I remember as a kid watching The Great Mouse Detective in the theater (which would've been around 30 years ago this summer).
The villain struck a chord in me that I hadn't quite found words for at that age. Not a “drawing scores of occasionally off-putting DeviantArt erotica about Ratigan” sort of chord, but something. It took me a few years to connect the dots that Ratigan had the same awesome spooky Dracula voice as the cool Dracula wizard guy in some godawful Scooby Doo series I was obsessed with around the same age. A man who I admit I later held a bit of a posthumous crush on for years, although he technically wasn't out until a decade after he died.
Thinking on this subject also brings to mind the fey, Shakespearean-style monologuing, yet ripplingly muscled Skeletor. That one inspired a lot of hard-to-explain childhood doodles. And don't even get me started on Venger from Dungeons And Dragons; I could probably write a whole article about that.
What about the way Hercules and Ioluas bickered and doted on each other? Or the way Xena and Gabrielle, even. I swear to God I'll stop talking about sexy barbarians and wizards any minute now.
Today it's nearly two decades after Ellen came out on the air, and a supposedly pansexual character can't even actually be queer in an R-rated fucking movie—but maybe they'll let him have a boyfriend in the next movie. Believe it or not, they're now dangling the same carrot about the next Star Wars movie.
What the hell is happening here?
Well: so the first five years of movies with sound were fucking buck wild. Then the Hays Code came into affect, because folks were apparently having too much fun. Amongst other aspects lined out by the code, the way homosexuality was allowed to be presented was strictly regulated.
This led to all sorts of (in hindsight) hilariously naughty retconning and reconfiguring to fly under the radar. In The Maltese Falcon, for instance, the word “gunsel” (a bit of Polari/Hobo Code that had a meaning similar to “rentboy”) was substituted in to replace the more graphic word “catamite” and made it past the censors. Even wilder, the word became a dime-store detective novel staple, with folks mistaking the term for meaning “hired gun”—although I guess that's not entirely incorrect?
However, the Maltese Falcon also brought us Peter Lorre's character Joel Cairo, frequently cited as one of the first distinctly prominent examples of a “Queer Coded” villain. In the book he is unambiguously gay as fuck, but they aren't allowed to say that in the movie. But boy did they hint at it. Before you even see him, Sam Spade remarks that his business card is perfumed. Lorre plays him as dapper, soft-spoken, effete and leering; he practically fellates the handle of his cane while speaking to Detective Spade.
Pre-Hays Code, homosexual implications were made mostly for humor. Actress Shirley MacLaine observes in the film The Celluloid Closet that “sissies” occupied a sexless neutral space in the character roster. This allows more heteronormative characters to more effectively express their “manliness” or “womanliness” through the foil of the sissy failing to perform either completely.
This is hardly an anachronism: consider all of the gay best friends for straight women, bromancey “no homo” gay jokes, and other ways queer characters are utilized in modern narratives simply as props for more centralized heterosexual pairings.
This new type of villain character, representing the unspeakable, took things a much darker place. Removed from context (because nobody was allowed to say it), the Evil Sissy Villain became a narrative standard, showing up in other gumshoe classics like Otto Preminger's film Laura, and thrillers like Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope.
Strangely enough, one of the longest continuous producers of the trope is actually Disney—they are still doing it. Many of their most recognizable villains fit this trope: Scar, Jafar, Shere Khan, Hades, and yes: Ratigan.
Let’s consider Ratigan again, in one of his iconic moments in the film. He suddenly interrupts his introductory song to murder one of his henchman. Why?
Because henchman Bartholemew, inebriated and caught up in the revelry, calls him a “rat”. Doing so reminds Ratigan of his outsider status (a sentiment queer viewers can identify with) and bores through Ratigan's flamboyant and jovial decorum. It adds a further pejorative caricature aside from the mincing and bon mots as a creature full of shame, delusional, and prone to rage at crass interjections of “uncomfortable truth”.
Unlike a film villain, however, queer folks rarely occupy such a position of power, and our rage is frequently wielded by those who have power over and wish violence on us.
Such fantasy equivocation serves to rob us of the ability to examine the power structures that hold us down.
On the other side of the coin, a more recent narrative development is Queer Baiting.
Queer Baiting functions by implying an unfulfilled sexual-tension or dynamic with constant “No Homo” reminders to keep the whole thing just out of reach, hence the “bait”. It pits the canon against queer folks' desires for representations, all the while promising “hey maybe next episode”.
Early examples include the Hercules/Iolaus and Xena/Gabrielle pairings I mentioned earlier. It was also playfully explored in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, before allowing the character an ultimately doomed relationship reminiscent of the darkest Hays Code tragic gays.
Suggested homosexual tension between characters has been around since the days of our parents Star Trek erotica. The difference the past few decades has been the writers become aware of and deliberately teasing it. Gregory House and his doting long-suffering best friend pretend to be a gay couple for an entire episode. To Watson's consistent dismay, and the near-obsessive yearnings of the audience, he and Sherlock Holmes are frequently mistaken for a gay couple in Sherlock. And an awful lot has been written about Supernatural.
“Will they or won’t they” tension is a staple of even more heteronormative sitcom narratives. I get that. People tune in for years to get tortured over their One True Pairing doting over each other yet not going all the way. In many cases, it can’t be denied that the queer fan base is substantial without any concrete representation.
Throwing that demographic just enough of a bone (so to speak) to court scandal and controversy, while keeping it subtextual enough to not ruin the fantasy of (as well as reinforce the expectations of) the straight audience is deliberate exploitation.
The problem, as queer people, is this continues to treat our stories, our yearnings, and our experiences as unspeakable. Something to be whispered, scrutinized and doubted. Keeps it closeted right in front of our faces.