Disclaimer: I have no Disney princess nostalgia, so I pull no punches.
Let’s talk about classical Disney villains—the big, branded baddies of your childhood nightmares, as easily recognizable on a t-shirt as their princess counterparts—and what they have to do with BBC’s The Fall.
From Maleficent the dragon-lady to Cinderella’s evil stepmother, the villains of Disney canon are almost always older women in positions of power who neither have nor want a man. They also tend to be more sexual characters than the hero—their clothing is lower cut, their faces more severe. They physically contrast with the innocent princess, making the distinction between good guys and bad guys all the more obvious to a young audience. Their motivations are usually power and/or vanity, while the princess wants neither. In older movies, the princess just wants a man. Perhaps I only scratch the surface of villaindom in the magic kingdom, but the tropes apply to every malicious woman in Disney history.
Here’s where The Fall comes in. The Fall‘s DSI Stella Gibson carries the hallmarks of classic Disney villainess, but in a story for adults, Stella Gibson is the hero. She’s an older woman in a position of power; she’s sexually assertive, and she dresses herself up solely for personal satisfaction. In a Disney formula, the handsome prince would be rescuing the young, attractive women from a villain the likes of DSI Stella Gibson. The plot of The Fall is simply a reversal of the formula—Stella rescues young women from a charming serial killer and seeks to punish him for the crimes he has committed. She helps women who’ve been manipulated and sexually abused go back to their lives.
The Fall destroys the classic Disney relationship between “purity” and heroics. The supposed Prince Charming is a serial killer, and the woman trying to destroy him is the story’s complex hero.
Why is this role reversal such an important story for women? The idea of sexuality, ambition, or vanity being motivations for evil is seen throughout Disney canon. Sexuality is usually a hallmark of the physical design of Disney’s villainesses, and ultimately that does give an impression that sexuality is somehow evil or wrong in a woman. It’s not the cause of that impression, so much as it is a side effect of an existing notion that sexual women are evil temptresses (which goes all the way back to Genesis, but I’m not going to go into that).
Stella Gibson stands in contrast to the black-and-white depictions of Disney women—Selfless or vain, innocent darling or evil temptress—she does a thankless job in a field dominated by men, yet she takes time out of her day to take care of herself and wear what makes her feel confident. Falling somewhere in the negative space between princess and dragon-witch, she is human.
It might not seem fair to compare The Fall to Disney, given that one is a gritty crime show and the other a brand that began in children’s cartoons. But behind the pistols and snarky one-liners, most crime shows are just fairy tales for adults. The weekly bad guy is always caught, and anyone who doubted our heroes is silenced. And just as in Disney, single, middle-aged women in positions of power frequently become antagonistic forces in the average cop show: Erin Strauss in Criminal Minds and Jenny Shepard in NCIS both fall victim to Disney Villain Syndrome.
The Fall conspicuously subverts its genre by drawing attention to the violence of which many crime shows make light, but on a character-driven level, Stella Gibson subverts the fairy-tale structure of the modern TV mystery. She is the anti-Maleficent, with all the tropes and thrice the dimension.