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Jeanna Kadlec| Longreads | April 2021 | 2,936 words (11 minutes)
Disney often codes their villains as queer: This is widely known and accepted. First noticed by scholars during the Disney Renaissance of the late ‘80s through the ‘90s, critical observations about characters like Scar (The Lion King) have since disseminated into pithy, viral tweets and TikToks. A quick Google search of “gay Disney villains” will turn up dozens of articles, all repeating the same litany of facts: That The Little Mermaid’s Ursula is based on the iconic drag queen Divine, that Hollywood often uses British accents and effeminate mannerisms in men like Robin Hood’s King John to signal moral decrepitude.
But those are observations without analysis, which is to say: pointing out the obvious without asking why or how. The subtext of these clickbait articles and listicles is often: Disney codes villains as queer because Disney thinks being gay is bad. Which is one way to read it.
However, simply saying “Disney is bigoted” has never sat entirely well with me for one reason: In spite of what the Supreme Court of the United States may rule, Disney is not a person. Disney is a corporation that wields the power of a nation-state, and, consequently, has one central obsession — the preservation and expansion of that power, a theme that is prevalent and evident in every story they allow their employees and contractors to tell.
If queerness is consistently coded a certain way, it has something to do with how Disney wants power to function — who can wield it, and how.
Millennials are the generation whose childhoods were shaped by the stories of the Disney Renaissance, a period generally considered to have begun with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and concluded with 1999’s Tarzan. It includes favorites like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Mulan — which, incidentally, are at the heart of the corporation’s “live-action” remake strategy, intended to further monetize a now-grown generation’s nostalgia for the stories that formed us, stories we can share with our own children (or group texts).
The Disney Renaissance was birthed after a decade of HIV/AIDS ravaging queer communities; its height marked by political milestones such as President Clinton’s signing of the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) and the institution of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for LGBTQ+ members of the military. Divergent, non-normative sexuality was purportedly a threat to society, and Disney, ever the quiet institutional soldier, answered by providing a veritable stable of queer-coded villains who were ill-suited to lead or assume power.
Indeed, there were so many queer-coded villains in this period that it’s hard to remember them all — let alone the different lessons they taught us. To wit, you probably remember Scar, Jafar, and Ursula, but you have probably forgotten Governor Ratcliffe from 1995’s Pocahontas: the fashion-conscious, social-climbing, crown-appointed governor in charge of the colonizing “mission” to the “New World.”
Pocahontas has one of the top-five highest-grossing Disney soundtracks of all time, but that’s generally where any lingering nostalgia dies. To say that the film itself is problematic is an understatement. While the screenshot of Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas’ father, saying “these white men are dangerous” has found a rich afterlife on social media, the film’s historical inaccuracy and deliberate whitewashing of colonization and its aftermath have cycled it out of many a millennial’s “comfort film” rotation, something that has generally gone unaddressed by the corporation. (The fact that Mel Gibson voiced John Smith hasn’t helped, either.)
Pocahontas may seem like a strange vehicle for discussing queer villainy. But that’s the thing: Disney gets inventive when they need to circumvent white people’s historical responsibility for genocidal atrocities, and what better way to do that than to displace the heart of the film’s conflict onto contemporary cultural anxiety: queerness and its incumbent specter, masculinity.
Disney’s attitudes toward colonization and queer coding are, it turns out, inextricably linked. By using a queer-coded villain, the corporation entirely elides white responsibility in retelling a historical tragedy, letting the cowboy-type colonizers off the hook for any wrongdoing and, instead, reframing them as the heroes of the story. In Pocahontas, Disney pulls off the magic trick of telling a story about colonization and genocide where the only thing that’s actually punished is the “wrong” kind of masculinity.
Governor Ratcliffe is not set up as the villain because he is a colonizer, or even because he is in charge of the mission to invade the Powhatan nation — or, as Disney has framed it, dig for gold. To criticize him for these positions would implicate and damage the purported “heroism” of every other white character on screen.
Something else, then, must indicate his villainy, and Ratcliffe violates Disney’s favorite American norms — individualism, hard work, modesty — immediately. He wears bows in his hair and a literal feather in his cap. His twinky manservant, Wiggins, helps dress him, and is even in charge of bathing his dog … and let’s take a moment to discuss the dog. Unless fighting, Ratcliffe is rarely seen not carrying his white pug, Percy, who is always adorned in a collar that is fancier than anything the crew are wearing. Disney villains’ animal familiars tell us something about their personality, and Percy’s taste for luxury speaks volumes about Ratcliffe’s lifestyle.
Ratcliffe prefers to delegate rather than do physical labor himself, a standard managerial practice, but not something heroes do. He belittles his workers when things don’t go well, seeing his crew as a means to an end and insulting them as “witless peasants” behind closed doors.
The narrative works to align the audience’s viewpoint with that of the other colonizers: in the words of one of the laborers, “Look at us! No gold, no food, while Ratcliffe sits in his tent all day, happy as a clam.” The audience is clearly meant to sympathize with the worker instead of Ratcliffe, the villainous manager, even if that worker is also occupying stolen land and explicitly fantasizing about killing Indigenous people. (What “audience,” exactly, is this for? You already know the answer.)
