In part two of our article about queer representation in media, we continue where we left off in our last article. But first, a refresher for those who don’t remember. We were discussing the film Queen Christina and the possible queer subtext in the movie, as seen by the audience and as portrayed by the actors. In this article, we will explore that more in depth, while also looking at how queer codes led to queer coding in later years.
In this film, there are many hints to King Christina’s sexuality and gender identity. Outside of the obvious ones we discussed in the previous article, there are many more subtle clues, such as the way King Christina walks. Since Greta Garbo was such a well known and well loved Hollywood starlet, she walked like one, except for when she was in character. It is often noted that in this film, Garbo takes on a more traditionally masculine gait and mannerisms.
The character Christina is also given many traditionally male things: the large dogs she keeps with her, a manservant who accompanies her everywhere instead of a maid, the constant presence of other men. This is aside from Ebba, who is only there for a brief time and is replaced by a new lover. King Christina is also given traits that one would often be associated with masculinity at the time, including a highlighted reputation as someone who sleeps with many people.
Often seen as a negative thing for a woman, but in this case, Christina, herself, encourages it. In one scene when two men come to her thinking she is an ordinary lord and not the Queen, they ask her whether Christina has had six or nine lovers in the past year. Tith some persuasion, she ends up starting the rumour she has, in fact, had twelve.
These are all traditionally masculine traits, used to either suggest to her not being heterosexual, as it was often believed non-heterosexual women were more masculine than most women (an idea that was pushed forward by Magnus Hirschfeld who believed homosexuals were a third gender), or suggesting she may not have been a woman at all, but instead a transgender man. Either way, because Greta Garbo and all the others who worked on the film were not allowed to be explicit in their portrayal of King Christina as a queer person, they still did their best to make that fact obvious. To many queer viewers, it was. So a tradition of code began.
This code was not perfect; it could not be explicit, so they had to use symbols, and such symbols in more recent years have become stereotypes. Queer women were often portrayed as doing traditionally masculine things, such as wearing suits and having short haircuts. Queer men were shown doing traditionally feminine things, such as dressing extremely well, having high pitched voices, and being preoccupied with fashion.
It was not long before film executives noticed these things, and often promoted them, knowing such controversial things would get more people to watch their films. And so, a new, more sinister tradition emerged.
The difference between queer coding done by queer people and queer coding done by heterosexual, cisgender, allosexual/romantic people is obvious. When queer people were doing it, they were doing it to connect to a queer audience, and to show they weren’t alone, and when non-queer people did the same thing, it became something else entirely.
There was a small loophole in the Hays Code; it often would not be enforced if the homosexuality that was implied was punished, or shown in a negative light. And many have examined how that affects how we see queer characters today in the “bury your gays” trope, but now we will examine how it affects us in our villains.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope, we see this. The same language that queer people used to talk to each other through art he takes advantage of to portray the villains of the film as queer. A company dear to many of our hearts is also guilty of this: Disney. A particularly obvious example is that of Ursula, who was based on a drag queen and is the villain in The Little Mermaid.
Queer people were forced to talk to each other through the code, and when non-queer people found how we communicated, they took advantage of it. Used the language we created and turned it against us, using symbols and making them stereotypes, using how we talked to each other and saw ourselves in films to weave in the message that our community was evil and depraved. Pushing us to connect with villains, and forcing people outside our community to see us as monsters. We still see the remnants of this cruelty today.
While many films still use queer coding to suggest queer people are bad, others have used it for a more pretty but just as sinister purpose.
As queer culture has moved further into the spotlight corporations, have realized that queer people’s money is just as good as non-queer people’s. But they needed to figure out a way to draw queer people in without offending their “family values” audience, so they began queerbaiting. They took our language again, sewing in subtext about characters and queer couples, but never taking the final step. They build romances and characters that connect with a queer audience, then suggest that the audience itself is stereotyping for seeing what they are shown. Using a technique known as gaslighting film executives have used our language to draw a queer audience in then call them irrational for believing they may see themselves represented.
While not all queer coding and queerbaiting is meant in a malicious way, it is all harmful. While there still are many instances when queer representation is stopped by film executives, so the artists rely on subtext, more often than not it is a manipulative tactic. The codes we used are no longer ours; they were taken and made into harmful stereotypes and aggressive brainwashing campaigns. And the fact that this is not a part of history but a part of our present culture is terrifying.
While we usually end our articles by connecting the past to the present the two are too similar in this case to do so. The way to move forward is clear, having queer artists put back in charge of queer narratives. Having stereotypes that were useful at one point stripped away and replaced with fully fleshed characters and stories. The Hays Code ended in 1968, and queer coding should have died with it.
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