Another article about representation? You’re darn right. But this time I want to speak about what happens when there’s not enough representation. This time I want to speak about coding our characters to shape the world of the story, and why we do it so much.
Where does coding come from?
It’s a part of our ingrained social consciousness. One will inevitably label things as they move through the world, and as one consumes media, the labels are transferred to that media and so on. That’s when we learn to code, how we learn to identify others like us and different from us. We even do so in language – some of us call it code-switching.
Probably most on this site are familiar with that, but I felt that intro should be included for those who only subconsciously process it. In fandoms we do it all the time, mostly with race and sexuality. It mostly happens because there is a need, at least from those in underrepresented groups, to make something familiar seem even more so, even when it is out of canon. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Fandom Following’s article count would be much lower if there was not a need to code our characters.
Can coding go both ways? Of course. That doesn’t make it necessary or right, though. I used to code characters as white or straight all the time, even when it didn’t make sense. In western society and during my entire existence so far, I was used to being the minority…and therefore not the main character, due to some very harmful tropes. “White” is our default when we come across a character that does not have an exact skin tone stated and a “standard” name. However, it has become a recent trend for us to think deeper with our coding practices, as these mere features do not entirely reflect the character.
Recently, Priscilla released an article about how and why representation was needed. Coding falls in line with this, because there would be not much of a need to do so if proper representation were to occur in our media. Unfortunately, it seems that we take one step forward and ten steps back nowadays.
But I think that’s where our comics, books, and cartoons come into play. Worlds are created that can be culturally accurate or wonderfully ambiguous- and more so in our fan fictions. Now, I’m not especially cool with white or straight washing characters with specific features, but discussing the nuances of coding does come with that territory. Hopefully the few examples I thought up span the good, bad, and the somewhat bigoted results of coding characters.
Lesbian Space Rocks (Of Color?)
Recently, I just hopped back aboard the Steven Universe train, and I somehow missed when the show went from cute volleyball with the Pizzas to a full out saga, depicting the resurgence of an enemy faction bent on destroying Earth. Not the most left field twist, but it’s up there. I’m all caught up now and while I’m not a super fan, it is pretty rad. The different literal and figurative shades to almost every character was already a huge incentive to watch. My boyfriend is a huge fan so naturally we watch together, and I talked to him about what he thought of coding the crystal gems. As any true fan would, he debated with me — and eventually fell on the conclusion that while the gems’ appearances are just refractory of light, it’s perfectly okay to code them. I want to add on that from my watching it, I think that coding is actually supposed to happen. As flexible and diverse in their natures as some of the gems are, it’s hard to not find a way to relate.
One of the biggest conversations on coding the gems’ race has come from Garnet, and her essentially being a black lesbian, by standard coding practice. Now while the average fan can agree that the gems have no distinct race other than gem, Garnet is a standout character in her presumed blackness, and the community has by and large wanted her to be so. Her square “afro”, hips and her lips are all derivative of a black woman, and it doesn’t help that her strength and wisdom exceed the other crystal gems on a regular basis (“strong black woman” and “magical n*gro” tropes definitely spotted). These are both normally explained by Garnet being a fusion, but I didn’t have to search too hard to think those up. Not to mention that she’s voiced by Estelle (who I love) and fuses with Amethyst to turn into Nicki Minaj. Come on. Garnet somehow turned tropes that can ordinarily be harmful on their head if they were applied to her as a black woman. If she weren’t coded as such, she’s still a great character. From my (biased) perspective, it’s really hard to not see her as black. But she’s positive either way really.
The coding for Pearl has definitely changed within the last few episodes, at least in terms of her sexuality. Pearl kind of went into overdrive, literally and figuratively. And it set in stone some things fans were hoping for. To Pearl and the audience, Rose set the bar by affirming that gems can indeed be attracted to humans and each other. So when Mystery Girl comes along, at least half of Pearl’s reservations about even interacting with her are gone. I won’t spoil anything else if you haven’t seen the episode, though.
Going back a bit, I still had to endure the Tumblr theories and dodge spoilers about Pearl’s initial interest in Rose. I was having pretty much the same hunch while watching, but I couldn’t be too sure about if Pearl truly loved Rose or had an obsession that turned into PTSD. I probably missed some nuance, because at first I just thought of her as a severely devoted soldier. Quite huge for the LGBTQ+ community, and even huger for a cartoon (even though Bubbline has been tugging at our heartstrings this whole time too)! Although we were made aware of Garnet’s relationship early on, this seems like a different victory. I don’t necessarily know why, considering that I identify as queer at most. Maybe because it was two combined victories, considering all of Pearl’s initial reservations. But I digress.
Additionally, I’ve seen more than one article questioning Pearl’s race identifier. She looks white, but is voiced by a Filipina. She also has a very balanced, sensei-like composure *most* of the time, but that might be attributed to her penchant for dance. However, sword-fighting is her main skill, and after some quick research, Pearl herself fights with a glaive. While the glaive is European in origin, it is similar to a Japanese naginata. Could it be possible that Pearl is coded as an Asian ethnicity? If so, which one? Blacknerdproblems talks a lot more about it, and I found it to be an interesting theory, as well as another cool reasoning for Connie’s apprenticeship considering her heritage.
