I’m sure you’re familiar with some of Disney’s classic villains: Scar (Jeremy Irons, “Lolita”) from “The Lion King,” Gaston (Richard White, “The Grandmother”) and Lefou (Jesse Corti, “Revenge”) from “Beauty and the Beast,” and Ursula (Pat Carroll, “Cinderella”) from “The Little Mermaid.” They have the best songs and the most iconic looks. But have you ever really paid attention to their looks? Their mannerisms? Many people have, and they often accuse Disney of Queer coding their villains.
The term “Queer coding” refers to the act of making a non-Queer character appear so through discreet details. Perhaps a male character acts effeminate compared to his male counterparts. Maybe he seems to be wearing makeup. Maybe he even wears pink (the horror!). If you think I’m reading too far into things, look no further than the real-life inspiration for Ursula. The iconic “The Little Mermaid” villain is based on drag queen Divine, made clear through her bold and glamorous makeup look.
Many criticize Disney for this because the character they imply are Queer are almost always their villains, which associates that Queerness with evil. The 1930s Hays Code, which placed strict, self-imposed regulations on Hollywood filmmaking, forbade any portrayals of homosexuality, and so the mannerisms associated with it were assigned only to villains and victims.
I was constantly cast as these villains as a child in theater: Captain Hook in “Peter Pan JR.,” the Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland Jr.” and Horace in “101 Dalmatians KIDS” — which may have been my first performance as a drag king when you really think about it (I definitely rocked that brown eyeshadow beard). And though I wasn’t familiar with the concept of Queer coding or the criticisms of Disney’s villains at the time, I adored playing these roles. At first, I thought I just had the stage presence for them. But looking back as an out-and-proud transgender and Queer person, it makes perfect sense. These characters were created to be Queer without saying it outright, and I never felt more confident than when I was singing about my mortal enemy, Mr. Crocodile, or about how much I loved playing croquet in Wonderland. The Jasper to my Horace in “101 Dalmatians KIDS” was one of my closest childhood friends and has also grown up to realize their trans and Queer identity. The same goes for our “Peter Pan JR.’s” Wendy, who also played the Queen of Hearts alongside me in a double-cast production. Both of us found ourselves in a theatre community where playing the iconic villain and singing songs like “Kanine Krunchies” and “Painting the Roses Red” were the best parts of a production.
And being cast in these roles was almost never a surprise. They were the roles I was excited to audition for and hoped with all my might I would have the opportunity to play. Seriously, I don’t know how many times I ran my Captain Hook audition song, but I’m sure my parents must have hated me by the 50th time I played it in their car. I never felt more confident than when I was on stage in these roles, and looking back at the person I thought I was — a cisgender, straight woman — I realize that my true self has been there all along. I have gone on to play iconic Queer roles like Emory in “The Boys in the Band,” and even played King Arthur in a bright-blue glitter beard in “Spamalot.” Queer coded Disney villains are a major part of my confidence in my identity.
In 2023, the Queer community must flourish. In the face of discrimination from lawmakers who don’t think a young boy should be able to use the bathroom he wants to and from school boards who ban curriculum centering on Queer stories, finding even the smallest ways to be seen and heard is vital. Even though Disney villains were Queer coded in order to avoid explicit Queer representation, I say we take back the people they were meant to be. While Disney has taken some baby steps in their Queer representation, they have a long way to go, and reclaiming these classic villains is a fabulous method in my opinion.
Who knows what can be transformed? I think “Poor Unfortunate Souls” has the potential to be an iconic lip-synced drag performance.
Daily Arts Writer Max Newman can be reached at email@example.com.