Queer coding is defined as ‘the subtextual portrayal of a queer character in the media whose identity is not explicitly confirmed within canon. This concept refers to a character that encapsulates what might be considered “queer traits” that are recognizable to the audience, but are never labelled or claimed by the content creator.’
Throughout history we’ve seen this trend of queer coding in all types of visual media. From indie French films to mainstream Hollywood films, queer coded characters are a common trend. Even in the popular Cartoon Network series, The Powerpuff Girls, we see a queer coded character, HIM. HIM is a demonic, evil villain who wears thigh-high stilettos and has a shrill voice. Certainly, there is a significant lack of queer representation in the media. Queer coded characters are just a way for creators to get away with stereotyping the LGBTQ+ community in a way that is palatable to cisgender/heterosexual people.
So, when I came across the news that Disney had confirmed its first bisexual lead character on “The Owl House” series, I was happy. The community is finally being represented in mainstream media. However, this kind of representation has been long overdue and we shouldn’t applaud the bare minimum. I can’t help but wonder what it would’ve been like to have this kind of representation when I was growing up. Maybe I wouldn’t question my sexuality as much. I wouldn’t have to unlearn years of internalised homophobia either.
One might say that queer coding is not necessarily a bad thing. Arguably, flawed representation is still better than no representation at all. However, I’d have to disagree. Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney. I have always been a little bit of a Disney nerd. Quoting Aladdin, singing The Lion King soundtrack and referencing Mulan, it is all second nature to me. Protagonists aside, some villains left a lasting impression too.
As a child, The Lion King (1994) was my favourite movie. While I loved Simba in all his heroic glory, I couldn’t help but develop a fondness for Scar. I like to believe that I had a love-hate relationship with his character. On one hand, I despised him for being morally corrupt but on the other, I was intrigued by his sarcastic and catty personality. The live action remake of the film was disappointing. The Scar I knew and loved all my life had exaggerated features, a sassy drawl and a lanky physique. I didn’t get to see this Scar, which leads me to believe that his closeted frustration contrasted by Simba or Mufasa’s hyper-masculine, muscular bravado is what makes him so iconic. Having said that, it also makes him queer coded.
This type of queer coding influences young children to associate immorality with queerness. What we fail to consider is that only the antagonists are queer coded. The protagonists always seem to follow the heteronormative gender norms. The underlying message here, shouldn’t be that one is evil because they act in a way that strays away from the norm. We see this trend of queer coded villains especially in the 90’s during the “Disney Renaissance.” For instance, Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas (1995) who wears his hair in two pigtails with red bows and is portrayed as less masculine than the other soldiers. Even with Ursula’s heavily arched eyebrows and husky voice in The Little Mermaid (1989) or Jafar’s effeminate looks and elegance in Aladdin (1992), there is a definite pattern of queer coding villains.
Ursula’s character was actually inspired by Divine, a drag queen. Jafar’s character was animated by Andreas Deja, an openly gay man who admitted to conceiving the character as a gay man.
Although Disney didn’t start this trope of queer coded villains, it is important to recognize that it did have a hand in popularizing the concept. The problem with queer coding is that it encourages stereotypes about the LGBTQIA+ community. These stereotypes have the ability to skew the perception of Disney’s wide and- for the most part- young audience. It is also quite disheartening to see these queer coded characters get defeated, beaten up and killed all the time. These films use stereotypes associated with the queer community and turn them into punchlines. This conditions the audience to equate being queer with being immoral. It supports the harmful narrative that straight characters can be admirable but people from the community can only be diabolical.
As someone who only recently came to terms with her own sexuality, I believe that the concept of queer coding has done more harm than good. I admit that these villains provided representation to a generation of people who didn’t see any other portrayal of the queer community. I still love these characters with all my heart but I can’t ignore the amount of unlearning I had to do because of them. The idea of queer coded villains perpetuates the patriarchal, heteronormative norms of the society that we live by even today. This is not the kind of representation people from the LGBTQIA+ community deserve. The community deserves explicitly queer characters that they can choose to love or hate despite the character’s queerness.