The Rise of the New Gay Villains

Once, a villain's homosexuality was meant to dehumanize. Now it's often the most likeable thing about him

Meet the new gay villains of television and film: If their wrists are bent, it's probably to cut someone's throat.

Far from their limp-wristed, lisping predecessors, the modern-day villains of "Skyfall" and "Dexter" do their own dirty work and are every bit as masculine as the heroes with whom they do battle.

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OK, one stereotype remains: They still wear some nice clothes. But while the old portrayals suggested that gays were vain and effeminate, the fashion-consciousness of the new gay villains reflects an admirable attention to detail.

Is this progress? In a way, yes.

Once, branding a villain as homosexual was dehumanizing. Today, a villain's homosexuality is often the most humanizing thing about him.

The arrival of more nuanced, less stereotypical gay villains comes as gay characters receive more realistic portrayals on shows like ABC's hit "Modern Family." Rather than remaining relegated to the rom-com role of gay best friend, gay characters are finally moving the action.

And no one moves the action like villains.

GLAAD, which tracks portrayals of gays in popular culture, says that as the number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered characters increases in TV and film, it makes sense that there would be more villains. The question is whether they are villainous because they are gay, or villains who just happen to also be gay.

"In the early days of LGBT characters on screen, it was often the case that a character’s sexual orientation or gender identity was directly tied to their villainous nature as things like lecherous prison guards, blackmailers, or even psychotic killers," Matt Kane, GLAAD's associate director of entertainment media, told TheWrap.

"Though that’s almost never the case now, it’s still something writers and directors should be conscious of. What this also highlights, however, is that there are still too few LGBT protagonists and leads in popular media, particularly in genre film and television. Where is the gay equivalent to James Bond?"

Nowhere, so far. But at least Bond has a worthy gay adversary.

In the bad old days, films and movies gave their villains mincing walks, frilly outfits, flowery language, fussy cats and all sorts of other supposedly effeminate accessories to tip off viewers that they were homosexual – as if homosexuality were synonymous with weakness. If the manly hero pummeled his way through a horde of 1960s henchmen, the effete villain stood no chance. His only hope was to flee. We were supposed to despise him for his cowardice.

The sissified villain is one of fiction's oldest stereotypes. Even in the epic poem "The Iliad," one warrior belittles another by imagining him "crying… like some little girl, who runs beside her mother and begs to be picked up."

Today's gay villains are so stereotypically masculine that we might not know they were gay if they didn't say so themselves. They are gay because they like the same sex – not because of their pets.

Though "Dexter" villain Isaak Sirko (Ray Stevenson) reveals his homosexuality to Dexter — and becomes a more interesting character in the process — Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva never explicitly tells Bond he is gay. We gather that he is gay or bisexual from the way he unbuttons Bond's shirt, strokes his legs and chest, and propositions him.

Today's Bond isn't a homophobe. Rather than express disgust when Silva suggests there's a first time for everything, Bond replies, "What makes you think it's my first time?"

John Logan, the gay screenwriter who wrote the exchange, has said it simply plays off of the homoeroticism of countless past Bond confrontations. Remember that laser that Auric Goldfinger aimed at Bond's groin? Or the scrotum torture of "Casino Royale"?

On "Breaking Bad," we're given hints that Giancarlo Esposito's Gus Fring is gay, but never know for sure. In a flashback to Fring's early 20s, we see that he has a young, attractive partner — a business partner, that is — and that they hold a deep affection for one another. When his partner is murdered before his eyes, Fring begins a decades-long quest for revenge.

Also read: 'Breaking Bad' Star Giancarlo Esposito and the Healing Power of Gus Fring

There is one more possible tip-off to Fring's possible homosexuality, if we indulge in the kind of stereotyping that pervades the gay-centric sitcom "The New Normal":

Fring is the most immaculate dresser within hundreds of miles. His final act is to straighten his tie, even after half of his face has been blown off. Silva and Sirko also look like escapees from a GQ fashion shoot.

But Fring's attention to detail — not just in his appearance but in his business dealings — allows him to operate a massive meth empire, hidden in plain sight. Sirko's fastidiousness allows him to rule another criminal enterprise. And Silva builds a massive hacking-abetted fortune while looking good and demonstrating a playful taste in music.

As an audience, we respect the gay villains a bit more, guessing at the bigotry they've likely had to overcome: They have made it to the top of such hyper-masculine and probably homophobic institutions as drug cartels, the Russian mob, and in Silva's case, before he went rogue, the spy game.

The model for the modern-day gay villains may be Omar, the brilliant stickup man from the beloved HBO series "The Wire." Not every writer in Hollywood takes cues from "The Wire," but plenty do. ("Breaking Bad" is influential as well. "Dexter" seems to have borrowed several points from the AMC series this season, including a morally ambiguous character who poisons people with plants.)

As played by Michael K. Williams, Omar holds up drug dealers for a living, sometimes with a pretty younger man by his side. Like Sirko and perhaps Fring, he longs to avenge a lover's death, which makes him more sympathetic than the usual bad guy motivated by greed.

Omar's homosexuality, in other words, brings out the best in him. And it does nothing to make him less of a man. Even as his enemies denounce him as a "cocksucker," they fear him as much as they fear anyone.

Sirko, Silva and Fring are just as brutal as Omar when they need to be. In one of the most chilling scenes on "Breaking Bad," Fring changes out of his business clothes, we see his ripped muscles for the first time, and he dons a HazMat suit to cut an underperforming underling's throat with a box cutter.

Worried about his clothes? Yes. But there's nothing weak about him.