Queer coded villains in children’s films

Every film, especially children’s ones, have a good villain. It is a key part of the plot. While these characters are feared, respected and enjoyed, it is modern criticism that has now pointed out that majority of these villains have been ‘queerly coded.’ But what does this mean? Effectively, queer coding a character means that said character is implied to be queer, perhaps through their speech of mannerisms. Their homosexuality is not explicitly confirmed, but implied in the subtext. In children’s films, it is common for these characters to be portrayed as villains, creating an unhealthy, and unnerving link between queerness and villainy.

Why might characters be queer coded? Well, in 1934, Will H. Hays produced the ‘Motion Picture Production Code.’ These contained guidelines for self-censorship of content, and warned against depicting, what was then classed as, the ‘perversion’ of homosexuality. Homosexuality was banned from being explicitly depicted, and therefore it was implied. Homosexuality was implied through stereotypical and at times, derogatory mannerisms. Although the Hays Code, as it was colloquially known, was officially abandoned in the late 60s, these stereotypical traits and characters continued to bleed through. These films do not imply that certain villains are evil because of their queerness, but it does create an unethical relationship between queerness and villainy, a relationship which is regularly seen in children’s films.

While more of a family film, the Child Catcher in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’ is queer coded. The Child Catcher was played by Robert Helpmann, an openly gay ballet. It is undeniable that the character has camp mannerisms, and because of this some commentators have argued that the character fills the stereotypical role of the ‘gay paedophile.’ It is this that makes the character even more scary, and dangerous, towards children. This stereotype does seem to imply a relationship between queerness and villainy. Interestingly, The Child Catcher does not appear in Fleming’s original novel, and instead was fully fleshed out by the director, Ken Hughes. Perhaps the Child Catcher was played this way to act as a foil to Dick Van Dyke’s character, Caractacus Potts.

Turning our attention to Disney now, two notable, queerly-coded villains include Jafar and Scar. Both were animated by Andreas Deja, who himself was gay. This led many to believe that Jafar and Scar were based on him, something that Deja himself has denied. Deja claimed that Jafar’s appearance was based on Conrad Veidt. Jafar’s voice actor, Jonathan Freeman, also claimed that his work was inspired by Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. Both latter actors were famous for their villainous roles. Although Jafar does possess stereotypical camp mannerisms, throughout the film he is motivated by a potential marriage to Jasmine. This might complicate things, and based on Deja’s comments, perhaps means that Jafar has not been queer coded. Maybe it is our perception that has foisted this upon him.

In terms of Scar, again, Dejas said that he based the character on Jeremy Irons. Scar’s limp paw, and melodramatic tendencies, is what probably leads people to suggest that he may be queer, but again, like Jafar, he pursues a heterosexual relationship with Simba’s mother. Perhaps motivations and characteristics are not related… and if they are not related, then maybe queerness is not related to villainy? Again, perhaps it is just our outdated perceptions. Deja did also animate Gaston, whose villainy is based on his toxic masculinity, so perhaps Deja is truthful when he says that Scar and Jafar were unintentionally queer. Scar and Jafar also tap into ideas about colourism, as in their respective films, their skin colour is darker than the other characters in their respective films.

Maleficent and Ursula also join the line-up. Ursula appears as the stereotypical butch lesbian, and was based upon drag queen Divine, who regularly appeared in film. Due to this, Ursula herself has become a gay icon. Given Ursula’s movements and voice, and her appearance as Vanessa, it is clear that the production team wanted Ursula to have some sort of seductive, alluring quality. Maleficent possesses the same quality, and although is villainous, is not exactly ugly. It has long suggested that her appearance was based on Maila Nurmi’s turn as Vampira, a camp icon of the 1950s. While Maleficent is not as animated, and camp as Ursula, both are portrayed as much paler and sallower than their opposites, Ariel and Aurora. Both are outcasts, witches and determined to thwart romantic, specifically heterosexual, relationships. Perhaps this is implying some sort of queer-jealousy? A hatred of heterosexual relationships due to their own queerness?

I would also like to throw Miss Trunchbull into the mix. Again, she matches Ursula and fulfils the butch lesbian stereotype, but her behaviour pushes this trope a bit further. She appears obsessed with the feminine Matilda and Miss Honey, and berates Amanda for her excessive femininity, symbolised by her pretty pigtails. She is slightly Child Catcher-esque, as the film appears to suggest that queer people cannot be trusted around children. Again though, she does enter into a heterosexual relationship with Miss Honey’s uncle, as Jafar and Scar sought to do. Although Pam Ferris played her in the film, a man, Bertie Carvel, played her in the musical adaptation, perhaps in an attempt to push the butch lesbian trope further.

One character that appears devoid of sexuality, and is not involved in any sort of relationship is Cruella de Vil. Perhaps this is supposed to suggest her asexuality, but as other critics noted, it appeared that in Disney, characters were either explicitly heterosexual, or nothing. Again, she has a greyer complexion than characters such as Anita and Roger. In fact, all Disney villains I have commented on have a much more different complexion than the heroes of their films. Perhaps this is meant to show that they are devoid of heterosexual feeling and/or love? Or was it purely to point out that they were the films big bad, marked through their physical difference? Either option is probably just as bad as the other.

Perhaps Shrek can save us… or maybe not. While some critics identify Prince Charming as a metrosexual, others have argued that he is queer coded due to his dubious motivations. Does he really want Fiona, or does he just want his mother’s approval? Or does he just want glory? If he is actually attracted to Fiona, then fair enough, perhaps we can put his queer coded-ness to bed, but if not, does it leave him more open to interpretation, as the stereotypical ‘mummy’s boy.’

So… what conclusions do we draw from this? Would it be worth asking why these villains have all been portrayed in this way? Perhaps it is simply because producers wanted to create a foil between the virile, masculine hero and his villainous counterpart. In terms of female villains this also applies, they are not nearly as beautiful and feminine as the heroines of the film. Although this clearly does mark a divide, and flag up who is ‘bad’ and who is not, it does not make it right. Perhaps the audience is at fault, for still adhering to age-old stereotypes. Whether intentional or not, it does create an unhealthy link between queerness and villainy, something that does need to be addressed.

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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