“Queer coding” is one of the more interesting ideas in media analysis to be almost exclusively applied to the same thinkpiece about Disney villains over and over. It’s not a well-defined term but I’d describe it something like this: characters and relationships in art are queer-coded when they have traits that read as queer to at least some of the audience, but are not explicitly so. It’s slippery and subjective and can easily get muddled up with other ideas. It’s sometimes used interchangeably with ideas like queer subtext (when queer themes run under the surface of a piece of art otherwise not overtly queer) or queerbaiting (when writers tease that characters are queer and may form relationships to pander to LGBT fans, but never follow through). Queer subtext has a long history in literary studies, e.g. The Great Gatsby as a story of Nick Carraway’s unrequited love for Jay Gatsby, while queerbaiting is a very recent term, originating in fandom and mostly used in reference to serial formats, e.g. TV shows like Supernatural (with baited characters Dean and Castiel) or film series like Pitch Perfect (with baited characters Beca and Chloe).
Queer coding is different: it doesn’t need to hold up to scrutiny like an argument for subtext does, and it doesn’t have to be deliberate on the part of the artist like an accusation of queerbaiting does. It gets at something narrower and subtly distinct – queer coding often describes stereotypical traits (e.g. limp wrists) but it can also refer to ineffable qualities that aren’t burdened with connotations of queerness in larger society. Taking it back to Disney villains for a second, sometimes I totally see where people are coming from when they read them as queer. Jafar from Aladdin is unmarried, wears winged eyeliner and has a lisp, I get it. But then someone says Hades is like a sassy gay guy and it just doesn’t connect at all. We’re into something altogether more subtle and subjective, because there are lots of “sassy” or “snarky” character archetypes – black women and Jews spring to mind – and characters can even be those things without fitting into or referencing archetypes. That can just be their personality. Yet, even without anything in the story that implies it’s the case, there’s something that makes Hades read queer to some people and not to others. (He reads Jewish to me, for the record.) And while a lot of queer coding can be explained as a kind of glint of recognition in the eye of an LGBT audience, that’s not exclusively the case. Characters and relationships can come off as queer to straight people too.
I’ve been thinking about queer coding a lot ever since I watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show has a well-acknowledged place in LGBT history. “To me, the landmark event in gay TV was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. One single line of dialogue changed my entire life,” said Michael Musto, the legendary Village Voice gossip columnist, in reference to season three’s “My Brother’s Keeper”. Snobby Phyllis spends the episode fretting that her visiting brother Ben is going out too much with working-class Rhoda and eventually confronts Rhoda at Mary’s house party. She mockingly tells Phyllis she and Ben are going to be married, which prompts Phyllis to burst into tears. After everyone else awkwardly leaves Mary’s apartment, Rhoda and Phyllis have the following exchange:
RHODA: Phyllis, for heaven’s sake. I can’t believe you took me seriously.
PHYLLIS: What do you mean?
RHODA: Well, Phyllis, Ben and I aren’t getting married. He’s not my type.
PHYLLIS: What do you mean he’s not your type? He’s witty. He’s attractive. He’s successful. He’s single.
RHODA: He’s gay.
PHYLLIS: He-he-he’s what?
RHODA: He’s gay. I thought sure you knew, Phil. We’re not getting married.
PHYLLIS: Oh Rhoda, I’m so relieved!
Valerie Harper, the actress who played Rhoda, “was the first person ever to mention the word ‘gay’ on network television” according to The Advocate. But more than just saying the word, it was groundbreaking because it portrayed being gay as something you could be and receive not just tolerance from your family, but enthusiastic acceptance. Episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show typically ended with a short scene that served as an epilogue to the plot, with the credits starting to play over the character’s faces at the end. The epilogue of “My Brother’s Keeper” picks up later in the evening, with Mary and Rhoda cleaning up after the party while Ben plays piano and Phyllis requests he play something for her. Phyllis learning about Ben’s sexuality hasn’t changed things a bit. He asks if she wants to hear the jingle from his dog food commercial or Mozart, she tells him to play whatever he feels, he plays an elegant tune, she says she loves Mozart, he says it’s his dog food commercial. Big laugh from the audience. Fade to credits.
