“Cruella” and the Complexity of Being a Villain

The preschooler wanted to do something fun tonight, but the weather wasn’t collaborating. So we set up the projector and screen and watched Cruella. For those of you who are not initiated, Cruella is the story of the villain in the 101 Dalmatians film(s). It is a prequel that tells the story of how she became evil, explaining to the audience that she is a mix of unfortunate circumstances in her life as an orphan and the genes she carries. I won’t spoil it for you, but it a fun character study of why bad people do bad things, and why we label them as “bad” when we don’t know the whole story.

Image of a white cloth screen onto which a movie is being projected. The movie frame shows a woman with half black and half white hair looking away from the camera and to the left. She looks haggard.
Good, old-fashioned evil.

Disney has been doing this lately with other villains in other stories. My wife and I went to Baltimore to watch Wicked, the story of how the “Wicked Witch” in The Wizard of Oz got her bad reputation. Spoiler alert: It was all a misunderstanding, and the witch’s origins (biological and circumstantial) have a lot to do with what happened. It is much the same way with Cruella, where “Estella” becomes evil to get back at the woman who victimized her. Along the way, we are given a glimpse into how people’s actions in public label them a villain while their private lives are just a little more complex than that. If only life was like that.

Or is it?

There are plenty of people in my life who have this weird idea of me. Because of my (pseudo) oppositional defiant disorder, they think that I am a jerk. They base that opinion on a few interactions, not really knowing all of the stuff that goes on in the 99% of the time that I’m not around them. The people who really know me understand when I’m grumpy and leave me alone, or they confront me on my grumpiness and tell me to cut it out. The people who don’t know me just get all weird and form their opinions. To some, I end up being a bad guy. To others… Well, I hope that I’m not living rent-free in their heads.

Anyway, back to the villainy.

I could probably count on one hand the number of villains in my life. There are even fewer of them whom I’ve never met in real life. The others, the bullies, probably do remember me because I’ve probably been one of the few people to stand up to them. In case you don’t know me, I don’t take kindly to bullies. I either metaphorically or physically punch them in the mouth, and that sends a clear message that their bullying will not work on me. They then leave my life, and then I don’t have to count them as villains anymore. They become nobodies.

Similarly, all the rhetoric we’re seeing right now from anti-vaccine forces make it seem like they’re a bunch of people who have some sort of real power. They don’t. They claim that “millions” are behind them when it’s maybe tens of thousands. They claim that “thousands” will show up to demonstrations when it’s maybe hundreds. This doesn’t surprise me, of course. They’re so bad at measuring risk that they’re just as bad at comparing proportions. Unfortunately, too many local and state governments fall for that trap and end up acquiescing to the demands of the loons.

Some loons are better than others. (Photo by Gio Bartlett on Unsplash)

When public health and other authorities acquiesce to the demands of the loons, we end up swinging the pendulum completely the other way in a reactionary way that benefits no one. The loons become the establishment, and then the fight is on to remove them. Democracy turns into a joke, and a revolving door of government officials who get nothing done become the norm. It’s basically the Trump administration in miniature and all over the place.

Look at how long we went without a Secretary of Homeland Security. Securing the border was never going to happen with a decapitated security apparatus.

On the one hand, I feel pessimistic about where public health is going. But that pessimism is replaced with a certain kind of excitement because these kinds of challenges have always brought public health and science out of the other side with a renewed sense of purpose. When hundreds were dying of cholera in the mid-1800s in England, John Snow didn’t back down from the science, even when going against the established paradigm of his day.

Vaccines have always had people claiming all sorts of bad things about them, yet we eradicated smallpox, polio hasn’t been transmitted in the Americas in 30 years, and only a handful of people have died of rabies in the United States in this century. It’s almost as if vaccines were good and people saw it. It’s almost as if the grown-ups in the discussions did what they had to do and ignored the children throwing temper tantrums. Almost.

Anyway, back to the villains… It’s hard to hate people when you realize what went horribly wrong to make them so angry, so hate-filled. There is this one antivaxxer who tragically lost his wife to cancer. Right around the same time she died, he became ardently anti-medical. He started writing about how hospitals were made to kill people, about conspiracies on organ trafficking, and about vaccines being made to make people sick. When you peel away the crazy, you see a heartbroken man who lost his wife of many years. I can’t say that I wouldn’t lose it like he seems to have lost it if my wife died on me in a horrible way.

I also frankly believe that antivaxxers who became anti-vaccine because their children have a developmental delay legitimately love their children — and all children — but they harm children by maligning vaccines because they’ve been convinced that what “hurt” their children are vaccines. Peel away that crazy, and you have a parent who is reacting to a perceived wrong done to their child. Again, I can’t say that I would become like them if I thought — for some reason — that vaccines hurt my child.

He knows ten thousand ways to kill you if you so much as look at his child the wrong way.

We are all complex creatures, made to be the way we are by a wealth of experiences from even before we were born. It is hard to say that someone is created evil, though there is no doubt in my mind that some monsters are out there who just want to watch the world burn. As part of this realization, I’ve taken more time to understand the people who oppose me, who threaten me because of my public health stances, and the people who just don’t like me. There is much more to them than just being evil for the sake of evil. Similarly, there is much more to me than just the me you get to read about… And a lot of it would not surprise you.

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