For Part 1 of this series about queer theory and comic book history, click here.
We can’t talk about heroes without talking about villains. And we can’t talk about villains without talking about Queer Coding.
In academic theory or analysis, “Queer” is vaguely understood to be The Other in regards to societal expectations of sexuality/gender. This is different from casual usage of the word queer, which is used as a slur by some, and increasingly commonly as an umbrella term for gender and sexual minorities, by members of that same community (such as yours truly).
We can’t talk about The Other without acknowledging what is in opposition to The Other. So in queer theory, this can be vaguely understood to be the societal belief that heterosexual and cisgender experiences are The Norm, normative, etc.
For this reason, it is not necessary to “prove” that a character engages in same-sex behaviors or attractions in order to argue that a character is “queer coded” by the choices made by storytellers. Instead, what is being argued is that storytellers are using deviant (which in this academic sense just means not-normative) sexual or gender behaviors as an allusion to criminal and/or amoral motivations.
There are many examples of queer coded villains out there: Scar, Rattigan, Hades, and Jafar of the Disney universe, or Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates of live-action thrillers, or countless video game bosses such as Sephiroth or Vega or Vamp. All of these villains have different goals, motivations, and outcomes, and they perform different evil acts in pursuit of them. But they all share a certain…swishiness in common with one another. A wimpy, un-manly, un-masculine way of carrying themselves. A way that is often deliberately contrasted with their normative foils, the hero who defeats them.
In comic books, there’s no example I love more than The Clown Prince of Crime himself, The Joker.
Batman has an entire Rogues Gallery, but The Joker is his oldest foil. If Batman is a symbol of conquering fear to fight crime, Joker is a symbol of using fear to fight society. If Batman is Order, Joker is Chaos. If Batman is dark and brooding and serious, Joker is bright and garish and absurd. And while Batman believes he has conquered his traumatic past, Joker believes his own traumatic past has conquered whoever he may have once been.
These are what are generally acknowledged to be the intentional themes of Batman and Joker’s dynamic throughout the ongoing (and often-regenerated-but-tweaked) nature of comic book storytelling. But there are many unintentional themes as well, and those are what often make Joker queer coded among various storytellers through his history.
As mentioned before, if our hero is being intentionally envisioned as incredibly masculine and heterosexually virile, then it can become easier to get that across in contrast to a feminized antagonist, rather than solely through the hero himself. This is why I don’t think it is coincidental that the more aggressively masculine iterations of Batman (Frank Miller, for example), are nearly always paired with an equally exaggerated Joker. While less extreme portrayals of Batman usually have less intentionally-feminine portrayals of Joker.
In The Dark Knight Returns, one of the best selling Batman graphic novels of all time, Batman and Joker have been unseen for decades. In the pseudo-1980s apocalyptic “future”, the two men are nearing the end of their lives, surrounded by a world that has forgotten them, and each are pulled back into their public lives for one last push against what society has become in their absence.
For Batman, this means establishing Order by any means necessary. Gone is the friendly childhood Batman who would never dream of killing or even seriously maiming another human being. Instead we have a heavily armored and heavily armed stormtrooper with pointy ears, who defiantly tells the reader “Rubber bullets. Honest.” A Batman who constantly scoffs at progressiveness and civil rights and criminal reform as the source of the societal scourge he must force himself to defeat in spite of his age.
For Joker, who has been in a catatonic state since the disappearance of Batman, his motivations are summed up in a series of increasingly close-up panels of his mouth as the news reports of Batman’s first sighting. His pale unmarked lips finally speak the word, “Darling,” in response. His ability to return to his life of crime is preceded with an intimate portrayal of him applying bright red lipstick, which is complimented by his bleeding-heart liberal TV-therapist, right before The Joker murders him and an entire studio audience.
Joker’s use of make-up on top of his disfigurement, his flamboyant gestures and theatrical presentation, and especially his use of romantic pet names for Batman; are all relatively unique details added by Frank Miller to what we already knew or assumed about The Joker. These are therefore deliberate and intentional choices, even if the intent itself might not be consciously recognized by the storyteller or the reader.
I mention this graphic novel specifically, because it can be argued the current cinematic versions of Batman have heavily borrowed from it’s costume design, it’s themes, and it’s general aesthetic as the quintessential “grownup” or “edgy” version of Batman; and arguably even Zack Snyder and DCU’s entire filmography. (Which is how we wind up with his and Frank Miller’s version of Xerxes in 300.)
So does this mean it’s Uncool to ever make a villain act in a way that isn’t super-duper cisheteronormative? Not necessarily. I don’t think there’s an inherent problem in having queer villains, by which I mean villains who are literally gender/sexual minorities. I think the problem is using deviant gendered behavior/expressions as a shorthand way of portraying the villain as antisocial.
Hell, I think The Joker would actually manage to be even more fun if his queer coding was allowed to surface as an actual queer person, baiting Batman with taunts about how they’re more alike than he’ll ever care to admit. But that is likely to remain relegated to headcanon and fanfiction.
Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, also of Batman’s universe, are decent examples of villains who are queer, not queer-coded. These two women are, have been, and will continue to be romantically involved with one another. While this was originally “subtext” or maybe even “fan service”, it has since become acknowledged by storytellers and is officially “canon” now.
And believe me when I tell you, most of my favorite Batman stories are when these two ladies doing villainous shit together in a romantic/sexy kind of way and are loving the hell out of it.