I was about five years old when I played my first Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? game.
My parents bought a Packard Bell computer, set me up with Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia and the Carmen adventure and let me tinker with said programs in the living room. I'd go on to grow up with games like Duke Nukem 3D and Doom, but aside from my dalliances with our NES and Mario, Carmen was one of the first characters I remember looking back on fondly, despite her firmly-cemented status as the "bad guy." After meeting Ms. Sandiego, I knew it was "cool" to be bad.
And I wanted to be bad.
Carmen Sandiego, the star of the educational game franchise enjoyed by kids around the world in the early to late '90s and 2000s, is a veritable cultural icon. Her deep crimson wide-brimmed hat, signature trench coat and long chestnut hair are instantly recognizable, despite the fact that you spend very little time in the games with her at all. Much of your time is spent pursuing her underlings, members of V.I.L.E., looking to thwart you at every turn as you look all over the world for her.
The ACME Detective Agency and V.I.L.E. are sworn enemies, so it's no surprise that Carmen is globetrotting her way to safety to keep away from the likes of you. As a master thief, she makes no bones about stealing various treasures from around the world, one step ahead of you and ACME and laughing her head off about it.
Growing up, I had heroes like Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders to look up to in addition to my first anime love, Sailor Moon. I was a big Batman fan too, but they were all working on the side of the righteous and good. I wasn't always all about doing things because they were the 'right' thing to do, so I immediately gravitated to Carmen upon investigating her more fully.
For starters, she was gorgeous. I was always at odds with my appearance, even as a young girl, and never felt like I quite had the 'look' of the traditional heroine down. Carmen's sense of style and dress spoke to me more than frilly sets of armor did, even though I 'cosplayed' as often as I could with sailor dresses I found at the thrift store.
She oozed cool from head to toe, with her hat tipped forward, hiding part of her face and shrouding her with mystery. Her knowing grin always made me feel like I was in on some little secret she was hiding, and I loved it. Her look perfectly complemented her attitude, which I was desperate to emulate on the playground.
But it was Carmen's grandiose attitude and infallible confidence that truly spoke to me. I've never been one to shy away from a challenge and she made being bad look like so much fun. She never stole for the implicit rewards that theft brings, such as monetary gain or notoriety. She was in it, unlike many of her henchmen, for fun.
Because she could.
Because she was so amazing, she could steal the impossible and would do so for the challenge. You never caught Carmen being vulnerable, second-guessing her abilities or acting like anything other than an amazing boss and ringleader. V.I.L.E. may have been bungling, but Carmen wasn't. I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be her.
I didn't see women as villains very often in the media I consumed as a child, and Carmen stepped forward and bolstered my inner villain. Pokemon brought my Jessie of Team Rocket. I gravitated toward Petra Fina from Flint the Time Detective. And I always loved Batman's Harley Quinn in addition to Sailor Moon's Sailor Iron Mouse.
Carmen may very well have been the one to start it all, and I'm totally fine with admitting that. The Miss of Misdemeanor will always hold a special place in my heart as one of the coolest lady villains of all time.