On Representation, And Why All of It Isn’t Good.

Let’s have a little chat on why all representation isn’t good representation. Honestly I thought we were past this point. Past the point of people telling us to just take whatever is thrown at us, telling us to appreciate what we got and move on.

But no, it’s still happening.

We’re still being told to just take things and celebrate them, no matter how harmful they may be. And I’m kind of tired of it. No actually, I’m incredibly tired of it.

And for this example I’m going to use a specific book. Well technically seven books, but the first is the book that inspired this post. I’m also going to be sort-of-spoiling these books so be wary.

Winger by Andrew Smith is a good example of representation done poorly

Now I am not setting out to attack Andrew Smith. I don’t personally know him, I’m not a fan of his books; I’ve read two of them, neither of which I’ve liked.

If you found something to like and appreciate in that book, then I’m glad you at least could. But let’s call the representation in that book exactly what it is. Bad.

When I first read Winger the issues were not abundantly clear to me. I didn’t focus in on Ryan Dean’s misogyny or homophobia, the treatment of Annie basically as a doormat and the focus of Ryan’s affections without being given any agency what so ever, or the treatment of its one queer character, Joey. Though I remember all of these giving me bad vibes toward the book, especially Ryan’s behavior.

Sure I was annoyed by Ryan Dean’s behavior, all of the ‘no-homo’ moments where Ryan had to reaffirm his straightness any time he so much as glanced at Joey for more than five milliseconds; but it wasn’t until weeks later that this book truly began to irritate me. When I began to recognize the problems of this book. If Joey had lived until the end, and not been killed off for the emotional development of the straight kid, I might not have had a huge problem with this book. Ryan’s supposed to be immature, and I think that comes off as a little more than obvious with Smith’s writing of him, because Smith is very good at writing immature boys. But, and I’ll reiterate: A gay character is killed off solely for the development of a straight character

All throughout the book the tone for the final act is never set up properly. This book is presented, and continues to be a comedic coming-of-age story until we get to a completely out of left field story point where Joey is kidnapped by rival members of a school (who were mentioned just once beforehand), tied to a tree, and brutally murdered. This by itself has it’s own negative connotations. The kill-the-gays trope is an infection on most, if not all forms of media, and perpetuates the stereotype and idea that many queer youth don’t get ‘happy endings’.

My real problem is when I see Winger  on ‘Best Books with LGBTQAP+’ lists, or when I see people praising Smith for the inclusion of a gay character. But here’s the thing guys, just because Smith represented a gay character, doesn’t mean it was done well, or even decent for that matter.

And I’m not here to tell you to not write gay characters, or queer characters, or anything of the sort. You should. It’s real life, and it needs to be represented. What I am here to tell you is that straight, cis, allosexual people shouldn’t be writing about the atrocities queer people face, both in the past and in the present. It was not Smith’s place to craft a story where a gay character dies at the hands of a hate-crime, it just wasn’t. Just because a book features a queer main character, or a main character of color, doesn’t mean that these are good representations of the people they are attempting to represent.

The problem with Winger is that Smith presented Joey as a decent character. Almost. He was well characterized, though at times his sexuality was made a bigger deal than Smith had a right to make it. But that was all undone as he not only killed Joey, but also made Joey function as a lesson for Ryan Dean. Because to learn not to be homophobic or give in to the toxic ideals of masculinity one of your gay friends has to die right?

Then there are books that actually do what they set out to do well, until they over-step their boundaries. One of my more recent reads like this was Fan Art by Sarah Tregay. It was a fine read, the characters were well represented, and most of all, neither of the gay main characters functioned as a lesson for straight people. It was a cute, short, sweet romance between two boys. But that all changed at the end, where our two main characters are outed against their will, Mason’s best friend draws a near-explicit of drawing of Mason and Jamie (the other boy) and it’s copied multiple times and slid into their graduation programs.

Worst of all it’s just shrugged off as ‘cutesy’. A ‘well we didn’t consent to this, but I guess it’s fine!’ moment. And it was disgusting. If someone ever outed me against my will, I’d be furious, and so would so many other queer people I know. It’s the decision of the person in question and absolutely no one else.

