Am I the Wolf or the Deer? Coding in Beastars

I finally gave into Carlos’ request and to my desire to actually start a newer anime. He recommended Beastars and I suppose in my madness or in my lucidity, I listened to him. In all fairness, the last anime Carlos got me to watch left me a babbling mess over Satan and his demonic boyfriend but we’re not here to talk about that. So let’s talk about Beastars, racism, coding and the merits of trying to figure out where you fit in an animal allegorical society.

Let’s start with a summary. 

Beastars centers around a wolf, Legosi, and an entire school full of anthropomorphized animals; some predators and some prey. If this sounds like Zootopia, you are right. But Legosi is different. He is a predator who is trying to be chill. That is until he meets an incredibly horny rabbit named Haru and continues to entangle himself with a weird sexually coded deer named Louis. It’s all a mess as the school is reeling after the vicious murder of a prey student and everyone is pointing the finger (paw, claw, apendage?) at each other and tensions run high. At its core, this is a furry coming of age story but there was something striking about Legosi that I found as I dove into the series. I could weirdly relate to him. But we have to talk about Legosi a little more which I know would make him uncomfortable. Legosi is fascinating because even though he is a wolf and is physically imposing in nearly every way, he’s mostly gentle and quiet and introverted. He’s very aware that he’s scary and thus does his best to show off that he isn’t scary at all. He’s sensitive and doesn’t like a lot of attention. He’s loyal despite being a loner. He’s confusing in a lot of ways but he’s very aware of something that I have become increasingly aware of: optics. He’s aware of how situations must look. Surely if he as a predator were to be seen engaging in risky behaviors, it would be, regardless of his intention would have been read terribly.  

Legosi seems obsessed with showing how he isn’t like other predators and he’s perpetually trying to be the bigger person even if it is inadvertently sometimes. Honestly, it was curious to watch and only became more obvious with his interactions with Louis, a deer who I still don’t know how to feel about. Louis is perpetually overcompensating because he is a prey animal. He’s in theory weak and thus is overly capable, charming and puts himself in the spotlight. He is performing strength.  

Louis is perpetually trying to force Legosi to show his strength and Legosi mostly wants nothing to do with it and then stating a line that’s rattled around in my brain for a while: “There is nothing special about a wolf being strong.” and…well, he’s not wrong. There is absolutely nothing special or unexpected about a wolf being a wolf. What is unexpected is watching a wolf constantly lower himself so that he seems non-threatening. That makes it even more curious when Legosi has his, let’s be frank, sexual awakening when he attacks Haru.That primal, carnal, lustful energy that comes with domination and the metaphor is lost on no one that Haru is a lily white rabbit in comparison to this stark, dark colored wolf. 

When Carlos and I talked about the series after I got a few episodes in, I mostly found myself sort of joking about the show. I mostly fixated on the small things that usually make such series hard for me to watch. How does a society like this work? Would they really basically build a human society but with animals? How do toilets work? How do clothes work with tails? Buttons? Why are the school uniforms such a fashion disaster? But within the talk of buttons and clothes I mentioned almost flippantly that Legosi was aggressively black coded. Carlos pressed my opinion but I started talking and was able to tell him something that I hadn’t really given much thought to. I related to Legosi in a weird way. I also know what it’s like to have to “check my power” and I also know what it’s like to be concerned about how others look at me. Which brings us to coding. 

Coding is a tricky thing in media that uses short hand and cultural stereotyping to broadcast abstract concepts in race, orientation and gender without using them bluntly. Think about Star Trek where even if a character was an alien you could attribute Jewish, black, female or queer “traits” in them. That’s coding.

Legosi read as black to me almost immediately because I was raised by a gentle giant of a black man who was constantly having to be aware of himself and how he looked around others: my dad. My father was 6’3’’ and over 300 lbs. He was a gentle giant but if I was someone who did not know him, I probably would assume the worst. But dad was constantly trying to portray to others using humor, kindness and wit that he was not a threat and it worked for the most part. I’ve also had to be aware of that in my life. As a black biological female, there are plenty of social stereotypes that are not in my favor; mostly that of the angry black woman. Luckily, I’m petite and most don’t see me as a threat until I open my mouth as I have been a mouthy little thing since I was a child. But in professional settings, I’m very aware of my tone, my facial features and my actions because I don’t ever want to come off as too aggressive; that can be career suicide for black women and for some, has been. 

There was comfort in that coding with Legosi of being aware that he had some strange prejudices around him and he was doing his best to fight those with kindness and stand up to others who perpetuate harmful stereotypes about their kind. But that coding is also a little dangerous with the whole…feral lust for a white rabbit thing. 

Remember Zootopia and how many people of color were able to relate to that world so easily? Remember how it made race simple and made it a predator vs. prey thing? Well, I feel Beastars did that too. And I feel Legosi’s coding is very fluid: I think if you’re of color, you’ll probably read him similarly to yourself. I read him as black because I am black. 

Beastars is an interesting anime. I would never have started it without Carlos’ encouragement and I’m for sure interested. I plan to continue the series as I got about half way through season one before taking a break after dealing with some personal stuff. But it’s shockingly smart and definitely an interesting look at race, prejudice and the masks we all wear to hide or reveal who we really are inside.

With a Flair for the Dramatic

I have loved villains in media since I was a very small hellspawn. Whether it was my attraction to Lord Sesshomaru in InuYasha or my undying allegiance to Prince Vegeta in DragonBall Z, villains have always done it for me. Narratively, they usually get the coolest powers, best lines, and most interesting motives even if they make zero sense. Like really, what was Master Naraku’s problem? He didn’t get to sleep with one priestess and that was enough to want to mess with literally everyone else he came in contact with? But why? Doesn’t matter, he was hot and had a cool design.  

