reflections on aspects of books
I was talking with Judith the other day (you’re all shocked) about Marchetta books and the 100 (whaaaat) and we arrived at the topic of how a lot of LGBTQ+ representation in fiction still comes down to gay m/m pairings. Hear me out. I’m not here to complain about gay men. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation, there’s still way too little of it and it’s actually shameful that this is still the case. I’m here to complain about the fact that there’s a whole spectrum of sexualities and yet the one that gets almost all the attention is the G, because in so many things, male is still the default.
Of course this is still an important conversation to have, because it discusses so many things like male sexuality and allegedly “proper”/appropriate/respectable masculinity, but it also builds on what Bell Hooks (I’ve been obsessed with her ever since we discussed her in my Gender Studies class) already wrote in Ain’t I A Woman over thirty years ago: very often, when you think “woman”, the default is white; when you think “black”, the default is male. And when you think “not straight”, the default is homosexual, which in turn has a default of (white) male. (Whatever, Melina. You’re going to write me that epic, heartbreaking, Frankie grin-inducing f/f couple one day and you’re going to love it.) And that’s not even including so many other important elements like cis/trans/agender, intersex, non-binary gender identities, etc.
Actually, Melina Marchetta is a good example in this case. Out of the seven books she’s written so far, four have canonically queer characters. The Lumatere Chronicles has two gay couples and there is a bisexual character in The Piper’s Son. And none of them are female. It’s extra frustrating because Marchetta writes these incredible women who straight-up run the world and often are the reason it keeps spinning in the first place, and I ship quite a few of them with each other, but unfortunately headcanons is all they’ll ever be. The fact that Tara/Siobhan, Quintana/Isaboe, Quintana/Phaedra or the Frankie/Tara/Tom OT3 never turned romantic is a goddamn tragedy.
Not only do I think this is a general problem, I also feel it’s especially problematic when you see this being the case in a category such as YA, which is still mostly read and very often directly targeted at a predominantly female audience. Diverse representation is so important and not just for diversity’s sake. It sounds stupid stating something so obvious but actual people are reading these books, and a considerable number of them are looking for characters they can on some level relate to. I’m not saying that, for example, a bi girl can’t possibly relate to someone of a different gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc., partly because some issues and/or challenges will transgress those categories and also because not every bi girl’s experiences are the same, but it’s incredibly harmful to set up this “boys can be gay/bi/pan/questioning/fluid but all girls are unequivocally straight” paradigm, as would be a rather extreme interpretation of the Marchetta situation I mentioned above.
I’m putting it in very extreme terms at the moment, because of course there is female queer representation in YA. It’s just that the ratio seems to be very off. I decided to test this out for myself, and of the 300-something books I’ve read in the past two years, I’ve shelved a little over 80 as LGBTQ+. To be fair, I only included books/characters that have been textually established as queer. (Meaning that I can write you an essay on bisexual Han Alister who constantly checks out men with the exact same interest as when he looks at women, but the text leaves it all very ambiguous.) Before I go any further, I want to apologise for the fact that I’m only mentioning lesbianism, bisexuality and asexuality and not really touching on gender identifications and/or fluidity or on the rest of the sexuality spectrum. I’m not that well educated on the former, but I’m working on it, and I hear that both Malinda Lo and Laura Lam’s books as well as the upcoming None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio handle the subject really well.
Now, of those 83 books, only 29 have queer girls. This is so sad. Almost as sad as me going through the list and trying to remember why I listed some of the books on there, only to come to the conclusion of “oh right, there was that gay couple of tertiary characters” every single time. So even while I wasn’t impressed with every one of the books on that embarrassingly small list, I’m going to discuss 16, because clearly the whole topic could use some exposure. The reason I’m only discussing 16 is because in my original tally, I counted sequels and novellas in which the characters in question do make an appearance but they don’t have enough page time for me to write a whole paragraph on them. Disclaimer that I don’t believe in sexuality as a spoiler because that’s a ridiculously heteronormative way of thinking, so consider yourself warned.
