Light spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
Growing up, I was always drawn to the villains when watching animated shows. I wasn’t rooting for them per se (I’ve always condemned Team Rocket’s Pokémon-snatching antics), but something intrigued me about how villains always went against the grain of whatever fictitious society they were aiming to topple.
Whether I was idolizing Ursula’s flamboyant, larger-than-life eyebrows and vivid eyeshadow in The Little Mermaid, James’ play with ‘feminine’ disguises in Pokémon, or Shego’s sole loyalty to herself in Kim Possible, villains have always held compelling characteristics to me. While these traits are separate from what makes these characters ‘villainous,’ the phenomenon that I was mostly drawn to anti-heroes was no mere coincidence. Why were only the ‘bad’ characters given these attributes? Throughout my tween to teen years, I couldn’t seem to put my finger on why I preferred these characters to their hero counterparts, but I recently—finally—figured it out: Their sense of subtle queerness.
Negative depictions of queer ‘villains’ in media
Many of these character subtleties in media stem from the radical Christian, nationalist, and repressive censorship ban in Hollywood that lasted from 1934 to 1968, known as ‘ The Hays Code.’ The code banned several topics, such as homosexuality, in their goal of enforcing ‘appropriate’ media production. Although homosexual characters didn’t disappear from screens, they were pushed into villainous categories—implying that queer people were ‘bad’ based on their sexuality or gender and allowing the hero characters to be more ‘presentable’ to general audiences. Naturally, these emerging queer type-casts stayed on the side of evil after the motion picture industry abandoned the Hays Code, replacing it with aged-based ratings that are still in use today.
For animated shows in the ‘90s and ‘00s, like The PowerPuff Girls and Pokémon, 2SLGBTQIA+ plotlines still connected queerness with inherent malintent. Take Ursula from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. In the original story, Ursula is merely a sea witch who acts as an enabler to Ariel’s whims. But Producer Howard Ashman (a gay man) supported animator Rob Minkoff’s original sketches that were based on Divine, a legendary drag queen whose high-arched, thin eyebrows define Ursula’s face. Divine is a lesser known figure now (which is honestly criminal), but she was a cult figure during the height of her career—People Magazine once called her the “Drag Queen of the Century.” Contemporary audiences may not immediately relate Ursula’s garish performance in “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” low voice, and stark wig-like hair to Divine, but she still carries the qualities of an ‘othered,’ queer villain. While some people, myself included, appreciated Ursula’s distinctive appearance as an enhancement to her character, the unfortunate reality remains that she lacks depth or redeeming qualities beyond a superficial ‘gay’ portrayal. In the heteronormative mainstream, this can perpetuate a harmful stereotype suggesting suggesting that drag queens, and by extension all queer individuals, are exclusively bent on causing harm.
Transgender characters faced a similar fate. Futurama ’s 2003 episode “Bend Her,” for example, depicts a male main character—and arguably complex anti-hero—Bender, who dresses up as a fembot to deceive and cheat other competitors during female events in the robot olympics. Not only does this narrative reinforce the longstanding (and false!) idea that men are physically ‘better’ at sports than women, it also supports the biologically-essentialist narratives that trans women only want to compete with cis women to ‘defeat’ them—when in reality, trans athletes just want to be included.
Seeing yourself in the dynamic villain
Alongside these negative depictions are villains with nuance. Each character has a backstory, fears, hopes, and—ultimately—depth besides their (admittedly occasionally stereotypical) queer traits that defies the flat label of ‘queer villain.’ These are the villains that I—and other queer people—love.
One of my favourite characters is Zuko from the show Avatar: The Last Airbender. Although a prince, he is scarred and cast out of his family at the age of thirteen due to his father perceiving him as weak—a classic misogynistic stereotype associated with gay men. His initial goal in the series is to capture Aang (the titular Avatar) to win back his father’s favour. While Zuko spends three seasons antagonizing the heroes, he simultaneously forges a new path, showing that he doesn’t have to fit into his family’s expectations to be loved and accepted. That’s the exact thing that makes him so redeemable to queer audiences. Queer youth don’t have the luxury of fitting into the assigned boxes that are deemed ‘acceptable’ by a cishet society. We don’t even have the language or the knowledge most of the time that other identities are possible. Gabs Gaston (BA ‘23), a trans-masc self-described villain lover, said it eloquently when explaining why they relate to characters like Zuko.
“I not only see myself in [these characters in] how I’m othered by society as a queer person, but also with the inner turmoil that you have,” they said in an interview with The Tribune. “That’s part of the queer experience is trying to figure out your identity—whether it’s sexuality or gender. [...] And going against the grain is [really] hard. It’s painful and it’s difficult, and it’s like everything is against you.”
Growing up cis and quite feminine meant that I consumed mainstream narratives about how I was going to grow up and marry a man. There’s always been such a binary about how—in my experience—women should and shouldn’t act. So when I started to realize I wasn’t attracted to guys like my peers were, it made me feel like there was something wrong with me. I didn’t know there were other ways to live. Seeing these characters who were ‘outsiders’ helped me feel like I wasn’t alone. The villains’ mere existence was enough to show me I didn’t have to follow every social expectation.
Gaston agreed and said that while they didn’t like every choice the ‘villains’ made, they could understand how a lifetime of vilification could persuade characters to lean into it.
