Birds of Prey, Black Masks, and Queer-Coded Villains

Birds of Prey, Black Mask, and Queer-Coded Villains

Delia Harrington

Feb 13, 2020

For a principally progressive movie, Birds of Prey's option to queer code villains Roman Sionis and Victor Zsasz is an odd and problematic one.

Ewan McGregor’s Ramon Sionis, AKA Black Masks, has acquired near-universal reward for his efficiency as the extreme, megalomaniacal villain in Birds of Prey, whereas Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz has been applauded for a job deviating from his common main man fare. The pair have an obsessive dynamic the place one feeds off of the opposite, although from scene to scene it’s unclear who’s the parasite and who’s the host. 

One other fixture of this crucial appraisal? Descriptors like flamboyant, campy and preening. The Chicago Solar-Occasions hits him with “flashy…preening and pouting.” Rolling Stone describes Zsasz as Sionis’s “boytoy.” That Star dropped any pretense and referred to as him Liberace. That’s to say, even those that aren’t explicitly stating it are all choosing up on the identical factor: Birds of Prey coded these villains as queer. 

It’s all proper there for audiences to see – and tweet about. All through the film, we see Sionis sporting a parade of velvet blazers, silk robes, a swimsuit coated in what appears to be photographs of Sionis’ personal face. In his condominium, he has a statue of himself and undergoes a number of (relatively inaccurate) injections of Botox, all enjoying into the stereotypes of homosexual males as useless, rich, and overly-focused on their look.

As Sam Adams factors out over at Slate, Victor Szasz does appear to get extra violent – and extra anticipating violence – round ladies who’ve caught his boss’s eye, like Dinah. Furthermore, Szasz appears to be the one one who can calm Roman down, with a degree of intimacy normally reserved for romantic or sexual companions. 

Queer-coded villains are nothing new. Assume Jafar and Scar preening and talking with effete accents, and actually all the things about Bowie’s Goblin King from Labyrinth. An honest variety of Hitchcock villains, from Norman Bates in Psycho and Leonard in North by Northwest to Bruno in Strangers on a Practice and the 2 killers in Rope. Even the villain from Ben Hur was meant to be not solely queer, however Ben Hur’s ex. Whether or not sarcastic and arch, or with literal limp wrists, loads of villains over time have been coded as queer, significantly in animation, from Hercules Hades to Ursula in The Little Mermaid, who was actually based mostly on the drag queen Divine.

Queer coding villains isn’t essentially all unhealthy – for some time, it was the one illustration we had. Traditionally, villains have been “allowed” to be coded as queer as a result of villains get extra leeway and haven’t got to evolve to strict gender norms, in contrast to heroes. Consequently, many villains have been homosexual favorites, and lots of queer-coded femme characters have equally been extra feminist as they break with gender roles in different methods. 

This took place as a result of Hollywood Manufacturing Code of 1930, extra generally known as the Hays Code. This listing of 36 guidelines prohibits many on-screen depictions, like violence and intercourse. But it surely additionally prohibited depicting “sexual perversion.” Previous to the Hays Code, there was extra LGBTQ illustration on display screen than trendy audiences may anticipate. After, nevertheless, filmmakers had been pressured to sign that characters had been queer by visible cues and stereotypes, leaning into “the sissy,” utilizing an effeminate voice and mannerisms for homosexual males. With a view to make queer characters acceptable below the Hays Code, regardless that they had been coded, was to indicate them as morally bankrupt villains who’re killed on the finish of the movie. 

Whereas the Hays Code resulted in 1968 and most different guidelines had been corrected relatively rapidly, the influence on LGBTQ illustration in movie – in addition to tv, and our broader cultural stereotypes of queer folks – continues right this moment. The tendency to indicate queer characters as morally corrupt after which kill them off is the genesis of each Queer Coded Villains and the Bury Your Gays tropes.

LGBTQ characters are nonetheless portrayed extra flatly and stereotypically than cis, straight ones, harkening again to when queer characters match into particular roles to sign their identification to the viewers. Furthermore, the prevalence of queer coding villains primes audiences to consider queerness as evil, significantly if queer coding and the stereotypes it trades in go unexamined. That damaging trope reveals up in movies the place queerness is specific, like Silence of the Lambs, Fundamental Intuition, Dressed to Kill, and The Gifted Mr. Ripley

Upfront of the movie’s launch, Ewan MacGregor and Chris Messina had been requested if their characters within the film are homosexual, given some web chatter to that impact, which was itself fueled by the film’s personal advertising and marketing. Whereas at first they demurred, finally MacGregor stated, “Greater than possible, sure.” Messina, who already had one arm round MacGregor, kissed him on the cheek. For some, it set off an thrilling prospect of extra illustration and, frankly, two deliciously bizarre homosexual villains. For others, it felt like bait. 

The time period “queerbaiting” refers back to the follow of hinting at queer relationships with out ever confirming them onscreen, with a purpose to attract a queer viewers with out alienating those that vehemently oppose LGBTQ inclusion. It’s one more approach to toy with queer audiences, and when wanting on-line for dialogue of whether or not Black Masks is homosexual, there are simply as many followers exhibiting frustration that they had been misled by the advertising and marketing and this interview as there are these choosing up on the cues in McGregor’s efficiency. Contemplating the opposite latest poor makes an attempt at illustration from tentpole franchises like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Avengers: Endgame, Birds of Prey can really feel like simply one other entry in a listing that’s far too lengthy. 

Contemplating how there’s extra easy illustration within the movie, like Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya and her ex performed by Ali Wong, queer coding feels extremely regressive. Why would DCEU proceed to interact in queer coding after they’re clearly keen to convey a canonically LGBTQ character from the comics to life on the large display screen? And on that observe, wither Harley Quinn’s comics-canon bisexuality? Save for the short reference to an ex-girlfriend within the opening animation sequence, which might simply be minimize for overseas markets, there’s no on-screen point out of it, or her longtime girlfriend Pam Isley AKA Poison Ivy.

Whereas it’d appear to be maintaining Zsasz and Sionis’s sexuality unstated is extra politically right, since it will be higher than having a pair of homosexual villains, the fact is extra advanced. As written, costumed and carried out, the pair are clearly queer, as evidenced by what number of critics and viewers members have picked up on the vibe, so merely not labelling what’s proper there on the display screen feels a bit gutless on the a part of Birds of Prey.

It could possibly be to look extra PC, however provided that all the things about these characters and the advertising and marketing is steering so exhausting into queerness that this counts as queer-baiting too, it appears extra possible that WB merely needs to keep away from a difficulty with abroad audiences identified for having an issue with LGBTQ characters, particularly males, who’re much less fetishized than queer ladies. Whereas there’s definitely a historical past to content material with in relation to queer villainy, they need to at the very least come out an personal it in the event that they’re going to make use of a lot of a cultural aesthetic to construct a personality, significantly Roman Sionis. He’s already a “charismatic fancy daddy of a villain” – simply personal it already and let him be homosexual for actual!

Birds of Prey was a wildly enjoyable, bonkers film about reducing free no matter (or whoever) holds you again, discovering individuals who worth you for who you might be, and having a ton of enjoyable whereas doing it. Why not do the identical for all of its characters and come clean with the truth that they wrote queer villains – whereas permitting Harley’s bisexuality to be greater than a “one time in school” footnote, simply edited out for overseas markets? For a movie with a lot enjoyable homosexual power, it feels surprisingly out of step to interact in an outdated, flailing nod towards queer illustration.  

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