A BRIEF HISTORY OF QUEER CODING IN FILM: PART 3

Part 1 was thesis, introduction of queerness in film pre-Hays, exploration of what the Hays Code was and its broad impact on the film industry. Part 2 covered what ‘queer coding’ looked like in films post-Hays to today.

This post digs a little into the impact of coding: its ever-rippling effects, how it has shaped who we read as ‘in a relationship’, what characters we see as villains or heroes on film and how that bleeds into real life.

7. Ongoing Usage and Effect of Coding
– Blockbusters
– Queerbaiting
– Queerness and Villainy
– When Reality and Celluloid Collide
– Unintended Consequences, or Seeing Ships Where They Ain’t

8. Links and Resources
– discussion of the Watchlist from Part 1
– shownotes and other links of interest

Blockbusters

Marvel, DC, and Star Wars are the biggest franchises on any size screen in most every country on the planet, and they engage in coding and baiting for a dozen reasons, but most boil down to: they want all the dollars but they also want to distribute to every country no matter the rules around queerness on screen. They’ll happily trot out this excuse to cover their other general homo-shyness, as though it’s a good reason to begin with.

Captain Marvel is queer-bait-y as fuck, and while you can try to hand-wave that with “the characters were serving under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, so would have had to be veiled in ‘real life’ as well,” it’s a weak excuse and they know it and knew it even as they chose the year the film was set. 

More on the definition of queerbaiting below, but in short: big blockbusters are baiting hard, with no excuses, because when you’re the most powerful movie franchise / studio in the world, you’re the one making the rules and deciding how to play by them.

Baiting is especially insulting when coupled with a reality where, for example, a franchises’ self-trumpeted queer representation is two women kissing in the background for two seconds, the better to be deleted in certain overseas distribution. Every year they announce a new queerest character EVAR and it turns out to be a tertiary character who offhandedly says “boyfriend.” If that’s the universe’s idea of “GAY CHARACTERS!” is it any wonder that fans starved for representation and depiction will read Finn and Poe as being in love . . . even before the rampant sexual tension and attractive actors suggested it? Also, note to Disney, your pathetic attempt to repudiate this by conjuring a female love interest / ex for Poe does nothing to quelch this reading, because helloooooo bisexuals exist!

Hilariously (as in irony, not as in ha ha) a lot of what corporations trumpet as QUEER REPRESENTAAAAATION! has resulted in less representation and fewer queer characters on screen than when characters were coded. Sure, a background kiss may be more direct queer lip contact than some 60s films, but as mentioned in Part 2, those movies were quite brazen about suggesting what was going on behind closed doors, even though they weren’t allowed to show it. Meanwhile, modern films can barely be arsed to wave their hand in the vague direction of the doors. Or if they do, it’s a slight enough motion they can protest “I wasn’t waving, I was just . . . ah, em, brushing away a mosquito! Nothing gay to see here!” Then they continue making the smallest ever hand motions for years and hope that satisfies those who want to break the doors down.

That, friends, is baiting.

Queerbaiting

Queer people and people who enjoy queer stories are a big demographic, but so are homophobes and countries with anti-gay legislation. Thus queerbaiting is a growing trend, as producers and networks and plain old homophobes try to have things both ways.

A lot of queerbaiting looks like a lot of queercoding, so what’s the difference? Very broadly:

  • Queer coding is done by people working within a larger, more powerful system which forces upon them certain rules, limitations, and strictures. Queer baiting is for the ratings.
  • Coding may start small, but given time must progress / evolve; (generally) involve all creatives; and imply consummation, not just attraction (see: Pt 1, ‘lighting each others’ cigarettes’ etc.) Queer baiting can go on indefinitely without ever insinuating reciprocation or one or both characters’ queerness, let alone consummation.

TL;DR: Xena is queer coding, Star Wars is queerbaiting.

You can ‘bait’ in more ways than one, for example teasing a character as being gay/bi/ace/NB/trans/etc, but the most popular bait is to put two characters in a Will-They-Won’t-They situation . . . without ever so much as confirming it’s a WTWT situation or there’s even a whisper of attraction.

