from existence.
Rarely we consider that our form of competition results in so much destruction but on the rare cases we do we’ve rationalized an answer — that the “other,” whoever it may be is evil, they will always be evil, and they are hell-bent on destroying us. It becomes virtuous for us to use every tactic of violence against them. Ours is a righteous revenge — the best defense is a good offense and so on.
And so even without thinking about it we write our stories to reflect this idea. Antagonists are not just wrong, they are beyond redemption. It is inevitable that they should perish so that we good people may live on in a perfect world. I’m glad that my parents recognized how flawed that logic is. Through their faith they believed that no one is beyond redemption and we are not the ones to judge. Violence — when not strictly in self-defense is always wrong.
In today’s world, we fear desperate refugees and declare wars not just on countries, but upon abstract concepts such as drugs and terror. We still argue over whether torture should be acceptable. We condemn death on others at a moment’s provocation, and afterwards rationalize it as justice.
We must learn to show restraint against those we view as antagonists because not every story needs to end with a death.