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The refreshing cockiness of Mythic Quest’s Poppy Li

She’s a role model for women of color in tech fields — specifically because she doesn’t care about being one

Charlotte Nicdao as Poppy Li in Mythic Quest, arms crossed, slightly smirking, and cocky as whoa Photo: Apple TV Plus

At a staff meeting in the pilot episode of the Apple TV Plus comedy series Mythic Quest, Poppy Li — the lead game designer for the fictional multiplayer role-playing game company the show is built around — announces, “I don’t mean to toot my own horn here, but my team and I have built something remarkable.” From the smug look on her face, it’s obvious she does want to brag. She’s so ludicrously sure of herself. She closes her eyes and mimes playing a trumpet, then describes her new addition, a basic shovel, as “providing an entirely new game mechanic — digging.” Then she explains that this brilliant new dynamic “will change the landscape of the game.”

As the lead developer of the hugely successful video game Mythic Quest, and its upcoming expansion Raven’s Banquet, Poppy has more than paid her dues. She totally deserves the entire industry’s respect. Yet the way she boasts about her own contributions in such grandiose terms goes beyond a socially acceptable amount of pride. It’s downright cocky, and I love every bit of it.

As a fellow female software engineer and person of Asian descent, like Poppy, I find her cockiness especially refreshing because it’s such a rarity among women in tech. In our circles, the overwhelmingly common theme is that women suffer from impostor syndrome, and struggle with recognizing our talents and self-worth. It’s an overdone narrative, and one I’ve experienced myself so many times that it’s no longer entertaining to see fictional characters play it out. Typically, I’m a fan of onscreen representation of a wide variety of human experiences, but watching yet another character endure impostor syndrome at this point feels like it’s just perpetuating a damaging mythos.

Charlotte Nicdao as Poppy Li and Rob McElhenney as Ian smile and bump fists in Mythic Quest Photo: Apple TV Plus

The truth is, it’s hard to keep up in tech, and in a profession that challenges you to learn new skills and paradigms every day, it’s impossible to keep all uncertainty at bay. Mythic Quest’s Poppy is admirable because she doesn’t question her technical skills for a minute. For her, the question is never whether she can code, but how, and what to build. Poppy, played by Australian actress Charlotte Nicdao, struts around her office, doling out commands and bickering with the other leaders at the company, but she never doubts her abilities or her worth. While self-doubt would be a common narrative for this kind of character, Mythic Quest’s creators have moved beyond it.

That’s not to say they set up Poppy as a shining role model. She’s the game’s lead developer, but she’s hardly a good teammate. She’s whiny and petulant, impulsive and stubborn. She’s usually a little unkempt, donning a variation of the quintessential programmer uniform: zipper hoodie, tortoiseshell glasses, Converse shoes. She can’t delegate — when the game’s non-playable character, the Masked Man, begins giving away free loot, she takes it upon herself to fix the bug rather than looping in her team. Under pressure, she breaks out in stress hives, pulls an all-nighter, and wakes up the next morning, greasy hair strewn across a keyboard in the coders’ room.

And she isn’t a strong manager, either. She also hardly knows her teammates’ names. When one of the programmers, Paul, brings a bug to her attention, she snaps with condescension, “Yeah, that’s bad, Zak.” When Paul corrects her about his name, she replies, “I don’t care.”

Charlotte Nicdao as Poppy Li sits wrapped in a blanket in the office in Mythic Quest, with her programming team around her Photo: Apple TV Plus

Poppy’s relationship with the series’ sole other female developer, Michelle, is no better. In fairness, Michelle barely does her job, and often retools her resume in plain sight, but Poppy doesn’t encourage or motivate her, either. In one episode, Poppy pushes Michelle out of her chair to take over writing a feature. “She’s terrible at her job,” Poppy says in front of everyone, assuming control of the keyboard, while Michelle stands disinterestedly to the side, typing on her phone.

But even that rudeness is an invigorating step away from the norm for a character. It’s astonishing that Poppy cares so much about her own success, and so little about how she’s perceived. It goes against every principle I’ve been conditioned to believe is important: being kind, even-tempered, and supportive of other women. Anyone would loathe working with Poppy in real life, but for pure entertainment, it’s exciting to watch a woman of color act like a rude, attention-seeking, entitled teenage boy for once — and not just get away with it, but also thrive.

