Today I want to talk to you about coding.
Coding is a sort of cultural shorthand in fiction, a set of traits and cues that draw parallels between a particular group or character in a story and a real-world demographic. It’s used as a shortcut, allowing writers to tap into their audience’s preconceptions about a real group of people to gain a better understanding of a character and their background without a ton of exposition.
There are many kinds of coding, and many different motivations for it. Sometimes a writer will code a character as queer or trans without making their identity explicit as a way to bypass censorship while still reaching their intended audience. Other times, a writer may want to represent diverse racial or cultural identities, but have a cast that is mostly aliens or monsters, which is how you get characters like the black-coded Garnet from Steven Universe. And of course a writer may want to appeal to a certain audience without having to put in the effort of real representation, which gives rise to things like the Muslim-coded Quarians in Mass Effect or the rampant queerbaiting that pervades nerd-targeted games, movies, and shows.
But there’s another kind of coding, one that’s much more sinister. When creating a villainous or otherwise immoral character, writers often incorporate stereotypical traits of oppressed people – Disney, for one, is infamous for giving its antagonists queer and transfeminine traits to make them seem more evil. One could speculate about whether this coding is done deliberately or subconsciously – the result of unquestioned bigotry on the creators’ part – but what’s sure is the damage this causes, further cementing these harmful preconceptions in the minds of the audience.
Which brings us to Poppy O’Possum.
This is the story of an opossum named Poppy who is, for some reason, incredibly strong. She and her daughter Lily face discrimination from the other furries for being nonmagical opossums or something like that. I was initially really into this story, what with the strong (lol) protagonist who is regularly implied to be queer and the weird, goofy magic animal world that it takes place in. It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s tense – it’s a great yarn.
But none of you missed the huge red F at the top of this page. It sounds good so far, so what’s the catch? Why’d it fail? Well, it’s a matter of coding.
Before I explain what happened to put me off, I want to explain some things about what it’s like to be a transfeminine person. Transmisogyny is deeply ingrained in our society, and manifests in aggressions both micro and macro. People believe that we’re liars and deceivers, that our femininity is fake and artificial, that we’re failed men, that we’re men who are confused, that we’re men wearing dresses to prey on women, or straight men, or children, depending on what kind of bigot you ask. They believe that they can spot us, read us, and that when they do they can and should unmask us.
After the end of chapter 3, there’s a short side-story where Poppy, Lily, and their friends go to see a concert by popstar Ewe Lala. Immediately I got a sinking feeling, because the magic-immune marsupials immediately observe that Lala is not a sheep, but a wolf in a costume using magic to fool the audience. During the show, there’s a planned bit where Lala is supposed to demolish a heckling opossum in front of the audience, but due to the rareness of opossums – and the meddling of the drunk Sister Mary – Poppy gets called up on stage instead, and predictably ruins it. When Lala gets mad at her for wrecking the show, Lily yanks off her wig, and she flees. Poppy pursues her backstage and convinces her that she doesn’t need to lie about being a wolf, that her fans will love her just the same, and to go back on stage without any magic or costumes.
This was the point where I couldn’t bring myself to read any more.
As someone who has had my body and identity scrutinized by strangers, who has been told to my face that I’m a liar for not telling people what my junk looks like, who has been outed, who spends endless energy trying to pass for my safety, who has felt the eyes of strangers reading me as if they were seeing right through my clothes, who has literally been referred to as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the events of that interlude hit a little too close to home.
Is this the only possible interpretation? Is Morbi perhaps aiming for a mixed-race parable instead? (Lala is the child of a sheep and a wolf, by means of some magical tree thing.) Well, as I said above, I can’t speak to the author’s intent, only the impact of his actions. And there’s only one real group of people that gets treated the way this story treats Lala. Transfeminine people are seen as predatory, disguising ourselves as something harmless to trick people, and while mixed people face their own set of negative stereotypes, the “trap” narrative is not one that I’ve ever heard connected to that experience. So if Morbi was intending to code Lala as multiracial, he seriously missed the mark.
(Not to mention that the “trap” narrative would still be toxic if applied to multiracial people! Yikes!!)
And this is the danger of coding. Without an understanding of social and oppressive dynamics, you risk inserting harmful ideas about real people through your coding of characters. At best, poor coding choices like these just further marginalize people like me. Creators must be conscious of their own preconceptions and the experiences of their audience, or risk alienating the people they’re trying to reach.
Final verdict: If you lack the basic gender analysis needed to spot a bunch of extremely clumsy and heavy-handed digs at trans women, you’ll probably enjoy this comic’s cute humor and serious adventure. But like, seriously, git gud.