It’s a fantasy of gay acceptance. It was a fantasy then, and if it’s less of a fantasy now, it’s still too much a fantasy for many. I think often of how LGBT people are overrepresented among homeless youth because they’re so often thrown out by their parents or forced to flee abuse. I think of the victims of serial killer Bruce McArthur, who was able to kill people in Toronto’s gay community with impunity for years thanks to police negligence. I think of how the murder rate for trans people in the US is rising, even as people complain the advancement of LGBT rights has gone too far, that it’s all a slippery slope into this or that nightmare of reactionary bullshit. Fantasies have their value when they give us something to hope for, and to that extent, The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s gay episode remains an important moment in LGBT history, in media, at least.
When Mary Tyler Moore passed away last year, the impact of that episode was discussed in a raft of articles. There were even some sweet pieces by older gay men about how Moore’s character, Mary Richards, had been a kind of icon to them. She’d left her hometown to start over in the big city, an easy theme for young gay men to latch onto in the seventies, or now, for that matter. The first iteration of its theme song, the lyrics of which are addressed to Mary, says “you might just make it after all”, but as the series progresses and Mary grows more confident and comfortable in her new life, it changes: “you’re gonna make it after all”. It’s of an obvious kind with other women-led shows and films that have had large gay followings over the years. The Golden Girls. Death Becomes Her. Dynasty. Grey Gardens. The Nanny. And so on.
I was watching the last season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show when the tributes and thinkpieces and so forth started flowing. I was baffled to see that no one was talking about the gayest character on the show, Murray Slaughter.
Murray is Mary’s co-worker and friend, a copywriter at the news station where she works. He is also, I should be clear, not gay. He’s happily married to Marie, with whom he has two children. He’s as likely as the show’s other male characters – newsroom chief Lou Grant and anchorman Ted Baxter – to remark on the attractiveness of female characters, including Mary. He never expresses attraction to men at any point in the show. In fact, in a late episode, he confesses to Lou that he’s secretly in love with Mary. Murray is, by any reasonable recitation of the facts of his life, straight. But from the second I started the show to the second I finished, I was blown away, time and again, by how gay he was.
It’s hard to describe why. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, writes that Murray was originally based “on a gay colleague of [series co-creator James L.] Brooks at CBS News who kept a pair of ice skates in his desk drawer to hit Rockefeller Center on his lunch breaks”, but that notion of the character was swiftly abandoned, especially when an unintuitive casting choice was made for his character. Gavin MacLeod originally auditioned for the role of Lou Grant, which was in keeping with his filmography. His career to that point had mostly consisted of military roles – he was part of the cast of McHale’s Navy before leaving in the second season to appear in the war film The Sand Pebbles, and appeared on multiple episodes of Hogan’s Heroes as several different Nazi military officers.
But he saw something in Murray, who was intended to be Mary’s workplace nemesis: a heart beneath the snark that characterised him in the pilot script. He asked to audition for Murray at the last second, despite a great reception in the room for his Lou audition, and landed the role. He definitely brought the warmth in his portrayal of Murray. This character conceived as a nemesis instead assumed a mother hen role for Mary: where Lou was a gruff, stern father figure, Murray was comforting and supportive. With his position as a sexually unthreatening male confidante and cheerleader, Murray’s role in The Mary Tyler Moore Show is, basically, the gay best friend. He only fits the archetype more with his style of humour. He is, like most of the characters, witty and sarcastic, but MacLeod’s line readings are arch and even a bit flamboyant. It’s a horrible, sexist word that’s only applied to men to compare them pejoratively to women, but to the extent it’s useful to describe a particularly gay idea of sass and snark, “catty” is the term that most resembles Murray’s humour, and those consistent character traits clearly, to me, at least, code him as queer.
Not only does he read queer despite the fact of his straightness, but it’s one of the episodes most dependent on his straightness where he comes off the most gay. “Murray in Love” is the episode where Murray confesses to Lou at a bar that he’s in love with Mary and plans to tell her. Lou asks him where it’ll lead:
LOU: I mean, what if you do? What happens then?
MURRAY: Why does anything have to happen?
LOU: Well, Murray, listen. Loving someone does imply certain consequences.
MURRAY: No, not necessarily. Not this kind of love. You see, Lou, I still believe a man can love pure and chaste from afar. Why not? Why can’t he? I think he can.
LOU: “Pure and chaste from afar”. That from a song?
LOU: What’s the song?
