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The Hays Code & Queer Coding Villains in Hollywood

A film clapper board with the intersex inclusive pride flag along the top. On the board it reads Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans + LGBT+ 2023 History Month
LGBT+ History Month 2023 logo​​

LGBT+ History Month is a month-long observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history, and the history of the gay rights and related civil rights movements. It is celebrated in the UK every February with a different theme chosen each year ranging from highlighting specific individuals or communities, to addressing current issues and challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community. 

The theme for 2023 LGBT+ History Month is "Behind the Lens", and is an opportunity to learn more about the impact of LGBT+ people and their representation in the fields of photography, fashion, TV, and film.

One such influence on how LGBT+ people were represented in film was the Motion Picture Production Code, or Hays Code.

What is the hays code?

The Hays Code, was a set of guidelines established in 1930 to govern the content of films produced in the United States. The code was in effect until 1968, and it had a significant impact on the way in which LGBTQ+ characters were portrayed on screen.

One of the key aspects of the Hays Code was its strict prohibition of any depiction of “sexual perversion” in films, and though not explicitly mentioned, this included homosexuality. As a result, filmmakers were forced to find subtle ways of including LGBTQ+ characters in their projects without openly acknowledging their sexuality. This practice, known as "queer coding", saw LGBTQ+ characters represented through a series of negative stereotypes and exaggerated mannerisms, often as villainous characters.

Jack Favell, played by George Sanders, in Hitchcock
Jack Favell, played by George Sanders, in Hitc​​hcock's 'Rebecca'

In "Rebecca" (1940) directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the character of Jack Favell, a man trying to manipulate the protagonist with his charm, is often considered the embodiment of queer coding in the Hays Code era. The way he is represented in the film, with his flamboyant clothing, and flirtatious behaviour, is used to imply that he is gay or bisexual, despite the fact that this is never explicitly stated in the film.

Still from the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon showing character Joel Cairo. He is wearing a black suit with dickie bow and is holding what looks like a cigar.
Joel Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, Jo​​hn Huston's The Maltese Falcon

Another example from the time of the Hays Code is "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and the character of Joel Cairo, played by Peter Lorre. Cairo is a shady figure looking for a valuable statue and is described as "effeminate" and "mincing" in his movements, his mannerisms and behaviour are used to imply that he is gay, or at the very least not heterosexual, even though the film never confirms it. It is interesting to note though that the novel the film is based on did in fact refer to Cairo as "queer", and "the fairy" whilst the film could only hint at homosexuality.

On the left is Ursula, the wicked sea witch from Disney
Ursula (left) and Tamatoa (right), examples of queer coded villains in Disney films​​

Modern examples of queer coding

The Hays Code was eventually lifted in 1968 and, with the arrival of a new rating system, films could begin to be more explicit in their representation of LGBTQ+ characters. However, queer coding in films and media can, and does, still happen today. 

Some more recent examples of queer coding in film include Ursula from Disney's Little Mermaid who was inspired by the drag queen Divine as well as a myriad of other Disney villains including Scar from The Lion KingTamatoa from Moana, and the enigmatic villain HIM from the Powerpuff Girls - all presented as more effeminate and flamboyant than the heroes of the story.

It's important to note that these examples can be open to interpretation and that the use of queer coding can be subtle. These examples might not necessarily be the intention of the creators, but rather the result of unconscious biases and lack of representation. 

We should continue to push for more accurate representation of LGBTQ+ characters in media, and for creators to be conscious of the impact of their choices on how the LGBTQ+ community is perceived. It is also important for audiences to be aware of the history and the potential implications of queer coding, whilst continuing to support and advocate for more diverse representation in media. 

To learn more about LGBT+ History Month visit their website at

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