I’m not saying there isn’t a situation where this doesn’t happen, where a queer person might not mind being outed. But it was not Sarah Tregay’s place to write the narrative of two gay boys outed without consent, and then try to play it off as if it wasn’t something seriously harmful. And not to direct anything towards Sarah, but two boys being outed to their whole school in this incredibly mortifying way is not a ‘happy ending’.

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And now to return to Andrew Smith because he has quite the track record when it comes to terrible queer representation. In his novel Grasshopper Jungle he has a bi/pan MC (it’s never explicitly stated which though he experiences an attraction to more than one gender), but he finds confirmation in this by cheating on the girl he is still seeing with his best friend.

The ‘cheating-bisexual’ is a harmful trope that has actually had a huge impact on societal norms. I’ve heard from more than one friend that people have turned them down for being bi. Stating they either ‘aren’t trustworthy’ or ‘they’re greedy’ and it’s terrible representation like the kind found in Grasshopper Jungle that help perpetuate those stereotypes. Not only that, but towards the end we have our main character Austin continue to cheat on his girlfriend after the apocalypse has begun, entering into a pseudo-polyamorous relationship where one of the parties is implied to not be comfortable with the relationship.

My real problem here is that these books are heralded as ‘realistic’ and ‘fantastic’ portrayals of queer fiction. When in reality they aren’t. Because they are the stories of queer people told by people who don’t represent the character’s they’re writing well.

Now I want to take the time to show off my last four (or I suppose five) books. Three of which are books about gay boys written by women, and the last are two sad queer books by a gay man. 

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli is a book about a gay boy, but by a woman. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, and actually helped me come to terms with some things regarding my own sexuality. So what’s the difference? Becky isn’t telling a tragic story. She is telling the story of a teenage boy who falls in love with another boy, all while coming out to his parents. The coming out scene is also done in a respectful and realistic way, and the decision is made by Simon himself. There is a moment where Simon is outed against his will to his entire school, but it’s treated realistically, and not as a cute ‘well I guess I’m out now!’ moment. Simon his furious, and in the end, refuses to forgive the boy who outed him. I thought this was an incredibly well done part of the story.

Besides, in just knowing a little about Becky, I can tell you she’s not only incredibly respectful of queer people and people of color, but she’s also a child psychologist, and co-lead a group in D.C. for gender non-confirming children. If there’s anyone I’d trust to tell a queer-centric story it’d be her.

Another book is Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo, where we have 2 queer boys who fall in love. Neither have a ‘coming-out’ moment exactly, the relationship is just formed naturally, both boys already knowing their inclinations. Wylan and Jesper are given the care and respect that they deserve by Leigh Bardugo, and because of that, it is actually one of my favorite queer relationships. And again, Leigh continues to be incredibly respectful of queer and PoC voices, both online and in person, and she’s another person I believe can get the job done in the correct and respectful manner.

The thing these three books have in common (besides starring gay boys but not being written by gay boys) is that they do not try to tell the sad-queer narrative. They all end happily, with both characters alive and well and in a happy relationship, and every queer character is treated with the respect that they deserve.

That’s not to say these ‘good’ examples I talked about don’t have their problems. I’ve heard from many queer girls that Simon’s comments in Simon vs. about gay and bisexual girls was very harmful, and have several friends who do not want to read it because of these issues. But for me personally (and from what I’ve seen from other members of the community who share my inclinations), they are good and accurate representations of the people the authors are trying to represent. Their goods outweigh their offenses in most cases. They aren’t perfect, but still well done. 

If you want to write queer characters, go for it. You should. That’s the real world, and your writing should reflect that. But unless you plan on handling these characters with the care and responsibility that you’ll have as an author, don’t bother.

A good example of a story-teller who focuses mainly on ‘tragic’ stories that I don’t mind is Adam Silvera. I’ve read both More Happy Than Not and History is All You Left Me, and both are brutally honest tales that don’t exactly end ‘sad’, but they are bittersweet, and filled with heartbreaking moments.

