Written by Tom Flanagan | June 10th 2022
The fictional villains of Disney films are both revered and feared, but their inspiration took root in real individuals—most of whom were queer. From The Little Mermaid’s Ursula to The Lion King’s Scar, these characters were queer-coded—an incorporation of stereotypical traits and characteristics like pronounced femininity or masculinity often associated with queer people—inspired from a time when depictions of homosexuality were taboo in motion pictures. Expert in Animation Art & Disney Wouter Korst talks to us about the genius but complicated legacy of queer-coded Disney villains and why they’re still worth celebrating.
A classic Panther de Ville car screeches to a halt. Two cartoon Dalmatians rush to the window. “It’s her! That devil woman”, says one of the dogs to the other. Their owner, Roger, breaks out into song: “Cruella de Vil, if she doesn’t scare you, nobody else will”. This all before we’ve even got a glimpse of Cruella de Vil, the main antagonist of Disney’s 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians.
And enter she does; cloaked in a brand new beige fur coat lined in red, set off by her signature black and white parted hair. “Anita, daaaar-ling”, she drawls, meanwhile slamming the door into the household’s nanny. “How are you?”, asks Anita. “Miserable darling as usual, perrrrrrr-fectly wretched”, she declares while whipping her cigarette holder and clouds of green smoke around the house. It’s a whirlwind of an entrance—voiced beautifully by the late Betty Lou Gerson—and an iconic introduction to one of the many legendary queer-coded characters who embodied the Disney villain and the tactics used to portray them.
“Disney villains are iconic because they are instantly recognisable as villains”, explains Expert in Disney & Animation Art Wouter Korst. “There's always something dark about them, no matter how colourful they might appear. They are also often extravagant, caricatures and grotesque in their design and behaviour, as a contrast to the more modest protagonists”.
Villains were as, if not more, memorable than the heroes themselves; largely thanks to their distinctive traits and larger-than-life personalities. Rather than simple whims of creativity and inspiration though, these traits represented an intentional attempt at queer-coding.
Queer-coding is a mechanism by which characters are written as ‘queer’ by giving them certain attributes and characteristics, without ever stating that they are LGBTQ+. In reality, queer people represent a diverse range of individuals, with no set traits, simply non-confirming to heteronormative standards. In Disney, this largely meant drawing on traits that weren’t considered normative to men or women or by exaggerating masculinity and femininity. Male characters could wear make-up, be devious and vain, while women could be butch, self-interested and entirely un-maternal.
Take Cruella de Vil. While immediately sinister, the heavy traces of camp to her character give her an almost comedic appeal. Her penchant for luxury fashion, theatricality, biting observations and disdain for the conventional are at odds with the well-to-do Dalmatian owning couple Anita and Roger, broadly considered the ‘good guys’. Cruella is a ‘villain’ through and through, interested solely in her own luxury and gain. Yet she’s also a symbol of difference. She’s a successful single woman who hates children, an almost unheard of voice in American mass media, and one reason queer people have valorised her over the years. In Cruella de Vil, queer people saw more of themselves represented than in the heroes.
Cruella de Vil, always the terrifying villain. Image via GIPHY
In many ways, depictions like Cruella’s were as much empowering as they were disheartening. While a villain like Cruella represented something more interesting and subversive than the cookie-cutter conventional heroes, why did Disney only choose villains to code as queer?
Back in the 1920s, LGBTQ+ relationships did in fact exist on screen. Films such as Wings (1927)—which was widely credited with being one of the first major motion pictures to feature a kiss between two men—and Morocco (1930)—famous for its kiss between two women—showed that Hollywood was open to some form of representation, though both films were met with scandalised and dismissive reactions.
However, a continuous stream of scandals in Hollywood led to a political firestorm in the States and a reckoning for the film industry. Hollywood had long been considered a hotbed of licentious behaviour and influence by religious groups; and while motion pictures followed a pre-code of don’ts and be-careful, the conservative political elite wanted more restrictions. Faced with the prospect of external censorship, Hollywood was given the chance to self-censor by following a list of guidelines known as the Motion Picture Production Code; otherwise known as the Hays code taken from William H. Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. This code, inspired by the 1927 pre-code, included a list of topics that received outright bans, in fear they would influence certain audiences, and ‘suggestions’ of topics that could be presented if special care was taken.
Ursula was a later Disney villain who embraced the power of camp. Image via GIPHY
While subjects like sexual violence and crime made the list, so did topics like ‘sexual perversion’; the code’s way of saying homosexuality, same-sex relationship and any dynamic that deviated from the traditional, nuclear family. This meant no character could be classed as being gay—and if they were, they were presented as a criminal or punished for it.
Even though the Hays code was created in the 1930s, the prohibition of films presenting any form of homosexuality was one of its most damaging long-term effects. Many other aspects of the code began to be overlooked, like prostitution and crime, when it became apparent the amount of revenue these illicit topics drew. Homosexuality, however, wasn’t given the same leeway and led film-makers who wanted to present LGBTQ+ characters to rely on stereotypes to bring them to life.
