Featured Illustration: Drew Buchanan
Coding, in television and film, is a technique that implies a fictional non-human character has a particularly human quality or identity. By paying attention to the ways in which animated characters are drawn, behave, and speak, one can make conclusions about the identities they would have if they were a human character or even a real-life person. The coding of animated characters as belonging to marginalised social groups, in particular, is a phenomenon that has received much attention in recent years. Coding, as it relates to people, is hardly new. In our real and everyday lives, people from marginalised communities often code-switch to better “fit in” or adapt to spaces in which they are the minority. The Harvard Business School defines code-switching as “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behaviour, and expression in ways that will optimise the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.”
But within the context of children’s animations, non-human characters are sometimes coded as queer, Black, neurodivergent, and more. This kind of coding can sometimes feel wonderful; being able to relate to and identify with a character along the lines of personal identity can be quite meaningful. On the other hand, the technique of coding is easily called into question when looking at specific examples. Pink.com listed 10 villains from our childhood shows and movies that were coded as queer. It begs the question: why were all these villains, those our developing minds came to understand as ‘bad guys’, coded as queer? In short, the answer is heteronormativity underscored by queerphobia. In many circles, both mainstream and otherwise, queer people, who disrupt and challenge norms surrounding sexuality and gender by simply existing, are genuinely perceived as ‘bad’. Pink.com’s list included Ursula in Disney classic The Little Mermaid, Team Rocket’s James in Pokémon, and The Powerpuff Girls’ HIM — who is probably the clearest example of all, with impossibly tall stiletto heels, references to genderbending, and ‘villainous flamboyance.’
This reframing of HIM as ‘a representative for those who refuse to conform’ — i.e. the queer community — calls to mind recent reframings of Lilo from Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, a personal favourite of mine, as neurodivergent. In the last few years, fan theories have circulated stating that Lilo is coded as autistic — as arguably evidenced by her struggles with displays of affection, her special interest in Elvis, her difficulty communicating her emotions, and more. I largely saw this suggestion emerge in response to statements that Lilo, a fictional child clearly grieving the loss of her parents, was ‘annoying’, interestingly enough.
Other female characters have been said to be autistically coded, with the exceptionally intelligent Entrapta from Netflix Original She-Ra and the Princesses of Power being one of the most notable examples in recent times. Her difficulty with reading social cues and settings, combined with her being proud of how different she is, has led to her being called a “positive representation of a woman with autism.” Of course, coding goes beyond neurodivergence and sexuality. Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, which has amassed an incredible following of devoted fans, has several coded characters. Garnet, the result of a fusion between a lesbian Ruby and Sapphire couple, and voiced by singer Estelle, is quite obviously coded as a Black woman — and not just because she’s voiced by one. Qualities like her Afro hairstyle and self-assurance have fuelled this idea, and she is particularly relatable to Black women. Several other Steven Universe characters, like Uzo Aduba’s Bismuth, and main characters Amethyst and Pearl, have been understood as women of colour — as Black, Latina, and Asian respectively. It’s also really important to note that this kind of coding exists beyond the realm of children’s animation. Princess Carolyn, a career-driven anthropomorphic pink cat, from the adult comedy BoJack Horseman has been understood as a Black woman, also.
While coding characters as queer, Black, or neurodivergent allows people from marginalised and often chronically underrepresented (and misrepresented) groups in media to find characters to whom they relate and identify with, by subverting the kinds of hypervisible representation we might be more accustomed to, I do wonder if this is substantially less valuable than out-and-out, explicit representation. But the answer is a firm no.
Not all characters are human, and this codified approach to representation subverts something else: the deeply entrenched norms that are whiteness, heterosexuality, and neurotypicality.
These are the standards, they are the default settings. The fact that we live in a white supremacist, heteronormative patriarchy is undeniable. While some might argue that our understandings of race aren’t applicable to fictional non-humans, our societal structure bleeds into all aspects of our lives and fundamentally poisons it. As such, without the coding of non-human characters as POC, queer, or neurodivergent, they would simply be interpreted as straight, white, and neurotypical — even if unintentional — because this is what we have come to see as the default, standardised human being. They would all be understood in this way if they weren’t coded as being any different.
The identity-coding of non-human characters in children’s animation as being from underrepresented and misrepresented groups, when done most respectfully, can be a powerful way of subverting deeply entrenched norms and understandings of identity and a challenge to how those norms seep into mainstream representation; and there can be a lot of value in this.