Ask your average person if they have every heard the term Queer Coding and they’ll likely say no. It’s not a very well-known word. But the concept is, especially in queer communities.
Not too long ago, we all got together to watch the newest Disney Princess kick some butt. Of course, I’m talking about Raya and the Last Dragon. And while we all enjoyed it immensely (dragons, kick ass princess, Asian representation!) there was one little thing that drove every one of us a little batty. (warning: there may be spoilers ahead! Feel free to skip ahead to Queer Baiting & Queer Coding.) That little thing was Namaari, the main antagonist and Raya’s… friend/enemy.
I mean, just look at her! She is a fierce warrior princess in her own tribe who is giving off serious Ruby Rose vibes. (A moment of appreciation for Ruby Rose because… sigh.) Back to Namaari! Her appearance and demeanor were giving off all of the “I’m not straight and also kind of into you” vibes whenever she was around or talking about Raya. And the interactions between the two characters had a layer of our old favorite enemies to lovers trope. There were sideways glances, witty banter, and little hand touches and shoulder nudges that seriously had us squealing with barely suppressed AWWWWs.
We held our breath through the whole movie, waiting to see if Disney would FINALLY give us a queer romantic relationship. They didn’t. And we kinda knew they wouldn’t. Disney and the other studios know how to draw in audiences of all backgrounds. They give us queer folx just enough to bring us in, but then pull back at the last minute so as to not offend the straights.
Which brings us to a little bit of a history lesson here.
Queer Baiting & Queer Coding
The former is just that. A bait and switch with a queer twist. It’s giving audiences the sense that there will be an adorable queer romantic storyline for us to ship so that we go see the movie. And then not giving it to us!
Queer Coding is what Disney did to Namaari. It is essentially when a character is given traits or features that are typically read by audiences as queer, but never saying they are. This usually looks like more feminine men and more masculine women. It goes beyond haircuts and clothing and encompasses the character as a whole. Some examples from the Disney vaults: Governor Ratcliffe from Pocahontas; Scar from The Lion King; Hades from Hercules; Ursula from The Little Mermaid; Prince John from Robin Hood; King Candy from Wreck It Ralph.
While queer coding in itself is not good or bad, the effects can be. The good: queer audiences do get to see themselves depicted in film, even if they are not explicitly acknowledged. The bad: these characters are a lot of times the bad guys. Which puts the connection that gay is bad in the minds of the entire audience. And then reinforces that idea over and over and over. See that list above? Those are kids movies. And those are all bad guys.
Where did it come from?
History time! This practice can be traced back to the 1930s, when the Hays Code came into existence. This was a set of guidelines and standards brought to the studios by a Jesuit Priest and a Catholic layman to “help” them decide what was acceptable and not for a general all ages audience to see. Namely, to protect the most impressionable in the audience (read: children).
The Hays Code had two parts. Part one was kind of the summary and purpose. It used phrases like “moral standards” and “the correct standards of life.” It was essentially stating that studios should only produce films that upheld traditional (Catholic) values. It also stated that authority figures should be presented in only good light. No poking fun at the cops or letting audiences empathize with the criminals.
Part two was a list of specific things that were not acceptable. And guess what was on it! You’re right. No sexual perversion allowed! But this rule was not only about homosexuals. It was also about race mixing! So no gays and no black/white sex. There were also items addressing affairs and any sex outside of marriage, crime and punishment, and depicting authority figures.
The code was enforced from 1934-1968, though starting in the 50s enforcement seriously began to decline. Perhaps in part because of a major SCOTUS ruling in 1952. Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson was brought forth to the Supreme Court and they ruled that motion pictures fell under First Amendment protections. Which basically meant, no censoring them because a handful of people are offended by the content.
Why is it important?
While the practice of queer coding is not inherently bad, the associations that many have about the LGBTQ+ community come from it. Seeing villains constantly being shown as queer is damaging. It just feeds into the stereotypes. Also, queer coding is not real representation. We want actual open queers in our media! We want to see ourselves in the movies and shows that we watch.
Back to Raya and Namaari.
Everyone agrees that when it comes to Asian stories (or any other non white ethnicity) representation matters. It is applauded, especially in children’s movies. Remember the cheers when Disney finally featured a Black Princess? Kids need to see themselves on the silver screen just as much, if not more than adults. That means queer kids too.
Creating Namaari the way she is… showing her relationship with Raya the way they did… And then not saying it out loud was just… cruel. We almost had representation. We were literally thisclose to that representation. To have a princess of our very own that we could look up to. Thisclose. Instead of showing a beautiful queer relationship, Disney chose not to offend a small group and keep it all platonic.
So thank goodness for fan art like this. The beauty of creating something and giving it to the public, is that we then get to run with those characters the way we see them. For Raya and Namaari, that means we get to see these two strong princesses together, in a way the studio was too afraid to show.
For more about the Hays Code and Queer Coding in other genres check out this video by one of my favorite youtubers. Or read over this article on SyFy. For more of my LGBTQ+ centered posts, click here.