The Queer Pleasures of Disney Villains

Upon a recent watching of the excellent YouTube video “The Spell Block Tango,” it occurred to me (as it does often), about just how queerly pleasurable Disney villains have always been.  From the sophisticated and cultured queerness of Scar to the over-the-top drag villainy of Ursula the Sea Witch, Disney villains consistently lend themselves to queer appropriations and queer pleasures, opening up spaces of engagement with the allegedly (heterosexual) family friendly fare that is constantly purveyed by Disney.

The Disney animated features canon abounds with figures of queer villainy.  A few examples include:  Ursula (who was, in fact, designed after famed drag performer Divine), Prince John (voiced by Peter Ustinov, who also played the obviously queer and simpering Emperor Nero in the epic film Quo Vadis), Jafar (who we are all is more in love with Aladdin than he is with Jasmine), Gaston (anyone who is so macho and in love with his own heterosexuality has to be queer), and Scar (with the deliciously divine British voice of Jeremy Irons, how can we not take a lot of queer pleasure out of this villain with the “lion’s share” of brains), and Maleficent (who, though not queer, has such a stunning sense of fashion that we can’t help but take a measure of queer pleasure in her).

On one level, all of these characters are simply fascinating, especially when compared to the often lackluster heroes and heroines that populate the Disney landscape (they may be pretty to look at but, for the most part, they are rather bland characters).  In their over-the-topness and their elaborate costumes, to say nothing of their punchy dialogue, these allegedly “evil” characters offer themselves up to the queer viewer as a source of camp pleasure, in that we as gay viewers take pleasure in the artifice and the catty cruelty that these characters so often exhibit.  It’s not that we don’t like Ariel and Eric, or Jasmine and Jafar, it’s simply that their heterosexual romance does not offer the same pleasure as that given us by the characters who exist outside of these heterosexual circuits (however, this does not mean that queer viewers cannot inhabit the position of a Disney princess and desire the prince).  To some extent, whether consciously or unconsciously, we know that those queer characters on screen are our screen likes and our screen egos, and so we identify with them, even as we know that we are not supposed to (they are the villains, after all).

So, what are the politics of all of this?  Is there something problematic about the fact that so many Disney villains are so explicitly coded as queer and that, significantly, so many queer viewers seemingly find pleasure and identification with these evil characters?  Are we as queer viewers buying into the pernicious cultural myth that we are somehow a pestilence and a disease upon the body social?  Of course, if we were adopting the ideology that comes with these images of queerness in Disney popular culture, then that would certainly be the case.  However, I would argue that something far more complex is at work here.  As Brett Farmer convincingly argues in his noteworthy book Spectacular Passions, gay male audiences frequently identify with the tortured and doomed young man (he uses the notable example of Montgomery Clift) not because they see themselves as fundamentally doomed or tragic, but because they recognize in that particular figure the social forces that have resulted in his particular victimized status.  In a similar fashion, I would argue, queer viewers see in the Disney villain not simply an unadulterated and incomprehensible evil, as seems to be what the films themselves want us to take away, but instead a character who is, like the queer viewer, the victim of social oppression. The fact that so many Disney villains are denied backstories—we do not know anything about Ursula, for example, except that she was banished and exiled, for crimes that remain unexplained—allows a space for queer viewers to appropriate these villains and give them stories that make their alleged evil an added level of intelligibility through a queer lens.  In sort, gay men are wresting control away from the narratives themselves, understanding these characters as far more complex, captivating, and ultimately understandable than would seem to be the films’ intention.

All of this is not to suggest that all gay men engage with Disney in quite the same way.  Indeed, there are gay men that specifically do not like Disney or that “grow out of it” and cease to take pleasure in it after their childhood days are over.  However, what I hope I have shown is that Disney does offer queer viewers a multitude of pleasures that exist outside of the normal channels through which mainstream viewers take pleasure in these films.  This issue was brought home to me recently in one of the classes I teach, in which a student responded with dismay to my suggestion that, as a queer viewer, I took pleasure in the fact that the lion scar was so obviously coded as queer.  To her, it seemed incomprehensible that such a thing as queerness could have an influence on the cherished memories of her childhood (she did not say this in so many words, but the insinuation was clear).  In a world in which heterosexuality is still the privileged norm, and even more so in the case of Disney, queer viewers have to find new and challenging ways to engage with the popular culture that surrounds them.

Of course, Disney has not remained unaware of the fact that their villains have fan followings of their own, as the upcoming Maleficent film, as well as rumored projects about a Cruella de Vil and a wicked stepmother film, attest.  One can but hope that these films will continue the proud Disney tradition of making villains that are just as fascinating, if not more so, than their heroic counterparts.  And it can be equally hoped that they offer up similar, and perhaps even more poignant, queer pleasures.

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4 comments

  1. Jinja · November 13, 2013

    I think there’s a general fascination with villains. I wouldn’t say it’s specifically a matter of homosexual empathy for characters outcast by a social structure, though I can see how that would be a factor for some people. In fact heterosexual viewers can also empathize with a character they consider misunderstood or wronged by society. The popularity of Wicked could attest to that. As you said, heroes/heroines are “often lackluster” in comparison to flamboyant, intelligent, and ambitious villains. Ariel wants a boyfriend. Ursula wants to rule to seven seas. Aladdin falls for a princess. His main problem is about the separation of classes. Jafar wants power, not just to rule the country, as can be seen by his wish to be the most powerful genie in existence. We have a culture that promotes ideas of ambition and intelligence, so it’s not hard to see why villains would have appeal. Consider how plenty of women prefer Loki to Thor or Khan to Captain Kirk. Those aren’t Disney characters but I think the premise is the same. Not to mention all the seductive female villains heterosexual men like to drool over. Intelligence, confidence, and ambition are just sexy ^_^

    • tjwest3 · November 15, 2013

      While I agree with your point about our culture being driven by greed and ambition, my point is that there are specifically queer ways of engaging with villains. This is not saying that this is the only way in which people may engage with these characters; it is to suggest that queer people, because of their social and cultural position, engage with them in these specific ways. (I would also point out that not all queer people engage in these ways). It is precisely because the villains display such campy and over-the-top style that they a.) partake of already-established means of depicting queer people on screen (Scar’s arched eyebrow is a case in point) and b.) are so easily appropriated by queer viewers.

      • Jinja · November 15, 2013

        I see. Your focus is on one particular way in which a queer viewer might interpret the villain . One interpretation of many.

  2. floweringplants · December 11, 2015

    I really enjoyed reading your reflection on queer interpretations of Disney villains, and most importantly the benefits as opposed to the dangers, of locating queerness in these particular characters. A lot of blogs talk about the dangers, and they tend to be fans of the protagonists. But it’s an ideal situation for fans of the villains. I especially liked your assessment on Jafar: I’ve read some blogs that exclude Jafar from queer readings because of the supposed attraction to Jasmine, but those blogs don’t tend to be queer. Or if they are, they tend to assert Jafar is hypermasculine and a patriarchal oppressor. (not that I’m suggesting masculine can’t be queer, since Gaston is up there. I’m also not saying that I don’t believe that there are patriarchal oppressors, it’s just that Jafar isn’t one) Maleficent usually is included, though, so I’m interested to read your reasoning behind your assessment that she is not queer.

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