Brow Beat

Our Favorite Villains of 2015

Martin Shkreli, Jonathan Franzen, Taylor Swift, and a minion
Taylor Swift, Jonathan Franzen, Martin Shkreli, and a minion.

Photos by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images, Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for the New Yorker, Andrew Burton/Getty Images, and Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment 

When all is said and done, 2015 wasn’t such a bad year. It offered more than its share of good things, gave us a veritable harem of great Oscar Isaac performances, and much more. But also 2015 offered us more than our fair share of prototypical 21st-century villains—that is, not necessarily the true monsters, but instead the kind of outrageously terrible cartoonish jerks who are so deliciously hateable as to make mocking them a sport in which nearly all right-minded people can partake. (Not on our list: Donald Trump, whom more than 30 percent of likely Republican primary voters find not villainous at all.)  

Ashley Madison: It would be easy to hate Ashley Madison for the service it claims to offer, facilitating affairs between consenting adults. The trouble is that the site’s users were probably getting scammed. After the site was hacked in August, some analysis of user data suggested that the vast majority of the site’s active users were men—and that no one was really getting any. Though the company responded by insisting that tons of totally real women were signing up all the time, it still seems as if Ashley Madison was mostly taking advantage of fantasies rather than enabling true betrayals. –Jacob Brogan

Dan Snyder: By his usual standards, the owner of Washington’s NFL team didn’t have a particularly villainous year. He didn’t hit any small local newspapers with frivolous lawsuits, or cut down federally protected trees to improve a view from a personal estate, or set up a shell group to defend his team’s horrible and racist nickname. But even in a slow year, Snyder is one of the most bilious people in all of sports. His team’s 2015 included exploiting Navajo Nation artists to make his organization look good, getting caught red-handed in a propaganda campaign and then denying it, reportedly bribing a tribal Indian leader, and over-the-top manipulation of the local press. That’s not even counting Snyder’s continued defense of his team name, which to be fair this year included one of the most entertainingly vulgar legal briefings you’ll ever see. –Jeremy Stahl

Elderly Creationists: For the first time, America’s young people are ready to embrace the science of evolution, thus ending more than a century of scientific embarrassment among Western nations. Unfortunately, they’re being held back. The culprits: a generation of aging, wrinkly Darwin-deniers who still firmly believe that the earth is thousands—not billions—of years old. Their crime: stubbornly refusing to die, thus holding up a wave of progress and change for the rest of us. Americans aged 65 and older are the most likely to cling to the Creationist perspective. This is survival of the fittest, guys. Do your evolutionary duty, and make some room for the rest of us. –Rachel Gross

Hoverboards: For decades, hoverboards have been a signifier of the future, but this was the year they became a symbol of everything we hated about young people, not least of all because they’re actually just motorized scooters. (Though that didn’t prevent one petty thief from using one to execute an extremely slick heist.) And while they were a hot commodity this Christmas, they may have been a little too hot: The damn things kept catching on fire. Need ultimate proof of hoverboards’ villainousness? Russell Crowe is their most vocal defender. –Jacob Brogan

A hoverboard on October 13, 2015 in Knutsford, England.  

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Instagram: With its prudish censorship policies, Instagram drew plenty of blue-balled ire as 2015’s biggest cock-blocker and clam-jammer. The social media network has banned women’s nipples, but not men’s, as celebrities like Matt McGorry pointed out this year. Even worse, it pulled a few life-affirming images of the bulge the Game’s substantial, uh, eggplant made in his painted-on underwear. The rapper had captioned his photos with hashtags that read like a DIY manual for building the perfect orgasm. “#TakeYourIndexAndMiddleFingerAndMakeAGun,” he instructed. “#ThenPutTheGunInsideYouAndPullTheTrigger.” For a few too-short weeks, the Game’s extraordinary Shakeweight inspired us to take stock of our own comparatively dumb selfies and demand pleasure wherever we could find it. Instagram may have killed the pseudo–dick pics, but their spirits will live long. –Christina Cauterucci

Jonathan Franzen: Jonathan Franzen wrote a very large book with a very large number of somewhat controversial words this year, but Franzen’s hateability comes not ultimately from his novels (implausible sex scenes aside) but from all the time he spends saying obnoxious things about birds and climate change, or greatly aggravating a large chunk of the female literati. And just when we thought he could no longer outrage us, he noted he considered adopting an Iraqi orphan to figure out young people. Too easy, Franzen! –Chelsea Hassler 

Martin Shkreli: Nobody seemed to relish the public’s hatred in 2015 quite like Martin Shkreli, the rap-lyric-spouting former drug company CEO now under indictment. The 32-year-old became a poster child for pharmaceutical industry greed and dysfunction after he hiked the price of a life saving medication, Daraprim, from $13.50 to $750 a pill. But Shkreli embraced the outrage and courted more. He reneged on a promise to lower Daraprim’s price and said he should have raised it higher. He purchased the one and only copy of the Wu Tang’s final album, and said he might not listen to it. He hatched a plan to gouge patients with Chagas disease, who tend to be poor Latin American immigrants.  In a way, it was sad when Shkreli was arrested for mere securities fraud and canned from his CEO jobs, because his flamboyant style had helped spotlight awful practices common in pharma. As always, the real scandal is what’s legal. –Jordan Weissman

