This week we’re talking about a very serious topic, though in a quite light-hearted way. Queer coding is defined as such:
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 labeled or claimed by the content creator.
It is important to highlight that these “queer traits” are based upon stereotypes and often have been built on, and perpetuated, lies about the LGBTQ+ community. While at the same time, sprinkling in truths and themes that are common in queer spaces - such as our love of things that glitter. The subject of queer coding draws mixed emotions for LGBTQ+ people. Not because we disagree that queer coding is harmful and should end; but because so many of us saw our first form of representation in queer coded characters and fell in love.
Over the last century of film, there have been literally hundreds of queer coded characters. And the reasons behind the coding are almost as devastating as the effects the coding has had on viewers for generations. In one of our very first episodes, episode 8, we covered Hollywood’s Production Code and how it affected the LGBTQ+ community. Often referred to as the Hays Code, after founder William Hays, the new industry guidelines stifled out the budding creativity blooming in the dawning era of “talkies”, or sound pictures. The list of rules was a nuisance to straight, white performers with regulations against swearing, depictions of drugs, sex, and nudity, and an assortment of other peculiar guidelines. Such as forbidding a married couple to be in bed together or showing how to crack a safe or use dynamite. In addition, Hays rules demanded respect and reverence for Christian clergy, law enforcement, and so-called American values. Reinforcing the growing Nationalist sentiments that were sweeping the country.
Yet the code downright suffocated the life out of the careers of queer actors and any performer who was a person of color. Hays code strictly forbid any non-white actor from kissing or showing a love interest in a white counterpart. Even if the white actor was in makeup (black, brown, or yellow-face) and playing a person of color. Strict guidelines against “sexual perversion’, a euphemism for homosexualty, were also put in place. And included a ban on the celebration of effiminate men and masculine women. Additionally, by forbidding writers and directors from reproaching the laws of the land, social commentary on racism, anti-semitism, sexism, and homophobia were basically off the table. With few other storylines allowed, the rise of the hyper-macho American man dominated movie theaters during this era.
But every great hero does need a villain and in this way writers and performers found an avenue to include queer characters. The code didn’t prevent homosexuality from being suggested or the allusion of gender boundaries being crossed, it just prevented those things from being shown in a positive light. And with this small window of opportunity, queer coding was born. Time and time again, a “tough as nails” hyper-masculine protagonist was placed opposite a flamboyant, effeminate foe - who usually had a knack for fashion. While on the other end of things, the Psycho-Lesbian trope really took off in the drama genre. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, released in 1940, was wildly successful and is still considered a classic in the horror genre. The film is chalked full of what we often refer to as “lesbian undertones” coming from head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.
These themes dominated any form of queer expression during the height of the Hays Code enforcement. And ironically, it would be queer expression that helped to bring about the downfall of such stringent production regulations. Throughout the 1930s and 40s the code was very strictly followed. Though there were no legal backings that forced writers and producers to comply with the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), there were still real financial consequences for those who bucked the system. The American Theater Association refused to play any film that did not have the backing of the Hays Commission. This strong armed many groups into conforming to the regulations.
However, as the 1950s began so did a desire for something new and edgy. Television was becoming more popular and networks were not so easily strong armed by the MPAA since they did not need theaters to air their programs. As movie studios raced to compete with this new form of entertainment, a strong push back against the Hays Code began to circulate in Hollywood. In 1955, the film The Man with the Golden Arm, starring Frank Sinatra, was released in theaters without approval from the MPAA. The plot centers around a struggling drug addict and is filled with violence, suicide, affairs, and more. Producers had rushed to book the movie knowing an approval seal was unlikely. Before it even premiered, The Man with the Golden Arm had gained such widespread interest due to the nature of the movie and the high profile star that the MPAA and other “moral” watchdogs could not stop it from being a huge success. The film would be nominated for several awards that year.
As public perceptions and standards changed, the Hays code began to lose it’s power. By the end of the 1950s, only one firm rule remained. Queer life could not be portrayed outright and certainly not in a positive light. Yet just before we could reach the sexual revolution of the 60s, one last film of the decade would break the final hold of the code. In 1959, the landmark movie Some Like It Hot which tells the story of two entertainers who dress in drag in order to escape the mafia. Between the cross dressing, the mock romance of two men, and numerous sexual innuendos, the film shattered the final rule from the Hays Commission. The public's overwhelming reception of the star studded movie drove a final nail in burying the production code.
