Featured Illustration: Drew Buchanan
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.