Birds of Prey, Black Mask, and Queer-Coded Villains
For a mostly progressive film, Birds of Prey's choice to queer code villains Roman Sionis and Victor Zsasz is an odd and problematic one.
Ewan McGregor’s Ramon Sionis, AKA Black Mask, has received near-universal praise for his performance as the intense, megalomaniacal villain in Birds of Prey, while Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz has been applauded for a role deviating from his usual leading man fare. The pair have an obsessive dynamic where one feeds off of the other, though from scene to scene it’s unclear who is the parasite and who is the host.
Another fixture of this critical appraisal? Descriptors like flamboyant, campy and preening. The Chicago Sun-Times hits him with “flashy…preening and pouting.” Rolling Stone describes Zsasz as Sionis’s “boytoy.” That Star dropped any pretense and called him Liberace. That is to say, even those who aren’t explicitly stating it are all picking up on the same thing: Birds of Prey coded these villains as queer.
It’s all right there for audiences to see – and tweet about. Throughout the movie, we see Sionis sporting a parade of velvet blazers, silk robes, a suit covered in what seems to be images of Sionis’ own face. In his apartment, he has a statue of himself and undergoes several (rather inaccurate) injections of Botox, all playing into the stereotypes of gay men as vain, wealthy, and overly-focused on their appearance.
As Sam Adams points out over at Slate, Victor Szasz does seem to get more violent – and more eager for violence – around women who have caught his boss’s eye, like Dinah. Moreover, Szasz seems to be the only one who can calm Roman down, with a level of intimacy usually reserved for romantic or sexual partners.
Queer-coded villains are nothing new. Think Jafar and Scar preening and speaking with effete accents, and literally everything about Bowie’s Goblin King from Labyrinth. A decent number of Hitchcock villains, from Norman Bates in Psycho and Leonard in North by Northwest to Bruno in Strangers on a Train and the two killers in Rope. Even the villain from Ben Hur was meant to be not only queer, but Ben Hur’s ex. Whether sarcastic and arch, or with literal limp wrists, plenty of villains over the years have been coded as queer, particularly in animation, from Hercules’ Hades to Ursula in The Little Mermaid, who was literally based on the drag queen Divine.
Queer coding villains isn’t necessarily all bad – for a while, it was the only representation we had. Historically, villains have been “allowed” to be coded as queer because villains get more leeway and don’t have to conform to strict gender norms, unlike heroes. As a result, many villains have been gay favorites, and many queer-coded femme characters have similarly been more feminist as they break with gender roles in other ways.
This came about due to the Hollywood Production Code of 1930, more commonly referred to as the Hays Code. This list of 36 rules prohibits many on-screen depictions, like violence and sex. But it also prohibited depicting “sexual perversion.” Prior to the Hays Code, there was more LGBTQ representation on screen than modern audiences might expect. After, however, filmmakers were forced to signal that characters were queer through visual cues and stereotypes, leaning into “the sissy,” using an effeminate voice and mannerisms for gay men. In order to make queer characters acceptable under the Hays Code, even though they were coded, was to show them as morally bankrupt villains who are killed at the end of the film.
While the Hays Code ended in 1968 and most other rules were corrected rather quickly, the impact on LGBTQ representation in film – as well as television, and our broader cultural stereotypes of queer people – continues today. The tendency to show queer characters as morally corrupt and then kill them off is the genesis of both Queer Coded Villains and the Bury Your Gays tropes.
LGBTQ characters are still portrayed more flatly and stereotypically than cis, straight ones, harkening back to when queer characters fit into specific roles to signal their identity to the audience. Moreover, the prevalence of queer coding villains primes audiences to think of queerness as evil, particularly if queer coding and the stereotypes it trades in go unexamined. That damaging trope shows up in films where queerness is explicit, like Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct, Dressed to Kill, and The Talented Mr. Ripley.
In advance of the film’s release, Ewan MacGregor and Chris Messina were asked if their characters in the movie are gay, given some internet chatter to that effect, which was itself fueled by the movie’s own marketing. While at first they demurred, ultimately MacGregor said, “More than likely, yes.” Messina, who already had one arm around MacGregor, kissed him on the cheek. For some, it set off an exciting prospect of more representation and, frankly, two deliciously weird gay villains. For others, it felt like bait.
The term “queerbaiting” refers to the practice of hinting at queer relationships without ever confirming them onscreen, in order to draw in a queer audience without alienating those who vehemently oppose LGBTQ inclusion. It’s yet another way to toy with queer audiences, and when looking online for discussion of whether Black Mask is gay, there are just as many fans showing frustration that they were misled by the marketing and this interview as there are those picking up on the cues in McGregor’s performance. Considering the other recent poor attempts at representation from tentpole franchises like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Avengers: Endgame, Birds of Prey can feel like just another entry in a list that’s far too long.
Considering how there’s more straightforward representation in the film, like Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya and her ex played by Ali Wong, queer coding feels incredibly regressive. Why would DCEU continue to engage in queer coding when they’re clearly willing to bring a canonically LGBTQ character from the comics to life on the big screen? And on that note, wither Harley Quinn’s comics-canon bisexuality? Save for the quick reference to an ex-girlfriend in the opening animation sequence, which could easily be cut for foreign markets, there’s no on-screen mention of it, or her longtime girlfriend Pam Isley AKA Poison Ivy.
While it might seem like keeping Zsasz and Sionis’s sexuality unspoken is more politically correct, since it would be better than having a pair of gay villains, the reality is more complex. As written, costumed and performed, the pair are clearly queer, as evidenced by how many critics and audience members have picked up on the vibe, so simply not labelling what’s right there on the screen feels a bit gutless on the part of Birds of Prey.
It could be to seem more PC, but given that everything about these characters and the marketing is steering so hard into queerness that this counts as queer-baiting too, it seems more likely that WB simply wants to avoid an issue with overseas audiences known for having a problem with LGBTQ characters, especially men, who are less fetishized than queer women. While there’s certainly a history to content with when it comes to queer villainy, they should at least come out an own it if they’re going to use so much of a cultural aesthetic to build a character, particularly Roman Sionis. He’s already a “charismatic fancy daddy of a villain” – just own it already and let him be gay for real!
Birds of Prey was a wildly fun, bonkers movie about cutting loose whatever (or whoever) holds you back, finding people who value you for who you are, and having a ton of fun while doing it. Why not do the same for all of its characters and own up to the fact that they wrote queer villains – while allowing Harley’s bisexuality to be more than a “one time at college” footnote, easily edited out for foreign markets? For a film with so much fun gay energy, it feels surprisingly out of step to engage in an outdated, flailing nod toward queer representation.