The Queer Coding of Our Favorite Villains

This Halloween, remember there's a reason we relate to the villains in movies and TV so much.

Legendary drag queen Divine. Ursula from "The Little Mermaid."

Think back to your favorite film’s as a child – mainly, those classic Disney films, where Princes and Princesses found each other through true love, prosperity growing throughout the lands and the good eventually winning against evil.  Sounds dull, right?

But for the gay audiences, these movies hold a special place in our hearts, not merely for the true love and the happy endings – but for the fierce, fabulous villains that graced our screens film after film.  

For over one hundred years, Disney has churned out some of the most iconic villains that at times, yes, do in fact upstage the protagonists of the films they co-star in.  I mean, come on – Maleficent quite honestly owns Sleeping Beauty.

But why do members of the queer community feel so inclined to fall for their favorite villains, and relate to them time and time again?  The answer is not quite so simple.  

Pre-World War II, conservative Americans took up the battle against “moral corruption” as they felt there was a lack of decency appearing in films of the time.  What was born from this movement was the Hays Code of 1934 that censored or forbid depictions in film any interracial couples, perceived disrespect to clergy, and above all, what they deemed “sexual perversion”, also known as homosexuals.

In order for films to showcase or portray queer people, character became “queer coded” where characteristics of those that identified with the LGBTQIA+ community would be recognized but never explicitly stated. Plausible deniability. Think older, effeminate gestures, “mommy” issues (yes, that was considered a reason why some became gay), even fussiness in dress or appearance was all code for queer.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

It wasn’t until the 1960s when film studios really began to relax their rules when it came to the Hays Code, which eventually made way for the modern day rating codes of G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 films use today.  

Disney encountered a new phased renaissance in the latter portion of the twentieth century, where villains as art began to be influenced by outside sources. Art imitating life. Think of Divine – her look from the many John Waters films helped to create the look of Urusla in The Little Mermaid.  

With all of these iconic characters, why is it that the community so much finds comfort and delight in these characters?  It’s simple – think power, camp and the challenging the status quo.  

Scar in ‘Lion King’. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Perfectly summarized in Matt Baume’s YouTube Video “What Makes Disney Villains So Gay?” , queer individuals are at times content with their representation on screen, even if it is in the evil sense (power).  There is a long loved exaggeration of characters, that are usually over the top and full of zest (camp).  And lastly, they are striving to change the environment and world around them to fit their sense of wants and needs (challenging the status quo).

So yes, to the average viewer, Maleficent or Ursula might just be out to get revenge, but to the larger queer audience, these villains highlight the challenges and full-out fabulousness those in the queer community at times yearn for and seek comfort in.

So this Halloween, showcase your power, turn up the camp, and challenge the status quo by celebrating your favorite villains.

A transplant from NYC, Aaron always had a passion for helping and supporting the community in any way that he can.  Aaron hopes to bring to Central Outreach a sense of fun and laughter, but also compassion and empathy for all that are in need.