The difference is that Adam has a right to tell these stories, he has context. He’s a queer man, and while I personally don’t know anything about what he’s been through other than his posts on dealing with his mental illness and suicidal thoughts, he knows what these characters are going through, because in some way or another he’s experienced it, and I trust him to give an honest and realistic account of what these characters experience and deal with. It’s his story to tell. He also doesn’t kill off gay characters for shock-value.

There are a lot of offenders to look for here. From the authors, to the publishers who think this is okay, to the ‘allies’ who consistently recommend these harmful book and add them to ‘Best Queer Reads’ lists.

Though, since I can’t talk to publishers and it seems more and more authors aren’t willing to learn from criticism (i.e. Tommy Wallach’s suicide jokes, Jay Kristoff and racism in Nevernight & Stormdancer, Keira Drake and The Continent). So I want to talk to allies. People who, at least claim, to want to be there for us.

Representation is important, but only if it’s representation done right. When it’s representation that pushes stereotypes or misrepresents a group of people, it does more harm than good. Books like Winger perpetuate the idea that straight people are more important than queer people, and that queer people don’t get happy endings. Fan Art doesn’t treat being outed without consent with the respect it deserves, and might teach kids that it’s okay to out their queer friends because ‘everything will be okay in the end’. Grasshopper Jungle harms bisexual and pansexual people by furthering harmful stereotypes.

And this isn’t even touching on harmful representation that comes from white writers trying to write characters of color. Too often are people of color presented as ‘savages’ or villains (see: The Continent, Carve the Mark, and Nevernight as recent examples). 

Allies, when you craft lists of recommendations, whether it be books about queer people, or people of color, how about enlisting their help? Either by just asking if they thought a particular book was good representation, or by asking for alternatives to a book not written by a queer person or person of color.

Be more willing to promote #ownvoices works. Instead of suggesting a book about a black boy by a white author, how about you actually read books about black boys that are by black people. Want a book about a bisexual girl? How about finding one that’s by a bisexual author. Want a book that stars Native peoples? Find a Native author! It takes just as much effort to find these stories told be the people they represent as it does to find the ones that aren’t. 

And lastly. If a person who is apart of a marginalized group tells you a book is offensive or that it perpetuates harmful stereotypes, then please listen to us. When I began talking about Winger online, many people voiced their support, removing it from their TBR’s or vocalizing their shared concerns, but this isn’t always the case. I also had people claiming it was good representation, or that I was telling people what they can and can’t write, despite me saying that Smith shouldn’t have written Joey’s death, not that he couldn’t. And that allies shouldn’t suggest Winger as an LGBTQAP+ read, not that they couldn’t.

In similar situations like The Continent or more recently Nevernight, there was an abundance of white readers and bloggers telling people of color that they were being ‘too dramatic’ or just ‘looking for something/someone to fight’, and it’s so disappointing to see people behave like this. Seeing these people argue with other people who were hurt, or could possibly be hurt by the negative and racist stereotypes depicted in these books, or taking their  love and admiration for a book over people who expressed discomfort and hurt over the portrayals of a ‘dark-skinned’, ‘tattooed’ race that Kristoff said were an allegory for the Maori people.

If you like these books, that’s fine. I still love Harry Potter despite the dozens of issues to be found within the canon (i.e. Ilvermorny houses and their backgrounds, Cho Chang basically having a surname as her first name, a real lack of characters of color in both the books and the more recent Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.) But don’t blindly love a book, or any piece of media for that matter. Be open to discussion on the problematic aspects, don’t defend racism and queerphobia where you see it. Just because you can dissect a book’s problems doesn’t mean you hate it, in fact, I think that shows that you love it even more.

It is the responsibility of the ally to not only speak up when problems like these arise, but to constantly listen and learn. All we ask is that you try harder. And for writers reading this, please don’t write what you don’t know. At least not without talking to the people you are attempting to represent, or doing your proper research. And please, please don’t write about the oppression these groups face. A white person shouldn’t write about racism because they have never experienced it. A straight person shouldn’t write about the oppression a gay person faces. A cis person shouldn’t write about transphobia.

