Saturday, June 22, 2024

[Link] Let Them Be Morally Flawed: In Defense of Queer Villains in Stories

John Copenhaver on Conflating Queerness with Evil

by John Copenhaver

Queerness and villainy have a long history of being conflated by mainstream entertainment, from Peter Lorre’s effeminate and threatening Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon to the obsessed and manipulative Mrs. Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca to, more humorously, the violent Lord Humungus from Mad Max, decked out in leather fetish gear, to the many queer-coded Disney villains, such as the Evil (Drag) Queen in Snow White to the preening Jafar in Aladdin.

Originally, these queer-coded antagonists were molded to contrast mainstream heteronormativity; the straight cis-gendered heroes of these stories embody traditional ideas about gender and sexuality. On the surface, the villains aren’t explicitly queer, but they wear a cloak of queerness to imply a harmful false equivalency that being LGBTQ+ is morally dubious or, from another angle, that transgressing gender and sexuality norms indicates innate corruption or, perhaps, a moral weakness leading to greater evil.

If you grew up in the eighties and early nineties, as I did, it was difficult to find any positive queer role models in popular entertainment or books; few of these stories were within easy reach. So hungry were we for queer characters, we zeroed in on the flamboyant queer-coded villains, which despite the intention behind these characters, we embraced long before Disney seized the opportunity to capitalize on their beloved baddies and began franchising their origin stories. In doing so, they filed down their villains’ horns for mass consumption.

At first glance, transforming queer-coded villains into protagonists with rich backstories seems well-intentioned and progressive. This revision of villainy seems to challenge conflating queerness with corruption: “Those vicious villains weren’t evil after all, just misunderstood.”

In truth, Disney is just nudging these queer-coded characters into the circle of conventional morality, not widening the circle. The original vampy evil fairy Maleficent becomes a scorned and brutalized lover and later a protective mother figure. Vicious and glamorous fashionista Cruella becomes a Dickensian goth orphan girl-cum-fashion designer. While these films are entertaining, they don’t embody progress as much as they want us to believe they do.

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