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Disney’s History of Gay-Coding and Why It Matters

Sindhu discusses Disney's repetitive notion to manipulate its viewers by gay-coding.

The cultural impact of Walt Disney Studios is immense and undeniable. Their films have cemented themselves into the hearts of children across the world, as well as adults who grew up on classic Disney features. As the years have gone by, the studio has successfully expanded their demographic while maintaining a clean, family friendly image, simultaneously shifting with changing times. Their expansive reach and large audience puts them in a major position of power, which is quite concerning when you take into account one of their most popular tropes: the gay-coded villain.

The Roots of Disney’s Gay-Coding

The first appearance of the gay Disney villain is more explicit than some of the studio’s more understated characters: Ursula in the 1989 film The Little Mermaid. Her character was directly inspired by the drag queen Divine, evident in her exaggerated makeup, buxom figure, and deep voice. Her main motivation in the film is stealing the youth of the petite, girlish mermaid Ariel, a feminine paragon of sorts. In the end, she is ultimately defeated, and it’s important that we remember that.

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The Little Mermaid (1989) – source: Walt Disney Pictures

Ursula is touted as a ‘gay icon’ among many circles but the truth and intent behind her character is villainy. She is a drag queen-esque antagonist written into an overtly patriarchal and heterosexual film, where the lead girl runs off with the guy she loves after her dad gives his permission. Ursula demurs this clean society. She was not meant to win at the end of this story, and her presence in the film is so purposefully malevolent that it’s difficult to imagine why people would be discussing her “ties to the LGBT community” with positive connotations.

Subtle “Representation”

More popular than explicit portrayals such as Ursula, however, are gay-coded villains who are rooted in effeminacy, and stand opposite of deeply masculine protagonists. Two classic examples are Scar from The Lion King and Hades from Hercules. In the 1994 Hamlet-esque film, Scar is brother to Mufasa, the lordly leader of the Pride Lands. There’s a stark difference simply in their character design – Mufasa standing broad and strong while Scar is spindly with a lazy, slinky posture. Scar’s biting sarcasm is often tinged with sassiness, and many have attributed his personality to one of a “bitchy old queen” in the gay community.

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Hercules (1997) – source: Walt Disney Pictures

This personality is also evident in Hades, the villain of Hercules (1997), whose loose, gown-like toga clad figure is in opposition of the film’s ultra-macho namesake. He serves as a “gay best friend” of sorts to Megara in the film, guiding her to make Hercules fall for her, and providing witty comments on-hand. His body language and mannerisms are similar to Scar’s, and perhaps even more heavily gay-coded than the lion’s (a wig joke in the film comes to mind). There’s also a heavy overlap with the aforementioned Ursula, both in the witchy character design, as well as the storyline. The plot of a young woman selling her soul to a powerful (and, again, drag queen-esque) being in hopes of uniting with a male lover (though it plays out much differently in both films).

This gay-coding could arguably be unintentional, but either way, the pattern of effeminacy among Disney villains is certainly enough to raise eyebrows. To continually paint these character traits as villainous and glorify masculinity and traditional gender norms is not something that can be dismissed as coincidental or menial.

Pushed To The Sidelines

Avid Disney fans will bring up “positive” gay-coding in the films, but there is yet again another common theme there: they are all side characters. Take Timon and Pumba from The Lion King, for instance. They could be easily interpreted as a gay couple, but are just subtle enough to pass off as static, background comic relief. Same with Cogsworth and Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast. Or literally any double-sidekick pairing in Disney films.

Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella in The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King (1994) – source: Walt Disney Pictures

If you reach and reach enough, subtext is there, but there’s a hell of a lot of reaching to be done. Disney has mastered walking the tight line between excitement and controversy, giving tidbits of homosexual subtext to their audiences willing to analyze the film, but not so much as to flip the whole table. However, these tidbits have curiously evolved over the years, even morphing into a questionable sort of “representation”.

Present Day: Limiting Gay Characters

That brings us to current Disney era, the Revival/Second Disney Renaissance. Where “gay” characters have taken an entirely different role. Presumably after an increasing demand for diversity, and an inherent need to keep up with the times, Disney delivered on the diversity front. Sort of. Representation is present if you squint, and fully shunted to the side. There’s a flash of a lesbian couple in Finding Dory, an allusion to a man having a husband in Frozen, and many, many more subtleties. And yet, gay-coding of villains still persists, like Evelyn in the long-awaited sequel to The Incredibles. She was originally conceptualized as a man, as is evident in her tomboyish character design, but was switched to a woman so that she could have “more rapport” with Elastigirl (wink wink).

Josh Gad and Luke Evans in Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Beauty and the Beast (2017) – source: Walt Disney Pictures

The most controversial of all though, however, came with the character LeFou in the 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast. The original depiction of Lefou – the lackey of the main villain Gaston, who he is constantly fawning over – is already heavily gay coded. So when it was announced that the character was to be canonically gay in the remake, people lit up with excitement at the newfound representation. But when the film was released, the “representation” was revealed to be a split second moment in the film’s final dance scene, where LeFou switches dance partners from a woman to a man. And the disappointment set in. To have been baited and failed by promises of major representation is upsetting in itself, but I think the more important question is: why are we accepting this representation in the form of villains and expendable side characters in the first place?

Gay Audiences Unheard

By no means am I condemning Disney fans who have affection for these gay-coded villains. All art is open for interpretation, and I’m happy for people who feel connected to these characters. But LGBT audiences as a whole deserve so much better than villains or disposable comic relief created at the hands of heterosexual people. There is an increased demand for gay stories with gay leads, and Disney has danced around it for far too long. They have pushed a rather harmful rhetoric by slapping stereotypically “gay” traits onto villains, and clumsily making up for it by creating “positively” gay-coded side characters. They’re one of the world’s largest corporations, and without a doubt, the biggest film production company today. To have millions of children watch their films and soak in the archetype of the gay Disney villain is deeply unjust. We need solid representation, but it doesn’t seem like it’s coming anytime soon.

Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, and Jonathan Groff in Frozen II (2019)
Frozen II (2019) – source: Walt Disney Pictures

Frozen II is slated to release later this year, and many fans have been theorizing about Elsa having a female love interest, though the possibility is highly unlikely. Disney would likely lose a chunk of its audience were it to feature a gay lead, because their success is maintained by avoiding major controversy. Featuring an unquestionably gay lead would go against their formula, and that’s truly disappointing for all audiences (especially younger ones). Elsa made her mark in the first Frozen film by establishing her independence and strength – all without a man by her side. To push that character one step further by making her the first lesbian Disney lead would no doubt serve as a huge role model and eye-opener for so many children. But alas, that’s too radical. Back to the gay-coded villains we go, regardless of how the portrayal of those villains will impact young viewers.

In 2016, in response to the Beauty and the Beast controversy, director Bill Condon said “This movie is about…accepting people for who they really are…and in a very Disney way, we are including everybody,”. I absolutely agree, and I think that quote truly embodies Disney. To marginalize LGBT characters, place them in villain/side character roles under the guise of representation, and continually gay-code but evade portraying actual gay characters is the “Disney way”. And that is exactly how they’ve been “including everybody”. Things need to change, if not for the adults who grew up on gay-coded villains and want to see proper representation, but for the younger audiences watching.

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