Have you ever noticed that television and movie villains are often given more liberty in sexuality and gender expression than the hero? That may sound counter intuitive, but frequently villains are flamboyant or have softer voices. They may be men who wear tailored suits or have higher pitched voices. They’re well groomed and they size up the hero with a lick of their lips or a suggestive smile. When confronted with the femme fatale, they’re unaffected and uninterested, instead choosing to focus and flirt with the male lead. Or they may be women who are femme but get into tangles with the heroine that often seem more sexual than violent. Regardless, they have a team of young, attractive lackeys who are so loyal there must be something else going on.
By far one of Him’s most flamboyant moments
In case you can’t think of any characters that may fit this trope, I’ll give you a few examples: Brandon and Phillip from Hitchcock’s Rope, two young men who are young, single, living together, and murderous; Scar, from Disney’s Lion King, who flicks his paws and lilts his voice and attempts to murder his brother and nephew; Him, Powerpuff Girl‘s gender ambiguous, make-up wearing adversary; Damien Moreau, Leverage‘s well dressed, well coiffed international criminal who has a team of young, attractive men who would die for him, and a very physical fascination with Eliot Spencer; The Great Tyrant from Barbarella, who asks to “play” with the heroine, and becomes enraged when her advances are denied… the list goes on. It’s also worth noting that these examples range from movies to animation to television, and that they span decades.
The act of giving villains these traits, traits often associated with gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender individuals, is called queer coding. Whether consciously or not, these villains give the viewer the impression that they’re a little off, a little deviant, a little too sexual. That deviance is often directly related to behavior stereotypically attributed to the LGBT community. And although these characters are often easy to ship and relate with if you’re in the community, there’s an insidious implication when we paint queer behavior as villainy.
A lovers’ quarrel between two murderers
It can be difficult to acknowledge that queer coding exists, because that would require us to acknowledge that LGBT stereotypes exist, and sometimes our behavior as queer individuals does fit society’s perception. For example, I’m loathe to admit that my classmates perceived me as queer long before I realized it myself – namely because of my short cropped hair and affection for menswear. There’s nothing wrong with effeminate gay men, or short haired women, or gender ambiguous nonbinary individuals, but our media wants us to think that there is. When the only queer representation we get is from villains, that sends a subconscious message that to be queer is to be bad or villainous.
If you need any more proof, let’s look at the previous examples’ heroes: Rupert, the masculine and strong voiced mentor; Simba, the boyish but strong lion king with a childhood sweetheart; Buttercup, Blossom, and Bubbles who, despite their many feminist moments, still look and usually behave like little girls do (yes, even Buttercup); Eliot Spencer, a womanizer, an athlete, and a country music star; Barbarella, who is repeatedly shown with men but desexualized with the villainous women. There is no question about whether or not these characters ascribe to traditional gender and sexuality roles; if we even try, the writers are quick to reinforce their cisgender heterosexuality by giving them opposite sex love interests, cigars, and leadership roles. We are left with the impression that these individuals are inherently good, and that their goodness stems from their conformity as opposed to the villain’s inability to conform.
He’s in a bathrobe with an army of twinks behind him
There’s nothing wrong with loving queer villains – I quite literally squealed when I watched Damien Moreau flirt with Eliot – but there is something wrong with the fact that we’re given queer villains but not queer heroes. Whether we realize it or not, we’re either starved for representation or we’re taught that queerness is a symptom of moral depravity. And that’s not okay.