It’s time for fandom (particularly, white fandom) to learn what “character-coding” is and how they’ve been misusing it.
Character-coding is often used by speculative writers and filmmakers to assign traits associated with a certain group of people to non-human characters without explicitly labeling said characters as members of that group.
Examples of character coding can be seen in movies like Avatar (2009) with the Navi, who are based off of varying Indigenous people (particularly, Indigenous people of color) from around the world, the widely popular video game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) with the residents of Lurelin Village, who are based off of Black Caribbean people, and Wilt from Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends (2004–2009), who is based off of famous Black American basketball player Wilt Chamberlain.
Some reading this might wonder why this matters. Why is it so important that fandom learns the proper way to use this term? The answer to that is this: It’s important because marginalized people like Black people, Indigenous people, etc. get very little representation in the speculative genre, and it’s important to be able to not only recognize coding when we see it, but also examine the implications present in the portrayal of these characters. We can ask ourselves: “Were the Navi of Avatar really a fair and respectful representation of Indigenous people?”, “What does it mean for Black Legend of Zelda fans to see Black Hylians after over thirty years?”, or “Is Wilt a good role model for Black children watching?”
With the internet being more accessible than it ever was, learning terms like “character-coding” is easier than ever, but with this easy access comes the potential for misunderstanding and mishandling of terms. In recent years, the subject of representation in media has become a hot-button topic. This is partly due to the slow change that has been occurring in the entertainment industry. Now, more than ever, people of marginalized groups are starting to see themselves represented on the big and small screen. With such a positive change (slow as it might be), it is not surprising to see people wanting to be on the right side of that change. Unfortunately, said people have decided to borrow terms and apply them to the wrong characters. Ironically, these characters tend to be white men.
Two of the most famous white men in the speculative film genre right now are Loki of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-Present) and Kylo Ren from the Star Wars sequels (2015–2019). Both are arguably interesting characters and certainly destructive. It is also clear that their strong following is, in part, due to the amount of people who find their actors, Tom Hiddleston and Adam Driver, attractive. And this is perfectly okay! However, some fans have begun to use terms of social justice to justify their enjoyment of them. As a result, terms like “POC-coded” have begun to pop up in conversations surrounding them. This is quite a problem for many reasons.
Misusing the Term Reinforces Negative Stereotypes for Marginalized People
Villains and morally grey characters are fun, especially if you enjoy breaking apart stories and analyzing them. However, this is not always necessary, and as many of us learn growing up, sometimes too much of a good thing can do more damage than intended.
Not every interesting villain is complex and not every villain’s actions are that deep. In the case of Kylo Ren, audiences are never given a chance to see him before his fall into villainy. Perhaps an argument could be made that he felt neglected by his parents which made him vulnerable to being recruited into a fascist ideology, but we never actually see this occur. What we see is him not only participate in genocides, but lead them.
Loki is a little more layered than this. Loki’s true Jotun heritage was kept from him and he was raised to believe he was Asgardian just as his mother, father, and brother were. Obviously, learning this as an adult would be incredibly traumatic. This background can help us understand (though, not excuse) Loki’s actions in later movies such as The Avengers (2012). However, Loki cannot be let off the hook for the things that took place before the big reveal of his true heritage. At the beginning of Thor (2011), Loki staged an invasion to keep Thor from getting crowned. He allowed his hot-headed brother to continue to believe the Jotun invaded unprovoked which led him to attacking them against Odin’s wishes. At any point, Loki could have confessed his part in the situation, but instead, he kept quiet and participated in the attack alongside him. As a result, both brothers were sternly scolded by their father, but Thor is the one who faced the consequences of being banished to Earth. From all of this, it is clear that everything is consistently made worse by Loki’s dishonesty. His second appearance in the Disney film franchise shows him attempting to take over Earth in the manner of a fascist.
I want to make clear that it is not unreasonable to enjoy these characters or even relate to some parts of them, but both characters are reckless and dangerous. Even with the best intentions, labeling them as “POC-coded” reinforces the idea that people of color are naturally dangerous and not to be trusted.
