Gen Z is entering their “villain era” – this is what brands should know

Are you ready to enter your villain era? Gen Z are. Here’s what that means for brands, plus examples of villainous TikTokkers to inspire you.
Fanbytes | Villain era

In 30 seconds:

  • Ever wanted to throw societal conventions to the wind and embrace your dark side? Gen Z certainly has.
  • The ‘villain era’ meme is growing increasingly popular across the web and general Gen Z parlance, though it has its origins on TikTok.
  • This Gen Z trend is empowering chronic people-pleasers – and it’s more positive than you might think.

Think of a villain, and your mind might skip to dark lairs, evil deeds, and questionable moral decisions. 

But that’s not quite what Gen Z’s so-called “villain era” is about. 

Really, the whole idea behind a ‘villain era’ is self-care. Yes, really. The term originated as a way to talk about breaking away from societal pressure to ‘play nice’. That is – to “prettify” oneself, hold back aspects of oneself, and take on the emotional labour of pleasing everyone around you. 

It’s a mindset that feeds into feminist discourse, but it’s come at a particularly potent time for Gen Z, who have felt ‘held back’ by the pandemic. It’s an expression of self-determination and validation just as this young generation are feeling more able to explore their physical freedoms – experiencing a ‘new era’ on a macro scale.

The term has its origins in TikTok, and It’s no surprise that content around ‘villain era’ has become a trend there. After all, TikTok has a thriving mental health community. Tags like #mentalhealth have over 33Bn views, and 31% of Gen Z users have said that the fact TikTok lifts their spirits is one of the top three reasons they use the video-sharing platform. 

What does entering your “villain era” actually mean?

It’s really not as dramatic or negative as it sounds. TikTok user Padmini (@padzdey) summarised the trend in a video aimed at those who consider themselves to be a people-pleaser… often to their own detriment. 

As her video states, entering your villain era is “Just us asserting our boundaries, expressing and really clearly communicating our needs, and prioritising ourselves – often for the first time.” 

The trend encourages a shift in attitude, and is a way of re-prioritising your own mental health above people pleasing. For this reason, the trend has proven very popular with users who find it difficult to turn away extra work, or say no to friends and family. 

As for why any of the above makes you a “villain”? Padmini explains that that’s all about people’s reactions to your new boundaries: “What someone may be used to, they’re not receiving anymore, and then comes in being perceived as a villain.” 

So, the term is largely tongue-in-cheek. Gen Zers are well aware that rejecting the need to please people all the time does not make you a villain. It is, in fact, essential to your health and happiness by setting boundaries

The Villain Era vs. Main Character Energy

The villain era is not the first time TikTok has spawned a trend that encourages young people to try a drastic change in their self-view. “Main character energy” was the suggestion that people view themselves as the hero of their own story; the main character

But, in typical Gen Z fashion, nothing is quite as it seems. As usage of both terms has continued, definitions have shifted slightly. While “entering your villain era” is well-established as a method of reclaiming your time and focusing on your own needs, “main character syndrome”, ironically, is now internet shorthand for exactly the kind of self-centeredness you’d expect from a villain. 

Those displaying “main character syndrome” often treat those around them like supporting characters, and though it started in a similarly uplifting place, it’s now understood to be largely negative. 

So while having ‘main character energy’ is great if you’re approaching it in a healthy way; enjoying your talents and helping yourself to thrive, watch out for developing main character syndrome…  

Villain Era: 5 TikTokers on what you need to know

Gen Z thinks differently to preceding generations. 

There’s a growing popularity amongst Gen Z of villain origin stories in fiction and pop culture, as blockbuster films like Maleficent and Cruella attest. Most recently, Gen Z-orientated TV show Euphoria, saw one of its previously best-loved characters, Cassie, fall from grace saying “If that makes me a villain, then so be it.” The line is now a viral audio trend on TikTok.

The extreme stressors facing Gen Z (living through the pandemic, worrying about climate change – and the rest), has changed their mindset. They no longer accept a fictional villain’s actions at face value. Speaking to Her Campus, Naveen, 20, a senior at Purdue University, explained “Our generation has come to a point where they believe the world has more dark than light … So, they think that movies with cool villains are more realistic.”

That identification in fiction has filtered into real life. So, how is Gen Z re-imagining themselves as a villain? We went straight to the source of the trend, TikTok, to illustrate exactly what brands – and young people – need to know

1. Kate (@kateplus8ft )

Adopting the ‘villain era’ mindset shift can be daunting. For young people unsure how to go about entering your villain era, Kate has your back. She released a helpful explainer on how to change your attitude and work on putting yourself first. 

Her video highlights the crux of the trend, while making clear that being a villain has nothing to do with turning yourself into an enemy. She offers advice like “Silence is an answer,” and “You don’t owe anyone anything until they’ve earned it” – undoubtedly advice that the chronic people-pleasers in her audience needed to hear. 

While the majority of users using the #villainera hashtag are pushing against gender-based stereotypes – not surprising, considering that it is historically women who have shouldered societal pressures to be “nice” – other marginalised creators are using the trend to break free, too. 