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However, it isn’t just that Ratcliffe is a bullying, well-dressed boss in an environment where no one is impressed by designer wares. He’s deeply insecure and concerned about what other people think, as opposed to the naturally popular, carefree everyman that is the Captain of the ship (and Pocahontas’ eventual love interest) John Smith. In fact, we learn that this mission is something of a last-ditch effort to salvage Ratcliffe’s reputation with the king. For him, success means falling in line, trying to do right by the crown, to reap the reward. When he says “it’s not that I’m bitter,” we understand that he is, in fact, deeply bitter.
Ratcliffe’s real fantasy is power — bringing his enemies at court to heel, being so celebrated that “My dear friend King Jimmy will probably build me a shrine” — precisely because he feels so ironically powerless.
This is not the kind of chaotic, burn-it-all-down villain who has been canonized by drag shows.
A casual Google search reveals that Ratcliffe does not even show up on most “Gay Disney Villain” lists. Something about him elides memory and decisive categorization as other, encouraging a certain slippage.
He isn’t as easy to pin down as the Queer Villains of Excess: the Scars and Ursulas who you can spot by their muchness, their refusal to conform to rigid social structures, their wild desire to usurp the throne. Excess is the singular quality that usually drives queer-coded villains to crave power at all costs, their appetites monstrous and unnatural.
Ironically, even the most chaotic queer-coded villains are rarely bent on creating their own power structures — they only ever desire the kingdom and, seemingly, the lives of their straight-coded, heroic counterparts. Jafar wants to be sultan, but has no conception of what to do with that power once obtained, to the point he cannot strategize enough to realize that the genie is beholden to others. Scar believes himself to be the rightful ruler of the Pride Lands, only to drive the kingdom into a barren wasteland: The queer failure of reproduction, on which society so purportedly rests, made manifest. “Fuck the social order and the child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized,” queer theorist Lee Edelman writes in No Future — the anthem of Disney villains everywhere.
The opposite of excess is moderation, and restraining oneself to fit into the boxes society has prescribed — well, this is assimilation.
Assimilation is when a group of people assumes the values, behaviors, and beliefs of another group — when something core and essential to one’s culture and sense of self and identity is lost in the interest of resembling the social majority. In the U.S., this has had many iterations around the suppression of non-English languages, the forced Christianization of Indigenous peoples, and more. For the LGBTQ+ community, it looks like our communities having been largely underground until the last 50 or so years, because social legibility meant imprisonment, exile, or death
In many ways, for many people, various forms of assimilation are pure survival in a white, heteronormative, and otherwise profoundly difficult world. But assimilation used against one’s own community, assimilation used to turn the target off your own back and toward communities with less cultural power than yours, becomes an alliance with the oppressor.
Ratcliffe is a queer-coded villain whose trademark is assimilation, not excess. This is why he slips and slides through millennial memory — hard to remember, hard to pin down. He isn’t an outsider, an icon to queer children everywhere, an individualist who has chosen himself at all costs, someone who we grew up both terrified of and wanting to become. No. He is trying desperately to fit in, to use the white supremacist system to his own benefit. But working for the system always comes with a price.
There is a queer anxiety to Ratcliffe, because he knows his attempts to fit in are pretense. This is, as he says himself, “my last chance for glory.” Does he exile himself from the crew of colonizers because he thinks he’s better than them, or because he thinks they’ll see through him? Or both? Captain John Smith can have a beer with the guys. Ratcliffe, not so much.
Holding the title of “governor” in a servile bureaucracy doesn’t guarantee respect. Rugged masculinity and physicality — the kind Smith has — does. On a certain level, Ratcliffe both understands and resents this: “The men like Smith, don’t they?” he asks his manservant Wiggins. Even their voices tell the story: Ratcliffe is the villainous bureaucrat, complete with an English accent. Smith is the heroic adventurer — with Mel Gibson’s American accent intact and unfettered.
John Smith has swagger — and a reputation that precedes him. “You can’t fight Indians without John Smith!” one of the colonizers declares in his introductory scene, as Smith literally rides a cannon onto the ship. Depicted as a natural leader, he’s respected by his men for his physical prowess and bravery that borders on stupidity. Smith has a martyr-like willingness to put himself in harm’s way for his men that, while not explicitly labeled as Christian, is certainly coded as such. “You’d do the same for me,” Smith says jokingly to his companions, after leaping into the ocean during a storm to save a man who fell overboard. He is, in essence, exactly the kind of leading man that Mel Gibson, the actor who voices him, spent a career playing — the mythic American cowboy and ideal leading man of Hollywood cinema. (Complete with the domestic abuse and antisemitism bona fides.)