Minions: This year the once-cute sidekicks became monsters as Minions, the least informative origin story ever told, hit the big screen. And online? They’ve become an übermeme of sorts, as moms across the nation post image after image featuring smarmy sentiment that only tangentially relates to minions themselves—if it relates at all. Minion memes are like Donald Trump: They were once funny, but they’ve become a scourge upon humanity that must be stopped. Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m looking at you. –Laura Bradley  

Nathan from Ex Machina: He works out. He’s at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence. He drinks to excess and loves to hit the club. And he’s not great with women—in the sense that he constructs, has sex with, abuses, deconstructs, and hangs in pieces in his closet female-shaped robots. Nathan, the billionaire genius whose Alaskan compound is the setting for Alex Garland’s nasty, engrossing Ex Machina, is the tech bro as sci-fi villain. As played by Oscar Isaac, Slate’s official baby-daddy, he’s cartoonishly evil yet recognizably human—which means, in the Turing-test test-tube this movie creates, he might not be the true villain after all. –Dan Kois

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson in Ex Machina
Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson in Ex Machina  

© 2014 - A24

Sepp Blatter: Villains rarely fall as precipitously or satisfyingly as FIFA strongman Sepp Blatter did in 2015. For years, the 79-year-old Swiss sportocrat’s position at the top of the world’s most popular game seemed unassailable, despite decades of links to alleged bribery, facilitating massive human rights abuses, denying the existence of racism in soccer, and personally perpetuating its sexism. Then in May, Swiss authorities, acting on a U.S. warrant, arrested seven senior FIFA officials for corruption.* The arrest set a series of events into motion that led to Blatter promising to step down in June and an eight-year ban from soccer-related activities in December. He has blamed an American plot for his downfall and is appealing the decision. –Joshua Keating

Sixteenth-century child mortality rates: Largely and weirdly overlooked amid the year-end pile-up of prestige cinema, Macbeth is a lean, relentless, altogether astonishing take on the formidable Scottish Play, and one of its masterstrokes is in turning the bloodthirsty Lord and Lady into recently bereaved parents. It’s a potentially maudlin turn, but one that in this brilliant case scans as matter-of-fact causation: The Macbeths are not power-drunk lunatics so much as they have been made psychotic by grief. Just think of how many people would still be standing at the end of that movie if antibiotics had been available. –Jessica Winter

Slack: Slack—the office in your pocket! Slack is also your office’s creepy van with candy, your workplace’s trustfall playground, your job’s prison-yard basketball court: You want to be there, but also, you’re trapped there. The instant message app exploded in 2015, and as much as it cuts down email and delights with emojis, GIFs, and banter, Slack also entraps and addicts. Never before has a work necessity inspired so much FOMO. Slack is the siren and the bottle: always calling, always eating into our life, never quite as fun as we imagine. I hate Slack because I love it. That’s villainy. –Seth Maxon

Taylor Swift: Taylor Swift may have rebranded herself as a feminist megastar, but she exemplified the idea that #solidarityisforwhitewomen in 2015. Swift had ample opportunity to consider the racism baked into the MTV Music Video Awards in 2009, when Kanye West disputed her win over Beyoncé. But apparently self-awareness remains beyond Swift’s bailiwick: When Nicki Minaj protested her single’s exclusion from VMA’s Video of the Year nominees, Swift accused her of “pit[ting] women against each other.” At least Swift apologized. Maybe she won’t be the face of, as Slate’s Christina Cauterucci has written, “skinny, monied, very white feminism” in 2016. –Nora Caplan-Bricker

Singer Taylor Swift
Singer Taylor Swift at the 45th Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, Nevada, on April 18, 2010.  

Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas Jefferson: Someone gin up some minions for super-scoundrel Thomas Jefferson, the founding father Hamilton unmasked this year as a slavery apologist, Grandmaster Flash epigone, and insufferable dandy. While Hamilton and friends fight to liberate America from tyranny, Jefferson’s “off getting high with the French.” Then he’s back, in crushed purple velvet, to dig up dirt on A. Ham (even though he, Thomas, is sleeping with Sally Hemings). Thanks to actor Daveed Diggs, we may be through idealizing a scion of privilege whose contempt for centralized government still poisons our politics. The greatest villain of 2015 is that nickel-head, Thomas Jefferson. And if ya don’t know, now ya know. –Katy Waldman

*Correction, Dec. 30, 2015: Due to an editing error, this post originally misstated that Sepp Blatter was one of the seven FIFA officials arrested in Switzerland. He was not.