Podculture: Why All Your Favorite Villains Are Gay…ish

Ilana Arougheti and Erica Davis

There’s a few characteristics that define the classic Disney villain: they usually hate princesses, end up falling from a great height and… are queer coded? It turns out many of Disney’s most popular cartoon villains possess traits often associated with queer people. Listen as we discuss what queer coding is, if it counts as representation and how Disney has used it to tarnish otherwise standard villains.

ILANA AROUGHETI: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ilana Arougheti. 

ERICA DAVIS: And I’m Erica Davis. This is Podculture, a podcast about arts and culture on campus and beyond.

ILANA AROUGHETI: On today’s episode, we’re talking about something interesting we’ve noticed in a lot of the movies and cartoons we loved as kids.

ERICA DAVIS: All your favorite villains are gay. Spoiler. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Or at least, a lot of them are queer coded. 

JUDE CRAMER: A lot of times it has to do with outfit and personality. Why is Maleficent scary when she walks into “Sleeping Beauty?” Because she’s the only one wearing black. She’s the only one with dramatic shoulders. She’s the only one wearing makeup that looks that good. And she looks evil, because we’re told that that’s what looks evil. But she clearly puts a lot of thought into her appearance.   

ERICA DAVIS: That was Medill sophomore Jude Cramer. Jude has spent a lot of time watching and analyzing films, from Disney to horror. As he’s gotten older, he told us that he’s thought a lot about how Disney and other studios use queer coding.

ILANA AROUGHETI: So, what even is queer coding? How do film scholars put together an explanation of what it looks like when assumedly cishet characters have these powerfully queer vibes?

NICK DAVIS: My understanding of that term, in the context of this conversation is about characters who are not tagged by their films as gay or lesbian, or necessarily under anything we might call a queer identity umbrella, but there are strong insinuations based on some stereotypes that might exist in the culture or might feel like generic plot ways in which movies over time, especially when they weren’t allowed to say out loud, were asking you to think about this character as a lesbian, or were asking you to think about this character as possibly trans. So you wind up with audiences who consciously or not, may well be absorbing a character in that light even though no one has said that or asked them to.

ERICA DAVIS: That’s Nick Davis. He is an associate professor in the English department and the Gender and Sexuality Studies program, with a focus in commercial film. Finally, someone with credentials to validate what I knew to be true about Scar! As an anthropomorphic cartoon, he provides more queer representation than most of Netflix’s entire filmography. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Back up for a second, Erica. How did you just know that Scar was gay?

Like, what traits or actions made you stop and think about the sexuality of an animated lion?

ERICA DAVIS: Scar has more personality in his pinky finger than the rest of the pride combined. He has sass, he’s flamboyant and those eyes, come on. Nick agrees. 

NICK DAVIS: You get a character like Scar and Jafar who simultaneously seem incredibly worldly, and that can be one sign of the way that queer coding happens is that pretentiousness, you know, or facetiousness, while at the same time being babyish and childish.

ILANA AROUGHETI: I had a similar experience with Cruella de Vil, who I’m convinced is queer. First, no cishet person, especially in 20th century kids’ media, would be quite so fanatical about skinning dogs for coats. Remember, this is a genre full of dainty queens or at least kind princesses. She’s bossy, she’s physical, she’s a terrible driver with poorly dyed hair. She also flounces quite a lot. It’s just a little too over the top to be anything but a little bit facetious. Jude says these physical and stylistic cues make Disney’s queer coding very obvious. 

JUDE CRAMER: The whole storyline of the evil queen is just “I want to be the prettiest person in the room.” And not to say that those are traits that queer people possess. But those are stereotypes of queer people, certainly: to be obsessed with the way that we look, to be obsessed with the way that we’re presenting ourselves, to be more out there with our fashion sense. I’m just remembering that lyric from Ursula’s song, “Don’t underestimate the importance of body language,” and then out here just shaking her titties, her octopus titties. Her outfit is amazing. And Ursula’s design is inspired by Divine, the most legendary drag queen of all time, some might say, and so I mean, it’s just blatant there that she’s meant to look like a drag queen. So yeah, in the outfits, that’s a huge part of it. Personality wise, the example that pops into my head is Hades, from “Hercules,” the way that he carries himself the way that he talks. That snark, that quick wit, those are traits that people heavily associated with gay men for good reason, a lot of the time, but I mean, it’s almost like you have to be very, very ignorant of even the existence of queer people, to not read into these characters as presenting as queer in those ways.

