Pop Culture Rewind: Gay Coding and Super (Sassy) Villains


Words || Nikita Jones

Queer coding, the method by which composers (consciously or otherwise) use stereotypes to hint at LGBT identities, has – for various reasons – made up the majority of queer representation in film since the very early days of the medium. However, unlike the ribbons in Governor Ratcliffe’s hair or Jafar’s eye makeup, the consequences of queer coding ain’t so pretty.

From Hayes Coding to Queer Coding

From the 30s to the late 60s – ie the golden age of film – every single Hollywood production was subject to a set of guidelines (known as the Hayes Code) that would hopefully prevent popular culture from poisoning America’s brains. Along with a strict time limit on how long two actors’ lips could be connected and a bizarre rule about toilets, the code prevented all, but most especially positive, representations of LGBT identities from ever making it to air.

The thing is, though, most of the time the review boards simply looked over scripts and sent them back with alterations. Meaning that, so long as none of the words on the page indicated anything, actors and directors could create characters that were as gay as they pleased without much blowback. This is the origin story of queer coding: little gay winks to the audience, subtle enough to breeze past the review board, but obvious enough to anyone who was looking for it. Hitchcock was, among other things, the master of this. Rope, Rebecca, and Strangers on a Train are the most obvious examples. It’s also rumoured that he picked Anthony Perkins for the role of Norman Bates based on Perkins’ ‘gay vibes’. The logical question here, for anyone bitter enough about LGBT rep to ask it, is why did Norman Bates have to be gay? It’s all about transgression. You want it to be clear that a character is abnormal from the outset? Give him abnormal qualities, i.e. if people think Norman is a Friend of Dorothy they’ll be more likely to believe you when you tell them that he’s also a raging Oedipal serial-killer. The problem with this, other than the fact that people like to equate evil villainy with LGBT people, is that LGBT people become equated with evil villainy.  

From Evil Queens to Drag Queens

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this trope is that the most explicit examples of queer villain coding actually come from kids’ movies. From Hades’ sass (“He’s a guy”) to Scar’s sensual pur (“I’ll practice my curtsey”), Disney’s classic foppish villains feature an almost comically overt array of queer stereotypes. Even the evil ladies aren’t safe from the gay agenda: Ursula’s character design was actually modeled on superstar drag queen Divine, and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to assume similar backstories behind the design of characters like Cruella De Ville or Maleficent. It’s not even limited to Disney, anyone remember HIM from Powerpuff Girls? Fucking fabulous.

Putting aside the joy that comes from shouting ‘Yas Ursula!  Slay!’ at your next screening of The Little Mermaid, this trend is actually pretty insidious. The reason queer coding pops up so much in kids movies is because producers know that children respond great to symbolism and not so well to actual nuance. The information transfer in kids’ movies is built largely on symbolic patterns. And kids eat that shit up, especially if the patterns are repeated. Regularly. Over and over again.

From The Great Mouse Detective to the World’s Greatest Detective.

This particular type of Hollywood nonsense is not limited to children’s media, though. The newest Bond movie features a very uncomfortable scene where Javier Bardem runs his hands up 007s thighs. Voldemort’s swishy cape and vain streak often garners him a top spot in discussions about queer villains. And of course, we can’t forget the classic alien of Transylvania, Frank-N-Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show. The strange thing about modern fan culture, though, is that users on Tumblr don’t tend to give a shit about whether or not a character is a straight-up serial killer, they’ll make flower crown edits and call the Goblin King a ‘smol bean’ without blinking an eye.

This tendency to reclaim negative representations of queer people and write 50,000 words of Sherlock x Moriarty fanfiction is a brilliant slap in the face to the original Straighty McStraight authors of the Hayes code. However, it does not absolve media creators from participating in the extremely harmful practice of queerbaiting: the terrible offspring of queer coding. Modern filmmakers and showrunners delight in fueling the fires of their queer fans without ever intending to deliver concrete, positive, realistic representation of queer characters. Instead, they use the plausible deniability offered to them by queer coding to wave away suggestions that they’re leading on their most vulnerable fans and it’s time we as viewers started holding them to account.

In Conclusion

The tendency to give villains a sensual purr, an effeminate air, or a sassy streak was originally inspired by some incredibly bigoted associations about queer people. Unfortunately, instead of moving on from this harmful trend, Hollywood has seemed to double down on it, creating a kind of feedback loop of representation that only solidifies negative perceptions of the LGBT community.