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Decoding the queer-code - Leela Praneeth

Text and subtext, though alluding to literature, are important parts of every form of media. One of the most frequent complaints that you hear from people with a higher-than-average interest in dissecting media is that most people consume and interpret art at face value, often neglecting subtext. The call for better media literacy by said people is understandable then, when some critics laud Squid Game as a competent critique of “communism” in North Korea, while it shows the ramifications of hyper-capitalism in South Korea. A faucet of subtext is coding characters with traits that might be marginalized in society, without explicitly confirming that the character belongs to the marginalized group. Coding comes in all shapes and sizes. Inanimate objects can be coded to be feminine or masculine, animals can be coded to belong to a certain race ( looking at you Dumbo! ), and yes even “straight” characters can be coded to be queer.

Queer coding has been going on in literature for ages. A lot of classical literature is rife with commentary on gender and queerness dependent on the cultural consciousness and societal expectations of the times. Some interpretations of Dracula point to the titular character having queer undertones, Foremost among which is the relationship between Dracula and his familiar, Renfield. The hunger for Dracula’s power, followed by immense guilt in Renfield can be read as the experiences of a gay man struggling with his sexuality in the 19th century. The admittance into the asylum parallels the all too common experiences of queer people in conversion therapy. Jo March from little women becomes successful without conforming to an image of the ideal woman placed upon her by society. It is evident from the aversion to settling down with a man, that Jo might not be straight. As the book is semi-autobiographical, we can identify Jo March to be a self-insert character. Louisa May Alcott, the author, herself never married and was speculated to be gay. Excerpts from her interviews only seem to corroborate these speculations. These are only some of the many characters in literature that were queer coded at the threat of not being able to publish or are the reflections of the author’s struggle with their sexuality. The need for queer coding in modern literature had died down due to the evolution of people’s views on queer characters.

Queer coding in movies has a much different connotation and history. It all started with the big bang, no! It started with the introduction of the Hays code in 1934. The code had a long list of rules that movies must strictly adhere to, not unlike the censor board of India today. It was proposed at the behest of pearl-clutching religious White Americans at the time who feared the spread of progressive and non-conformist values in their children. It had many absurd rules that are laughable today, such as the ban on depictions of white slavery and miscegenation. For our purpose, we will take a deep dive into the ban on sex perversion, which includes homosexuality. The Hays code also made it so that only the “good” guys win and the “bad” guys lose. This meant that even if there were queer characters in the movie they had to die, which lead to the creation of the infamous “bury your gays” trope, that persists today. This led to the biggest difference in queer-coded characters of literature and the golden age of Hollywood. Where authors could portray queer-coded characters to be successful, powerful, and desirable, Filmmakers almost always cast queer-coded characters as villains or creeps.

Norman Bates from Psycho is depraved, perverted, and also queer-coded. When the Hays code was active in Hollywood, being close to one’s mother or a confirmed bachelor was a clue that a character was gay. This was often the pitfall that many movies fell into during the days of strict censorship. Joel Cairo from The Maltese Falcon and Jack Favell from Rebecca are some more examples of villainous queer characters, both having effeminate speech patterns and flamboyant dressing styles. The effects of villainizing queer characters for generations can still be felt today, where there are people still upholding the outdated ideas about introducing queerness to kids at a young age and fighting for archaic restrictions on queer kids at a legislative level. The effects of the Hays code lingered long after it was lifted in 1968. The following year would see the first major rally to advocate for the rights of queer people in the form of the Stonewall riots of 1969. Both of these in conjunction with some time helped steer Hollywood away from harmful and stereotypical depictions of queer characters.

Any discussion of queer coding cannot be done without mentioning the impressive roster of queer-coded Disney villains that influenced a generation of moviegoers. These villains, though meant to be hated, were queer icons in their own right. A lot of queer people saw themselves in these characters and could empathize with their plight despite their antagonistic actions. Ursula’s design from the little mermaid is inspired by the Drag Queen Divine. Her song is one of the most popular songs in the movie, even surpassing some of the heroine’s songs. Many a gay men still crush on Scar, if only for the smooth voice courtesy of Jeremy Irons. Maleficent, arguably one of the most popular Disney villains, is clearly shown to have no interest in men. Her love for her own beauty and masculine build only further alienates her from the feminine ideal set by the sleeping beauty. Jafar from Aladdin and Gaston with his self-aggrandizing nature also show clearly stereotypically queer traits. Villains are not left to have all the fun however, Li Shang from Mulan reacts viscerally, in a way that people colloquially call bi-panic, when he struggles to come to the fact that the war buddy he fell in love with is a woman. Even recently, Elsa locking herself away in the ice palace and coming out of it only after acceptance and love from her sister is a situation every queer person related to and experiences in their life.

When the 2010s came along it was clear that there was an audience hungry for queer content, and the idea of having this demographic consume your media without offending conservative audiences was brewing in the minds of Producers. This led to the creation and prevalence of Queer baiting, where a piece of media dangles the promise of queer characters without explicitly confirming their queerness. Sherlock on BBC and Supernatural were the biggest offending parties. Both shows only ran for as long due to the viewership of queer and women audiences looking forward to the depiction of a queer relationship. Sherlock hinted at a relationship between the detective and Professor Moriarty only to make fun of the fans who theorized about the relationship. Supernatural baited its fans for over a decade, to confirm the character to be queer in the final season and promptly kill him.

With modern media having fewer restrictions on the subject matter they deal with, the need to code Queer characters is diminishing. But, if the banning of Queer texts or policing queer discussion in schools continues we might as well destroy decades of progress we’ve made and return to subtle hints and stereotypical depictions. Advocacy, awareness, and empathy are the weapons we have to make sure that future generations do not have to read between straight lines to access queer themes again.


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