As one of the most successful production companies in America, Disney films were subject to the Hays code as much as any other. While they had long championed the traditional love story and their aspirational protagonists, Disney also created villains like no others. Rather than simply fictionalise these villains, they looked to real life people for inspiration.
“What's typical is that Disney very often based their villains on real existing people” explains Wouter. “It wasn’t only the look, but also the person’s personality, mannerism, and sometimes even their actual voice. For their villains they seem to have looked for what they’d define as eccentric people, with often unconventional characteristics and facial features that they would exaggerate in the animated characters, like Hans Conried as Captain Hook. Scenes from the animated film were played out in the studio by the actor as real live reference for the animators”.
The problem with this was it was often ‘presumed’ queer people that the studio used for villainous inspiration. Because homosexuality couldn’t be presented on screen in a positive light, animators and writers found a loophole, using villains as a conduit for queer expression. Any Disney fan may remember certain commonalities between films’ villains: British accents, flamboyancy, an obsession with self-preservation, youth and theatricality. All of these were implicit ways of denoting queerness and traits media has ingrained in audiences as ‘queer’. Audiences at the time were taught to see homosexuality has something wrong and ‘abnormal’, so film studios used stereotypes to play up villain’s lack of relatability and mark them as outcasts.
For Disney, it arguably started with the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; where animators—inspired by actresses like Joan Crawford—played up things like her unemotional nature; role as a single, older woman in power; and uncharacteristically female physical attributes like a deep voice and strong jaw that intentionally or not, implied queerness. She wasn’t a conventional women and viewers at the time would’ve understood this and recognised her as queer. That the Evil Queen’s main gripe is Snow White’s beauty, which she seeks to steal through seduction—a classic device used by queer-coded villains—only further suggested that she is a threat to the hero and the norm. The film was so popular with audiences, Disney continued to employ this tactic for their villains in later animations.
While Gaston's vanity was a jaded stereotype inspired by queer men, his campness and flair has allowed his popularity to endure. Image via GIPHY
“Interesting examples of alleged "queer coding" are the villains created by openly gay animator Andreas Deja. Although none of these villains are openly gay they seem to have a mannerisms about them that imply they are; like manicured Jafar in Aladdin (1992) limp-pawed Scar in The Lion King (1994) and the narcissistic Gaston in Beauty and the Beast (1991). You can argue that this representation was too cliché and stereotypical. Why did they all have to be villains? Animators at that time had much more liberty with villains than with the protagonists who were even more restricted by conventions, clichés, stereotypes and gender roles”.
Scar is one example of the pronounced affectations employed by Disney to signal queerness. Image via GIPHY
Knowing that many of these queer characters were created by a gay man is important context in viewing the depictions less as a way of demonising queerness and more as a way of celebrating it. Who can forget Scar’s steady disdain for everyone around him—”I’m surrounded by idiots”—Mad Madam Mim’s delighted “Someone’s sick—how lovely!”, or Ursula’s devilish glee when Ariel comes to her pleading for help and she drawls “My darling, that’s what I do. That‘s what I liiiii-ve for”.
They were groundbreaking for their subversiveness and ugliness, though their success had its drawbacks for queer people too. These villains were so pervasive in their popularity, it was hard for audiences to recognise queer people as another other than campy and flamboyant. It’s a legacy that modern media is still unpicking and a reminder of why diverse representation is so crucial.
Many of these villains have earned themselves legions of fans, even while the depictions of queerness have been overwhelmingly stereotypical and negative. And yet a large swathe of those fans are queer.
There are numerous arguments as to why this is but one obvious one is that queer people didn’t have any representation on screen. Seeing some element of yourself reflected back, whether you conformed or not to stereotypes, is comforting. More relatable even was the circumstances they found themselves in. Most of the villains in some way or form were outcasts, shunned by their family or society. From Scar to Maleficent to Cruella de Vil, each of them were lone players trying to break into the fold. While usually through evil means, there’s some mirroring of the queer experience of trying to fit that likely resonated with queer audiences.
Everyone loves a villain. And Jafar. Image via GIPHY
But beyond queer fans, there’s something everyone loves about these villains. Namely their freedom to express exactly who they are, says Wouter.
“If you look at all the classic Disney villains, most of them are uncompromisingly evil. There's absolutely nothing good about them. And because of that they're not bound by conventional standards of beauty or behaviour, they don't have to answer for anything. Because they are evil anyway, they are free. They appeal to the shadow side in all of us. I think we all recognise to a certain extent that urge to break the rules or misbehave. In our daily life, we struggle with the complexities of what's good or bad, but because Disney villains are so obviously bad, it's very safe to like them. I think that dark side, that freedom in combination with that safety, is why we are drawn to them”.
Magic mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all? Image via GIPHY
Disney villains give us a means of expression. They tap into the hesitation many individuals have to explore who they really are. These villains perform their characters and revel in how overblown they are; Cruella thrives in being vicious as Scar thrives in being petulant—and we love them both for it. While today’s Disney antagonists are a little more multi-faceted and less informed by queer codes, the lasting legacy of our favourite Disney villains is the lifeline they gave to queer audiences when they had nobody to turn to. And for all their failings and exaggerations, they proved one thing: if you can’t always be good, at least you’ll always be remembered.
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