Zoo Coding

If you're someone who consumes much media, and especially if you're a queer person, here's a trope that I'm sure you're familiar with. Two men live in a home together. They have a strong bond, back each other up, and are always seen in similar scenes.
Sometimes they might be "brothers." Sometimes, they might be "roommates" or even "really good friends." However, to the audience that's paying attention, their relationship reads as something a little bit more romantic. Even if the media explicitly goes out of its way to explain their relationship as entirely platonic, it feels like it's doing that in spite of the evidence presented by their characters. This trope is one example of something called "Queer Coding.
If you're familiar with the term queer coding, there's a good chance that it's not in a positive way. The term is often used to describe a character that has queer energy, and is LGBTQ in everything but actual confirmation. In this sense, media can have characters that pander to queer audiences, but without needing to take any "risk" by having an actual gay character that might offend the bigots in the audience. It's a way of having your cake and eating it too. This specific kind of queer coding goes by another name too. Queer bating. This is when two same sex characters have the kind of relationship where it's heavily implied that there might be romance between them, and likely in any more heterosexual context they absolutely would have that romance, but the media never actually takes that step. It's essentially writing a love interest, but without getting that kiss at the end. A few examples might be Sherlock and Watson from the BBC Sherlock show, Castile and Dean from Supernatural, or Will and Mike from Stranger Things. 
Queer bating is absolutely a bad thing. Trying to market to an LGBTQ audience but not actually being willing to commit is both very scummy and very cowardly. But, queer coding as a whole isn't always a bad thing. In fact, it's frequently queer people and allies who engage in it. 
Let's have a little history lesson, friends! Did you know, in America in the 1930's, the "Hays Code" was introduced to media, which had a strict set of guidelines about what could and couldn't be shown on the big screen? The code blocked a lot of things that society at the time viewed as "Perverse." Things such as drug use, profanity, and of course any kind of homosexuality. But just because queerness wasn't allowed on the big screen doesn't mean that there weren't still queer people in the writers' room. And sometimes inspiration would still sneak in. Even in primarily children's media! Ursula from The Little Mermaid was heavily inspired by a Drag Queen named Divine, and Scar from The Lion King has been generally thought of as a gay character for a long time. The voice actor even confirmed it back in late 2021. And if you're a queer person or ally who has watched these movies as a grown up, you probably recognized those tropes yourself when you were watching through those movies!
Did you know that until the 1970s, factually queer characters were basically non-existent, and we really only started to see real representation in the 1990s? This modern wave of queer representation is still relatively new, and is absolutely a step in the right direction. But even today in (as of writing) 2023, not everywhere is able to be so explicit. For a more modern example of queer coding, we only need to look at modern day China. In China, there's a law against showing gay relationships (and even against characters that are "males who are too effeminate"), and so in China they're still creating characters who ride the line of "gay but not really." In fact, in China queer coding IS the law, if you want to have queer anything.
In 2001, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had a meeting with video game developers about the content of their games, and "encouraged" these game devs to join the CCP in solidarity with following these rules. While the actual meeting was private, there were leaks made to 4chan that showed some of the discussions being held.
One of these topics brought up was the "sissification" (best translation the 4chan users could do from Chinese to English) of men within Genshin Impact; namely, Gorou and Venti. Gorou is the "doggy general," a twink-ish boy with shiba inu ears and tail. Venti is the god of Mondstat, who wears Leiderhosen and has long braids. Both of these characters were deemed "sissies" by the CCP, and were "encouraging men to be women." Venti in particular was a point of discussion; he was deemed "a girl unless you ask him." Basically, he looked too effeminate to be considered a man, and this was deemed a bad thing. In addition, the CCP also brought up the gay characters within Honkai Impact III, another title from Mihoyo, the deveolper. Bronya and Seele are a couple; while they don't explicitly say so within the game, they are shown to kiss within the online comic.
Shortly after the CCP meeting, this kiss scene was removed from the webcomic, both in the Chinese version of the website as well as the global website. A few months later though, it was added back to the global website.
The end of the conference gave out several rules for Mihoyo to follow; while many of these rules aren't relevant to our queer coding topic here today, two of them stuck out. One of these rules was, effectively, "no more femboys"; in a literal sense, the rule was a ban on "characters who you wouldn't know were male unless you look at their lore." One of the other rules was stating that, while they would not ban LGBT relationships in games, they would put a rule against making them obvious. So, for instance, two female characters could be in a relationship in the lore, but they can't say "I love you"; they are confined to being called "best friends."
