Yeah yeah yeah, we all want Simba to emerge victorious at the end of The Lion King; and Snow White to wake up; and Ariel to walk on land; and the prince to marry Aurora, whoever the hell that is. Disney heroes are all very serviceable, but it’s the villains I’d rather spend time with.
Ursula has the best songs. The Evil Queen has the best cape. Maleficent has the best laugh. Scar has the best quips. Prince John has the cutest underwear. Why waste time with the tedious heroes when you could be partying with these icons?
Disney villains are also — and there’s just no way around this — extremely homosexual. I’ve interviewed hundreds of queer people over the years about their pop culture influences, and I’ve lost count of how many cite the bad guys as inspirations. Even though there’s never been an openly queer Disney villain — still! — there still seems to be a sort of gay aura around them, and I’ve found that gay men are often particularly worshipful.
So … what’s the deal with that?
I think this phenomenon can be attributed to four qualities that seem to be shared across a wide range of villains. First — the Disney villain was invented at the same time that movies were figuring out how to queer-code villains, immediately in the wake of the film industry’s first self-censorship program.
It’s a complicated history, but here’s the short version: Around the late '20s and early '30s, American conservatives launched a moral panic over what they perceived as a lack of decency in films. Targets of their ire included interracial couples, characters expressing disrespect for priests, and even (get ready to clutch your pearls here) suggestions of sexual perversion.
Now you might think that at the height of The Great Depression, political leaders might have other concerns on their minds, but right-wingers never met a marginalized group they didn’t love to scapegoat, and they demanded that movies clean up their “filth.” The result was the implementation of the Hays Code in 1934, which forbade a wide range of content — including homosexuality.
As a result, movies could no longer show sympathetic characters who were explicitly queer. But they could show characters who conformed to queer stereotypes … as long as those characters were villains. And as it turns out, “coding” a character as queer worked great for filmmakers, because there was already a prevailing cultural stigma around homosexuality. Increasingly, movies started to give villains traits that audiences would have associated with queerness, in order to make them seem creepy and unnatural.
So that’s the climate in which Disney created Snow White’s Evil Queen, their first feature-film villain. She hits a lot of lesbian stereotypes of the time: Tall, single, deep-voiced, occupying a traditionally male position of power, obsessed with a character who embodies the ideal of feminine beauty.
Then a few years later, they did the same thing with Captain Hook, giving him queer male stereotypes: Fussy, garbed in pink, cowardly and untrustworthy, obsessed with capturing a boy. Then came Maleficent, who bestows an unwanted prick upon a maiden, rendering her unmarriageable; Cruella, whose character was based on the queer actress Tallulah Bankhead; Prince John and Ratigan, more fussy fops; and of course in the Disney renaissance, the trinity of baritone Ursula, eye-linered Jafar, and limp-pawed Scar. Queer coding has been baked into Disney villains from the very beginning, and stuck around for decades.
Of course, many of the stereotypes ascribed to these characters are negative — why would queer audiences love being associated with dangerous perverts?
Well, as it happens, the coding doesn’t end with just those stereotypes. The characters are also given traits that many viewers would have found delightful — even fun.
For example, they’re frequently rendered as outcasts in a way that is particularly relatable. Maleficent’s story begins with the entire kingdom refusing to invite her to a party; Prince John is the disfavored son; Ursula was banished from Triton’s castle some years ago. Some do their best to blend in with society, despite knowing they don’t belong, like Ratigan and Jafar; others don’t care about the disapproval of others, like Cruella and Madam Mim.
Social outcasts; black sheep of their families; kicked out of their homes. They’re the unwanted freaks, or at least they’re convinced that they are. It’s a state to which a lot of viewers — not just queer — can almost certainly relate.
But of course, there’s something even queerer going on with villains, and that’s their flamboyant campiness. Snow White is demure, while the Evil Queen vamps around the castle, tossing her cape like she’s in a parade. Maleficent, with her ostentatious cackle and monstrous horns, is the scene-stealer of Sleeping Beauty — you might not even remember that the princess spends any of the movie awake.
Crucially, Disney villains love to laugh. You can trace their cruel chuckles all the way from the 1930s to the present day. I’ve written in the past about how shameless joy is a cornerstone of queer liberation, and it’s an unmitigated pleasure to see how much glee a Disney villain takes when expressing their true nature.
This is as pure a distillation as you could hope to see in a mainstream family film. They’re ridiculously heightened, exaggerated, and adorned with silly flourishes. To understand why queer audiences are so appreciative of camp is an entirely separate essay (or doctoral thesis); but for now, I’ll point out that queer people might be primed to enjoy an aesthetic that mocks gender roles by fracturing them like the miscaptialized text on a SpongeBob meme.
But the gayest thing of all about Disney villains is that they do crimes.
Heroes often seek to uphold the status quo — Simba can’t wait to be king; Aladdin’s reward is leaving the urchins behind to join the ruling class; Peter Pan’s entire existence is literally dedicated to nothing ever changing. Keeping things the way they are might seem great to audiences for whom the world is already very comfortable, but if the status quo doesn’t work for you, villains might seem more sympathetic. They see that they can’t live in the world as it is, and so they decide to change it.
Rule-breakers have long been heroes of queer culture, because our survival depends on breaking the law. Within living memory, it was illegal for gay people to gather in bars, to send mail, or remain in this country. Maryland’s censor board did everything in their power to stop John Waters from making queer movies. When a documentary crew filmed Crystal LaBeija tearing into New York’s racist drag pageant system, filmmakers gave her what today we’d call “a villain edit,” but her tirade helped create the ball and house system that we still have today. Stonewall was a riot.
So of course we love these characters. Flamboyant outsiders, determined to bring down the status quo? That sounds more like a hero to me.