We've all seen this before: there's this Bad Guy. And he's really bad. He doesn't have a pencil mustache, but if he did, he'd be twirling it. He relishes his badness. He sneers at the protagonist's fear and pain, eats kittens for kicks, and maybe breaks the arm of a fan favorite to twist the knife extra hard.
He's also extremely sexist, racist, classist, etc etc etc. Because he's bad, see.
|Mmmmm yes, I am so rich and horrible.|
This sort of overblown, comic-booky villain creates a weird sort of duality. They're just so bad, so horrible, that the hero(ine) looks angelic by default. The villain embodies everything evil, and they do it because they just like being evil. Or they like money and power, which they maintain by being horrible bigots. But there's a problem with this representation, and not only because it feels two-dimensional.
When some people think of different forms of damaging oppression, their mind automatically goes to obvious examples -- the KKK, Westboro Baptist Church, Rush Limbaugh saying the worst thing to ever happen to this country was women winning the right to vote, etc. If a villain is a Really Bad Person, they reflect this sort of clearly wrong-minded way of thinking, right? It's an automatic marker of their Badness.
Here's the problem: it's easy. It's very easy to maintain this superficial view of some cackling creep who gleefully oppresses people because he thinks it's fun. Not only that, it's also damaging.
Wait. It's damaging to show that the villain, who is clearly a Bad Person, is a racist/sexist/ableist/etc.?
Yes, in a way, it is. It implies that "real" -isms are blatantly obvious and that only truly evil people buy into them. Following that logic, that means anyone who isn't an obviously bad person can't possibly contribute to an -ist power structure, right? Or that "real" -isms are cartoonishly easy to spot?
Wrong. In our society, -isms are insidious. They infect everything. Everyday people, even people who do good things, buy into them. They're small, seemingly inconsequential, and we participate in them all the time until they snowball enough to reinforce the structure. It actually takes a dedicated deprogramming effort (for lack of a better term) to recognize and combat them.
I recently read an example regarding Harry Potter. In that series, there are some pretty obvious villains -- Voldemort, the Malfoys, the Blacks, most Death Eaters -- who display various classist and racist attitudes. They're clearly in the wrong. However, we also have our "good" characters who reflect these attitudes, such as Ron and his engrained attitudes in regard to other magical races (giants, house elves, werewolves). And other characters call him on it.
This is the problem with relegating depictions of racism, sexist attitudes, and the like only to characters who are obviously in the wrong while completely ignoring similar, albeit less blatant, examples from the "good" characters. It sets up the precedent that these attitudes are only worth fighting when they reach X level of nastiness, while other examples are okay because they're coming from someone who's actually a good guy, really.
Not only that, but it makes the villains very paper-thin. Remember, a well-drawn villain is one who's the hero(ine) of their own story. They think they're doing the right thing, rather than gleefully enjoying chaos.
I'm not saying that the overblown villains don't have their place. Every once in a while, that absurd, over-the-top cackling jerkbag can be a lot of fun. I'm just not a huge fan of using "what a SEXIST DOUCHE" as the sole character-defining aspect of the story's villain. Let them be more nuanced than that.
And more, when your non-evil characters screw up, call them on it. Don't finger wag at your evil dictator's obvious racism while ignoring that one of your good guys is making snide ableist comments, too. If you're going to make the gesture of fighting oppression, then fight it in all its forms.