Queer-coded Ratcliffe is trying to earn a place in the system by being its most traditional guardian, but he also represents a kind of masculinity that has long since gone indoors to the Royal Court, concerned with accumulation through relationship and intellect. Americans recognize this as the masculinity of the educated, high-born (or aspirational) cultural aesthete, anxieties about which would soon manifest in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s under the term “metrosexual.” John Smith, conversely, represents the rugged, individualist masculinity that defines itself not by social status but by a cowboy mentality, by connection with God, family, and the land.
In many ways, Pocahontas is structured like a Western, and John Smith may as well be John Wayne. John Smith saves the man who fell overboard; Ratcliffe is the government lackey in a suit who hunkers down in his cabin and only emerges once the danger has passed, clutching his pug while his manservant shields him with an umbrella. Government intervention is often a primary conflict in Westerns, resented by white colonizers played by actors like Wayne, who have gone west and figured out a way to live (with varying levels of hostility to the local Indigenous community) outside of federal oversight. The men in suits have effeminate mannerisms, a lot of education, and virtually no physical strength (coded as natural, God-given virility), with very little idea on how to practically connect to the world around them. Set aside for a moment the well-documented historical phenomenon of white, Black, and Latino gay cowboys throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and apply the genre of American Westerns and their ideology of masculinity, expansion, and, consequently, who gets to have what in Pocahontas.
What do the colonizers want, respectively, in Pocahontas? (Obvious question, but stay with me.) In Ratcliffe’s villain anthem, “Mine, Mine, Mine” — which is, and I cannot stress this enough, a duet with John Smith — Ratcliffe is singing about the gold allowing him to accumulate wealth and reputation and status, delegating the digging to the crew. Smith is the one actually singing about the land while climbing trees and waterfalls, activities which seem unnecessarily strenuous. But don’t they want the same thing: to take whatever land they land on in the interest of colonial expansion? Haven’t Smith and Ratcliffe already been shown to be very much on the same page about the murder and displacement of Indigenous peoples? But Disney’s edit would have you think otherwise.
Beneath the surface, anxieties about all-too-contemporary masculinity and what constitutes manhood are relocated to the center of the driving conflict of Pocahontas — one that allows a corporation to elide reckoning with the violent historical subject matter of the actual plot.
And therein is the issue: Ratcliffe becomes the villain because Smith, his fellow colonizer, cannot be.
In the end, Ratcliffe’s men turn on him. At first glance, it might seem like they are doing so out of sympathy for Pocahontas and her people, as Ratcliffe had been trying to assassinate her father, Chief Powhatan. But this is not it — the other white men don’t try to stop him when he first aims his gun, not until he accidentally shoots John Smith, who is shown taking a bullet for the chief (which is, please note, a fictional event that did not happen).
“You shot him!” one accuses. “Smith was right all along!” another cries hypocritically, as all of them had been worked up in a racist war song (“Savages”), fantasizing about genocide only the night before. The white colonizers mutiny in favor of the preferred masculine archetype: The Cowboy. Ratcliffe is tied up, gagged, and set to be tried upon return to England.
It is deeply satisfying to see the avowedly racist Ratcliffe in chains. But is the colonizing and racist rhetoric what he’s being punished for? No. The other colonizers are still walking free, many of them staying behind to continue to build up their Jamestown settlement.
Colonizing isn’t worthy of punishment in this film, nor is racism, otherwise every white character — John Smith included — would be in chains. The reality is that Ratcliffe is punished for failing to assimilate within the crew successfully, for not embodying the right kind of masculinity, for not reading the room, and attacking the much-respected cowboy-esque leader who the men ultimately mutiny for. This is his crime: not trying to assassinate Chief Powhatan, but wounding one of his own. Meanwhile, Thomas, a colonizer who explicitly murders an Indigenous warrior, Kocoum, is given … a redemption arc, complete with Pocahontas’ forgiveness.
How tenuous the conditions of acceptance for white gays doing the bidding of white supremacy.
Ratcliffe is, simply put, a Corporate Gay, a Log Cabin Republican, a Cyrus Bean, the Disney equivalent of (allegedly) that one senator from South Carolina. Ratcliffe has bought into the idea that serving the system will benefit him, and that if only he does its bidding, things will ultimately work out. But queerness renders you automatically suspect within any system of power, even white supremacy. What Ratcliffe, and other white gays like him, fail to realize is that assimilation is not acceptance; it is merely borrowed time.
There is a savvy to the Queer Villains of Excess like Scar and Ursula, who understand that there is no utility in trying to fit in, who know that there is no box possibly small enough to cram your queer ass into. But, truth be told, even these villains have boundaries they won’t cross, only ever wanting to kill the king and usurp his throne — but never outright abolish abusive systems of power.
There is no queer revolution amongst Disney villains, see. There is no abolition, no truly radical liberation within the fairy tales that ultimately serve to codify what “happily ever after” means, and for who. In Disney, queerness is only ever an imitation of the hetero original, never a full expression of itself. Gay villains are depicted as the dog who caught the car: Once they get it, what do they even do?
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Jeanna Kadlec is a culture writer living in NYC. Her writing has appeared in ELLE, O the Oprah Magazine, LitHub, NYLON, Allure, and more.
Editor: Carolyn Wells