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On Redemption Arcs: A farewell to the easy villain

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

As many great musings do, this think-piece all began with a Tumblr post.

A few years ago, a rather irate user, “0l0x”, whose Tumblr header reads “lil steaky”, wrote a text post expressing their displeasure with the recent reboot of Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The 2018 film, entitled “The Grinch”, is an origin story for the iconic green meanie, shedding light on the tragic past of an apparently misunderstood figure that the public has loved to hate for generations.

Our friend, lil steaky (stylized in all lowercase, of course), had some choice words on the subject. The least of them declare that the new Grinch has “no bite” and is nothing more than “a sassy gay furry”, who pales in comparison to the Grinch of 1966—a true-blue “mean, scary bastard”.

Behind lil steaky’s animosity is an insightful point: lil steaky writes, “[y]ou can round the edges off a character to make them more ‘relatable’ or whatever, but you also run the risk of losing what defined them in the first place… 2018 Grinch is a reflection of modern society’s rejection of real character flaws in the interest of being ‘unproblematic’”.

lil steaky’s argument is compelling, and certainly speaks to the ever-growing trend of redemption arcs and a generally sympathetic attitude towards villains in children’s media today. However, I think there are several other factors at play in society’s shifting perception of the traditional baddie. In my opinion, the 2018 film’s softening of the Grinch’s character for a new generation is just one film’s way of handling a persistent phenomenon; one in which audiences reject the idea of a completely flawed character, rather than character flaws completely. (And also a marketing ploy to make children find the Grinch more likable, but that’s neither here nor there.)

What I’m getting at is the fact that these days, animated features and shows are less likely to portray morality or “goodness” in terms of black and white. In the same way that modern audiences crave a hero that can make mistakes, they want a villain with redeeming qualities to match. Additionally—and this is not a new phenomenon—because villains are often coded as “the outsider”, they are inherently more sympathetic to people who exist in the margins; queer folks, POC, disabled folks, or anyone who has ever been “othered”. Taking this into account, it’s not so surprising that many creators are trading “the bad guy” in for the “misunderstood antagonist”, and giving non-heroes their own arcs.

An often-cited example of a cartoon antagonist gone good is Prince Zuko, from the hit animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. At first glance, Zuko is nothing more than a scar-ridden, violent young man who wreaks havoc on his mission to capture the main character, Avatar Aang. However, as the show peels back the layers of Zuko’s volatile and angry demeanor, it is revealed that he is a victim of child abuse whose only hope of being accepted back into his family and his kingdom is to deliver the Avatar to his father, a warlord and evil leader of the Fire Nation. A:TLA doesn’t let Zuko off easy—he has to struggle against his own demons and face the consequences of his actions.

A significant part of his redemption arc is not only standing up to his father, but admitting his own wrongs and actively trying to correct the hurt he and his people have caused others. By the time the series ends, Zuko is still working through his anger and guilt but he has grown and is accepted as a friend by Aang—his former enemy.

Although Zuko is often considered the end-all-be-all, new iterations of this storyline are cropping up all the time. (See: every single antagonist in Steven Universe.)

One of my new favorites can be found in the recent reboot, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. In the original cartoon, protagonist Adora’s arch-nemesis is Catra, a cold, calculating minion of Hordak, ruler of the Evil Horde. (Yikes, right?) While the new Catra retains her whip-like smarts, ruthless streak, and does oppose Adora for most of the series, her motivations are no longer simply “evil for evil’s sake”.

As it turns out, Catra and Adora had been best friends; both orphans who found solace in each other amidst the cutthroat environment of the Horde. When Adora leaves the Horde to become She-Ra and join the rebellion, only then does Catra truly begin to throw herself into misdeeds—an abandoned child lashing out against her own loneliness and insecurity.

Something I really like about Catra’s arc is that it is directly tied to her need for other people, specifically Adora. Ultimately, it is Adora’s being in imminent danger which motivates Catra to join the rebellion. While reconnecting with her friend (and love interest) does not “fix” Catra, Adora does make Catra want to be a better person.

This is an important facet of redemption arcs: they are not just relevant to a single character. Often, the nature of the antagonist’s growth highlights the protagonist’s own character arc as well and even makes a statement which relates directly back to the show’s overall themes.

In A:TLA, Zuko’s redemption and acceptance by his former enemies is tied up in the triumph of understanding and peace over power and destruction. Catra’s arc speaks to the human need for healthy relationships in order to recover from trauma and stay grounded.

The fact that more and more children’s shows are actively creating villains only to rehabilitate them suggests a shift in the collective public consciousness. I personally view it as a kind of reconfiguring of a universal moral grey area and an acknowledgment that bad decisions do not necessarily make you a bad person. These shows appear to be attempting to teach children a greater understanding of others and of themselves. More than anything, what I see in redemption arcs is the endorsement of human connection over winning a single fight or even a whole war.

To share your thoughts on this trend or just to piss off our pal lil steaky, comment below!


About the author: I'm Briana Gonzalez, word nerd and card-carrying theatre kid. Writing is just a more accessible form of talking, so it's no wonder I can't stop doing it. Check out my lit blog on Instagram @what_that_book_do!


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