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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Why do we find villains sexy?

Die Hard Alan Rickman

Yesterday we talked about which villains are sexiest. Today I want to ask a tougher question:
Why do we find villains sexy?

Yes, it’s only fantasy, but I admit it bothers me sometimes to realize I’m getting a thrill from a bad guy. In real life such people are abhorrent to me. In the case of one of my favorite villains, Hans Gruber, I could almost forgive him his very clever theft of bearer bonds from Nakatomi… but not his plan to murder all his hostages. No way, never — even though the plan doesn’t come off, merely conceiving of such a plan is beyond obscene and repulsive. And yet still: Hans Gruber is pretty awesome. Why?

Am I overthinking this? Does it bother you that you find some very bad people — even if they are only fictional — attractive? Any ideas about why we find them so attractive?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • Jan_Willem

    It may have something to do with the temporary release from moral constraints that rule your own actions and principles in the real world. Baser instincts or the id – personified in a villain – are allowed to run wild and that can be quite exhilarating and attractive. In the real world, such types would want to gain control in horrible and repulsive ways, but perhaps you can feel in control and toy with them in your free-wheeling imagination.

  • LaSargenta

    I think it is due to the way the actor portrays the baddie. No decent actor wants a plastic role. They are going to try to make the bad guy compelling in some way. 

  • Sum1314g

    Villains in real life are usually disgusting, base people.  I think Simone Weil said something like : “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied, real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.” In films baddies are often complex and interesting — often more so than the hero, who is sometimes not allowed to be less than perfect.  Also, the villain sometimes has a tragic backstory or tortured soul — which , let’s face it, although I don’t like to generalize, lots of women like.  Who knows whether it is societal or actually inherent, but lots of women like men that only they can understand or “save”.  It feels special to be the only person who “gets” this poor, maligned soul, who would be good if only given a chance! Thankfully, I only like men like that in films, because in real life they would be horrible.  Sadly there are not a lot of good female villains, because it seems like even now they are stuck in two types: Redeemable Femme Fatale or Irredeemable Femme Fatale.  Usually her badness comes only from being too “sexy”, which isn’t the same thing as being interesting enough to actualy be sexy.  The only one who comes to my mind is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, and she’s barely a villain.
    I also think we get a vicarious thrill from people who break the norms of society, and do things we wish we could do.  The villain often gets to say or do the things we all think but are too scared to act on.  In the case of Hans Gruber, he is smart and is only playing a corrupt and stupid system to his own benefit. 
    Some caveats:  I never like villains who are just motiveless evil, and have no personality.  Scar = good villain.  Hun guy from Mulan = bad villain.  And no, muscles and glowy eyes don’t make a person scary.  Also, I never like a villain who is pure crazy.  That’s why the villain from Die Hard II is such a fail.  Yes, he is getting paid for his schemes, but it’s evident he actually believes his wacko theories.  And they can’t actually be full of bloodlust or anything creepy.   Fictional violence can be forgiven (fictionally), but any and all violence has to be justified for The Evil Plan, not because they just like hurting people.
    Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that villains are often allowed to be sophisticated, witty, and usually English, and wisp around in expensive suits.  Whereas Hollywood thinks we want our action heroes to be musclemen who blow stuff up, because that’s the American way!  Which, to be fair, might be some people’s type.  It just isn’t mine.

  • I think Jan Willem and Sum1314g have it right.

    Another explanation might be that most real-world terrorists, pirates, psychopaths, corporate evildoers, and other abhorrent people simply don’t have the sexual charisma of Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michelle Pfeiffer, or Tricia Helfer.

    If they did, they’d still absolutely be abhorrent. But they’d be sexier. ;-)

  • That is the classic abusive relationship, isn’t it? A person who inspires love lust and obedience to cover and excuse their abusive or murderous nature. 

    On the topic of lust, perhaps part of the appeal comes from the traditional moral views of sex being wicked. If sex is evil, then evil might as well be sexy. 

    There’s also the vicarious thrill of immorality. There are times where we want the benefits of immorality: wealth, power, control, instant gratification, domination. The majority of us know that doing those in reality would harm others, or cause us to come to harm. We can still enjoy it vicariously through movies and games. 

  • MisterAntrobus

    . . . most real-world terrorists [etc.] simply don’t have the sexual charisma of Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michelle Pfeiffer, or Tricia Helfer.

    Of course, there are exceptions. Remember Anna Chapman, the Russian spy arrested in the US a couple of years ago? She’s pretty hot. But then again, she’s not necessarily evil, just a spy, and apparently not an especially good one either. (The good ones don’t get caught, right?)

  • MisterAntrobus

    Having acted on stage in a variety of roles, I have to say that playing villains is often quite a bit more fun, as they do tend to have far fewer restrictions than heroes or romantic leads.