My friend Weezie put it best when she said: “I CAN perform open heart surgery, but that doesn’t mean the results will be right.

Because not all representation is good representation.

I want to thank my friends Sophie and Amanda for being willing to read and help edit this post!

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8 thoughts on “On Representation, And Why All of It Isn’t Good.

  1. This is a great post, Mason! You highlight so many good points. Also, kudos for highlighting the difference between “should” and “could”.

    I haven’t read Winger and never planned too, but I’m definitely not now. I’m very surprised that scene in which Joe is killed off passed the editing phase. The situation (and description) has so many similarities to real events. Like, it’s oddly reminiscent of Matthew Shepard’s own brutal murder. His birthday was not to long ago. He would have been 40 years old (thoughts & prayers to his family).

    Joe’s treatment is awful, really. Sounds tokenish and used as a plot device.

    I totally agree with you. Not all representation is good representation. I wrote about this on my blog too! Like, how could people think it’s okay. Sure, yay, there’s brown people in your book, oh but they’re ‘savages’ or ‘uncivilized’ and ‘violent’. It’s not like we don’t have age-old cultures and traditions. We don’t come in two modes “violent” and “savage”. It’s irritating.

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  2. Very, very, very good points! What I’m really happy about is that you support the opinion that just about *everyone* shouldn’t write diverse books!! Because a lot of what I see online now, with a lot of drama, is stuff like “everyone and anyone should just write diverse books! Stop being racist and writing only white characters!” – and then when they DO we end up with tons of misrepresentation and everyone’s unhappy again. The problem with writing is that we mostly can just write about OUR environment, OUR circumstances. If we grew up uptown, we should by no means write a Bronx novel. Because it just doesn’t work that way. The same goes for sexuality – which is why I would never write a book about LGBT characters, because I can own up to the fact that I know nothing firsthand about it and I would mess it up. What I dislike extremely is the hating on authors “for writing cisgender white novels” – but do people really want those same authors to write PoC, gay, bi? Do those “diversity advocates” ever pause to think of the quality of the book written by a person who knows nothing firsthand about the experiences? I would say it even infuriates me. Let’s leave this stuff to people who HAVE THINGS TO SAY about it. Isn’t that what #ownvoices is all about? Which is why I’m really glad of your post here. The community MUST understand that NOT EVERYONE can and should write about people they can’t represent. We want genuine stories. Made up doesn’t cut it. It might in rare cases, such as some of your mentioned ones. But it’s still a very slippery ground, isn’t it?

    And yes. Cho Chang. Oh god, facepalming for ten years over that. Facepalming when none of my friends understand why T_T

    Also, I hope I didn’t say anything disrespectful. In my defense, it’s the middle of the night and I should be sleeping.

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    1. Thank you!
      I wouldn’t quite go as far as saying white cis-het authors shouldn’t write diversely. They’re writing should reflect the world we life in, fantasy or not. Where the line is crossed is when they try to represent the pain these voices go through. As an example, a white author shouldn’t really write about racism, really from any angle, even from a white gaze because that will be filled with problems.
      I do think authors should write diversely, but not from a voice that isn’t there own. Though we do have a long way to go on that front, and until all that balances out, I’ll always rely on #ownvoices stories over non-ownvoices stories.

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      1. Yes!! That is pretty much what I meant 🙂 I guess you’re just putting it to words better. I mean, there should be side characters maybe, but.. the main focus should be on something you can actually talk about and say things that make sense (to put it simply). Basically yes, write a voice you can represent. As for writing diversely.. well, sometimes it’s best to write what you know. For example, if I were to write a book (I don’t think I am, but purely hypothetically), there’s no way I could write diversely. My country is like, historically all white. We barely have immigrants. We’re the immigrants in other countries. I can’t write about PoC, because I’ve hardly ever met one! And it’s not my fault because this is what my life has been. So it’s best for me to write about MY setting. That’s what I mean that not everyone should write diverse books.

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