Let Them Be Morally Flawed: In Defense of Queer Villains in Stories

Queerness and villainy have a long history of being conflated by mainstream entertainment, from Peter Lorre’s effeminate and threatening Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon to the obsessed and manipulative Mrs. Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca to, more humorously, the violent Lord Humungus from Mad Max, decked out in leather fetish gear, to the many queer-coded Disney villains, such as the Evil (Drag) Queen in Snow White to the preening Jafar in Aladdin.

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Originally, these queer-coded antagonists were molded to contrast mainstream heteronormativity; the straight cis-gendered heroes of these stories embody traditional ideas about gender and sexuality. On the surface, the villains aren’t explicitly queer, but they wear a cloak of queerness to imply a harmful false equivalency that being LGBTQ+ is morally dubious or, from another angle, that transgressing gender and sexuality norms indicates innate corruption or, perhaps, a moral weakness leading to greater evil.

If you grew up in the eighties and early nineties, as I did, it was difficult to find any positive queer role models in popular entertainment or books; few of these stories were within easy reach. So hungry were we for queer characters, we zeroed in on the flamboyant queer-coded villains, which despite the intention behind these characters, we embraced long before Disney seized the opportunity to capitalize on their beloved baddies and began franchising their origin stories. In doing so, they filed down their villains’ horns for mass consumption.

At first glance, transforming queer-coded villains into protagonists with rich backstories seems well-intentioned and progressive. This revision of villainy seems to challenge conflating queerness with corruption: “Those vicious villains weren’t evil after all, just misunderstood.”

In truth, Disney is just nudging these queer-coded characters into the circle of conventional morality, not widening the circle. The original vampy evil fairy Maleficent becomes a scorned and brutalized lover and later a protective mother figure. Vicious and glamorous fashionista Cruella becomes a Dickensian goth orphan girl-cum-fashion designer. While these films are entertaining, they don’t embody progress as much as they want us to believe they do.

At first glance, transforming queer-coded villains into protagonists with rich backstories seems well-intentioned and progressive.

The irritating choice to transform its villains into fangless, misunderstood outsiders is the flip side of the pressure I’ve felt to write morally upright queer characters over the years. While communicated in different ways, the message from the dominant social forces is the same: “If you’re a well-behaved queer, we’ll offer you some measure of human dignity and permit you as a guest in our club.”

They assume that, above all, queer people want to gain entry into the “superior” heteronormative sphere, and the price of admission is to embrace all the values that inform the traditional nuclear family. To reject the invitation is considered an affront, perhaps even a threat.

While the pressure to write this kind of character comes from cishet culture, it also comes from within the community, and all too often, it’s a skipping record in our heads. The fear is that if writers tell morally complicated stories about queer life, those narratives will be used against us in the court of public opinion or even the court of law.

The assumption is that the moral circumference drawn by the dominant culture is immovable and absolute. The idea of this immutable moral boundary is what creates “respectability politics,” which continues to leave many queer people behind.

Of course, I understand that there’s another approach to this predicament: the Trojan Horse. If we code-switch and present as “respectable” or “good” to allay the homophobic and transphobic bias deeply embedded in society, the gatekeepers will let us through and may even share their power so that we can uplift all members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The rationale goes: we’ll change from the inside. While the idea of Trojan-horsing the halls of power sounds exciting, too often, the leverage received from such a gamble has strings attached, and too often, they are seductive and corrupting. Suddenly, Troy seems quite comfortable, and what began as an invasion ends in a Faustian bargain. So, while I understand the motivations behind the directive to write positive queer protagonists as propaganda for LGBTQ+ rights, I wonder if it leads us where we want to go.

In his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” from Notes on a Native Son (1955), James Baldwin critiques Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a “protest novel” because the book is interested in decrying a social condition, not portraying complex and realistic characters. He writes,

The “protest’ novel,” so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene … Whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating; remote, for this has nothing to do with us, it is safely ensconced in the social arena, where, indeed, it has nothing to do with anyone.

According to Baldwin, the protest novel aims to mirror the moral ideals already held by its readers, not reshape their attitudes toward a group of people by offering them deeply human characters. Stowe’s novel played a role in abolishing slavery, not because it was well written but because it stoked the flames of popular sentiment in the American North.

Writing morally flawed, complicated, or even bad queer characters emerges from an instinct to humanize, which counters the directive that queer writers need to perform virtue in our fiction.

Consequently, Stowe’s simplistic and overly exaggerated stereotypes in the novel have given it a dubious legacy; a novel that once helped spur social change eventually became a tool to limit and dehumanize the people it professes to support.

When I sit down to write a queer character, as I’ve done in all my novels, everything in my being resists the imperative to write a morally upstanding protagonist, not because of Disney or the imperious eye of popular culture or anger at respectability politics, but because of my impulse as a writer to humanize and to do that a writer must lean into multilayered characterization.

Part of the pleasure and struggle of my writing process is in attempting to describe moral gray areas, that liminal space in which we all live. So, the idea of having to construct a character designed to communicate the virtues of queer people feels confining, flat, and dishonest.

In Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin writes from the perspective of David, a white cis-gendered gay man who can’t escape his devotion to 1950s masculine norms to love himself or the man who loves him. David’s flaws are raw and problematic but never oversimplified. He’s rendered with nuance and humanity. He’s a dark, depressing vision of troubled queerness, but we learn something about ourselves from him.

At its best, crime fiction, my genre of choice, holds ethical questions up to the light. It contains a variety of complicated queer characters, from Margot Douiahy’s Sister Holiday, the tatted, chain-smoking, and queer nun who struggles with her faith in Scorched Grace to Kristen Lepionka’s bisexual P.I. Roxane Weary who struggles with alcoholism and relationship issues in The Last Place You Look, to Chris Bollen’s twenty-five-year-old expat con Nick Brink in A Beautiful Crime, an homage to Highsmith’s (barely) queer-coded psychopath Tom Ripley.

In my novels, The Savage Kind and Hall of Mirrors, the first and second in a trilogy, my central characters, Philippa Watson and Judy Nightingale, are both crime solvers and perpetrators in 1950s DC. Their desire to learn the truth leads them down dark moral alleys, but they must transgress their decade’s conventional morals to exact something like justice, even if it costs them their insider status.

Writing morally flawed, complicated, or even bad queer characters emerges from an instinct to humanize, which counters the directive that queer writers need to perform virtue in our fiction (and our lives) for the sake of acceptance or even access to power. There’s much to learn by exploring these characters, especially the histories of cisgender white gay men and women.

In the introduction to their book, Bad Gays: A Homosexual History, Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller write, “‘Gay is good,’ went the old slogan, but it’s no good at all on its own… [M]any of the queers with the worst political goals have wanted to position themselves as heirs to a secret or magical kingdom.” By considering how gay characters have been destructive toward the broader queer community and, ultimately, themselves, we can learn how to avoid these pitfalls in the future. Flawed or evil queer characters are like flares sent up, warning us that no one is incorruptible.

I acknowledge the risk in writing a morally problematic LGBTQ+ character, especially now when trans and nonbinary people are being litigated against and targeted for violence. There still may be a practical political need to present the best of our community for broad consumption.

Still, it rides against a writer’s—or any artist’s—desire to tell the truth. LGBTQ+ people are human like everyone else, which means we represent all shades of morality even as we battle to reshape its traditional boundaries to be more inclusive.


Hall of Mirrors - Copenhaver, John

Hall of Mirrors by John Copenhaver is available via Pegasus Books.

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