“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.
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