Literary Reflections: Where My Girls At (Part I)

literaryreflections2

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!

Ellis is a former language student who consistently uses too many words to express what she's trying to say. She's been described as adorably tragic, satan's mistress, and a scary blonde, all of which are accurate. Meg Cabot, Charmed reruns and America's Next Top Model taught her English. In addition to getting 3000% too invested in fictional worlds and their characters for her own good, she enjoys destroying her friends by liveblogging their favourite books and vice versa. Run-on sentences are likely to happen.

7 Responses to “Literary Reflections: Where My Girls At (Part I)”

  1. What a great post! I can’t wait to see your discussion of the books. I recently read Everything Leads to You, and I loved it. I ship a lot of m/m couples (more so in TVland than Bookland), and I’m always looking for better f/f couples (I actually found one in the 100!). My friend and I were talking about it academically, and she said something that I found really interesting. I can’t remember her exact words but it was something about the power dynamic in m/m couples: women ship more m/m because they don’t have to consider the power imbalance unless they want to (when the creator purposefully upsets the power balance between the two). It made me think a lot about shipping m/m or f/f from a feminist perspective. Anytime lesbians are together, men consider it for their viewing pleasure. It’s a conversation I think about a lot. Anyway, I’ll be heading to Goodreads to add these to my TBR! Thanks!!

  2. Let me start off by saying that I was one of those people who used to think that revealing someone’s LGBTQ+ status in a work of fiction is a spoiler. But then I read Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. In it, there’s a quote that really filled me with shame.

    ‘Why is straight the default? Everyone should have to declare one way or another, and it should be this big awkward thing whether you’re straight, gay, bi, or whatever. I’m just saying.’

    And I agree with that a hundred percent. Why should any of us assume that every character is straight unless they’re revealed to be not? And yes, it is a problem because I do start looking differently at relationships when someone’s LGBTQ+ status is revealed. (Also, I think it really should be SLGBTQ+).

    (By the way, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda comes out on April 7th and everyone should read it).

    Moving on, I haven’t read all that many LGBTQ+ books which I plan to fully rectify starting with Tesse Sharpe’s Far From You. I do, however, watch shows that feature f/f relationships and/or LGBTQ+ female characters like The 100 (obviously), Orphan Black, and Orange is the New Black.

    I should probably stop talking now because I think you’re convinced about my awe regarding this post. Also, I cannot wait for part 2 and it’s the only thing I look forward to next week because no more new episodes of The 100. Bye.

  3. This is a fab post, and on the topic of bisexuality where you mentioned the different ways you can establish a character as bisexual, I think you might be interested in reading a post I wrote about that back in January, because I also have a lot of thoughts on this. (I do a Keep It Queer feature on my blog writing exclusively about LGBTQ+ related things.)

    I completely agree with you on the whole of this post. I too really think there needs to be more stories about queer girls/women, and that sexuality isn’t a spoiler. Honestly, LGBTQ+ characters are a selling point for me so I WANNA KNOW IF A BOOK HAS THEM. If people hide them because they think sexuality is a spoiler then it’s so much harder for me to locate those books and read them.

    You’ve got some really good lists there – I loved five of the books in your TBR list especially: Far From You, Not Otherwise Specified, Lies We Tell Ourselves, Cameron Post, and Everything Leads To You. CAM POST IS THE BEEEEEST. (I’ve also read Unspeakable, but it was a real miss for me).

    For more bi girl protags, definitely read Malinda Lo’s books, especially the Adaptation duology, and Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis. As you’re also someone who doesn’t believe that sexuality is a spoiler, I can also say that The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle which comes out in June (I think?) this year has a bi girl in it, though it takes a while for that to be revealed and she’s not the protag.

    For gay girl protags, there’s The Flywheel by Erin Gough, A Kiss in the Dark by Cat Clarke, Ask the Passengers by A. S. King (I didn’t like this one that much but I do know many people who love it), Sara Farizan’s books (I’ve only read Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel, which is v light-hearted and fab), and the Skyscraper Throne trilogy by Tom Pollock. I also know of several others that I haven’t actually read – if you want those as well just ask and I can list them for you.

    Oh and also check out Laura Lam’s Micah Grey series – protag is intersex, genderfluid and bi.

    Can’t wait for the next part of your discussion!

  4. Sydney says:

    Okay so I already tweeted at you guys about how much I FREAKING LOVE this post, but I figured I needed to elaborate on WHY I freaking love it so damn much.

    First: nothing screams heteronormativity like the fact that people yell “spoiler” when you say “Oh, yeah, that character is bisexual/gay/etc.” THAT ISN’T A SPOILER. I remember writing my review for The Dream Thieves and I wanted to touch on why Ronan being a canonically gay character is so interesting to me and I thought “What if people think it’s a spoiler?” because it isn’t REALLY said until that moment with Kavinsky but then I thought “Why is his sexuality a spoiler?”

    In a roundabout way I’m saying I think it’s really upsetting and problematic that sexuality is considered a spoiler. I also think it’s problematic that characters are assumed straight until proven otherwise. (Of course, this echoes in real life so…)

    I laughed at Sana’s comment above where she quotes Simon because it’s TRUE. Straight people should have to come out too. Like…assume everyone is sexually ambiguous until they explicitly say I am _______.

    Also, I agree that m/m relationships seem to be even more prevalent than f/f relationships. I recently read Black Iris by Leah Raeder and I never realized I wanted f/f relationships in novels until I READ one. I also never realized how few there are. I just think we need MORE of them in all forms of media because it’s like you said: women seem to be only allowed one sexuality, and that’s straight, unless they’re being objectified by men who think women kissing women is hot.

    I eagerly await part 2 of this post so I can comment an equally long comment. I apologize in advance!

  5. I have a lot of thoughts on this, and will be back to comment more intelligently in the near future, but I wanted to say this for now:

    I’ve been looking for F/F for a *long* time. There’s a real lack of it, and for the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to figure out why there’s such a lack. I’ve never gotten a good answer :(

    The lack just isn’t in published work, it’s super present in fanfic as well, where M/M is the most popular, then M/F, and F/F is a far, far distant third. Part of that is due to the fact that most TV shows/movies etc don’t have a lot of women for people to ship, but when you look at a fandom like Harry Potter, it’s *really* obvious.

  6. This is such a fascinating post and you have brought up some great points. I was so excited last year when the blogosphere participated in LGBT April, but reading the linked reviews definitely revealed the preference towards M/M fiction. I lean heavily toward F/F, so this was surprising to me that everyone’s tastes were so opposite to my own. It’s also a huge trend in fan-fiction — so much that, when I talk to teenagers about it, they love to talk about and write M/M slash fiction just as much, or moreso, than regular heterosexual pairings…even though they identify as heterosexual. Hayley’s comment above was especially thought provoking because I do wonder what it is about M/M fiction that is so appealing, and I do think power has something to do with it.

    However, as a lesbian, I have to say that I’m often bothered by the portrayal of lesbians in YA. I read about a lot of feminine lesbians, but very few lesbians who are masculine of center. I rarely read about lesbians of color or with disabilities. And don’t even get me started on the trans characters! I’m dating a trans man and I can honestly say that I have given up hope on reading a relationship that looks like ours.

    I’m using this a bit as a venting session, but I just want to say that I’m glad you brought up this topic! I’d added some of the books you listed to my TBR, because I didn’t realize there were lesbian characters in them (and agree that sexuality is not a spoiler). Thank you for writing this, and well said!

  7. Clarissa says:

    THANK YOU I’ve been saying this for YEARS

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