Staining the Rainbow on Screen: Queer Coding and Queer Baiting

By only alluding to characters as queer and not overtly defining them that way, shows and movies are missing the opportunity to truly represent the LGBTQIA+ community.

By only alluding to characters as queer and not overtly defining them that way, shows and movies are missing the opportunity to truly represent the LGBTQIA+ community.

Films have had little room for the queer community. The light, when encountering the silver crystals of the coil, has often failed to make a rainbow.

While the queer community celebrates 53 years of Stonewall with pride in the streets, Hollywood studios continue to mask queerness in their frames. After the last season of stranger things, the discussion around “queer-baiting” gained prominence online with the portrayal of Will Byers (tried by Noah Schnapp). Queer-baiting is a marketing technique used by production houses in which creators allude to, but do not actually describe, same-sex communities or other LGBTQIA+ communities. Subsequently, this discussion brought into the limelight the topic of “queer coding” in film, which is the subtextual queer representation of characters in media. This means that the identity of the characters is not explicitly revealed.

These phenomena have their roots in the Roaring Twenties. The Jazz Age saw Hollywood rocked by multiple scandals, such as the murder of William Desmond Taylor and the alleged rape of Virginia Rappe by popular movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, which earned them the scorn of religious organizations. and policies. Subsequently, lawmakers in over 37 states introduced censorship laws. Scared of having to comply with more than a hundred inconsistent laws, Hollywood residents have chosen to self-censor.

The Hays Code

It was around this time that Hollywood adopted the Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as the Hays Code, named after William H. Hays, who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA ). The Hays Code was a set of industry self-imposed guidelines in accordance with conservative America’s social and cultural code. The Code prohibits blasphemy, nudity, violence, sexual beliefs and rape. Rules governed the use of crime, costume, dance, religious and national sentiments, and morality. This resulted in films for the next three decades catering to the sensibilities of a straight white male.

Filmmakers who attempted to circumvent and defy the code were quickly driven out of business. The creators then had to move on to adapting a certain code language, like having queer characters perform certain expressions or adopt certain body language.

Stereotypes around the sexuality of the characters

John Huston’s 1941 crime drama The maltese falcon, based on a book written by Dashiell Hammett, is a proponent of film noir and is one of the earliest examples of films featuring gay characters after the Hays Code. The character of Joel Cairo in Hammett’s novel is homosexual. However, to navigate the Hays Code, her character was downplayed and other features were used to hint at her sexuality. In the film, Cairo’s business cards and handkerchiefs are scented with gardenias. Cairo is very particular about his clothes and easily gets upset when blood from a scratch ruins his shirt. Cairo has “sissy” attributes, a stereotype that is still used today by creators to allude to a male character’s sexuality.

Joel Cairo's character in 'The Maltese Falcon'

Joel Cairo’s character in ‘The Maltese Falcon’

These characters are often artistic, sensitive, and emotional men with a penchant for dressing up and making up.

The sphere of influence extended as far as India; Indian cinema to date diligently incorporates the sissy stereotype: Dean Yogendra Vashisht in student of the yearSamir Gazi in Desperate and Puppy Bhai in Golmael 3 all walk in the footsteps of Cairo. No plot points involve them, and their character arcs were left unrefined.

While Alfred Hitchcock psychology (1960) is showered with praise for revolutionizing the horror genre, its best-kept secret is Norman Bates’ queer identity. Anthony Perking, who was known to be gay but had not officially come out, said he deliberately played Norman Bates as gay or bisexual. As Hitchcock brings a queer persona to life onscreen, we’re served up a dangerous stereotype to the community – that of a sadist.

The censors would be more lenient when homosexuality is presented as perverse, as in the case of psychology. The queer characters only served as cautionary tale or comic relief to the audience; they had no plot points and character arcs dedicated to them.

Disney also played a role in the queer coding of its Scar villains in Lion King and Jafar in Aladdin to Captain Cook in Peter Pan.

The stereotype, dear to Indian production houses, saw Mogambo, one of Bollywood’s most infamous villains, also being coded queer. Kya yeh Mogambo ko khush kar dega? (Will this make Mogambo happy?)

The Hays code was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system a year before the Stonewall riots. However, the struggle for queer representation did not end there.

With rainbow capitalism plaguing the market, especially during Pride month, production houses have started teasing queer audiences with the possibility of characters being queer in their shows and using techniques of smart post-production marketing.

Recently, the last season of stranger things faced a backlash from the queer community for Will Byers’ portrayal on the show. The possibility that Will is queer has been talked about since season one, with Joyce Byers mentioning homophobic slurs being hurled at her son. As allusions to Will’s sexuality have proliferated, the show’s refusal to address his sexuality has upset the queer community.

In interviews leading up to the release, the subject of Will’s sexuality was brought up with the cast only for them to neither confirm nor deny Will’s sexuality.

Struggling Queer Representation

The director of The beauty and the Beast (2017) mentioned an “exclusively gay moment” in the film, during the build-up to the premiere, only for the audience to realize that his statement was referring to a very short sequence of LeFou (Josh Gad) dancing with a another man, associated with euphemisms throughout the film about his feelings for Gaston (Luke Evans). Many TV shows such as Supernatural and sherlock holmes also fall prey to queer bait.

While a self-imposed code kept queer people out of the movies in the 20th century, a lack of respect for the queer community and characters, as well as a nonchalant attitude toward inclusivity in writing rooms and production houses, prevent true representation in the 21st century. .

Queer stories are no longer a taboo with shows and movies like Moonlight and Schitt’s Creek demonstrating that cinema centered around queer characters can not only win hearts, but go on to create history by winning Oscars and Emmys.

It’s time for the studios to make way for the Pride Parade.


Queer-baiting is a marketing technique used by production houses in which creators allude to, but do not actually represent, the same gender or other LGBTQIA+ representation.

Hollywood adopted the Hays Code which was a set of industry self-imposed guidelines which prohibited profanity, nudity, violence, sexual persuasion and rape.

The filmmakers then had to move on to adapting certain coded language like expression to portray queer characters on screen that could be recognized through their body language and certain material specifications.

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