Take a moment to think back on the villains in the Disney movies you enjoyed when you were young – Hercules, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Peter Pan. Do you remember them having anything special in common (aside from their shared wickedness, of course); did you pick up on any of the hidden Disney themes? Spoiler: there are many secretly gay Disney villains.
Perhaps you didn’t notice it when you were a kid, but many Disney villains (usually the male ones) are effeminate – that is, they behave in stereotypically "feminine" ways – or are even outright flamboyant in their behavior patterns and mannerisms. This entertainment device, the practice of giving characters (usually villains) stereotypically "queer" (or non-gender-and-sexuality conforming) attributes or mannerisms, is referred to as "queer coding." It's "coded" because the characters are never explicitly sexualized as part of the narrative. In other words, they're never "out" as part of the film's storyline. Rather, from their gestures to their tones of voice, they are implicitly constructed as queer.
The issue with the queer coding of villains is a complex one. On the one hand, as queer vlogger Riley J. Dennis explains, there's something to appreciate about queer coding in Disney movies – it gives queer kids a way of seeing characters who they can relate to in some way on screen. On the other hand, however, because there's a general lack of queer representation in kids' movies and television, the fact that queerness really only shows up attached to the "bad guys" has a detrimental effect. It reduces queerness to maleficence.
Although not without its problems, Disney's 2013 film Frozen is progressive in its portrayal of female bonds and empowerment and in its brief inclusion of a gay family in the "Wandering Oaken's Trading Post" scene. This list takes a look backward at Disney's most explicitly queer coded villains, never for a minute, however, losing site of Ursula's majesty.
The villain Hades from Hercules is clearly patterned along the lines of the "gay best friend" archetype. His speech is effeminate. He drinks "girly" cocktails. He literally "flames" whenever something doesn't go his way. And he's frequently chatting about boy issues with Meg, telling her she shouldn’t be hung up “over some guy.” Of course, Hades isn't Meg's best friend; he's her master. But his tone of voice and manner of speaking code him as a potential queer confidante for her character, as opposed to a more macho, hypermasculine ruler of the underworld.
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The villain in Pocahontas may have a massive, masculine build (reminiscent of the fat cat aristocrats of his day), but his habits and mannerisms tell a different story. British aristocrats did wear some pretty frilly outfits in the 18th century, but Governor Ratcliffe’s affinity for sparkle seems to exceed the typical desire for pomp. Ratcliffe also continuously dotes on his tiny dog, Percy, who detests having his hair ruffled.
There’s also Ratcliffe’s waiting man, who fawns over the governor with more attention than seems necessary for a loyal subject to express, leaving little room for doubt that he has a romantic interest in the governor. And, given Ratcliffe's queer-coded traits, there's a subterranean implication that Ratcliffe returns his waiting man's affection.
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Jafar is another villain with an effeminate appearance; he actually looks like he’s wearing eye liner and mascara. Add to that his biting sarcasm, which could even be characterized as "sass" (meaning he quickly and saucily replies to those around him in a manner that's often associated with media stereotypes of gay behavior), and his queer coding also becomes apparent. It’s also obvious that he prefers not to get his hands or his clothes dirty — he does all his evil work with magic.
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Ursula, the lone female queer-coded Disney villain, is unique on a number of fronts. After all, she's amazingly fabulous. Perhaps most interesting, though, is that her character was actually based on the famous actress and drag queen, Divine. Just like her drag queen inspiration, Ursula wears exaggerated make-up and has extremely theatrical mannerisms. As another covert allusion to her real-life muse, Ursula also speaks with a deep, husky voice.
#13 on The Greatest Female Villains
#20 on The Best Fictional Witchessee more on Ursula