In politics and pop culture, it seems, villains aren’t just villains because they want to maliciously hurt others.
According to some recent cartoons and opinion pieces—and even our most-prized Disney films—those who do evil do so because they are closeted gay men, ostensibly working out angst about their sexuality in dastardly deeds.
This week, the New York Daily News sported a cover cartoon of President Donald Trump shooting Uncle Sam—a nod to Trump’s 2016 campaign boast that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose popularity—while strolling hand-in-hand with a bare-chested Russian President Vladimir Putin. It follows a June 25 New York Times opinion piece, “Trump and Putin: A Love Story,” which comments on Trump’s seemingly deferential relationship with Putin. It includes video cartoons with homoerotic imagery; in one, the men kiss passionately as Trump tweaks Putin’s nipples.
These illustrations—and others like them (below)—imply that suggesting a man is gay is the highest form of insult and that the endless list of both men’s shameful activities pales in comparison to the hypothetical “sin” of being gay.The implication isn’t coded at all. It’s offered as an answer to the question: Why is Trump, typically a braggadocious figure, being so conciliatory to Vladimir Putin? The “Trump and Putin are gay for each other” memes often (as is the case in the cartoon featured in the New York Times) portray Trump as the more “submissive” or receptive partner. He just can’t quit Putin. In this logic, the ultimate way to humiliate a straight-presenting man is to “feminize” him.
This juvenile and nakedly homophobic method of “insulting” Donald Trump may seem arbitrary and isolated, but it’s not. It speaks to the tendency of many people across the political spectrum to ascribe bad behavior and outright villainy in men to latent or unacknowledged queerness. In other words, the closet is the breeding ground for pain and suffering that straight-presenting men then inflict on those around them. This trope has a long history in real life and in art—and in seeking to demonize these men, it actually serves to “other” queerness and cloak it in inherent malevolence. It’s a deeply problematic narrative that we’re socialized with in childhood.
We need only look as far as media aimed at children to get the unvarnished espousals of societal ideals. Which brings us to Disney. Despite the absence of explicit, textual queerness in Disney films, coded dialogue and mannerisms have certainly positioned some characters in this fashion.
Beauty and the Beast (both the 1991 animated film and the 2017 live-action adaptation) features a problematic man whose bad behavior flows from his unacknowledged queerness. The sexuality of the character LeFou, who serves as second banana to the film’s main villain Gaston, has been called into question. In a 2017 interview, Bradley Pierce (who voiced the dancing teacup Chip in the 1991 original film) stated that he always believed LeFou to be gay. LeFou worships Gaston, even singing an ode to Gaston’s virtues as a well-muscled, attractively hairy specimen of masculinity who need not worry about his ability to win the heart of heroine Belle. Speculation about the character became controversy when the 2017 filmmakers characterized LeFou (played by actor Josh Gad) as the first openly gay character in a Disney film, though the critical scene in the film hardly settles the issue of LeFou’s sexuality.
Despite the tepid and toothless way LeFou’s queerness is addressed in the 2017 film, it still invites a larger question: Why is the weak and insidious LeFou’s cultlike worshipping of a clearly violent, misogynistic, and tyrannical Gaston (not unlike Trump praising Putin’s “strongman” dictatorial tendencies) being attributed to latent queerness?
Disney suggested that awful men who support and uplift other more outwardly powerful and oppressive men are doing so because they are romantically and sexually infatuated with them. It not-so-subtly imparts the message that a man who loves another man is somehow blinded and brainwashed—a slave to villainous influence. It also erases the very real fact that awful men have historically made excuses for other equally awful men in the name of protecting and upholding toxic masculinity.
The latently queer antagonist of children’s stories also appears in television. Frank Underwood on Netflix’s House of Cards (Kevin Spacey) is a sneaky, corrupt politician who eventually rises to the U.S. presidency. Underwood commits murder at the end of the first season, in a moment of political and personal expediency. He is a reprehensible person, very much the dynamic male anti-hero that television and film viewers love to hate.
Frank Underwood is also sexually fluid, engaging in extramarital affairs with both men and women. The show treats this aspect of Underwood’s personal life as being just as salacious as his criminal activity. It’s framed as a symptom of Underwood’s negotiable moral code—his ability to cheat on his wife with men (perish the thought!) and also negotiate that as a given in his marriage, covering it up while he commits various misdeeds to further his political career.
In a very complicated way, Underwood’s sexual dealings are art imitating life. It’s no secret that Kevin Spacey was fired from his gig at House of Cards due to sexual misconduct allegations involving him and underage boys. One of the accusers was the now-adult Anthony Rapp, who says he was only 14 years old when a 26-year-old Spacey sexually and forcefully propositioned him. After the flood of allegations, Spacey publicly came out as a gay man. Despite the fact that the story should have been about Spacey’s targeting underage boys for sex, much of the press focused on Spacey’s admission of his sexuality. Spacey’s choice of this particular moment to come out was roundly denounced by those in the queer community.
But, in an unspoken and disturbing fashion, the focus on Spacey’s sexual orientation sent that all-too-familiar message: His alleged criminal behavior—targeting juveniles for sexual activity—was caused by queerness. That conclusion feeds into the notion that gay men are inherently predatory, especially gay men who are concealing their sexuality.
This ascribing of homophobic male villainy boils down to one message: Men like Trump and Putin or everyday men who aren’t heads of state inflict homophobic violence onto queer people because they are latently gay. This recklessly strips responsibility for homophobia from straight people, who have historically been the arbiters of it and pass it along to queer people. If we follow the ridiculous reasoning inherent in these cartoons and other pop culture, when LGBTQ people are oppressed, we must believe that oppression emanates from the LGBTQ community. How cowardly.
I am not here to defend Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin against accusations of queerness or the fictional LeFou for his being a willing accomplice to Gaston. That’s neither my responsibility nor something I feel inclined to do since being queer is not an insult.
My objection lies in the troubling and homophobic suggestion that the strategically and mutually beneficial Trump-Putin relationship, their oppression of LGBTQ people within their respective borders and their detrimental effect on global affairs comes from unexpressed or secret homosexuality. Similarly, my objection lies in the assumption that LeFou’s same-sex attraction to another man blinded him to that man’s excesses.
The misdeeds of bigoted men shouldn’t be laid at the doorsteps of queer people. Terror starts at home. And when it comes to the issue of homophobia and how it infects our society, straight men need to finally live up to the policy of “you break it, you bought it.”