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Coding the Villains

Updated: Apr 2

Whether you realize it or not, you have met many coded characters. For those of you who don’t know, and because this information is important for the rest of the article, character coding is giving a character certain traits that could associate them with a group of people without ever explicitly stating if it’s true or not. Coding isn’t always a choice that a writer makes, but rather something that just occurs as the character is developed.

Sheldon Cooper from "The Big Bang Theory" has been a popular example of an autistic coded character in media. The writers of the show have never confirmed that he is autistic or has been coded as such, but fans of the show have analyzed his behavior and found it to be very obvious. We can see his love of routine, sensory issues, a hatred of change, hyper fixating on interests, and more. But because it is never explicitly stated in the show that Sheldon is autistic, we can’t confirm this information. Thus, he is coded.

Another example of an autistic coded character is Lilo from Disney’s "Lilo and Stitch." Again, it is never confirmed in the movie that she is any sort of neurodivergent and it does not appear that the writers intentionally made her appear autistic. However, based on her level of maturity compared to the other girls her age, her poor social etiquette, her routines, etc., autistic individuals (and everyone else to a certain extent) can relate to this character.

One more example, because I personally love this character: Eddie Munson from Stranger Things. Eddie became a very popular character very quickly and many fans have pegged him as an autistic coded character. Though he is very different from both Sheldon and Lilo, Eddie has his hyper fixations and has been labeled as an “outcast” in the show for his odd behavior. On top of that, Eddie is also believed to be queer coded. One very good reason for this is due to the handkerchief in his back pocket. A handkerchief hanging out of a pocket like that was a secret sign in the 80s for gay men to safely communicate their sexuality to one another.

Character coding can be a very positive thing, and I do think it’s an important part of our media. Coding allows for diversity on screen and allows for fun (if not intense) debates about whether a character is queer or neurodivergent or a specific race (many people, including myself, believe Darwin from The Amazing World of Gumball is black). On screen representation is such an important thing; everyone wants a character to be able to relate to. Not every show or movie is compatible with having a coming out scene or a diagnosis scene, so coding allows for writers to present these aspects of their characters in a more subtle way. Plus, not having a character directly state that they have autism or ADHD or anything else allows for a wider range of viewers to relate to the character in some way.

But, coding isn’t always a good thing. Often times it can be used against us. Going back to the example of Sheldon Cooper, it is very evident to neurodivergent viewers that he is autistic, perhaps to an extreme level, but he is by no means neurotypical. If you’ve watched the show, you probably know that all of these traits that he exhibits are often ridiculed by everyone. His closest friends often make comments about him not being human, about how annoying he is, how much they hate him, daydreaming about him being gone. Even his own mother has her fair share of comments about his odd behavior. His neurodivergence is being used against him in a comedic way and it allows for viewers to associate these traits with negative feelings.

Let’s look at another example of pop culture: Disney villains. We are all familiar with the popular antagonists of one of the most popular franchises. Some Disney villains, whether intentionally or not, are queer coded. Jafar from Aladdin twirls his beard in a feminine way, Scar from the Lion King speaks with a limp wrist, and Ursula from the Little Mermaid was based off of a drag queen. The intelligence of children is often underestimated and it is entirely possible for them to associate these types of behaviors with villains. 

Now, by no means am I saying that character coding is a bad thing. Like I said before, I believe it to be a very important aspect of our media. And it’s also important to note that Disney villains have gained a lot of popularity and it is very easy to find merch for them. People love Disney villains. I don’t think any of the shared examples are bad or take something away from the show. Again, representation in our media is crucial. But we must also think about the implications created by coding characters that are supposed to be hated as queer or neurodivergent. Disney Villains are supposed to be disliked, hence the villain part, and in today’s world where acceptance of people’s differences is becoming more common, we don’t want children associating queer with bad. Eddie Munson is an outcast in the show, but he is not someone you are supposed to hate and the show creates a lot of sympathy for him, which I personally love.

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