Those of you who have read my Poppy O’Possum review know that I have strong opinions about coding – the practice of associating fictional characters with real-world groups of people through the use of “coded” traits. That’s a definition that’s almost so broad as to be meaningless, though! So let’s talk more about coding and its relationship to representation.
What the fuck is coding?
The word originated in the shadow of McCarthyism and censorship, referring to the techniques queer writers of all kinds used to reach queer people in their audience without straight people getting wise – a literal “code” that enabled these stories to exist without being pulled from the shelves or theatres. Because of this history, I’ll refer to this kind of coding as classical coding.
Unfortunately, straight people know about the code now, only they don’t understand its purpose. They just believe, thanks to the many historical examples and their own homophobia, that this is how gay stories should be: entirely subtext, a wink here, a nudge there, no more. I’m going to refer to this appropriation of classical coding with a word you probably know: queerbaiting.
But “coding” has also come to be applied to a broader range of character designs and writing choices; now it refers to any time an author taps into their audience’s preconceptions about a group of people by giving a character traits associated with those people – and thank god because articulating that concept is a mouthful otherwise.
Obviously, this is often used in a harmful way, relying on and reinforcing stereotypes: think of the minstrel crows from Dumbo or Ursula’s drag queen makeup in the Little Mermaid. This is a different sort of “code”, a language of bigotry that allows creators to play to their audience’s racism or transmisogyny without being completely overt about it. It’s often deliberate, though it can also be an unconscious move, a writer’s unquestioned prejudices bleeding into their work. Whatever the motivation, I’m calling this harmful variant malicious coding.
And lastly there’s a category that I’m going to tentatively call representative coding, where non-human characters are used as stand-ins for real marginalized people. This sort of coding is extremely common in genre fiction, and often, uh… sucks. And that’s the thing that I want to talk about.
Coding vs Representation
Scifi and fantasy authors often use coding as a substitute for true representation – like when the Mass Effect series included the Quarians, a strongly Muslim-coded alien civilization, but failed to include a single actually Muslim human.
I can only speculate about the motivations for this. Is it a “PC” desire for “inclusivity” without the confidence of being able to competently write a real Muslim? Do the writers want to include Muslims, but face studio censorship? Or is it obliviousness, the parallels between Muslims and Quarians completely coincidental, or at most aesthetic inspiration?
The excuses don’t matter. People should be able to see themselves in the stories they read without deciphering a code. White people, straight people, cis people, abled people never have a problem finding stories where they’re the hero; why should we be forced to squint to see ourselves in the monsters, the aliens, the robots?
Part of what draws me to spec fic is that I like to imagine what it would be like to be something other than a human: a spirit, a creature from the depths of space or beyond the veil of time, an artificial intelligence, a genetic experiment – an Other. I think this holds true for a lot of people who have been “othered” in real life. It’s fun to be able to see parallels between ourselves and non-human characters, and to see our identities examined by metaphor. That part isn’t necessarily bad! But it’s not enough either.
There are two approaches to using coded characters as positive representation.
1. Representative coding as a counterpoint to real representation
When including real identities and experiences by coding, the writer’s enemy is doubt. The people you’re representing will want to believe that they’re in your story, but have been burned too many times to take it on faith, while privileged audiences will take any excuse to disbelieve inclusion if it’s not labeled with a flashing neon sign (and sometimes even when it is). Coding has a layer of doubt inherent in it, and writers must dispel that doubt.
How do we do that? One way is to complement your coded characters with characters who have the corresponding real identities.
Let’s look at an example that some of you are probably familiar with: the short science fiction comic Judgement Day, written by Al Feldstein, drawn and inked by Joe Orlando, and colored by Marie Severin in 1955. It depicts a civilization of robots, created by humans but left to develop on their own for centuries to prove their readiness to join the galactic community. In the story, an envoy from Earth has finally come to judge the robots, who were arbitrarily created in two colors, orange and blue. The envoy is shocked to discover the oppressive society that the orange robots have built on the backs of their blue brethren. He condemns this, deeming the robots unfit to leave their planet until they can form a more equitable society.
White readers might not immediately get this one. “This isn’t about Jim Crow,” they convince themselves, “it’s just about Fantasy Racism on Robot Planet! Nothing to do with me!”
Until they get to the end. On the last page, in the last panel, the human envoy finally takes off his helmet – and he’s a black man. In this way, the comic makes explicit the comparison between the fictional robots and the very real legacy of American racism. It’s an overt condemnation of segregation, which was, lest we forget, still the law of the land when Judgement Day was published. The connection is impossible to ignore, and that’s presumably why the Comics Code Authority tried to force the publisher to change the character to a white man.
Another example: Kosmicdream’s Feast For a King (NSFW), where a human named Crimson, who has been hinted to be trans, meets a shapeshifting alien named Galore who attempts to seduce Crimson in the form of a human woman. The seduction goes awry, but it quickly comes out that Galore isn’t actually a “female” of her species – her eyes (or the one that remains) are white, and she can’t lay eggs. Despite her culture not having a word or concept for “trans”, trans readers immediately think “this character is like me!”
