I Should Be Offended By Queer Villains, But I Cannot Help But Love Them

The following is an extract from Carmen Maria Machado's new memoir about domestic abuse in queer relationships, In The Dream House. Each chapter views her relationship through a different narrative lens: she casts a critical eye over legal proceedings, fairy tales, Star Trek and Disney villains, as well as iconic work of film and fiction. How we regard and understand abuse within queer relationships is explored, and we are all in some ways found wanting.
I think a lot about queer villains, the problem and pleasure and audacity of them.
I know I should have a very specific political response to them. I know, for example, I should be offended by Disney’s lineup of vain, effete ne’er-do- wells (Scar, Jafar), sinister drag queens (Ursula, Cruella de Vil), and constipated, man-hating power dykes (Lady Tremaine, Maleficent). I should be furious at Downton Abbey’s scheming gay butler and Girlfriend’s controlling, lunatic lesbian, and I should be indignant about Rebecca and Strangers on a Train and Laura and The Terror and All About Eve, and every other classic and contemporary foppish, conniving, sissy, cruel, humorless, depraved, evil, insane homosexual on the large and small screen.
And yet, while I recognise the problem intellectually—the system of coding, the way villainy and queerness became a kind of shorthand for each other—I cannot help but love these fictional queer villains. I love them for all of their aesthetic lushness and theatrical glee, their fabulousness, their ruthlessness, their power. They’re always by far the most interesting characters on the screen. After all, they live in a world that hates them. They’ve adapted; they’ve learned to conceal themselves. They’ve survived.

In AlainGuiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake,the young protagonist, Franck, witnesses an older man, Michel, drowning hisboyfriend in a lake that serves as a local cruising spot. Shortly thereafter,he begins an affair with Michel. After the boyfriend’s body is found, the gaycommunity that exists along the shore is shaken, thrown into emotional turmoilwhile simultaneously maintaining its collective routines. As an enterprisinginspector begins to sniff around for answers, Franck finds himself lying forhis new lover and trying to get closer to him.

Franck’s decision to stay with the handsome, magnetic murderer is only a few notches exaggerated from a pretty relatable problem: an inability to find logical footing when you’re being knocked around by waves of lust, love, loneliness. Michel does not have the campy fabulousness of so many queer villains, and is in many ways far more sinister. He is attractive, charismatic, and morally empty. We are given almost no clues about his backstory, his murderous motivations.
There is a question of representation tied up in the anguish around the queer villain; when so few gay characters appear on-screen, their disproportionate villainy is—obviously— suspect. It tells a single story, to paraphrase Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and creates real-life associations of evil and depravity. It is not incorrect to tell an artist that there is responsibility tangled up in whom you choose to make villains, but it is also not a simple matter.
As it turns out, queer villains become far more interesting among other gay characters, both within a specific project or universe and the zeitgeist at large. They become one star in a larger constellation; they are put in context. And that’s pretty exciting, even liberating; by expanding representation, we give space to queers to be—as characters, as real people—human beings. They don’t have to be metaphors for wickedness and depravity or icons of conformity and docility(1). They can be what they are. We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity. That is to say, queers—real-life ones—do not deserve representation, protection, and rights because they are morally pure or upright as a people (2). They deserve those things because they are human beings, and that is enough.

Toward theend of Stranger by the Lake,the police inspector confronts Franck as he leaves the beach for the day.Franck is, literally, trapped in the beam of the officer’s headlights, and asthe conversation progresses the metaphor is sharpened even more. “Don’t youfind it odd we’ve only just found the body, and two days later everyone’s backcruising like nothing happened?” the officer asks him.

Later in this scene, Franck will be visibly overcome with grief as the officer asks him to have compassion for the dead man, begs him to have a sense of self-preservation (3). But even in his grief, he is clear-eyed. “We can’t stop living,” he says.
We can’t stop living. Which means we have to live, which means we are alive, which means we are humans and we are human: some of us are unkind and some of us are confused and some of us sleep with the wrong people and some of us make bad decisions and some of us are murderers. And it sounds terrible but it is, in fact, freeing: the idea that queer does not equal good or pure or right. It is simply a state of being—one subject to politics, to its own social forces, to larger narratives, to moral complexities of every kind. So bring on the queer villains, the queer heroes, the queer sidekicks and secondary characters and protagonists and extras. They can be a complete cast unto themselves. Let them have agency, and then let them go.
(1) A cliché born of a necessary evil: the fight for rights. As with race and gender and able-bodiedness, the trope of the saintly and all-sacrificing minority is one that follows on the heels of unadulterated hatred, and is just as dangerous (though for different reasons).
(2) This type of characterization was useful during the fight for marriage equality in the United States, but its shortcomings are many. It is, for example, not an accident that people have had trouble wrapping their heads around Jennifer and Sarah Hart, a white lesbian couple who starved their six black adopted children before deliberately driving themselves and their kids off a cliff in California in 2018. It is also not an accident that people struggle to conceive of queer women as capable of sexual assault or domestic abuse. (There’s plenty of sexism tied up in this, too, a Lizzie Borden type of conundrum. Who is capable of committing unspeakable violence?)
(3) There is a second, minor detail in this scene that sent me spiraling: the inspector asks Franck, “What if there’s a homophobic serial killer on the loose?” The inspector does not necessarily know that the murderer is gay himself; he is guessing that the victim of a maligned demographic might have been targeted for belonging to that group. But I wondered: if a gay murderer targets only gay men, is that gay murderer himself homophobic? This question is something of a snake eating its own tail, and I cannot dig myself out.

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