Disney’s ingenious theory shows that many of the studio’s broken villains may have a common tragic origin. Throughout Disney’s history, its greatest villains have become almost as iconic as its many heroes, if not more. However, as much fun as it is to watch many of them on screen, some commonalities between them highlight the common theme of their fall to meanness.
The Walt Disney Company’s first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, became the highest-grossing film of all time when it was released in 1937. The American animation industry. Among their many positive contributions to entertainment, Disney also had an unfortunate tendency to paint many of its characters with the same brush and punish everyone who didn’t get into the cracks. In March 2022, this criticism was highlighted in the media and beyond when Disney employees organized a strike to protest the company’s support of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. While that pressure did convince Disney to make some changes, it couldn’t undo its history of problematic queer representation-or even total erasure—in its works.
For a long time, the only LGBTQ+ characters allowed in films were hidden in the subtext. Classic Disney villains in particular have been subjected to this strange coding to help explain their offending. These Disney films infamously excluded villains both because they were “bad guys” and because they did not adhere to heteronormative ideals, inspiring the theory that perhaps these villains had something more than just their misdeeds.
Explaining the History of Disney’s Queer-Coded Villains
Disney has a long-standing strange coding of villains as part of the historical tendency to equate homosexuality with villainy. It is never confirmed that a character with a queer code is part of the LGBTQ+ community, but has certain stereotypical traits that suggest queer to the audience. There is not a single characteristic that encodes a character in this way, but these traits often include exaggerated manifestations of masculinity or femininity, vanity and hypersexuality. Perhaps the most famous example of a Disney villain is Ursula from The Little Mermaid, whose appearance was modeled after the transvestite Divine. However, a host of other iconic villains have also been queer-coded, including Scar from The Lion King, Jafar from Aladdin and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. In Hercules, Hades acted much more vividly and looked much less muscular than the other main male characters. Similarly, in Peter Pan, Captain Hook was more theatrical and dressed with much more care than even the other pirates.
The Disney queer coding trend is problematic not only because it suggests that in order to be LGBTQ+, a person must adhere to these stereotypes, but also because it has traditionally been associated only with villains. Children from a very young age watching any of these Disney films may subconsciously associate the atrocity with homosexuality. These films taught that being LGBTQ+ meant being evil, and by their end, Disney made sure that the villains were punished for it.
Explanation of the general theory of the tragic origin of the Disney villain
The queer coding of Disney villains meant that they were often considered outsiders. By depicting them with such obvious differences from other characters, Disney films further separated the villains from the rest of society, perhaps hinting at their common tragic origin. It was often unclear how or why these villains first became such outsiders in their respective stories, but many could be alienated by the community due to their strange otherness code. This ostracism can be interpreted as what led to the actions of these Disney villains against those who persecuted them; actions that the heroes of their stories perceived as villainous, but in fact could be much more justified than the films wanted to admit.
Of course, no amount of tragedies in the past makes it acceptable to harm others, as many Disney villains did, but their motives can be much more subtle. For example, Maleficent’s decision to curse the young daughter of the king in “Sleeping Beauty” could be caused not only by the desire to cause chaos. After she invaded Aurora’s celebration, one of the good fairies remarked that she was “[not] needed,” highlighting how Maleficent was shunned from the rest of society. Villains like Ursula and Hades were also excluded from the others—for reasons that were often unclear, except for a vague feeling that they were not like everyone else—which caused them to ally with other unpleasant creatures that were also despised, such as Scar’s alliance with Hyena.