However, it would still be decades before openly queer characters were portrayed on film or t.v. and the affects of 30 years of queer coding were now entrenched deep in Hollywood traditions. With the most consistent use coming from children's movies, specifically the world renowned Disney films. When he wasn’t putting incredibly racist and anti-sematic imagery in his movies, old Walt was quick to catch on to power of queer coding. Some of the earliest depictions date back to Cinderella in 1950 with the King and his adoring, yet bumbling assistant. Alice in Wonderland followed the next year with several queerish characters from the Cheshire Cat to the Queen of Hearts. But the prototype of the queer villain would reach completion with the premier of Captain Hook in the 1953 adaptation of Peter Pan. The evil pirate swishes and sways with his long black hair, and again is assisted by a sidekick clearly in love with him.
While Hook may have been considered edgy for his time, when the Hays code lifted, the flamboyance of evil villains skyrocketed. Prince John in 1973’s Robin Hood oozes with queerness, along with the subtle message that his mother’s favoritism towards his brother Richard made him “this way”. He also has a devoted follower who lives to serve his master. Rattigan, in The Great Mouse Detective, is a bachelor with posh language who loves beautiful clothes. Lefou, the doting, “special friend” of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. And of course, we can’t forget Scar from Lion King, Jafar from Aladdin, or Ratcliffe from Pocahontas. On and on the list goes. Even the fantastical crab, Tamatoa, from the recent hit Moana has quite a bit of a “queer” feeling to his character.
And if you’re wondering if Disney at least dropped the psycho-lesbian trope, then perhaps we can remind you of Maleficent from 1959s Sleeping Beauty. Or the notorious, Cruella Deville from 101 Dalmations and Yzma from Emperor’s New Groove. Maybe the most loved and celebrated so-called psycho lesbian of all time is The Little Mermaids deep sea witch Ursula. Who was literally based on the drag queen Divine, and very much challenges the binary lines of gender while also sending hard lesbian undertones. And the gender defiant characters didn’t stop with the sea witch. Plenty of controversy has surrounded the gender identity of fan favorite Hades, from Hercules, 1997. As has the debate on the stand out character from the earlier film Aladdin. Which portrayed the every morphing and androgynous, Genie. After all, it would make sense that these other worldly characters would not, and could not, fit into the gender binary that our society currently operates under.
Again, it is important to remember that all of these labels and identities are alluded to and never clearly stated. Stereotypes and character traits that had been forcibly framed around every queer person Though many writers and actors through the years have admitted to intentionally painting their characters in a queer way; even without that intention, we still see recurring themes. Effeminate, flamboyant men and strong, single women are fundamentally bad. They can be celebrated for their villainess and extravagant ways… as long as we implicitly maintain that there is something wrong with them. Conversely, transgender people can exist but they must be alien and foreign and certainly not normal. Even with the resilient nature of LGBTQ+ people to adopt that which should be rejected, the foundational truths of “this is bad '' or “you are bad” still sinks down to the very depths of our being and self perception.
While we are focusing on Disney, due to its strong influence on children over the last 80 years, these same queer themes are found in plenty of adult rated films. From James Bond evil masterminds to the many villains of the D.C. comic world, again and again the same, tired trope plays out. Only today there’s the new pairing of queer coding with queer baiting. In our new, supposedly enlightened era, producers and actors have no problem alluding to the fact that a character is queer. And actually, will quite often come right out and say their character is gay or transgender. Unfortunately, though these tactics draw large LGBTQ+ followings, they are almost never played out on the big screen. Instead, queer viewers continue to be left, reading between the lines. Catching glimpses of ourselves and our culture portrayed as the subliminal messages go over the heads of the rest of the audience. Somehow, in 100 years of talking movies, most queer characters are still confined to silence when it comes to their identity.
If you want to watch a holiday movie this year that does not hide their queer characters, then your recommended resources are some of our own favorite movies. The Family Stone available on Hulu Premium and Lez Bomb which is free on TUBI. You can also check out Netflix’s new movie Let It Snow. Or, if you’ve got the funds, order the new film Happiest Season starring Kristen Stewart and Aubrey Plaza. And if you want to know more about the Hays Code and queer coding in Hollywood then check out The Celluloid Closet available on Vudu and Amazon Prime for $3 or try Disclosure on Netflix. And above all, we hope your holiday season will be as queer and as open as possible.
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