I originally wasn’t going to elaborate on the sexuality as a spoiler thing, but I’ve read some things lately that are bothering me. I often see spoiler warnings happening when there is a same sex ship somewhere in the book/TV show/movie/insert-entertainment-of-choice. Now, I’m generally not all that bothered about spoilers, whether of the plot or ship kind, though I totally understand and respect people who are. What does bother me is that what is essentially a development involving two or more characters and their interactions is projected on one or more characters’ sexuality and, to me, those are two different things. Let’s say you’re writing a book about me. (Don’t.) Sure, one way of establishing me as bisexual would be to have me kiss both girls and guys, or to show me as being involved with both. Another way is to have me explicitly identify as bisexual. A third way is to have me pull a Han Alister. There are many more options, though I like some more than others.
However, there seems to be a popular line of reasoning that practically says that the only way a character’s sexuality is legit is when it’s shown as in Never-To-Be-Written-Ellis-Book Scenario #1. I saw this happening right after the 100 episode when Lexa reveals how she felt about Costia. Someone had the nerve to say Lexa’s sexuality didn’t really matter in terms of representation because it wasn’t shown as sexual interaction between two characters, and I reject that. I get where they’re coming from and it’s incredibly important that f/f relationships are not only told but also shown in entertainment and fiction, but I still reject what the original statement implies. Being single doesn’t make me any less bisexual nor does it mean that my sexuality matters less than that of a bisexual girl in a committed relationship.
I think this might be where the sexuality as a spoiler thing comes from. I can see how when a character is “revealed” to be bisexual, for example, you might start looking differently at the relationship between her and the person you up until that point thought was her best friend, but ultimately, this also means you assumed her (or them) to be straight in the first place. Plus, one or both of them being attracted to girls doesn’t necessarily mean they’re also attracted to each other. Though it’s often fantastic when they are.
I originally meant for this post to be a pretty basic introduction to the 13 + 3 (the reasoning for this divide will become clear later) books I was going to discuss in more detail, but then words happened and at a certain point, I was at almost 10 full pages in Word, and I didn’t want to do that to you. So there will be a part 2 with the books in question, which will go up on Monday. In case you’re curious, these books are:
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith, The Exiled Queen (and sequels) by Cinda Williams Chima, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, The Summer I Wasn’t Me by Jessica Verdi, 99 Days by Katie Cotugno, Fire by Kristin Cashore, Being Friends With Boys by Terra Elan McVoy, Everything That Makes You by Moriah McStay, the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, Fallen In Love by Lauren Kate, Stealing Parker by Miranda Kenneally, Love and Peaches by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor, Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas, and The Circle by Sara B. Elfgren and Mats Strandberg.
So, you know, now you can read all of them by then and see if you agree with me. Of the books listed about, only Girl Meets Boy and the Kate Daniels series aren’t YA. Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have a considerable TBR pile that I continually fail at getting through, though I hope to get to most, if not all, of the following in the next 365 days.
ON MY TBR
Far From You by Tess Sharpe | Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz | Love in the Time of Global Warning by Francesca Lia Block | Under the Lights by Dahlia Adler | Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley | The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth | My Best Friend, Maybe by Caela Carter | Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour | Unspeakable by Abbie Rushton | The Lynburn Legacy series by Sarah Rees Brennan | Sister Mischief by Laura Goode | Pretend You Love Me by Julie Ann Peters | The Circle of Emelan series/universe/beast by Tamora Pierce | Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson
The first three feature a bisexual protagonist and Under the Lights has a lesbian protagonist and bisexual love interest. I know, I really need to read Far From You already. Quicksilver has an asexual protagonist and apparently Tamora Pierce’s Circle books show a whole range of female sexualities. The rest feature at least one lesbian character, and in many cases she’s a protagonist. I am incredibly excited for all of these and anything else you can recommend me is very welcome!