…and so does Crimson, who has parallel feelings about her own gender. Though this scene is complicated by many more factors than I can get into here, it’s that comparison between the two characters that lets us understand what’s really going on for Crimson.
So one trick to using coding in a way that doesn’t feel like a cop-out is to include characters who have the identities that your coded characters are intended to parallel. This shows the choice is deliberate, and makes the comparison and exploration an explicit part of the story rather than an incidental thing without a strong link to readers’ own lives and experiences.
But certain kinds of fiction fall so far outside the realm of reality that this sort of explicit representation becomes impossible. How can you use coding to make readers feel represented in a setting where where technology exists to “cure” any disabilities a real reader might experience? Or where Asia – and thus Asians – don’t exist?
2. Representative coding as real representation
We know this can work, because we’ve seen it work. Avatar: the Last Airbender is a story where technically no Actual Earth Cultures exist, yet numerous Actual Earth Cultures are definitely represented. But it’s not an allegory like Judgement Day either: it tells its own story, and the correspondence between its fictional peoples and their nonfictional inspirations isn’t direct and rigid. Through the use of cultural cues – traditions, fashions, architecture, and lifestyles – A:tLA codes Asian and indigenous characters into its fantasy world the same way that ubiquitous Tolkeinesque fantasies code in white people and medieval Europe.
To create relatable marginalized characters in a purely fantasy world requires creating enough parallels between it and ours to make those elements recognizable. Maybe you don’t have people of African descent in your story, but maybe the same factors that gave rise to modern antiblack racism on Earth – xenophobia, chattel slavery, colorism, and colonization – created a similar dynamic in your setting where, for instance, dark-skinned Southerners are oppressed by light-skinned Northerners. Done well, you can make a setting where your black readers can relate to the experience of those characters.
Race is the most common example of this sort of thing because it comes up so much in “high” fantasy, but certain speculative fiction premises also preclude other real identities; take Ari walkingnorth’s Always Human, in which technologies called “mods” have allowed humans to control every aspect of their bodies, from curing disabilities to changing one’s hair color. But one disability still exists: an autoimmune condition that rejects mods, preventing those with it, including the main supporting character Austen, from using them at all.
As a disabled person myself, I find this concept interesting for two reasons: first, the fantasy of being able to have my chronic pain and cognitive impairments cured permanently is enticing; second, the way it examines disability through a scifi lens illuminates the ways that disability is constructed – equal parts body and society. Austen seems fairly abled from our present perspective, but in a future where everyone uses mods to enhance their bodies, their senses, their cognitive function, and even their appearance, she struggles to keep up – a struggle I relate to deeply. Even in a setting with no real-world disabilities, walkingnorth manages to create a disability story that makes me feel represented.
This sort of approach requires a deep familiarity with the experiences and cultures you’re representing so that you know which key elements to parallel, and audiences who lack that familiarity can still miss the point, but if you pull it off, your target audience will appreciate having a fantasy they can see themselves in.
Failures of Representative Coding
It’s easy to fuck this up. Just look at the way Bioware portrays the elves in the Dragon Age series (I know, I’m harping on Bioware a lot, but listen… they deserve it) where the oppression and colonization elves face is intended to mirror real racism and antisemitism – ghettoes, religious discrimination, cultural genocide, economic disenfranchisement – but these things end up being repeatedly justified by the story, inadvertently changing a message about how, like, prejudice is like, bad, into an inadvertent metaphorical justification of real-life racism. Whoops.
These failures stem from three possible roots: a poor understanding of the experiences you’re trying to represent, unquestioned or subconscious prejudices or preconceptions, or overt bigotry. I hope you’re not contending with the last one, but the other two are extremely important for all creators to keep in mind. Unlearning oppressive ideas is an imperfect and lifelong process, but it’s just as critical to being a better writer as being a better person. And whenever you feel like you’re dealing with something you’re not totally familiar with, you should cultivate a writer’s instinct that tells you to do more research.
The heart of the matter is this: “representation” is just a fancy word for depicting people of certain identities how they would want to be depicted. Whenever you write outside your own experience, ask yourself if the people you’re writing about would see themselves in your characters, and if they would feel positive about that reflection. If you’re using coding to depict them, the question is the same: how would they feel about their identities and experiences being encoded that way? What statement are you making about those people through your coding choices? Would they still be able to recognize themselves, and if they did, would they feel positive about it, or cheated out of a more genuine inclusion of someone like them? Am I making a Garnet from Steven Universe? Or am I making a King Louie from the Jungle Book?
Addendum: (March 30, 2016)
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.
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: http://jewish-privilege.tumblr.com/post/138797884553/what-about-tali-is-coded-as-poc-i-never-got 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.