To conclude, the best part about SU is the gems’ ambiguity. The show covers a plethora of positivity and casts a light on things that aren’t so pleasant as well. But hey, at least it’s there so we can talk about it! Garnet is largely claimed as “black” because the black community can greatly relate. I jokingly mention that she might be mixed, although I also could attribute that to Amethyst, due to her attachment to Earth. Does this mean that in some strange way, the gems have coded themselves? Maybe. It’s fun to think about, and SU actually has crafted it so that you can make any of these arguments. One of the few things you can’t really argue about in SU is how much the queer relationships are heavily input, and that’s due to the gems’ chosen pronouns. If you’re not a fan of SU and still curious, I suggest looking at Pearl or Garnet’s relationships specifically.
Which Witch? All of Them!
Sometimes the interpretations of coding can be seen through different adaptations of a work. The most recent example that comes to mind is Hermione. I may have mentioned this before, but I am quite the Harry Potter fan, problematic features and all. And while Ms. Rowling does indeed include Lee Jordan, Angelina Johnson, Cho Chang and the like, their appearances are few and far between. However, I’ve loved the curveball that has been the color-bending of Hermione, past incarnations be damned (not really- Emma Watson was great).
Coding Hermione as a brown girl first came to my attention while looking through Tumblr (of course) and it at first the realization hit me hard. Remember when I said I coded characters as white all the time because I was surrounded by…well, white people? So I thought nothing of Hermione being white, but I still loved the character. Now imagine me thinking that Hermione could look like me.
I was floored, really. Her appearance is flexible in nature as is her beliefs- a bushy haired girl with uneven teeth and a penchant for social justice, accompanied by some anxiety. Well damn, that’s me! The emotional response grew more as I looked through fanart, and just about exploded when the casting for Cursed Child came along. It was coding done flexibly, and the beauty of a play is that you can open up the possibilities for Hermione to be played by many races, so long as they fit the physical description. While the script left much to be desired, the casting choices definitely gives some brownie points back. (By the way, this article sums it up really well)
Those Intersectional Hunger Games
Coding can definitely have its pitfalls as well, to the point of sheer negativity within a fandom. It was easily found in The Hunger Games series, and how the audience negatively perceived Rue’s death through incorrectly coding her. I’m pretty sure I’ll never stop being miffed about this, but if people had read Rue as black (or even remotely brown) in the first place, the backlash may not have been as brutal. Instead, more people than I would’ve thought possible chose to skip over any inkling of Rue’s skin color (which is mentioned more than once, if I remember) and stick to the fact that she reminds Katniss of Prim, Katniss’ blonde, pale sister. Seriously, Collins wrote that she had “dark skin and eyes”, and only represented Prim in stature…how did so many people miss that? Probably in part believing that innocence is usually fairer skinned, and maybe just poor reading comprehension.
But of course the kicker was the waves of racism that followed the essential misunderstanding of Rue. Not only was it gross, but it showed that wrongly coding a character in one’s head is not only jarring, it leads to hostility. Check out this article for a reaction to the bigotry.
Additionally, casting Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss received its fair share of critique. While most people will fall for the “pale, relatable main character” trope, Katniss was a bit different in that regard. She had specific features- olive skin, grey eyes, long black hair. She served as a contrast to the rest of her family, being more representative of her father and the poor population in Panem. A “the meek will inherit the earth” kind of destiny awaited her, so some fans thought another ethnicity may have suited her as well.
From my experience, I’ve seen Katniss be coded as Mediterranean, Appalachian, etc. But many gunned for Katniss being Native American (which could take care of the second option as well).
As I went on to look through tumblr, some articles cropped up about potential actors to play the pivotal Katniss. Although Collins never really ascribed a race to her, Hollywood did not see this as a big opportunity as quite a few fans did. Instead, Jennifer Lawrence was cast, as part of a tiring dance we’ve seen happen within Hollywood for quite some time now. Rather than make a name out of a new actor, they gave it to someone who already had a stamp in the film industry, however much smaller before the franchise.
I do think it would have been interesting, and an actual challenge to cast Katniss as Native American. The audience probably still would have come- despite outright prejudice. Although she may fall into a few tropes being Native American- the bow and arrow being her weapon of choice, for one- I could see a lot of potential there.
Additionally, Katniss being Native would’ve fallen in line with quite a few cool (and a few not so good, but poignant) narratives if indeed most of the people of District 11 in turn represented native folk. Overall, Hunger Games especially would’ve worked more if there was a bit of a Star Trek casting approach. Unlike Rue, quite a few characters were ambiguously described, and skin color was often left out entirely. So why not give us a kind of United Nations in Panem? Wasn’t that…the point?
Anyway, I could go on with samples of good and bad coding, but I hope I’ve expressed why coding has been and continues to be so integral. Coding would probably still happen in the form of fanfic and AU tales even with a varied amount of inclusion in our daily lives. However, it wouldn’t be out of desperation nor feeling the need to be included. I’m excited to reach that point, but that may not be for a while.