No, I am not joking. That is literally what they said.
Despite all this, Mihoyo's games have never really explicitly stated which characters are LGBT. Unlike western countries that have become more open to LGBT representation in media, China's laws are very strict, and they were strict even before that CCP meeting. The most blatant example of queer representation was Seele and Bronya in Honkai Impact III, but they only kissed in the webcomic. In game, they hug a lot and blush at each other, but it's never stated in plain terms that they are a couple. It's just heavily implied.
Within all of Mihoyo's games, characters are instead just gay-coded; this is often overlooked in the western fandom because these characters are falling under LGBT tropes for China, which differ from western LGBT tropes. One of these examples is Kaeya and Diluc in Genshin Impact; while a romantic relationship between them does not seem to be canon, it does still seem to be heavily implied that their relationship is somewhat romantic (despite what western fandom may tell you). This is due to the very common Chinese BL/GL trope called "sworn siblings"; its an extremely common tactic to show a gay couple in media without violating the CCP's rules on LGBT characters in media. The way it works is that two same sex characters will be extremely close, often in sexual situations, but call each other "brother" or "sister"; the characters will not be blood related, but call each other sworn siblings. With this, it somewhat plays an Uno Reverse on the CCP; if they say "hey, those two guys naked on each other are clearly gay!", the writers can simply turn around and go "no way, they're CLEARLY very close brothers, don't be fucking weird."
A very clear example of this is the animated movie White Snake; the protagonist, a woman (Blanca in the English version), has a "sworn sister" (named Verta in the English version). Verta is very clearly in love with Blanca; she is constantly trying to stop the male love interest from being with her throughout the movie, for very selfish reasons. They even have multiple scenes naked together. While you can just wave this off as a weird jealous sister, the sequel movie makes it more blatant. Spoiler Alert; in Green Snake, the entire plot revolves around Blanca's husband disappearing, Blanca chasing after him, and then Verta gets transported to the future. While looking for Blanca, she meets a man who helps her; and by the end of the movie, she finds out that her sister had died back at the beginning of the movie, and was reincarnated as the man who had been helping her all along. So she now gets to be in a romantic relationship with her "sister," who is now a man.
Now don't worry, you are still reading Zooey Dot Pub, we are going to tie things together here. I think that just like there's queer coding depicting gay, bi, and trans characters in media, what's to say that there isn't also "Zoo Coding" happening as well, all around us?
How about John Wick for example? The whole movie is a man going on a revenge killing spree over the fact that someone killed his dog. Sure, there's implications that the dog reminds him of his wife since they were a gift from her, but love is love, and he clearly loved that dog. Or how about San from Princess Mononoke? She lives in the forest, rides a big wolf around, and is fighting for the rights of animals. Sure sounds pretty zooey to me, even if they don't roll around and kiss sometimes. And speaking of anime, how about Kiba and Akamaru from Naruto? They're about as zooey as a relationship has ever been in the context of major media. In fact, much like the "Sworn Siblings" from Chinese media, these two were often depicted as siblings as well. 
There are so so so so so many examples out there. In games, in movies, books, anime, regular old TV shows. And that list grows even more exponential once you look at characters that are "furries" but certainly act pretty animalistic. Just look at Brian from Family Guy. In a series with both anthropomorphic dogs as well as totally feral ones, Brian's happy to get with both. He might be a little bit more talkative than most of the other animals around, but either he's a human trying to have sex with dogs, or a dog trying to have sex with humans. Yes, it's played as a joke, but Ursula certainly wasn't depicted as a serious character either. 
My point is, as much as there isn't open zoo representation in mainstream media, at the same time there wasn't open gay representation in mainstream media either, but that didn't stop people from creating clearly queer characters to still give some love for the people out there like them. Sure, Scar probably isn't the role model you want a young gay looking at as what they can be like, but it's a start.
And hey, if you happen to be someone in a position creating characters one day, maybe you'll have the opportunity to zoo code them too. Maybe they have an animal in their life they really love. Maybe they don't really like humans all that much and just want to move to a farm somewhere. Maybe they have a specific color palette they like to wear, just coincidentally. Or, maybe by that point we'll be in a place in society where we can just have a character date a dog. That'd be cool too. 
So just remember. If you're a zoo, and you're feeling down, just remember there's a whole world of zoo characters out there for you to relate to! You just might have to squint a little bit, and tilt your head the right way. But just because there's some extra work to appreciate it doesn't mean they aren't there. 
Article written by Tarro (July 23rd 2023)
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