As a queer person, I have always felt a certain affinity with villains. Wily characters who aren’t afraid to deviate from the norm, pursue their passions, and dress however they want: yes please. However, these same traits that create an affinity for some of us damage others who are taught that anything other than the norm is deranged or evil. In this case, as with many others, the norm is heteronormativity.
While not necessarily negative or positive, queer coding, when applied primarily to villains, effectively takes aspects of queer culture and applies them to characters in conflict with the protagonists. These negative characters are then given a bunch of other negative traits, thus creating the link queer = bad. People consume this media and internalise this message, which perpetuates queerphobia. Boom.
It is important to remember that queer coding is different from both queerbaiting and bad queer representation. Queerbaiting lures queer people in with the promise of representation, only to let them down. Queer coding is certainly used to do this, characters we love are given queer traits. But when we queer code villains, directors aren’t promising queer people representation, they are perpetuating the link between badness and queerness with unfair stereotypes. Bad queer representation also uses unfair stereotypes, but the attempt to represent queer people is there.
Bold, well-dressed, effeminate, potentially cross-dressing: are you describing a queen at pride or a Disney villain? Disney is probably the most famous queer coder, with characters such as Ursula, Scar, Jafar, Captain Hook, and more recently Namari. Disney is also a major queerbaiter with the presumably asexual Elsa, our bisexual king Li Shang, and let’s not forget Pleakley from Lilo and Stitch, none of which are confirmed queer. The difference here is intention: the queer coding of villains is active, it’s movie tradition, and it is recognisable to all audiences. The queerbaiting of their heroes is less intentional but queer culture is certainly used as a gag, with many characters cross-dressing for laughs. However, heteronormative writers and directors do not always pick up on the queer sub-context of their characters, aiming instead for pure and honest friendships, and protagonists not interested in dating.
Queerbaiting also reproduces, and in some senses creates gender norms. The dichotomy of villain and hero can be seen as queer and non-queer, but also as gender-divergent and gender-normative. Villains are meant to represent everything that is ‘not good’, to be the opposite of the hero, and this differs by gender. Where a woman hero is beautiful, young, straight, brave but submissive, kind and compassionate, a woman villain is ugly, old, queer, selfish, and careless. This is very physical when it comes to villains such as Ursula, Mother Gothel, and Cruella De Ville (who is also presented as “insane”). Our men heroes on the other hand are muscular, strong, handsome, fearless, and of course, lady killers. The villains? Weak and wiry (with the exception of Gaston), require minions to do most of the work for them, ugly (or if they’re handsome it’s a trap), and often effeminate. There are of course exceptions, with queer coded heroes such as Timon and Pumba, and less stereotypical villains such as Hans from Frozen, but the underlying message is clear. If you want to be the hero, you need to not deviate from the norm, otherwise, you’ll end up being the villain.
As more truly queer characters make it on screen, queer coding is shifting from something that causes us to identify negativity with queerness, to something that helps non-queer people recognise queerness. There is huge potential for the industry to move on from the mistakes of the past. In the meantime, we can embrace our villains for the complex, fabulous, world changers that they are.