So I'm reading Altered English by Jeffery Kacirk, on loan from the my awesome friends the Wedges. This book deals with words that have made a huge leap in meaning over time. They give, as an example, the word villain. It comes from the Latin word they teach you on the first day of high school Latin: villa, meaning farmhouse. A villain was someone who worked on said villa, so villain used to mean a serf or a peasant. People of such low class were considered undesirable by the upper class - the people with the power to shape the language. As is the nature of the oppressor, the upper class justified their oppression of the lower by casting them as lazy, untrustworthy, likely to turn on you at any moment.
That's kind of interesting in light of the fact that most recent villains in pop culture today are filthy rich. No surprise that they're increasingly more-so in light of our economy and the fact that it was the filthy rich bankers and tycoons who brought about the crash. It may be coincidence that the first Wall Street movie came out right around the time of the great stock market crash of 1987, but it's certainly no coincidence that the second movie began development in 2007 just as it became apparent that the world economy was on the verge of catastrophe.
I once heard a story on NPR about how much you can learn about what Americans have feared and hated most throughout history by the villains of Professional Wrestling. As this article in The Weekly Standard points out, most of the baddies at the birth of pro-wrestling just after WWII were German and Japanese.
As American attention turned away from the past and toward the cold war, the bad guys were Russians. Nikolai Volkoff, whose shtick involved singing the Russian national anthem before each match, terrorized the good guys of the WWF in the 1970s and 80s, but reinvented himself as a good guy after the fall of communism.
In the 80s, when American anxiety over Iran was high, Volkoff teamed with The Iron Sheik, who, during the Gulf War would be reborn as the Iraqi Colonel Mustafa.
The WWF tried to make a villain of the pro-apartheid Colonel DeBeers in the 1980s, but apparently Americans didn't hate apartheid (which, by the way, I spelled right on the first try) quite enough, as DeBeers never really caught on.
Nowadays, ethnic origin-based villainy has become taboo. Instead, there are guys like Chris Harvard in the first decade of the century, reviled for his ivy league snobbery.
Today the villains, as you'd expect, wear expensive suits.