Poppy could be unlikeable if she wasn’t so carefully conceived. Nicdao gives her an alchemical concoction of exaggerated facial expressions, weary sarcasm, innocuous angst, and childlike enthusiasm for her creative vision, and they all help make her relatable. Poppy is almost always scowling or frowning. Prone to battles of ego with creative director Ian Grimm (series co-creator Rob McElhenney), who is even more self-absorbed, Poppy angers quickly, her voice rumbling with a cartoonish rage that solidifies for a moment, then quickly dissipates. Poppy is cynical and skeptical. She’s cute, but not overly sexualized, with her dark hair cut in practical layers, a plain, bare face, and eyes so manic, they remind me of Invader Zim, from the 2000s Nickelodeon show. The combination makes Poppy palatable at first, and eventually delightful.

Poppy struggles to be taken seriously as a decision-maker and equal, overcompensating with contrived carelessness that eventually crumbles because, unlike Ian, she’s still humble enough to recognize when others are right. In the pilot, when Ian offers criticism of Poppy’s shovel, she eventually gives in and helps make the changes, for the good of the game. “You’re this brilliant painter, and I’m your favorite brush… I’m just some tool you use to create your masterpiece,” she tells him, capturing the existential quandary many programmers feel — whether we’re bricklayers or creatives. Poppy wants to be more, and it’s because of her cockiness that she stands a chance against Ian’s outsized ego.

Charlotte Nicdao as Poppy Li gets a little wild-eyed while lecturing a co-worker in Mythic Quest Photo: Apple TV Plus

Perhaps it’s Poppy’s lack of charisma and leadership presence that I admire the most. For women in tech, there’s a lot of unspoken pressure to model good behavior — to be nice, mentor others, and be well-spoken role models as well as competent programmers, as we can fix brogrammer culture by sheer force of kindness. Although these responsibilities may, in the end, make the industry more welcoming, it’s yet another form of emotional labor, and yet another unfair burden laid disproportionately on women and people of color.

Often, we not only have to defend our work from extra scrutiny, we have to go out of our way to champion ourselves within and outside of the organizations. When we’re promoted, we’re unofficially expected to attract more diverse talent. It’s exhausting to constantly moderate, to be the default role model for others like you, while constantly being outnumbered by people doing the same job under laxer expectations and looser rules. The beauty of Poppy is that she doesn’t bother with any of that. She’s aware of her flaws, but doesn’t try to hide them or apologize.

At a “women in gaming” luncheon in season 2, Poppy gives a speech that fundamentally shows her lack of executive presence. Dressed in an uncomfortably tight black sequin dress, she stumbles onto the stage and squints at a teleprompter. After rifling through her bag for her glasses, dropping candy in the process, and unbuttoning her dress so that the back band flaps in the breeze, she begins rambling, “I can’t promise that I’m always going to live up to the standard of other people’s expectations, but I can promise that I’m going to lead with everything that I am… Why did you let me do this speech? I shouldn’t have a platform. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I don’t know what women want. I don’t know what I want.”

By normal standards, that speech would be a disaster, but it’s so relatable for me, it might have been plucked from my own inner monologues. It was apparently conceived similarly for many of the women in Poppy’s audience, who give her a standing ovation. In a weird way, this is the kind of awful, honest, unfiltered reality I’ve been wanting to see depicted in a fictional world. For me, Poppy’s “breakdown” is the antidote to both institutionalized impostor syndrome and the hyper-polished “authentic” leadership we’re often peddled. She isn’t suffering from doubt, or faking it ’til she makes it. She’s genuinely admitting she doesn’t know something, not letting it get in the way of her work, and moving on. That’s admirable in a way few women on TV are allowed to be.

Charlotte Nicdao as Poppy Li, wearing a grey hoodie and leaning over a table with a smirk in Mythic Quest Photo: Apple TV Plus

But there’s another twist — after the speech, we learn that the sniffling and bumbling were intentional, scripted by Ian as part of Poppy’s plan to get a new team of developers approved. The gambit highlights Poppy’s genius even more. She’s an imperfect leader, hardly aspirational, free of the burden of caring about being either, and she still gets what she wants. For me, Mythic Quest’s Poppy Li offers a rare glimpse of what it would be like to be liberated of expectation, to indulge in being strategic, scrappy, cocky, and unapologetically yourself in tech. She isn’t a role model, but maybe she does provide a lesson for us anyway: Cockiness can be a necessary weapon for success, because if you don’t boldly believe in yourself, who will?

Both seasons of Mythic Quest are streaming on Apple TV Plus.