ERICA DAVIS: I’m gonna call Disney animators out on their lack of creativity. For two villains who are quite literally fire and water to each other, Ursula and Hades sure do seem to have the same billowing hair, curled lips, and black gown. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: I sense some queer homogenization going on, which begs the question, does Disney distinguish its queer female villains from its queer male villains?

JUDE CRAMER: It reads to me that the male villains are coming across as gay men. And a lot of the female villains are coming across as drag queens, versus queer women. Because just going off stereotype, it’s gay men and drag queens who, for the most part, are also gay men that get this treatment. Whereas the stereotype of queer women is more so like, overly masculine, moreso subdued, versus like, in your face,  over the top with it, the stereotype of a butch lesbian. That’s not really a character that we see in terms of Disney villains. When we do have a female villain, she is often overly sexual, overly sadistic. 

And I don’t know, I might be reading into that a little too far. But they kind of queer code all the villains in terms all the characters are sort of hyper feminine. When there are Disney villains that are hyper masculine, like I’m thinking either Gaston or Clayton, those villains don’t read to me as much as queer coded, because sort of their whole plotline is about wanting to get the girl and you don’t get that with a lot of the more blatantly queer coded villains.

ERICA DAVIS: So it’s pretty clear that Disney has a pattern of queer coding villains. But when did this start? And why?

 ILANA AROUGHETI: Did Disney animators just have some collective mental block where they didn’t know how to draw two princes kissing?

ERICA DAVIS: Actually, no. I mean, maybe, but there were rules within the film industry at the time with a lot of topics that weren’t allowed to be shown in movies, at the federal level. It was called the Hays Code, and it came about during the Great Depression. The Code specifically blocked studios from creating characters on the big screen that were openly gay. Until 1968, this code also banned such scandalous subjects as illegal drug traffic, STDs and indecent dancing. The intention was to make sure films upheld a standard of morality and didn’t give America any filthy ideas about how to live.

NICK DAVIS: Once those codes kick in around 1934 is when you really see, even by the standards of movies that were being made in the ‘20s, a shift from some candor and some adventurousness about what you could express about sexuality, about violence, even about things like religion, or political sympathies, with things like anarchism that became illegal in a film, to a much more coded language of implying those things without showing them or briefly depicting them, as long as the character who has that identity or executes that crime is clearly punished by the end of the film. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Basically, this made it more okay for mainstream media to depict taboo queer lifestyles on screen, as long as audiences aren’t actually supposed to root for the gay character.

ERICA DAVIS: Even though I think villains have more fun.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Same here. As a queer woman, I don’t know how much I feel legitimately represented by snarky one-dimensional villains who die without ever getting a kiss, but I do think they’re more fun to watch simply because the queer coding tropes we’ve talked about today make characters at least more lively. They’re just not accurate to my experience. This begs the question   do queer coded villains count as LGBTQ+ representation in the media, and if not, is their presence offensive?

ERICA DAVIS: Professor Sean Griffin, who teaches Film and Media Studies courses at Southern Methodist University, thinks it might be possible for the queer community to reclaim villains on their own terms.

SEAN GRIFFIN:  I think it starts off with artists trying to come up with ways to hint to audiences, but not be overt about it. So there’s deniability, whether that’s worries about being arrested for obscenity, censorship issues, or even just, we want to make a good profit. So we’re putting this in here for those people who can read it. But the rest of the audience are just going to be clueless and not catch it or be potentially offended, so we can take their dollars as well. One of the interesting things, though, is that as especially gay, lesbian, LGBTQ audiences get trained to look for the subtext to look for the clues, they can start finding clues that were never put there by the artists originally. ‘You didn’t mean this for me to understand this person is gay or lesbian, but I’ve decided to and you can’t stop me,’ kind of thing going on. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Professor Griffin is also thinking about what seeing these portraits in the media does to children. 