Sometimes characters simply exist and the audience projects onto them (more on that later), but if you double down and don’t pay off, the baiting is on you. For example, it seems Star Wars’ Finn and Poe started as a happy accident, but in subsequent films when writers pushed buttons such as ‘Finn wears Poe’s leather jacket’ but then they insisted on off-screen and on repudiating any queerness from the characters, that’s ‘having it both ways’ / leaning in for profit, no matter how much executives protest.

Historically, there were external, forced reasons for coding; Xena was explicitly forbidden by the network from doing anything . . . so they did everything, just in code, including Gabrielle and Xena being called as husband and/or wife (often with a wink), giving back rubs which came with happy endings, and even managing to have two kisses for contrived but welcome reasons. Another famous example is Buffy’s Willow and Tara using magic as a metaphor for everything from attraction to orgasm, until the show moved networks and they could openly kiss and have sex and be ‘girlfriends’ and break up and . . . well, have half of them suddenly end up dead. (Yet another trope too big for the scope of this intro series.)

It’s harder to determine if a movie is ‘baiting,’ being metaphorical, enjoying a slow burn, or leaning into the story of its times (for example First Cow). Whereas on TV, once something has run for twenty or a hundred hours and they’re still playing up sexual tension or creating elaborate relationship storylines and metaphors without so much as intimating two characters kiss, the audience can’t handwave it and writers/producers can’t protest “oh, we didn’t know!” They know, and it’s baiting.

Of course, even when writers are coding as a tease before a reveal, or to lean into an established trope, etc etc etc. with good intent, it can get mishandled. Whether from writer’s rooms who don’t understand the full nature of the beast, pressure from producers, the desire for RATINGS!, the fact a story trickles down through 18 layers of notes and changes before it is relayed through a game of Telephone to gets to the screen, and because queerness is so often entangled with other tropes, sometimes intent doesn’t translate as intended. 

Then again, sometimes it’s not complicated, and people just want to say “baddies be queer as fuck, dun dun DUN!”

Villainy

As mentioned in Part 1, in the 50s and 60s villains were coded queer via look, wardrobe, stereotypical mannerisms, scent, or simply because they were backstabbing and/or weak. Sometimes noir was not able to be as obvious about its queer villains as the source material, but hankerchiefs, mannerisms, or even just assuming the audience was familiar with the generating novel would do it. While now slurs are used more as a way to insinuate that someone is something undesirable (IE gay) because they are ‘weak’ or losers etc., it started as implying that because someone was queer, of course they were also gay and/or soft and/or of ‘weak moral character’ in every aspect of their life.

Moving forward, a pattern repeated through the decades from Mrs. Danvers to Harry Potter is: villains are often queer, one way or another. This starts with kids movies: The Little Mermaid’s Ursula was based on Divine, most famous for being John Waters’s muse and collaborator, but you’ve also got camp such as the drag-fab Cruella DeVil. Many of these baddie portrayals use techniques assumed in the 40s and 50s – simpering, the colour purple, strong scents, etc – but played for broad laughs.

Real Life and Celluloid

Sometimes real life and fiction converge in interesting ways; for example, Katherine Hepburn pushed for more ‘masculine’ clothing in real life and her characters often followed suit, which led to plenty of speculation about her re-life sexuality swinging both ways. A lot of famous actors who played queer-coded characters – such as the wonderful Clifton Webb, most famous perhaps as Waldo Lydecker – were also presumed queer in real life. In a more recent example, Queen Latifah plays an openly queer butch bank robber in Set It Off, which stood out against a lot of the roles she was getting in more ‘mainstream’ fares, and lent some sort of credence to peoples’s assumptions about her personal life. Those rumours would persist for years, and likely would have even if she were ‘simply’ straight and enjoying a foray into someone totally unlike herself.