Creators like Katie have been using the trending villain audios to draw attention to other situations where they would usually be expected to suffer in silence – like microaggressions from a roommate. It’s a reminder that, although others may try to frame you negatively for standing up for yourself, to do so is empowering. Taking on the villain title becomes an act of self-preservation. 

@halfwhitefulljapanese Say no to hate and esp when that hate is dressed as “humor” 😷 #poc #saynotoracism #victimcomplex ♬ original sound - Julian Burzynski

3. Naya A Ford (@nayaaford)

With a profile focussed on beauty, self-improvement and relationship advice, it’s no surprise that Naya Ford has been able to really dig into the crux of what the “villain era” is all about.

She’s released several TikToks that all explain more about why the villain era meme is so popular amongst Gen Zers. In short – she encourages her followers to act in their own best interests and not hold back aspects of themselves purely for others’ benefit. 

4. Jade Leanne (@jadeleanne_xo)

Jade Leanne is a fashion influencer on TikTok, where she has over 270k followers hanging on her style advice. When she responded to a call for the essentials for a villain era, the content creator had a ready-to-go list of every key item needed to launch into the new ‘you’. 

The best part? She made sure to focus on the reasoning behind her choices. Dark, oversized sunglasses and bodycon might remind us of villainous outfits from films, but it’s the perfect choice here because she claims that well-chosen pieces will increase your confidence. The focus is still on an improving relationship with yourself. 

5. KiNG MALA (@kingmalamusic)

If the villain era needed theme music, you couldn’t go wrong with KiNG MALA’s “Cult Leader”. In a TikTok teasing the release of the track, the singer explained that the song was written because she had decided, “instead of being sad, I was just going to be delusionally confident.” 

In less than a month of its initial release, the track gathered over 1.6 million streams on Spotify – solidifying its place as the villain era anthem Gen Z were looking for. Add it to your playlist if you need a little help getting into the empowered, Gen Z villain mindset.

@kingmalamusic a song for your villain arc??? should i release??? #alt #pop #indie #music #villain ♬ CULT LEADER - KiNG MALA

Key takeaways for brands

How can brands introduce the villain trend into their TikTok output, or the way they relate to Gen Z in general? There are four key things to remember when approaching this meme: 

1. It’s not negative

Becoming a villain has nothing to do with evil intentions; it’s simply a way for Gen Zers to hero their own needs. Avoid negative implications when framing your brand, or any product or item, as “villainous” in this sense.

2. It should be affirming

Empowerment is the term at the centre of this trend. It should be used as a way to highlight positive values and encourage self-expression and a growth mindset. Consider which entrenched stereotypes or systems your brand stands against, and use it as an opportunity to reaffirm your values. 

3. It’s about authenticity

The ‘villain era’ trend is also about giving yourself freedom to be your whole self – not just the edited-down, ‘palatable’ version. It’s telling that this trend originated on TikTok. One aspect that makes TikTok Gen Z’s favourite app is its authenticity: rather than the ‘fake’ aesthetic of Instagram, TikTok content is less polished. This is important for brands to bear in mind. A study by YouGov found that Gen Z values authentic alignment over the visual aesthetics of a brand. Use the trend to be upfront about who you are, in a positive way – and encourage your audience to do likewise.

4. You can still have fun with it!

The main motivation between the trend is self-improvement. But that doesn’t mean that leaning into the dark villain aesthetic isn’t a huge draw for Gen Zers. In fact, search the #villainera hashtag, and you’re sure to find users recommending products, clothes, makeup looks and aesthetics for their fellow villains to adopt. 

Don’t be afraid to lean into the villainous vibes. After all, “funny/entertaining content” is the top reason Gen Z uses TikTok

Ready to be the bad guy?

(By which we obviously mean: your own hero.) 

It’s clear that the ‘villain era’ Gen Z trend is much more concerned with its values than its aesthetics – and that’s an important lesson for brands to internalise when approaching any kind of Gen Z marketing. Gen Z consumers are rejecting image-driven marketing, searching instead for brands who are authentic and “real” online. 

All brands reaching Gen Z have something to learn from the ‘villain era’ trend. Gen Z are the most likely group to report mental health struggles, and as digital natives, this generation are turning to online sources such as TikTok to learn about their mental health. It’s no surprise to see them also using social media to create more light-hearted content about self-empowerment – and ‘villain era’ is a perfect example of this.

For this reason, brands who choose to engage with the villain era discussion should ensure that, while they can (and should!) have fun with it, the main thrust of their content should be focused on the self-care messaging that underpins the trend. 

Unlocking the Gen Z mindset is our specialism. If you want to reach young people where they’re at, get in touch. Alternatively, sign up to our weekly Gen Z insights newsletter. We’d love to talk you through how we’ll make your business *the* brand Gen Z are talking about, for all the right reasons.

Want to understand what’s on Gen Z’s agenda, or dive deeper into the Gen Z mental health discussion? Check out the links below for more insights:

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