You would think Disney is tired of making their villains gay — newsflash: they’re not. Unfortunately, Disney is not the only one. Queer Coding occurs throughout the entertainment industry when characters display stereotypical gay signifiers that sub-textually tell audiences the character is queer without explicitly stating their sexuality. This phenomenon appears across several genres while perpetuating stereotypes, including the “Cross-dressing Killer” and the infamous “Gay Villain”. Once you’ve acknowledged these tropes, you will see them everywhere, from your favorite Disney original to the ever-terrifying psychological thriller. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate animations like The Powerpuff Girls (1998) just as much as everyone else. Yet, that doesn’t change the representation of the antagonist, and literal demon, a character named HIM dressed in a pink tutu and thigh-high black heels. If that is not a clear demonstration of the demonization of queerness and its equation with villainy, I’m not sure what is.
The term Queer Coding originated in Vito Russo’s novel, The Celluloid Closet, which had portrayed queerness in film thus far. Queer Coding then experienced a resurgence with the institution of “Hay’s Code” or the “Motion Pictures Production Code” imposed in the mid-1930s as a type of self-censorship. Although it was not mandatory to abide by the rules, it was essential in gaining funding, praise, and base consideration within the entertainment industry. Several points within Hay’s Code included the prohibition of “sex perversion” and the preservation of “morally acceptable” actions and consequences. Although it was not explicitly stated (are we sensing a pattern yet?) this condemnation was against queerness.
As an effect of this, directors and writers had to find subtle ways to hint at queerness without confirming it. This sleight of hand led to the utilization of stereotypical queer stock characters. Originally, artists took back their power to include whoever they wanted, no matter their sexual orientation. However, from the usage of cliche character traits, queer coding created hollow shells of characters spouting tired one-liners and cliche interests rather than being fully functioning characters. Spanning from the effeminate Uncle to the sexually curious femme-fatal, Hollywood learned new ways to profit off queer characters without damaging their glistening reputations and sky-high pedestals that no brick could topple.
Queer Coding in Male Characters
Queer Coded male characters often take pride in their appearance, define themselves by having good taste, possess a flair for the dramatic, and are generally the last person you would pick for help in a fight. These traits are blatant subversions of modern masculinity, and are therefore instantaneously equated with Gay men. This stereotype refers to “The Sissy”. This trope is, of course, based on the fact that previous and modern-day decision-makers do not believe in a world where men can be both masculine and queer.
This biased portrayal forms the polarization of characters in television and film based on trite characteristics. Examples of this effeminate versus hyper-masculine trope are seen from Mufasa and Scar in The Lion King (1994) and Hades and Hercules in Hercules (1997). Both films portray power-hungry Queer villains against hyper-masculine Kings or DemiGods.
“The Sissy” is closely related to the modern trope of the “Gay Best Friend”. This stock character is the reliable, flamboyant, and easily manipulated male attached to the hip of a more palatable female main character. Cult classics everywhere capitalize on these characters in films including Clueless (1995) and MeanGirls (2004) to The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015), Emily in Paris (2020), and countless others. Growing up in the early 2000s, I believed garnering a gay best friend was a milestone in a teen girl’s coming of age. Later I realized that even the idea of “having” a G.B.F was dehumanizing at most and self-serving at the very least.
The “Second in Command” trope is where a hyper-masculine lead is accompanied by a weaker, portlier, and undoubtedly gayer sidekick. This queer sidekick holds on to the male lead’s every word to serve as a vehicle for the audience to do the same. The most notorious example would be Le Fou, from Beauty and the Beast (1991 and 2017). In both versions of the film, Le Fou worships the ground beneath the picture of toxic masculinity and heteronormative society, that is, Gaston.
Queer Coded Female Characters
Queer Coded female characters often reject signifiers of classic femininity and provide stoic tomboyish foils to the emotional and girly female lead. These characters prefer flannels to dresses and always tend to require a makeover montage to be deemed attractive. Tai from Clueless (1995), is an example of a queer coded character that skateboards, only owns flannels, and calls Cher and Dion her only “straight friends”. Throughout the film, Tai transforms from ugly duckling to beautiful, now conventionally attractive and therefore worthy swan.
Queer Coded female characters are also often pitted against the stereotypical feminine main characters. This opposition is similar to the hyper-masculine versus effeminate dichotomy in male relationships. In female relationships, the “masculine” characteristics and energy is forced upon the villain, whether it is Shego from Kim Possible (2002) or Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989), who was modeled after Drag Queen, Divine. These characters demonstrate the demonization of the queer female and the association of suspicion, dishonesty, and villainy with women or traits displayed by members of the queer community.
The Queer Coded villain
Acknowledging the pattern within villains makes identifying the “bad-guy” in any given piece of media much easier. The first tip-off is if the character embodies a “certain unidentifiable quality or aura of gayness”. This is the random feeling you get when a character eyes someone of the same sex for a second too long, or personifies several stereotypical queer traits. This queer coding equates queerness with villainy and establishes ties between deviations of gender norms and wickedness. Animated favorites include Jafar from Aladdin (1992), Captain Hook from Peter Pan (1953), Governor Ratcliffe from Pocahontas (1995), and Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989). The men listed share feminine qualities of physical style, a preference for ruffles, and the incompetency to rule regardless of the logical advantages they would have against their younger, smaller, disadvantaged competitors.