But in the spirit of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, I want to talk about something that others have covered but I wanted to put my own spin on as well. I want to talk about queer coding and villains. In fact, there’s a great Princess and the Scrivener video that I’ll link here that talks about this mostly with Disney villains and I’ll use a lot of similar points but really, there’s only so much queer theory to go around.

Here’s the basics: villains in Western media (I exclude Eastern for now but put a pin in this) are often times coded (portrayed using mostly visual and linguistic shorthand) as queer or effeminate to prove a point, that point being mostly how virile and masculine the protagonist is. Think about Scar in The Lion King or Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas. They’re both pretty aggressively queer-coded with all the glitter and flamboyance to highlight how masculine and strong the protagonists are. Ursula looks and sounds like an angry drag queen because she’s based off an angry drag queen and Frollo, despite very clearly lusting after a woman, is given very showy clothes and his attraction to Esmerelda can even be read as somewhat closeted.

And though the video I linked talks about this mostly in the negative…I know I’m just one queer out in the world but I’ve never had an issue with that. I love Disney villains as you can tell by my very enthusiastic Dr. Facilier cosplay. This is one of those places I don’t think queer coding is terrible as if the internet is to gauge, a lot of queer people found themselves in Disney villains.

Now, my realization that I maybe wasn’t quite cis or het may have come from anime but I can also super see the appeal and reason why someone who may be a little different, a little sparkly, a little more fashionable and way more sassy may attach more readily to villains and thus celebrate that.

So that pin I asked you to put in about Eastern media, let’s come back to that because here’s where we tie in East and West. The question is why code a villain or antagonist as queer. Is it just to show off how masc and strong your hero is? Well, yes and no. The root of the reason is the same as the root of many evils: misogyny. It’s easy to take down a villain that is by most writer’s standards a perversion of masculinity which is femininity. Think of Szayel Aporro Granz in Bleach. What is the point of making him such a queen? What does that do for us? Well, when we see him in comparison to the mostly morally strict and pure Uryu, he comes an easy villain to wish ill upon. Except for me, I love him and can’t wait to cosplay him. Many cultures view masculinity as the most strong and most capable, so making your villain queer, feminine or even downright trans in the case of some anime (looking at you again, Bleach) is a great way to create parallel and difference between the force you’re meant to be rooting for. So when Szayel has a sword thrust deep into him, a strange phallic sort of metaphor at the hands of another queer-coded character, you’re meant to be reminded of his perversion, deviance and girly nature and think that those things are bad.

Again, it’s about optics. I love his character and him being aggressively queer-coded doesn’t bother me as much as other characters in the same show do. Even one of my favorite series of all time does this with a villain most ignore and that’s Barry the Chopper in Fullmetal Alchemist, really, what’s the point of making him a crossdresser? Does it add anything? No. But I can tell you that I can still recite his lines in the same lyrical sing-song fashion that Jerry Jewell brought the character in the dub and it scared one of my friends very much to know I can do so.

I’ve spent a lot of words talking about the fact that I don’t think queer coding in villains is that bad but if you follow me over on Twitter then you must know what is to come.

Y’all, I don’t like BBC’s Sherlock. I don’t like Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock, Martin Freeman is fine but the plot, the lack of plot and the aggressive queer coding of most of the characters rubbed me the wrong way to start. Episode one features many jabs at how gay Watson and Sherlock must be for each other and that was a bitter enough pill to swallow but then we meet Jim Moriarty. Oh Moriarty. What even is he? Why is he? What is he doing? Andrew, no. Please. Don’t do this. Not like this. Moriarty isn’t even queer coded because coding is meant to be at least a little subtle. He’s just the most. There’s an amazing Hbomberguy video that makes all of these points much better than I ever could but here is my problem with Moriarty’s queer coding while I’m willing to give it a soft pass in other places. What is gained by Moriarty being queer coded? Why do we need to know that he’s apparently slept with one of his bodyguards? Why does it matter that he’s dressed up in the crown jewels? Why do we care that he apparently has the biggest of possible hard-ons for Sherlock? Why? What does this add to the story? You can just have him be a villain. It feels like it’s pandering and that’s why Moriarty doesn’t get a pass from me. Nearly every other queer coded villain has a reason for it. Even if the reason is a crappy one like internalized misogyny but really if you made Moriarty less queer coded, does anything change? Does this make him interesting? Steve Moffat, do you think this is helping? I tend not to throw around the word queerbaiting a lot because I think it’s overused by fans who are just unhappy their ship didn’t sail but in this case queerbaiting Moriarty and coding so aggressively as a flashy queer man doesn’t do a damn thing for the narrative. It’s good for slash fic and even then to what end? Does Sherlock show any interest in Moriarty? No. He shows no interest in anyone, that’s the damn problem. What’s the point? Why are we doing anything? Is bear still driving?

Queer coded villains are frustrating. So much of it is rooted in old and toxic aspects of culture that prize traditional masculinity over flamboyance, style, fashion, good puns and excellent villain songs. And there are other examples where this fails. Think about all the fuss with LeFou being the first out gay for Disney in Beauty and the Beast(2017). What does making Gaston’s literal idiot sidekick gay do for the plot? A whole lotta nothing.  

I can see why some in the LGBTQIA+ family are more up in arms about queer coding and villains because at the end of the day, a lot of these characters die or face some horrible evil and that just isn’t fun. It isn’t fun watching a character you relate to face a horrible death and it does continue to perpetuate a lot of things about being queer that many do not like. Not all of us are sassy, mean, flashy and out to steal your girl/boy.

But for those of us who are all of those things and oh so much more…well, let’s just say that I do love my queer coded villains… most of the time.