ERICA DAVIS: On the one hand, queer kids seeing someone who reminds them of themselves on screen for the first time might not be a fantastic time for that person to be a villian.   

ILANA AROUGHETI: On the other hand, the main life lessons in Disney movies typically come across so strong that there’s less pressure to justify a villain’s downfall.

SEAN GRIFFIN: it does have the potential to create an impression on young audiences, in terms of how men and women are supposed to behave. But again, trying to assume that all children read things the same way is really reductive. You always need to be responsible when you’re making stuff, recognizing what the potential is. There’s so many different ways of reacting to stuff that it’s not just adults that do things differently, kids do stuff differently too. 

ERICA DAVIS: Plus, these days villains are starting to lose their monopoly on the LGBTQ+ character market. More recent movies are starting to include explicitly queer characters in more positive roles  

ILANA AROUGHETI: – Although we obviously don’t count the three-second cameo by a lesbian couple in “Finding Dory”, or LeFou coming out in the live-action “Beauty and the Beast.” 

ERICA DAVIS: As Griffin pointed out, some Disney hero characters might be queer coded too. Have you ever noticed that Mary Poppins didn’t finish out her movie with a man, no matter how hard Bert tried to catch her attention?

ILANA AROUGHETI: Still, whether you’re noticing it for the first time now or for the five hundredth time as a film scholar, there’s a huge gap between the representative queer identity used in Disney villains and the actuality of the diverse queer community. So why, then, is the animation studio known for its creativity reusing the same tired stereotypes? 

SEAN GRIFFIN: The difference between an LGBTQ community and an LGBTQ market is that you know, as a community, you can be fighting for rights, and for health care and for employment, and you know, equality, and stuff like that. Disney is trying to serve a market where the idea is now sort of like, we want your money. And so there tends to be more of an emphasis on those people who have more dollars. Okay, so emphasizing usually gay men over lesbians or trans people, White LGBTQ people over queer people of color.

ILANA AROUGHETI: As always, follow the money. 

ERICA DAVIS: We’ll leave you all with a sneak peek into the hottest debate of our week: after all this talk about queercoded villains, exaggerated costumes, strong personalities and homoerotic Disney moments, which cartoon villains came out the hottest?

JUDE CRAMER: Okay, well, now I’m gonna out myself because earlier I was like, the ones that don’t really code as queer to me like Gaston and Clayton. Gaston and Clayton are hot, sorry. I also think that a lot of the women when you have a woman as the villain in a Disney movie, she is going to be really hot a lot of the time. Like I’m thinking Mother Gothel, and thinking Evil Queen prior to transformation. I think Ursula is hot, but I know she wasn’t meant to be hot. I think she’s hot.

SEAN GRIFFIN: The same guy that animated Scar animated Gaston, and he said very specifically he was borrowing from vain, gay gym bunnies to create that that sense of the character. So I would go with that, sure.

NICK DAVIS:  I know that this will sound like I’m just trying to make a point with my answer, but I’m just gonna say Ursula because there is something about the total absolute self confidence and the complete feeling herself she emanates in every and all ways. The charisma and the magnetism, and all the things that Ursula projects, I think is one reason why we all remember her. Even if you only saw The Little Mermaid once 30 years ago, you remember that gal. So all that’s pretty hot to me.

ILANA AROUGHETI: So, you heard it here first Ursula is officially the hottest Disney drag queen in town. Your marriage pact match? Could never. 

ERICA DAVIS: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Erica Davis. Thanks for listening to another episode of Podculture. This episode was reported and produced by me, Erica Davis, and Ilana Arougheti. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Alex Chun, the digital managing editors are Molly Lubbers and Olivia Yarvis, and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey.

Email: [email protected] and [email protected] 

Twitter: @EricaCDavis1 and @ilanaarou

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