I Miss Disney’s Queer-Coded Villains—But the Next Generation Won’t

Queer-coding may have been wrong, but the result was a roster full of scene-stealing characters that young viewers could interpret as LGBTQ.

Growing up, my favorite song in Aladdin was the “Prince Ali” reprise in which a deliciously campy Jafar reveals Aladdin’s true identity to Princess Jasmine.

“So Ali turns out to be merely Aladdin,” I would sing, mimicking Jafar’s effete drawl as best I could. “Just a con. / Need I go on? / Take it from me.”

It’s no secret that Jafar is one of the many classic animated Disney villains who can be read as queer-coded, meaning that writers and animators used certain LGBTQ signifiers to make them seem more menacing or abnormal. Think about Scar’s limp wrist in The Lion King or the bows in Governor Ratcliffe’s hair in Pocahontas or, well, everything about The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, who was literally modeled after the drag queen Divine.
 

As a ‘90s child who grew up on Disney films, I definitely got the message that it was somehow evil to deviate from gender norms or harbor anything other than a modest romantic interest in the opposite sex. The villains were supposed to be bad, right? But like many kids who later came out as members of the LGBTQ community, I couldn’t help but love these villains.

Jafar was polished, sophisticated, and bitingly funny. I mean, Jafar basically reads Aladdin in that reprise: “His personality flaws / Give me adequate cause / To send him packing on a one-way trip / So his prospects take a terminal dip / His assets frozen / The venue chosen is the ends of the earth, whoopee! / So long, ex-Prince Ali!”

So imagine the weird mix of emotions I felt when the live-action version of Aladdin not only omitted the “Prince Ali” reprise but turned Jafar into a conventionally hot and frankly bland villain. Vox’s Aja Romano described Marian Kenzari’s Jafar perfectly: “quiet, straightforward, and almost affectless.” On one hand, I found it encouraging that Disney was no longer using hints of homosexuality to paint Jafar as evil. But on the other hand, Hot Jafar was no fun.

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Judging from reviews of Disney’s new live-action version of The Lion King, a similar fate may befall Scar, the ultimate green-eyed gay uncle. In his withering review of the movie, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich writes, “Scar used to be a Shakespearean villain brimming with catty rage and closeted frustration; now, he’s just a lion who sounds like Chiwetel Ejiofor.”

Therein lies the problem: The queer-coded characteristics that made Disney antagonists seem more villainous were often the same things that made them interesting. Take away Scar’s smirk, sarcasm, and arched eyebrows, and what are you left with? A mean lion, I guess. Subtract Jafar’s eyeliner, charm, and exaggerated affect, and apparently, all that remains is a model who wants to be an autocrat.

Disney’s old habit of queer-coding villains may have been wrong and even hurtful, but the result was a roster full of delightfully entertaining, often scene-stealing characters that young viewers could interpret as LGBTQ. It wasn’t perfect representation, no, but it was representation nonetheless.

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I’m far from the only LGBTQ adult who has complicated feelings about the makeovers being forced upon some of the most recognizable queer-coded characters in film history.

Matthew, a bisexual gender nonconforming man, tells NewNowNext that he loved Scar’s “debonair” way of speaking and “would always imitate it” as a child. The new Scar, as Matthew points out, seems much less “dramatic”—and although Matthew admits that might help him seem more “believable” in the context of the remake’s realism, he’s still “not very happy” about the change.

Indeed, in talking to other LGBTQ people who grew up watching these movies, I have found that we are capable of criticizing Disney for queer-coding its villains without surrendering our strange sense of ownership over them. That position may seem paradoxical, but it’s also understandable: Childhood attachments are strong ones—and LGBTQ people are historically skilled at reclaiming insults.

“I think that these characters were queer-coded in order to tell the audience they were evil or sexually deviant,” Shaun Bickley, a queer non-binary Disney fan, tells NewNowNext. “As the existence of LGBTQ people has become trendy, most of my friends are unwilling to give these villains back. They’re ours now.”

However, now that there are more overt LGBTQ characters onscreen—and even one or two in Disney films— some fans think it’s time to move past the trope of the gay villain, even if it means letting go of how important these characters once were to us.

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“I’m 35 now, so as a child, queer representation just did not exist [and] finding someone powerful that I could relate to excited me,” Ronnie Scott, a cisgender gay man, tells NewNowNext. “But now that there is actual representation, I don’t think we need to see the not-traditionally-masculine man getting defeated in the end.”

Eli, a nonbinary person who uses they/them pronouns, agrees, telling NewNowNext that it’s “necessary and good” for Disney to walk back the queer-coding, even if they find it “personally, a somewhat bittersweet changing of the guards as the characters that helped me understand myself move to the back.”

Indeed, it’s hard to picture Disney delivering a live-action Jafar in 2019 who behaves in the same way that animated Jafar did in 1992 without sparking some controversy. If Disney kept queer-coding its villains in these new live-action movies, the company would almost certainly be criticized in precisely the same way that their past animated films have faced new scrutiny as audiences became more familiar with LGBTQ issues. But if Disney continues to roll back the queer-coding, the company risks being accused of erasing the implied queerness of certain characters.

In a way, Disney is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t—and these iconic animated villains are caught in the crossfire.

That’s part of the problem with targeting these remakes at both younger viewers who may be experiencing these stories for the first time and at older viewers who were raised on the originals: The rising generation doesn’t need to receive the thinly veiled message that queerness is evil, but those of us looking for a nostalgia trip can’t help but miss gay Scar.

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“If you try to really gay [the villain] up, you could be facing accusations of tokenism or stereotype,” James Marion, a cisgender bisexual man, tells NewNowNext of Disney’s predicament. “If you cast with no regard to that history, you have this situation where it feels like an intentional omission.”

Ultimately, the true test of how Disney will handle its queer-coded villains is yet to come: The forthcoming live-action version of The Little Mermaid will need its Ursula—and the shadow of drag legend Divine will loom large over that casting choice. Reports that Melissa McCarthy is close to closing a deal for the role have sent some diehard LGBTQ Ursula fans into a bit of a panic.

“If Ursula is played by Melissa McCarthy, I’ll lose my mind,” Marion jokes. “As someone who, like, competed in drag shows as Ursula and sang her perfect anthem, I will be personally devastated if Ursula isn’t queer as hell.”
 

Genevieve Podleski, a bisexual librarian and Ursula devotee, tells NewNowNext that “it would be astonishing if [Disney] managed to capture the same menacing sensuality and sexuality that cartoon Ursula had.”

If Ursula wore shoes on her octopus-like tentacles, they would be impossible to fill. Perhaps, then, it would be best not to expect Disney to fill them. Nothing, apparently, can stop the company from remaking every film in its catalogue, but I might start thinking about the live-action villains as new characters altogether.

The original Jafar will live on in all his complex glory—and with all his problems—on the VHS copy of Aladdin in my family’s attic, where I can find him anytime I need a singalong. And years from now, if any kid who grew up on the live-action version asks me if that magnificent, shoulder-pad-wearing cartoon character is supposed to be Jafar, I’ll have a line from the “Prince Ali” reprise at the ready: “Yes, it is he / But not as you know him.”

Samantha Allen is the author of "Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States" and a GLAAD Award-winning LGBTQ journalist.
@SLAWrites