Villains in films, specifically horror films, have also been historically queer coded to equate queerness with iniquity. Mrs. Danver from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Raoul Silva from Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006) are prime examples of the implementation of villains that revel in sexual intimidation with a queer agenda. Other horror movies, including Psycho (1960), Dressed to Kill (1980), and Silence of the Lambs (1991), further the perpetuation of harmful queer tropes with the usage of the cross-dressing serial killer trope. Horror films demonstrate society’s fears, and the implementation of cross-dressing killers exemplify heteronormative society’s fear of deviation from gender norms and the status quo.
Another harmful trope is the repetition of the phenomenon dubbed “Bury Your Gays”. This portrayal of LGBTQ members repeatedly ends with said characters dying, whether they were the hunters or the hunted in question. This trends back to Hay’s Code, which encouraged punishment towards queer coded characters to exemplify the consequences of queerness. In a scholarly journal by Haley Hulan, she states how this pattern used to be called, “Dead Lesbian Syndrome due to the disproportionate amount of female characters who fall victim to the trope”. This pattern also acted as a way for creatives to implement queer characters without risking social backlash and harming their careers.
— Autostraddle (@autostraddle) March 25, 2016
Queering the Screen
Since queer characters were deprived of representation for so long, queer audiences celebrate these characters and form cult-like followings for their girls, gays, and theys. However, media corporations have capitalized on this by implementing characters that could be queer and dragging out vague story lines with no end in sight. This keeps queer audiences coming back to support their closeted faves, while offering no explicit sexual standing or happy ending. These characters usually never voice their positions on their sexuality, while producers sideline gay audiences and take advantage of their unwavering support. This is known as Queerbaiting. According to the Youtube Channel, The Take, queerbaiting is defined as “implying characters queerness or hinting at a future queer romance in an attempt to secure a queer audience without delivering anything explicitly enough to alienate homophobic audiences”. This occurrence results in networks capitalizing off the backs of the underrepresented, while tricking their audiences into supporting companies that only care about the queer community when they are profiting off of them.
With that said, not all unlabeled queer characters are inherently harmful, as some serve as positive representations and stories about embracing one’s differences and building confidence in themselves. San Diego State University professor Angel Daniel Matos has stated that, “Queen Elsa is approached by some viewers as a queer or gay character, not only because she doesn’t engage in a romantic relationship in the film, but also because she is forced by her parents to suppress and hide the powers that she is born with. Furthermore, the fact that Elsa’s parents view suppression and isolation as solutions further emphasizes notions of the infamous queer closet.” These conflicting narratives serve as arguments both for and against queer coding. Queer coding is even controversial in LGBTQ spaces, as members of the community recognize their perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, while acknowledging that many queer kids’ first interactions with representation were with these coded characters. Said characters might even have aided in the validation of a child’s queerness if they could relate to or want to be involved with the characters.
Prior representation of queerness in the media has given us killers, caskets, copycats, and many disappointments. However, not all representation is negative, and as networks and streaming services support diversified creators, there is more authentic representation by the day. Breakthrough shows including The L Word (2009), Queer as Folk (2000), and Will and Grace (1998) have provided a myriad of perspectives and characters that differ from the one-sided stock characters from the past. They also bridged the gap to current works that celebrate queerness and actively work to give a voice to multiple underrepresented communities within the LGBTQ. Current standout shows that lift these voices up include Sex Education(2019), Pose(2018), Orange is The New Black(2013), Grey’s Anatomy(2005), Brooklyn 99(2013), and many others. Several characters in each of these shows accurately portray queerness while highlighting the importance of intersectionality. An example of this is seen in Eric Effiong from Sex Education, as his identity lives at the intersection of his gayness, African heritage, and strong religious ties. Another classic example of intersectional representation is in the character, Sophia Burset, as she is the African-American Trans Woman played by Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black.
Queer coding is the subtextual queer portrayal of characters in television and film whose identity is not explicitly confirmed. This phenomenon started as a way to include queer characters in film and television after Hay’s Code, and has transformed to promote exclusionary and stereotypical portrayals of LGBTQ characters. Furthermore, networks and companies seek to capitalize on the supportive queer community by integrating queerbaited characters and plot lines to drive attention, views, and therefore more dollar signs in their direction. The way to combat queer coding is with the allocation of queer voices in the media. Proper representation on the executive level will lead to more queer stories, characters, and plotlines as diversification continues throughout the entire industry. Although queer portrayal was covertly implemented, times have changed, and characters are now free to present however they want, regardless of what society or bigoted audiences may think of them. However, with the implementation of queer and questioning characters, there is the possibility that oppressors can capitalize on the supportiveness of the queer community by queerbaiting and reaping lucrative rewards on the backs of their misrepresented characters and exploited audiences. The solution to fighting against stereotypical and regressive portrayals of queerness on screen is with authentic representation and the implementation of a diversified generation of decision-makers. Communities across the board have struggled with proper representation, as there are numerous voices that have not been given the credit they deserve. As the entertainment industry becomes held accountable for its lack of diversity, representation has and will continue to increase. After all, glass ceilings and institutional obstacles are meant to be broken, it is truly only a matter of time.