Our screens have seen a slow, steady increase in LGBT+ representation. On any popular show these days, it feels more unusual for there to not be at least one ‘queer’ character. Many assume that queer people were non-existent in mainstream media until the 90s, when shows like Will & Grace introduced them to a wider audience. This is a misconception. The first recorded film in history that is considered to be sympathetic to LGBT+ people was released in Germany in 1919. Ten years later, the American film A Florida Enchantment debuted, the first depiction of bisexual characters in the country’s cinematic history. In the following decade, concepts of sexuality and gender were being explored across a wide range of works. All this ended in 1930, when moral panic led to the implementation of a ‘Motion Pictures Production Code’ which forbade, among other things, ‘any inference of sexual perversion.’ It looked like the end of the line for queer characters in media, all of whom would have definitely counted as this by puritanical movie-censors. A new angle had to be taken. By giving characters certain mannerisms associated with queer people, directors and writers could imply, but never explicitly state, that a person was LGBT+. This visual shorthand is known as ‘queer-coding’.
Queer-coding has an unfortunate history, since in most early examples it was unsympathetic characters and outright villains who received the queer-coding treatment, leading to the pretty unsavory implication that immorality and same-sex attraction were synonymous. The ‘Depraved Homosexual’ trope existed for decades, prime examples being the effeminate HIM from The Powerpuff Girls and Ursula from The Little Mermaid, based on the drag-queen Divine. As time, and society, marched on, different motivations for queer-coding gained more popularity. In the last thirty years tentative moves were made to portray LGBT+ characters in a positive light. Xena and Gabrielle from Xena: Warrior Princess, Mr Smithers from The Simpsons, and even Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street are all popular queer-coded characters that would later have their orientations confirmed off-screen, and, in the case of Mr Smithers, eventually in-show. But including representation was still risky. In 1999, Cloverway bought the rights to dub the popular anime Sailor Moon for English audiences. There was just one snag: two of the main female characters were in a relationship and there were several minor characters that were implied to be trans. The show was intended for young girls, so significant changes were made, including the bizarre creative decision to portray the lesbian couple of Haruka and Michiru as cousins who were just really close.
Although Western media is generally LGBT+ positive in the 21st century, there are still companies that are incredibly wary of showcasing queer characters. Disney not only markets itself mainly to children and families, and has a large conservative viewership, but it also has to market its films abroad to regions with very different cultural values. The House of Mouse almost couldn’t release the remake of Beauty and the Beast in Malaysia when it emerged the character Le Fou had an exclusively gay moment. Broadcasters like Nickelodeon also still play it safe. In 2014, Avatar: The Legend of Korra‘s final scene in the series ends with the hero holding hands with her friend Asami as they gaze into each other’s eyes, but the relationship wasn’t confirmed to be romantic by the creators until several hours later, which was rumored to be against studio wishes. Dreamworks’ Voltron: Legendary Defender also confirmed one of their lead’s sexualities off-screen at a convention, preferring to stick to ambiguous dialogue and subtext in the actual script for two seasons. The series’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gay wedding finally confirms Takashi Shirogane as an out and proud queer man, but fans, both gay and straight, were disheartened that it only had a screen-time of seconds.
Despite feelings of disappointment from some quarters with regards to characters being queer-coded as opposed to having open LGBT+ representation, it’s a practice that can be used positively. In Cartoon Network’s breakout success Steven Universe, the coded same-sex relationship (and eventual marriage) of Ruby and Garnet is an important part of the show, as are Pearl’s feelings for Rose. Other main characters are also coded as queer, one even uses they/them pronouns when they are in a fusion. These identities are viewed as natural within the world of the show and go unremarked upon. To some, this treatment of LGBT+ characters as being ‘no big deal’ is as valuable as focusing on coming-out plots and homophobia, as they normalise queer relationships. Dreamworks’ 2018 reboot of She-ra, for example, features two princesses, Netossa and Spinnerella, as a loving couple, and also has plenty of queer-coded elements. Female characters dance together at balls, share beds, and a huge emphasis is placed on the dynamic shared by the main character Adora and her former best friend Catra, a relationship which, if it were a boy/girl pairing, would be hard to portray as anything but romantic. This subtler representation means that when shows are shipped abroad, they slide under the radar and broadcast in countries where explicit queer representation is simply not done, providing affirmation, and a mirror, to the LGBT+ people in these areas that arguably need it most.
Queer-coding is a storytelling tool, and like all tools, it’s neutral. When used negatively it can and does cause harm, but in the hands of the right people it’s also an agent for good. Ultimately, queer-coding is another way to explore the lives and loves of LGBT+ characters, and it deserves continued exploration instead of the dismissal it so often receives.