But while it’s important to not dismiss queer people, especially when they were being forcibly silenced, it’s as important not to invade when people want their privacy for whatever reason. Actors were often coupled off (by themselves or the studios) for publicity reason or to cover their sexuality. As well, the difference in terminology and society over the years, the veiled nature of many relationships within ‘the system,’ and modern historians insistence on writing off queerness without “proof” like some sort of public declaration or explicit photos, all make it harder to parse the intersection of performance and social constructions and gender and sexuality, which are even now are fluid and overlapping.

Sometimes, a person who is queer in real life plays a character that the audience will then read as queer. Sometimes actors may have chemistry the writers decide to lean into explicitly (as with Person of Interest, where a writer on set observing Shaw and Root’s first scene and the show ran with the chemistry), and/or actors may decide to play their character as queer even outside of the writers’ intent; whether that’s playing them as bisexual, playing them as gay if the writing leaves it ambiguous, or in the case of Cole Sprouse, insistently playing Jughead as asexual and hoping the writers would get on board.

When you start digging into how real life, fans, writers, and actors push and sometimes confuse the line between what is coding, and what is fan-desire, and what is actorly choices, it can get quite blurry.

Add to that queer viewers who over the decades necessarily learned to read coding and thus became adept at reading the signs. In fact, we’ve now become so eagle-eyed we can see things even when they aren’t really there.

‘Apophenia’ is a tendency to draw connections where there are none, and we have it in spades. The thing is, after decades and centuries of real-life people and fictional characters alike being blatantly queer and history pretending they were ‘sisters’ or ‘gal pals’ or ‘really good friends’, is it any wonder we look at actual close friends and say ‘but, maybe?’

Unintended Consequences

Or, seeing ships where they ain’t! 

Bend it Like Beckham is a queer touchstone. Every queer girl you know can quote this movie, even if she doesn’t like soccer, or films, or hasn’t even seen it; it’s that embedded in the gay lexicon. All this even though neither Jess nor Jules is gay; in fact, one running gag is that simply by nature of both playing soccer they are mistaken for lesbians, but both actually want the same boy. The fact there’s a strong energy between Kiera Knightly and Parminder Nagra doesn’t hurt. Neither is bi, but the film is openly anti-homophobic, with anti-queer sentiments treated as antiquated and absurd, and neither of the girls grossed out by incorrect assumptions they are lesbian (or Lebanese). And so, somewhat kinda like the Jos of both Facts of Life and Little Women, Bend It has ascended to the realm of ‘hella queer enough.’

This is a fascinating reversal of the 50 years prior, where women who were clearly actually into each other were presumed to be ‘just gals being pals.’

Because couples of the same gender weren’t able to be married or have sex or make out on-screen, people would write them off as ‘eligible bachelors’ or roommates or good friends, no matter HOW much the coding insisted ‘hey these two love each other like in all the ways and also bang and are not straight even a little.’ The phrase “Harold, they’re lesbians!” infamously sprang from an old couple seeing Carol, and finally realising the glaringly obvious: these women were gonna fuck. This after presumably seeing dozens of movies which would have had similar, coded relationships which they could blithely ignore.

Ignoring coded relationships is pretty easy if you want to, and films often made sure of it; for example, during the Code, the screen adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof excised much of even the subtext of Brick’s queerness. After years of coding and hiding and excising, straight audiences became even more ignorant [intentionally and otherwise] of queer people existing on screen, whereas queer people became even more attuned to a whiff of romance.

Because of their long-running nature, TV is an especially fertile ground in which to sow and reap ‘hella queer enough’ couplings, a la Supernatural, Once Upon a Time and Sherlock. Sherlock and OUAT: baiting. Elementary: barely veiled coding which likely would have consummated it had actors’s schedules worked out. I mean dear gods Irene painted multiple stunning oil paintings of Joan after meeting her maybe thrice, if that doesn’t scream QUEER ROMANCE what does?

(If you really want to discuss the queer undercurrents of Lucy Liu’s Watson and Natalie Dormer’s Irene Adler, how the show leaned into the type of coding which was ‘of the time’ of the original stories, and how the writers worked to confirm attraction at least on Irene’s part while working carefully not to create a “all lesbians are villains” narrative: well, I am here for it, and so is a very extensive category on AO3).

