Queer Me Villain: Hollywood’s Long History of Queer Coding Their Antagonists (guest post) by Terry Kitto
Disney’s rambunctious Ursula; DC’s mischievous Joker; The Silence of the Lamb’s (1991) bone-chilling Buffalo Bill. It’s common knowledge that Hollywood has an overflowing catalogue of beloved villains, but is lesser known that many of those characters have been purposefully queer coded. It’s not new phenomenon: queer coding has been around since the golden age of Hollywood. As far as back as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) to Skyfall (2012), decades of silver screen productions have depicted antagonists whose homosexuality and gender-play are hinted towards, but are never labelled for definite. It’s this trend of queer coding that can make Hollywood’s villains truly dangerous to the LGBTQ+ community.
Firstly we must explore the phrase ‘queer coding’. Queer coding is when a fictional character is assigned gay or queer stereotypes. They are often hyper-sexual and/or play with gender norms. This characterisation is almost always subtext and nothing more. Any sexual orientation or gender performance beyond heterosexual norms is never explicitly stated. This by itself doesn’t seem particularly problematic until we explore how and why queer coding came about.
Rewind to the 1930’s America and identifying as queer was illegal, and could to lead to persecution and imprisonment. At the time the Motion Picture Association of Americaadopted the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hay’s Code) which, amongst limiting profanity, nudity and drugs, also aimed to stop ‘any inference of sex perversion.’ In Layman’s terms, it told film-makers that they could only represent heterosexual people and relationships; and so was inferred that gender representation was very much limited to cisgendered characters.
So if the Movie Picture Association lay down these rules, how come queer coding came about? It’s simple: Hollywood was thriving with LGBTQ+ talent. From leading man Rock Hudson to actress Marlene Dietrich to director George Cukor, there was still a large queer influence in Hollywood productions. To quote SyFy: ‘Directors would tell actors to play their characters as gay, even when those characters were not explicitly described as such’ (1) for they knew that LGBTQ+ viewers would pick up on it whilst other moviegoers would be oblivious to the queer coding. It seemed like an act of defiance in the face of adversity; a way to reach queer audiences and let them know that are not alone. However, a negative side effect arose from queer coding.
At the height of Pulp Noir, the femme fatale trope rose in popularity and drew large audiences into theatres. As Layafatte describes (2), the femme fatales were villainous women whose goals were to destroy the male protagonist. It wasn’t long before “sexual deviancy” was also assigned to the trope, which usually took the form of bisexuality. This overt “perversion” of Hay’s Code couldn’t be represented in a positive light and so the femme fatales are almost always met a violent death. From there, the queer villain began.
The queer villain, as outlined by Advocate (3), diverges into three main stereotypes: the murderous bisexual (as explored above), the psycho gender bender (Barbara in Walk on The Wild Side (1962)), and the sissy villain (Silva in Skyfall). It has become a trend to superficially add dimensions to cookie-cut villains by having them defy gender norms; be culturally aware; act overtly masculine or feminine; be charming and yet duplicitous; and whose goals are to overthrow patriarchal structures and defeat the hyper-masculine hero. This is where queer coding becomes problematic.
The queer coded villain brings about many unwanted representations. The term ‘bury the gays’ is a direct result of gay and queer characters who are often killed by the end of a film or TV show: as villains usually are. There are also issues with bi-erasure, the promiscuous and adulterating queer, and the gay comic relief, of which many villains fulfil. Worst of all, queer representations are often paired with sociopathic actions. The best example of this would be Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. In the movie, Buffalo Bill murders overweight women so that he can butcher them and wear their skin as suits. The film draws stark parallels to gender dysphoria and depicts trans folk as dangerous and unhinged — a label that the community struggles to shake to this day. Such representations hinder the progress that the equality movement has made against negative LGTBQ+ stereotypes: that we are deviant, psychotic, emotionally stunted, and undeserving of love or happiness.
This now begs the question: can — and should — Hollywood villains continue to be portrayed through a queer lens? The answer isn’t simply yes or no. To ban LGBTQ+ roles will be a detriment to the steady inclusion that Hollywood has made both in front and behind the camera (4). After all, queer roles are already limited at best; bogged down with stereotypes when available; and are rarely open to LGBTQ+ casting. Also, to only portray queer characters as good, law-abiding, morally-centered people will diminish any chance of representing layered and emotionally complex LGBTQ+ people on screen. After all, to be so impossibly perfect and righteous would only further make queer characters “the other”. Therefore I propose a queer villain manifesto.
The Queer Villain Manifesto
To continue to have queer villains we must first eradicate queer coding altogether. We live in an age where the Western world is growing more accepting of LGBTQ+ people — there is no longer a need to be subtle with queer representations. Neither does this mean that they have to be decked out in Pride-fare, screaming their sexual preferences from the rooftops. Queer characters can just be, just as straight and cis-gender characters can.
Secondly, a villain’s queerness shouldn’t be the source of their villainy. Just as with the case of Buffalo Bill, it tells the world that LGBTQ+ people are inherently evil, which we know is far from the truth. When a queer villain is framed in that light, it often leads that character to wanting cleanse the world of all things straight and cis-gender; and that they only pick fights with heroes that represent the patriarchy. This is damaging in and of itself for it exacerbates tensions between straight and queer folk, and gives the backward idea that we can’t all live together in harmony without one community needing to tear down the other. After all, as a tip for good writing in general, the best villains are the ones whose purpose is wholly personal; whose goals are specific and singular. There are an array of other social and political issues to be drawn upon as motivations for your characters. It doesn’t start, nor end, with being queer.
Thirdly, ensure that the villain isn’t the only other queer character in the movie. Only have queer antagonists and you further reinforce the idea of “the other”; that all LGBTQ+ characters are devious and only capable of evil; that it is their queerness that makes them bad. By representing a wide array of queer characters with various moral standings, we not only begin to erase the negative effects of the queer villain but also populate the story with many diverse and interesting characters.
Lastly, avoid stereotypes. The queer villain is almost always a pristine, limp-wristed, suave leader who never gets their hands dirty. If anything, it’s lazy formulaic writing that serves the plot and gets bums in theatre seats. Turn that on their heads. Maybe your villain is a knuckle-headed mercenary — and just happens to be gay. Add more nuance by writing a bisexual antagonist who originally wanted world peace but their mistakes led them into a spiralling path of villainy — a character that could still redeem themselves.
When you no longer see a queer villain and have a villain that just happens to be queer, the goalposts move. We are no longer bound to over-used and dated tropes; we can defy audiences’ expectations, and through all this may tell a story that is different and unique.
(1) https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/the-strange-difficult-history-of-queer-coding(2) https://sites.lafayette.edu/deaconm/the-femme-fatale-in-hollywood/(3) https://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/2017/8/29/17-lgbt-tropes-hollywood-needs-retire#media-gallery-media-1(4) https://www.glaad.org/releases/glaad%E2%80%99s-2020-studio-responsibility-index-highest-recorded-percentage-lgbtq-inclusive-films
- The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
- The Silence of the Lamb’s (1991)
- Skyfall (2012)
- Walk on The Wild Side (1962)