The Beautifully Effortless Queerness of Disney+’s Renegade Nell

TV Features Disney Plus
The Beautifully Effortless Queerness of Disney+’s Renegade Nell

In Episode 6 of Disney+’s Renegade Nell, Polly Honeycombe (Ashna Rabher) quickly and (almost!) painlessly discovers that she is, in fact, gayer than originally planned. The episode features fantasy sequences and slow-motion shots that feel straight out of a romance novel, turning the titular Nell (Louisa Harland) into the white-shirted, rose-throwing heartthrob of both Polly and the audience’s dreams. It’s an extremely fun and playful way to make this series explicitly queer, but even before Nell and Polly shared that sudden and surprising lip-lock, queerness was already baked into the very DNA of Renegade Nell, making it a fantasy romp that feels like home in all the best ways. 

From the very first episode, Renegade Nell goes a long way to establish an undeniably queer undercurrent that carries through the rest of the series, most specifically with its leading hero. Now, Nell is never “confirmed” queer, but even the mention of a deceased husband can’t completely dim the vibes that just radiate from this character. Frequently seen in trousers and refusing to conform to the standards for ladies of the time, she corrects anyone that calls her “Nelly” and staunchly refuses to be restricted by society’s expectations of ladylike manner and toff politeness. Even in her mystical powers, Nell embodies that of a queer existence. She is imbued with supernatural strength from her fairy companion Billy (Nick Mohammed), and to the rest of English society, she is a woman who carries the strength of 10 men and uses it to challenge the status quo. 

Her supernatural ability to smash through societal expectations and standards mirrors the ways in which queerness, but most particularly lesbianism, challenges our patriarchal society, and acts as the ultimate enemy to toxic masculinity and a man-favored world. The toffs—namely the Earl of Poynton (Adrian Lester) and his cohort of would-be usurpers—see Nell as the ultimate threat: a woman who has both the power and the confidence to make tangible changes within England, all without the help of a (visible) man. Much like how Nell is an almost-immovable roadblock for the Jacobites, lesbianism acts as a similar roadblock to the construct of the patriarchy through the ways it de-centers men. Of course, Nell and her crew know that her deep kinship with Billy is actually what gives her this immense power, and that dynamic is what allows Nell to skirt the often-unavoidable accusations that characters like her represent the “man-hating” lesbian. While lesbiansim does reject the patriarchy, it certainly doesn’t benefit from some grand downfall of all men, and Nell’s deep and emotional friendship with Billy allows for this lesbian-coded character to form a unique bond with the same sex that her very existence seems to threaten. 

Nell’s implicit lesbianism doesn’t just stem from the coded magic she wields, but also from her relationship with gender as shown throughout the series. While she almost always wears pants, she also dons dresses on multiple occasions, with the same nonchalant attitude that she throws on a fake mustache or a periwig. She’s constantly referred to as both “she” and “he,” and never bats an eye at the fluidity with which she’s able to wield and command both gender and performance. 

And even outside of Nell, the series continually showcases queer experiences and themes, whether implicitly or explicitly. Polly barely blinks when Nell’s sister George (Florence Keen) corrects her mooning over this mysterious highwayman (“A highwayman… woman?” is the most shock Polly displays before the fantasy continues anew); Sofia’s (Alice Kremelberg) descent into magic and madness shares similar beats with Nell’s more overt lesbian-coding, only with a stronger sense of repression and denial (and, let’s face it, her all-consuming obsession with killing Nell is just a little homoerotic); nearly every main character in this series cross-dresses at least once; and the very existence of both Eularia (Joely Richardson) and her fashionable, non-binary toady Valerian (Iz Hesketh) bring camp excellence to the upper echelon of this society. It’s a strikingly accepting and moving portrait of a time so strangled by etiquette and classicism, with all of its characters, in some way or another, throwing out the limiting rulebook and stifling corsets to craft a freer, more accepting world in their own time—never waiting around for someone better to do the heavy lifting for them. 

Much like how Captain Marvel remains an unspoken queer icon in her various MCU appearances, Nell’s very existence as a heavily-coded queer character is just as important as the concrete representation the series provides. In a time where explicitly LGBTQ+ series find themselves more frequently canceled (and oftentimes deleted) than their straighter peers, it’s hard not to imagine that, in some ways, Renegade Nell represents an important aspect of the future of queer representation on screen. Telling stories that are explicitly LGBTQ+ will always be undeniably important and we should always continue to fight for more visibility on the small screen, but coded stories are just as vital, and it’s always refreshing to watch a series that so thoroughly marries queer-coded commentary to its larger arcs and themes that it becomes the connective tissue that holds the series together. Renegade Nell stands, delivers, and makes it all so, so gay—what more could you possibly ask for? 

Renegade Nell is now streaming on Disney+. 

Anna Govert is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and her unshakable love of complicated female villains, you can follow her @annagovert.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin