Addendum: Coding and Inclusion

I intended the Addenda feature to be used to revisit old reviews long after their initial publication, not post reader reactions or edits of things. But one message I got the other night deserves to be both addressed and highlighted, so the use of an addendum seems to make the most sense. 

Doppelganger writes:

Quarian Coding

Dear Wisp, Hi! I’ve been reading YesHomo for a few months now, and I love it, you’ve introduced me to so many new webcomics. I really liked the article you just posted, but one thing bugged me: what about the Quarian culture is “Strongly Muslim-coded”? I haven’t played mass effect, but I’ve watched playthroughs of all three games, and the Quarians always seemed much more Jewishly-coded. There’s a thorough breakdown of why here: but the long and short of it is that Quarians are a tiny nomadic people constantly trying to return to the homeland they were exiled from whose names and language bear an eerie similarity to Hebrew and Jewish religious phrases, none of which seems very Islamic. The only connections to Islam I can see are dietary restrictions, a focus on hygiene, and the head scarfs, all of which also show up in Judaism (yes, even the head scarfs. It’s not as iconic, but it’s definitely there). I am really curious why the culture seemed Muslim-coded to you (please, I’m not trying to be passive-aggressive, I just want to know if it was a knee-jerk scarfs=muslim thing or there’s something I’m missing and I can’t think of a better way to phrase it). Thanks, Doppelganger

This is a terrific point, and I’m glad Doppelganger took the time to write in, because I think it illustrates a core hazard with coding that I didn’t dig into in my original post.

First, to answer the question of why I read the Quarians as Muslim-coded: everything Doppelganger lists was a factor, though it wasn’t merely the headscarves but the containment suits in whole that, to me, seemed intended to evoke certain full-body-covering modes of dress that some Muslims practice. The fact that they are treated with suspicion and hostility everywhere they go also contributed, though this can also apply to Jewish folks, especially in Europe. The clincher for me was the pilgrimage that each Quarian is expected to undertake, which seems to parallel the Hajj, the journey Muslims must take to Mecca once in their lifetime.

My perspective is an outsider’s, but my interpretation was echoed among Muslim friends and bloggers I read, so I accepted it. In retrospect, however, saying that they are “strongly” Muslim-coded is perhaps overstating it.

I hadn’t actually considered other possible interpretations of the Quarians’ coding, but everything Doppelganger says is definitely true – the Quarians’ loss of their homeland is especially evocative of Jewish history. On a hunch, I did a little googling, and it seems that many people interpret them as a Romani analogue as well, for their nomadic and ostracized position in the galactic community. Whatever the writers’ intentions, the Quarians clearly speak to a diversity of people, and if someone sees themself in a fictional character, I’m never going to tell them that they’re wrong.

Coding doesn’t always mean that a character or group is a direct stand-in for something real. Cut from the original draft of this article was a paragraph about the difference between allegory and metaphor, but I like this post on the subject, even if it’s a bit wordy. Essentially, allegories (like Judgement Day) are the only sort of coding where a simple one-to-one relationship between representation and represented exists, and it’s severely limited in the stories it can tell. When one codes by metaphor (like Galore in FFAK), only certain aspects of an experience or identity (in this case, gender dysphoria) reference a real-world counterpart, while the rest (like the specific gendered anatomy of Galore’s species) are grounded in the rules of the setting. Some authors use multiple metaphors to combine references to different real cultures or identities into a single fictional group – as in the case of the Quarians.

This leaves me with a question that I find myself unable to answer: is combining codes possible to do well? Is it ever a good idea? It seems to muddy the message, and it’s hard to imagine that a writer would do this deliberately. Are there examples of writers appealing to multiple disparate marginalized groups with an economy of metaphors? Has this paragraph gone completely off the rails of intelligibility?

This is why we deserve stories where we don’t have to guess, because arguing ad infinitum about what “counts” as representation could fill a million tumblrs without getting anywhere. Coding should only be used with care and deliberation, and authors should always be aware of the implications of the worlds that they build.

Read the original post.