Ahem.

Much as I like to stamp a pronouncement on a coupling and waltz on, it’s not really always cut and dried. Especially in combination with movies and cinema not showing strong examples of platonic love between men, any expression thereof can be referred to as ‘baiting’ even when it’s mean to be a strong friendship a la Legends of Tomorrow‘s Ray and Nate. How do you argue one is platonic love and another isn’t? You can point out that Legends is a show which revels in open queerness and thus would happily pronounce any romantic and sexual coupling as such, while other shows like to shy away from those depictions.

But of course I’m cherrypicking my examples, and dozens more remain on murky middle ground where fans argue online and creators play coy in the press, the better to try and keep every last viewer (and thus their ratings and thus their jobs). This is where both the fun and frustration come in.

Often movies or shows which code their gays are not primarily about queerness or queer relationships, even if whether or not a character or relationship is queer impacts the protagonist and plot greatly, so the ‘importance’ falls by the wayside in terms of the writers looking to shape arcs, which is a damn shame. 

And, of course, not everyone coding their queers does so with positive intent. They may be baiting to get a queer demographic to watch their show without committing to queer characters (or hiring queer writers). They may be trying and please everyone including the bigots by painting a wholly inaccurate portrayal of real life. They may be coding with nefarious intent, using queerness as a way to make their villains seem extra-nasty. They may think making a few extra dollars overseas is worth demonising, marginalising, and erasing a significant number of the population, and along with it everything good bad and in between we encompass. They may want to portray queer people as evil because they believe that to be true (which happens around every type of queerness but is *especially* rampant and nefarious now around trans characters, and must be stomped out at every turn).

For those who – historically or now – want to portray queer love (or just queer romps) but cannot for whatever reason, and so queercode because they must; for those who code because it can be a fun way to play with story; we salute you.

For those who code or bait because you want to force us back into the margins, because you bow to the whims or perceived comfort of homophobes, because you think the allure of cash more important than our lives, or because you think queer people are evil or beneath you or uninteresting or don’t exist or deserve less than anything other than the full rich exploration of all facets of our lives and loves on screen: well, fuck you, and may your life remain boring and colourless until you discover the drastic errors of your ways.

Watchlist, Links and Resources

About the Watchlist

I tried for a Top 3 but ended with Top 4. I chose films which are not graphic; where (at least to my knowledge) none of the directors or stars are violent, anti-queer, racist, abusive in their personal lives or on set, etc.; films which are good but also fun; and which span a variety of years / genres. The first three involve many different kinds of coding to look out for.

Double Indemnity (1944). Black and white crime noir (as opposed to mystery / detective noir). Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Some Like it Hot) directing. Classic dialogue scenes, queer-coding two men in love, or at the very least a back-and-forth, codependent relationship which hints at sex with visuals and has an admission of love. 

The Exorcist (1970). Colour horror, most known for some of its graphic moments (walking down the stairs backwards, pea-soup-projectile vomit), and queer coding rarely discussed but clearly in the subtext (and apparently stronger in the book, which I’ve not read). Queer-coded man, some one-sided longing. Plenty of general sexism and specific homophobia (slurs especially) but most of that comes from a literal demon, so not exactly held up as an ideal.

Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) Period romantic melodrama. Clear queer women in love; based on a book which was much more explicit about that fact, with three scenes in particular which scream LESBIAAAAAAAAAANS; not merely romance and relationship, but sex. Being a melodrama, they ain’t subtle about much.

Bend It Like Beckham (2002) [see above] On my list part because I simply adore it, but also in large partly because it was a big part of my queer awakening.

Links and Resources

Silent Queer films

The Celluloid Closet, a list of films mentioned in the notable documentary on queerness on film.

My full thoughts on coding in The Exorcist

More on Disney’s queer ‘coding’ and eye-rollingly bad representation

A wonderfully frank talk about making The Watermelon Woman, a stone cold queer classic

A short list of notable queer black films

A video essay on coding for the visually inclined

A list of the best and worse queer-coded villains through the decades

Queer Villainy, Queer Erasure

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