“Why can’t there be gay villains?”
As someone who cares deeply about queer representation, I see this question asked a lot. A writer develops a deeply homophobic caricature of a villain, there’s online fallout, and this is the refrain.
Surprisingly, I actually have something in common with the commenter; I too want more gay (and bi, lesbian, etc.) villains. Villains bring with them a certain caché and power fantasy that most heroes don’t. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I spend most of my adult days wishing I could topple oppressive power structures as Poison Ivy.
It’s not that there can’t be gay villains; it’s that they need to be handled with care. Inspired by Panelteer Marcy Cook’s piece “10 Rules For Making a Modern Transgender Superhero,” here’s a list of rules for anyone seeking to write a gay villain (super or otherwise).
(Note: I’m using “gay” as an umbrella term for minorities of sexual orientation, though each minority group may have its own specific tropes to be conscious of.)
#1 – Have gay heroes.
If your only gay character is a villain, you, intentionally or not, are sending a message to readers of “straight is good, gay is evil.” For many people in the world, anything aside from heterosexuality is a sin, a crime, evil incarnate.
In any “protagonist vs. antagonist” setup, there are power dynamics, and those persist even between different types of queer identity. Having a gay male hero doesn’t excuse having a villainous lesbian, especially if she’s your story’s sole lesbian.
Also, this is a great rule in general. When in doubt, have gay heroes.
#2 – Also consider power dynamics with regards to race, gender, etc.
SPOILERS FOR ALL-NEW X-MEN #40: In case you missed it, Iceman (Bobby Drake) recently came out as gay in a very controversial issue of All-New X-Men. Though undoubtedly a good thing (if problematic in execution), something happens at the end of the issue which sours it.
Karma (Xi’an Coy Manh), a disabled Vietnamese lesbian, appears to have turned evil. If true, this turns one of Marvel’s very few lesbians into an adversary for a gay white dude (and pals). It’s hard to call that progress. My fingers are crossed that it’s just a fake-out.
For added context, Marvel hasn’t had a lesbian protagonist active in their universe since January.
#3 – Don’t weaponize their sexuality.
“Power Set: Cryokinesis, density manipulation, gay panic induction?”
Used in cases involving assault or murder, the “gay panic defense” is a legal argument which blames said charge on a temporary insanity brought on by the victim’s same-sex advances. It’s often used to defend homophobic hate crimes.
It’s a defense considered bogus by experts in psychology.
Anything that puts a villain’s sexuality in an evil, perverse light contributes to a queerphobic culture that often reacts to what they see as “deviant” sexuality with violence. If you must show a villain’s romantic or sexual inclinations, make sure every advance is consensual, welcome, and portrayed in a healthy manner.
Mob boss boyfriends? Yes. Mob boss who sexually taunts the hero? No.
#4 – Derive humor from anywhere except the character’s sexuality (or related stereotypes).
Though fighting crime is serious business, facilitating it can often be quite fun (so I’m told). With their flair for the dramatic, supervillains make for a great comedians and entertainers; just look at Harley Quinn!
If your villain is to make your audience laugh, make sure the humor’s not derived from their sexuality or stereotypes. Gay folk worldwide are made fun of for being too feminine, too masculine, or too anything outside the HeteroNorm. Contributing to it makes you the villain.
#5 – Be aware of stereotypes.
In superhero comics, polysexual characters (people attracted to multiple genders) have a penchant towards promiscuity, duplicity, and questionable morals. See: Mystique, Loki, Constantine, Deadpool, Catwoman, Daken, maybe Harley Quinn?, etc.
Stereotypical characters are not, in and of themselves, wrong. People like this exist in real life, and deserve fair representation. Problems arise when stereotypical characters are a minority’s sole representative, and when characterization is two-dimensional. Give readers a non-stereotypical counterpoint.
Being aware of these stereotypes are key to subverting, expanding upon, and contexualizing them.
#6 – Don’t code characters as queer, especially villains. Go big or go home.
In reliving my childhood through Netflix’s sprawling catalogue of old animated series, I’ve come to realize there are a lot of queer-coded villains in kids’ media. Disney repeatedly uses the “Sissy Villain,” the feminine, limp-wristed, wimpy, well-dressed, often thin male antagonist trope. See: Scar, Prince John, King Candy, Captain Hook, Governor Ratcliffe, Ratigan, and others who are more debatable. Ursula is literally based on drag queen Divine.
These characters might not actually be gay, but they embody a host of related stereotypes and are made into monsters for it. But don’t worry, they aren’t actually gay, right?
This isn’t limited to kids’ stories, though. Bond film Skyfall and the MCU’s Daredevil both have queer-coded villains in universes without queer heroes, or characters at all. Studios fearing from the pearl-clutching contingency need not worry about “Protect the children!” here, yet there are still no queer heroes and only queer-coded villains.
#7 – Give them excellent hair.
This is less of a rule, more of a suggestion based on lifelong, observational experience.
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