OPINION: Queer representation doesn’t always look the way you expect

A person with curly brown hair wears a white shirt and stands in front of a yellow sign that reads "Lemonade Mouth".
(Courtesy: Loren Javier via Flickr)

While recognizing the harmful motives behind queerbaiting, it’s time we recognize the potential for queer-coded characters to be meaningful to the queer community. We can also seek to recognize the opportunities queer-coded characters have for our community when they are claimed by and for queer people.

“Queer-coded” characters are never explicitly queer or gender-queer. Their production, a process called “queer-coding,” lies in the subtext: mannerisms, costumes, features, inflection. Queer coding can often be incidental, as members of the queer community resonate with narratives and characters that may not have been written to read that way.

Some critics argue that a queer-coded character garners support for the piece of media by the queer community yet escapes explicit endorsement of queer culture, a process called “queerbaiting.” Others argue that queer-coded characters reduce a widely diverse, expansive community to tired tropes and stereotypes.

Critiques of corporations’ attempts to leverage “queer representation” for-profit are sound. Large production studios like Disney and Netflix are often more concerned with the potential for profit than doing justice to their queer characters. Disney was showered with praise for featuring their first openly gay character, Le Fou in Beauty and the Beast, despite no explicit acknowledgment of this in the film itself.

It’s because of the corporatization of queer representation that queer-coded characters hold such potential for meaning. Identifying characters and stories that resonate with queer experiences, whether or not they were written as such, keeps people from relying on the one-dimensional representation that’s been churned out for profit.

Take “Frozen”, a multi-billion dollar international phenomenon. Elsa — beautiful, isolated, powerful — has been claimed by the queer community as a lesbian. So many young queer girls feel like an outsider like Elsa, and are inspired by her story of resistance, but don’t have the words to articulate it. Yet hanging a poster of Elsa in their room establishes a “safe” form of self-expression free of public scrutiny. To claim such a widespread, iconic character gives queerness the anonymity to persevere inside those in our community that aren’t ready to fully claim their identity. 

Queer-coded subtext operates as an invitation to young people. As a young lesbian, Hayley Kiyoko’s peacock earring and QUESTION AUTHORITY T-shirt in Disney’s 2011 Lemonade Mouth might intrigue you. When you’re old enough to get on Youtube, you’ll discover Kiyoko’s “Girls Like Girls” music video, a lesbian classic. But as a young person swathed in a blanket on the couch with your cousins, the QUESTION AUTHORITY T-shirt is a warm welcome. 

To most young kids in America, subtle allusions to queer relationships are the only queer representation they can safely engage with at home or school. If you’re a lesbian who was born near the turn of the century, you’ll recognize “the bathtub scene” from “Stick It.” The anarchistic, queer-coded gymnastics protagonist in 2006’s “Stick It” doesn’t get a gay love interest, but her impact as a queer icon has been transformational for young queer girls across the nation. A fully-realized gay identity is a process years in the making; a hint of representation is an important start. And the ability of the queer community to go back and claim unintentional “queer icons” of our past is a powerful nod to our resiliency. We should look for queerness in secluded spaces with the intent to spotlight it, not contest it. 

We should celebrate “queer-coded” characters as a powerful signifier for the resilience of queer culture in confined spaces. If we don’t, we risk marginalizing our peers that are unable or are not ready to fully inhabit their own queerness, and we also risk minimalizing those who fully inhabit their own queerness as “not enough” for us. 

Eliza Powers PO ’25 is from New Orleans, Louisiana. She loves reality TV, Phoebe Bridgers and searching for the perfect avocado toast recipe. 

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