Poppy O’Possum

A comic by Ian “Morbi” Everett

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 backstory doesn't make a lot of sense.
This backstory doesn’t make a lot of sense.

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.

We could've had it all... imagine a gay possum mom comic with no transmisogyny...
We could’ve had it all… imagine a gay possum mom comic with no transmisogyny…

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.

Not to mention the transparent gotchas about self-identification!!
Not to mention the transparent gotchas about self-identification!!

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.

Stop running from yourself! Identity and experience are meaningless! Biology is the only truth! Where have I heard this before...
Stop running from yourself! Identity and experience are meaningless! Biology is the only truth! Where have I heard this before…

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.

I can see how Morbi might've been trying for a multiracial "between two worlds" narrative here but the "fantasy vs. reality" mirror panels pull it in a much more transmisogynist direction.
I can see how Morbi might’ve been trying for a multiracial “between two worlds” narrative here but the “fantasy vs. reality” mirror panels pull it in a much more transmisogynist direction.

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.

8 comments on “Poppy O’Possum

  1. I vaguely remember the author of this comic going on SomethingAwful while the EweLala arc was running and basically dismissing all the criticism as LOL, YOU KNOW TUMBLR~~~~~ and I guess saying that. One of the bird moms was trans and it was OBVIOUS because she had bright yellow feathers, so anyone upset was only nitpicking excuses to be offended etc etc etc. (its funny they chose a yellow bird to do this with because for most people they’ll think of canaries and parakeets, both of which don’t have any real color based dimorphism but thats splitting hairs tbh)

    So uh, be prepared for that sort of backlash i guess

  2. Could it be possible that this is just what it is at face value? A retelling of the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing and nothing to do with transphobia? It seems like, from these panels, that the wolf chose the sheep visage because she didn’t want to be seen as something undesirable – an animal with a violent stereotype people would fear. I don’t want to tell you what to feel about it because I an not trans and don’t have the experience you do, but your reading of it would not have occurred to me. I don’t really care either way because furry comics are just not for me, but it would be a shame if you liked something a lot and tossed it because of a misunderstanding.

    1. This is a good question! The problem is, there’s no such thing as “face value” in fiction. All stories are making statements, whether conscious on the author’s part or not. I’m sure that Morbi didn’t intend for Ewe Lala to be a trans allegory, but the point I’m trying to convey is that it doesn’t matter. Lala’s experience parallels transfeminine experiences in many, many ways, and the way she’s treated and portrayed parallels the way transfeminine people are treated and portrayed just as closely.

      Attitudes about real people and fictional people are governed by the same unconscious preconceptions and prejudices, and trans women and people like me can see those forces at work in both realms even if those on the other end can’t. So it’s immaterial whether Morbi – or you, no offense – made the connection between Ewe Lala and transfem people in general, because the numerous critical parallels make his statement about her a statement about all of us, whether he intended it or not.

  3. It’s awful to read even those little bits. That last page gives me some feels. Some terrible, manipulative, awful feels. Even when Poppy is trying to validate Ewe, she messes it up by saying Ewe Lala might actually be a sheep ’cause she’s weak. Which is another thing that trans women and transfeminine people have to deal with. Some of the only validation we can get is for being helpless and weak and dainty. Y’know, ‘cuz that’s what femininity is all about!

    Ewe Lala, I’m sorry you got shoved back into the closet. I’ve been there, and it breaks my heart.

  4. Also, the back story just reeks of colonialism. It reads to me like, “Our ancestors taught them how to live free, and then they take it out on us and call us their oppressors?! We’re the ones who are clearly oppressed!” Yeesh

    1. To be fair, what I’ve presented here only includes the last few panels of a fairly elaborate creation myth. I don’t think it’s colonialist, just kind of nonsensical.

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