  • MisterAntrobus

    On the topic of lust, perhaps part of the appeal comes from the
    traditional moral views of sex being wicked. If sex is evil, then evil
    might as well be sexy.

    Indeed, Western culture has wrapped up its notions of sex with evil from the very “beginning,” as it were – the Western Christian notion of the Devil is a tempter and a seducer, evident from Genesis on.

    Meanwhile, there’s some atavistic part of human nature – at least in a lot of humans – that is excited, figuratively and literally, by the promise of inflicting or receiving pain, asserting dominance or being dominated. Otherwise, BDSM wouldn’t be so enduringly popular. But since those tendencies, too, tend to have decidedly anti-social ramifications when they’re practiced outside a controlled environment, we remove them to our fantasies. (Hence why villains can also be so fun to play — see my comment about acting in response to LaSargenta below.)

  • True. I recently saw the Discovery Center’s “Spy” exhibit here in NYC and there was a whole section about the Russian spy ring. Chapman was a lousy spy, but because she’s pretty, she got all the media attention.

  • Bassygalore

    I think we all get a thrill from the element of danger and fictional characters are safe.

    We go into a movie knowing that it’s not real and so we get a thrill out of watching what devious, clever things the villian has concocted and how they are ultimately foiled by our hero. It’s controlled evil and I know for me, because I’m divorced from reality (and because someone has hopefully written the villian to be interesting), I can look beyond the destruction and see the character – what makes this person tick. Real life is not like that, nor should it be.

  • madderrose74

     Villains are also often written as wittier, smarter, and occasionally more truthful than the heroes, but are allowed to have flaws (like, um, being evil) that a hero cannot. Nothing dulls the edge of a villain more than being set on the path to redemption, and nothing makes a hero more interesting than a fall from grace.

    I have been watching too much Angel lately.

  • Villains can get away with the sort of thing that you’ve always wondered what it would be like to do but could never get past your own morals to do it. And when they’re defeated, we can feel safe in those morals, knowing that we’re better than the villain.

  • Danielm80

     How was the exhibit? I was thinking about seeing it when it first opened, but I got overscheduled.

  • Sum1314g

    I was thinking about the people I mentioned on the earlier QOTD, and also Ralph Fiennes, Cumberbatch, and one of the best baddies ever, Darth Vader, and I realized that some of the most delicious villains not only had English accents, but were often stage actor types with very sonorous voices.  Not sure why that is the case, but it is.  That’s a small thing, but I think we all like a sexy voice, particularly when his intellect/persuasiveness is the villain’s main power, which is somehow more attractive than having physical dominance. 

  • You can still go! According to the NY Times review it should be open until March of next year. You can get tickets here.

    I enjoyed it. I don’t know if it’ll impress an espionage buff, but as a layman I liked seeing actual, historical spy artifacts (apparently poison-pellet umbrellas, camera-equipped homing pigeons, and robotic spy dragonflies were a real thing), watching video of retired CIA agents talking about their experiences, and seeing the history of espionage, mostly American and Soviet, laid out clearly (I’d forgotten that George Washington was the nation’s first spymaster).

    The best part: I’d always fantasized about making my way across a room riddled with (harmless) laser beams without tripping any of them, and the exhibition lets you do that. (An alarm sounds whenever you hit a beam.) I failed miserably, but it was still fun.

  • I think it’s instructive to look to an actor giving a fine performance as an actual villain. I’ll submit Bruno Ganz’s wonderful performance as Adolph Hitler in Der Untergang/Downfall. Ganz is great in the role, and Hitler is certainly humanized through his portrayal (which is good, because we can’t forget that he was human), but sexy? Hardly. Similarly, I think Anthony Hopkins’s version of Hannibal Lector is a kind of sexy, but if Hopkins were playing Jeffery Dahmer or Ted Bundy, I don’t think it would work.

    So as several others have noted, the fictional aspect is, I think, a big part of villain sexiness. And as long as it doesn’t lead to tolerance of real villainy (and I think it doesn’t), I say, enjoy!

  • Rebecca261

    I have always been a villain fangirl from the time I was very young and cheered for Captain Hook. I honestly don’t know why.

  • Stefanie

    I’m late to the party, and I agree with much of what has been said already. I’d like to toss out confidence as another quality that makes Gruber, Loki, and other villains appealing. They certainly believe in themselves; why shouldn’t we?

  • I think you’re right. We’re hypocrites, we can’t face our own evil, as Freud said. You said that first “we get away w/ it, then he gets defeated & we “know that we’re better.”

    How many times has a critic written, “This film tacked on the obligatory ending, the final comeuppance–after 2 hrs of exploitation.”

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