Musical review throwback: queer coding in “Wicked”

“Wicked” is a sensational musical that explores the origin stories of the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the South from “The Wizard of Oz.” Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, its protagonists Elphaba and Glinda navigate the highs and lows of their fierce, tumultuous relationship while trying to save Oz from the conniving Wizard. 

Since it debuted on Broadway in 2004, “Wicked” has been hugely popular amongst the queer community. While the musical features no explicitly queer characters, Maguire is openly gay and many media analysts have noted multiple elements of the show that serve as obvious metaphors for queerness. 

Firstly, Elphaba and Glinda’s relationship contains heavy homoerotic undertones. Although both women pursue romantic relationships with the charming prince Fiyero, most of the plot focuses on the connection between Elphaba and Glinda. Some critics view Elphaba and Glinda as bisexual or pansexual, while others argue that both women are coded as lesbians and their interest in Fiyero develops as a reaction to societal expectations and compulsory heterosexuality. 

Regardless of their labels, the tense chemistry between Elphaba and Glinda is apparent from the moment they first meet. Although they initially dislike each other, the words they use to describe their mutual loathing also hint at unacknowledged attraction. In the song “What is This Feeling,” both women ask themselves, “What is this feeling/So sudden and new?/I felt the moment/I laid eyes on you?/My pulse is rushing/My head is reeling/My face is flushing.” These lyrics suggest that Elphaba and Glinda are either failing to understand their desire for each other or are harboring resentment because they are uncomfortable with their new feelings. 

Elphaba’s ostracization from the rest of Oz imitates society’s rejection of queer people. Her father disowns her due to her green skin – an inherent quality she cannot change – while pampering her “normal” sister Nessarose. The other citizens of Oz see her as a dangerous freak. Furthermore, talking animals, such as Elphaba’s history professor Doctor Dillamond, face discrimination because society perceives them as unnatural and believes animals should be “seen but not heard.” When “Wicked” first debuted on Broadway in 2004, many American TV shows were willing to feature queer side characters (most of which were based on exaggerated stereotypes for comic relief), but gay marriage was still illegal and LGBTQ+ rights movements were still considered radical and taboo. The status of talking animals in “Wicked” mirrors the LGBTQ+ community’s precarious position in the early 2000s: tolerated but still considered inferior. 

The characterizations of Elphaba and Glinda also mirror a butch/femme pairing. While not all sapphic couples fit into the butch/femme dynamic, it’s a popular model for sapphic couples in media. Elphaba’s rejection of traditionally feminine things and Glinda’s love for fashion and all things pink exaggerate the butch and femme archetypes to a comical extreme. In the song “Popular,” Glinda attempts to give Elphaba a makeover so she can conform to traditional beauty standards, which Elphaba finds ridiculous and unnecessary. The striking contrast between their personalities and aesthetics makes them the musical’s most dominant power couple. 

Elphaba and Glinda’s queer-coded identities can coexist with their relationships with Fiyero, but there’s also a considerable amount of subtext suggesting that the women are not even attracted to Fiyero at all. Glinda is determined to marry Fiyero before they are well acquainted, and she appears far more interested in the idea of marrying a conventionally attractive prince than Fiyero’s personality. As a beautiful, popular girl, Glinda is expected to find a socially acceptable partner, and Fiyero appeals to her because of his status rather than interpersonal connection or physical attraction. 

Elphaba, on the other hand, initially thinks Fiyero is arrogant and foolish, not attractive. She only begins falling in love with him after he shows her compassion. Since Elphaba has been shunned by society for most of her life, her emotional connection to Fiyero appears more like appreciation of his kindness and respect than sexual attraction. While Elphaba and Glinda being bisexual or pansexual would not make “Wicked” any less of a queer love story, the possibility that they are lesbians struggling to escape the expectations of heteronormative society aligns well with the musical’s content.  

Fiyero also fits perfectly into a common dynamic in queer media: the lesbian and himbo trope. Media like “The Half of It and Stranger Things” feature strong friendships between lesbians and “himbos” – men who are kind, conventionally handsome, and amusingly clueless. In the song “Dancing Through Life,” Fiyero shamelessly admits that his mottois “life’s more painless for the brainless,” but his gentle heart and effortless charm makes him one of the musical’s most endearing characters. He is one of the few characters to demonstrate genuine compassion and understanding towards Elphaba, and he supports her even after she is denounced as the Wicked Witch of the West. Although the duet “As Long As You’re Mine” establishes Elphaba and Fiyero as a romantic pair, the most notable aspect of their relationship is their loyalty to each other.  

At its core, “Wicked” is the story of two witches who change each other’s lives and love each other despite their differences and disagreements. Whether this relationship is framed as romantic or platonic, it is one of the few musicals that focuses on a deeply emotional connection between two women, making it one of the most popular Broadway shows within the sapphic community.