MURRAY: “The Impossible Dream.”
Throughout the episode, his pining for Mary has a strange innocence and self-flagellating aspect that makes me think of a long-closeted gay man confessing his love for a man. He never mentions sexual attraction to Mary. “All I wanna do is touch her face, Lou, that’s all, just touch her face, just touch it,” he says, reaching up to touch Lou’s instead. Lou brushes his hand away. “All I wanna do is just touch it, just touch it,” and he reaches up to Lou’s again. Lou brushes it away again. The bartender walks over to Murray. “Listen, fella, not in this place.” (The Mary Tyler Moore Show doesn’t do a lot of gay jokes, but it does a lot of gay bar jokes.) With the reference to a musical, Man of La Mancha, as the source for a line about how he can just live with his desire and go on being the family man he’s supposed to be, the scene could hardly be gayer, except, obviously, by being explicitly gay. It’s so easy to imagine the episode otherwise exactly the same, only Mary is replaced with a male co-worker.
And it’s not like, in the context of the show, Murray’s straightness is unconvincing. He doesn’t seem insincere in his love for his wife, or his wandering looks at other women. But lots of closeted gay men are convincing in the closet. One of the most interesting things about Sal from Mad Men is how, at work, he sounds just like the rest of the guys when making lewd comments about female co-workers. If the audience didn’t know Sal was gay, if we didn’t have explicit scenes confirming this, it’s easy to imagine he wouldn’t come off that gay all told. At best, he might come off no more gay than Murray.
I know I’m not alone in this. While his name didn’t crop up in any articles written last year, research for this piece turned up dozens of forum posts where people listed Murray among characters in fiction who come off gay to them. There are many such characters, who for reasons both obvious and inexplicable, read that way to all sorts of people. Characters who are never implied to be gay in the narrative, but there’s just something about them. Some of the more common examples are of close male friendships that possess an unspeakable erotic or romantic charge: Mark and Eduardo in The Social Network, Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple, and, most famously, Bert and Ernie in Sesame Street. But there are also characters who just come off gay to people for, I dunno, reasons. Ripley from Aliens. Luke Skywalker. Velma from Scooby Doo. Sometimes you can point to something, even if it’s superficial or stereotypical, but a lot of the time, it’s just an unshakeable sense of the character as gay.
I can’t say why, definitively, Murray seems gay to me. Many of the character traits I’ve listed are also present in other characters that don’t read queer in the same way – Buddy from The Dick Van Dyke Show comes to mind, with his grouchy exterior that covers a warm heart and his dry, caustic wit. (His cutting jabs at Mel’s self-importance mirror Murray’s jabs at Ted’s vanity almost perfectly.) It’s not just Gavin MacLeod either: his character in The Love Boat mainly just reads like an asshole. And, clearly, lots of other people – including gay people – have watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show over the years without reading him as a closeted gay man. And yet.
This is why I think queer coding is a useful idea and why I hope it can be explored more rigorously by pop critics in the future, instead of, and I can’t stress this enough, almost exclusively being used to discuss Disney villains. It’s been unbelievably frustrating over the past couple years, as I’ve sought out previous critical writing to help me unpack and examine my read of Murray to discover that it almost exclusively concerns villainy. I don’t have any issue with work discussing the queer coding of villains, obviously, but queer coding has broader facets than how it teaches kids to be suspicious of stereotypical queer traits like effeminacy in men or gender ambiguity in anyone. Maybe there aren’t a lot of queer-coded heroes to write about, for the same reason there are so many queer-coded villains, but there’s a whole spectrum of characters between heroes and villains that are worth just as much attention, if not more. Off the top of my head, in addition to those already listed: Tonks from Harry Potter; Gale from Breaking Bad; Conrad from Ordinary People; Chris Traeger from Parks and Rec.
The implications of coding villains as queer seem clear enough, but I don’t have any idea of what people think about queer-coded characters who don’t fit neatly into a hero/villain binary, who aren’t even main characters in a lot of cases. I freely admit I do not have the analytical tools to dig further into my read of Murray as gay and what, if any, implications it might have. I stand on the shoulders of giants, etc. and I don’t know where to start exploring the queer coding of non-villainous characters when villains is all anyone else writes about.
And I’d really like to, because Murray Slaughter is super gay, and I want to know what the deal is.