Improperly Labeling a Character as “POC-coded” Suggests the Experiences of All People of Color are the Same
The term “POC-coded” alone suggests a misunderstanding of race and the experiences people of color have with racism. Yes, all people of color (especially in western countries) are potential victims of white supremacy. However, experiences with racism vary from one person of color to another. “People of Color” or it’s abbreviated term “POC” are used as blanket labels to group non-white/multiracial people together. For instance, a Black woman and a Chinese woman sitting together might identify themselves as “women of color,” but if the Black woman is sharing her experiences that are directly connected with her Blackness, she’s likely going to label herself as “Black” rather than a “person of color.” Likewise, the Chinese woman is likely going to label herself “Chinese” when talking about her experiences that are directly connected with her Asian identity. The experiences of different people of color might be similar, but they are not the same.
Labeling Kylo and Loki as “POC-coded” suggests that all people of color have the same experiences, when in reality, people of color come from different places, have different cultures, and have different traditions. Suggesting that the two characters are meant to be seen as people of color implies that people of color are a monolith which erases our diversity.
Suggesting that White Characters are Meant to be Seen as People of Color Ignores the Actual Characters of Color that are Present in these Stories
Both Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Thor introduced various non-white characters. Thor introduced Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and The Force Awakens introduced Finn (John Boyega). All characters mentioned, although neither human nor explicitly stated as human, present as such. For the Black and Asian members of the audience especially, they stand out simply because Black and Asian people are highly underrepresented in the speculative genre. For many, it’s a big deal.
When fans assign the label “POC-coded” to white characters, it draws attention away from characters of color, their stories, and their conflicts. Suggesting that Kylo Ren is a person of color ignores the fact that Finn, a Black character, escaped his enslavement. Implying that Loki is a person of color completely ignores Heimdall and Hogun, the only Black and Asian Asgardians who appear in the movie. If Loki and Kylo are people of color, who are they?
Adding on to this is the fact that fandom, especially white fandom, has used this label to justify their hatred towards characters of color. In Loki’s fandom, Heimdall’s name sometimes gets thrown in to suggest that it was he all along who was the real villain due to his “racism” against Loki and the rest of the Jotun. It is, of course, ironic to suggest that somehow the only Black Asgardian to appear in the movie can oppress the privileged white prince. Some Loki fans have also suggested that because Jotuns have blue skin that this alone makes him a person of color (even if the audience is only allowed to see Loki in his true Jotun form for mere seconds of screentime). This, again, shows a lack of understanding when it comes to race. It doesn’t matter what skin color the Jotuns have. Both Loki and his birth father, Laufey (Colm Feore), are played by white men, and it is impossible for a white man to successfully play a character of color. This also connects with the previous point made that people of color come from various places. There is nothing specifically about the Jotun that could be traced to any specific person of color, and even if there were, there would be no way for white men to portray them without being disrespectful.
With Finn, Kylo fans have argued that he’s “too good” or even “abusive” compared to their favorite character. This is mostly done as a way to spite fans who shipped “FinnRey” and desired an ending to the trilogy that involved the white female protagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley), and Finn ending up together. This too is ironic, seeing as how it was Kylo who kidnapped Rey and had her strapped down to a table so he could attempt to invade her mind.
How Much of this is Really Well-Intentioned?
For many years, the speculative genre featured predominantly white leads. With the slow change occurring, many fans of color find ourselves wondering how much of this mishandling of the term “coding” is simply well-intentioned ignorance and how much of it is a desire to uphold the status quo of both the genre and its fandom spaces.
As frustrating as it is for fans of color to have to shift from one thread to another and hop from website to website to find more positive conversations surrounding the characters who most resemble us, this toxicity does not simply remain in fandom spaces. Oftentimes, it reaches the actors who portray the characters. A prominent example of this is the racial harassment both John Boyega and his costar Kelly Marie Tran got from the Star Wars fandom, which arguably, had a hand in how both characters were reduced to secondary roles by the end of the trilogy.
When characters of color and their actors are vulnerable to racial scrutiny, it should be quite clear why fandom’s desire to suggest white characters are meant to be seen and sympathized with as people of color is a problem.
The word “colonization” usually refers to land when outside invaders oppress the original inhabitants and take political control over it. However, I think we can argue something similar is happening here. In response to the genre reflecting more than just white members of the audience, fandom has decided to take words meant to apply to some of the most marginalized members and apply them to white characters who they so desperately demand continue be the center of every story. But it also serves as a reason people of color need to continue to be seen in these stories. Our presence needs to be normalized and it’s time white fandom realizes that not everything has to (or should) be about them.