“When you are someone who has been confronted with needing to detangle and deconstruct that [binary] because of how you personally identify, [...] that allows you to see nuance beyond binaries of good and bad as well,” Gaston said. “You can hold in tandem relating to this character who has been rejected from society and has been othered and who has gone through a difficult situation, while at the same time understanding that not all their actions [are good].”
How villains help queer people discover how they identify and present
Villains stand out from their hero counterparts: Why shouldn’t they? They’re powerful, confident, and defiant—counterculture personified in terms of style and ethics. So when queer people see themselves represented in villains, there’s a natural desire to embody them. These embodiments are not to replicate their wrongdoings: Instead, they aim to embrace their interpretation of the villain-aesthetic.
Oona Avery-Jeannin, a queer 3D animator whose work includes the short Hex Boyfriend, discussed with the The Tribune over Instagram how cosplaying as Deidara, a villain from Naruto, helped them to understand their relationship with gender.
“While I was portraying [Deidara] I really got in touch with acting more masculine, and feeling euphoria for the first time. I wouldn’t say he’s queer-coded per se, but having a more feminine appearance yet acting super masculine is what really resonated with me,” Avery-Jeannin wrote. “I still don’t have a clear idea on what gender I can relate to, but through cosplay I was allowed to experiment with being a boy in a socially acceptable way. For costumes, I was able to lower my voice, wear a binder, and contour my face without anyone suspecting that I might be queer.”
Although some 2SLGBTQIA+ people discover their queer identities at a young age, many take years of self-discovery to articulate who they are. And some never feel the need to label themselves—but this self exploration happens nevertheless. Dressing up or even emulating these villain characters gives a lot of queer people the space to safely explore means of presenting outside their assigned gender at birth, or outside what society has regulated as acceptable.
Ultimately, your body is a means of physically presenting how you feel on the inside. And this isn’t an experience unique to queer people. We’ve been told all our lives to fit in with whatever status quo governs our social sphere, when in reality, your appearance is how you express how you feel on the inside. I think Judith Butler, a legendary modern philosopher on gender, says it best.
“The body appears as a passive medium on which cultural meanings are inscribed,” Butler writes in their impactful 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. “These limits [of gender] are always set within the terms of a hegemonic cultural discourse predicated on binary structures that appear as the language of universal rationality.”
Sure, other people will always make assumptions about you based on how you look. But because these villain characters are visible in mass media, the discourse widens within the binary structures that many of us queer people still feel impacted by.
“A lot of cis people only see transness as fitting into the same cis binary of gender, where it's like, if you are a trans man, then your goal is automatically to transition and look like a cis man,” Gaston said. “What a cis man looks like isn't necessarily what a man is, in general. And there are so many grey areas in between that people might want to live in. I find a lot of freedom and self love in that grey area.”
Even people like me, who are cis and dress femininely, can take these villains as inspiration. Think of Poison Ivy, originally a DC comic character, but who’s been adapted in so many franchises since. While she may have been created to pander to heterosexual male audiences, these same viewers simultaneously vilify her for using her sexuality and femininity to her advantage. She is feminine, smart, and doesn’t exist to be eye candy to men. For many queer women, there is a struggle with accepting their femininity while shedding the patriarchal social expectation that they mould their femininity for the male gaze.
Gaston emphasized this, saying that they know several butch lesbian friends whose relationships with femininity have changed since embracing their sexuality.
“[These butch lesbians] were actually able to embrace their femininity more as a butch lesbian because their femininity was not for male consumption. It was not within the male gaze,” they said.
Deconstructing the ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ character binary
Besides Zuko, the majority of characters I saw fell amidst a stark binary of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ And while queer people find camaraderie in these anti-hero characters, it is frankly exhausting to only be portrayed as the villain. It teaches both queer and straight people a single narrative: That 2SLGBTQIA+ people are bad, and nothing more.
But lately, I’ve been noticing more storylines where the villain has similarities to the heroes. The 2018 show She-Ra and the Princesses of Power showcases the majority of conflicts between the hero Adora (who magically turns into She-Ra with a sword—it’s complicated) and the villain Catra. Despite growing up together as cadets for an evil Horde army, their relationship fractures when Adora chooses to fight against the army alongside rebels while Catra says they may as well use their Horde power for self-indulgence. While the two leads are on opposite sides of this war, their underlying (homoerotic) friendship reinforces the notion that both are more than the ‘evil scum’ or ‘princess’ label that their respective friends call the other. And Adora understands Catra’s motivations—her feelings of otherness, her fears of rejection, and her queer undertones—despite Catra’s actions. In the end, Catra changes sides, but doesn’t change her personality. Her queerness still exists, and she is loved and accepted for it.
“As someone who had to learn to love themselves, growing up in a situation where [I was] told not only from society but by family members that these parts of who you are are unlovable [...] it’s appealing to see a character who is ‘othered’ and then reintegrated into a different family,” Gaston said.
Villain characters have long been a sign that queer people can exist outside of society’s gendered expectations. However, these newer storylines that explicitly depict queer-coded villains finding love and acceptance without changing their physical presentation or personality shows 2SLGBTQIA+ people that their identity is not inherently evil. Villains persist to demonstrate that in an exclusive culture, disrupting the social norm is the way to make space and look good doing it.