Editor’s note: We are so excited to be hosting this mini-series We Are Not Just a Diversity Checkbox. It will be updated every Friday and wrap up the last week of August. Emily K, one of our Teen Voices will be talking about MOGII (Marginalized Orientation, Gender Identity, and Intersex) representation in YA, specifically minority characters, and others that are included more or less to check us off.
When the hype for Disney’s animated feature “Frozen” was at its peak, many people were exuberant over the male store owner having a husband and children who were shown for two seconds sitting in the sauna. How wonderful! A huge corporation like Disney has finally provided some MOGII representation! Except, they didn’t. The scene was completely ambiguous, and there has been no official word from Disney as to whether the man in the sauna was the store owner’s husband. This is not representation. Even if they were a confirmed couple, after all the movies Disney has put out with heterosexual couples, one minor background couple whose scene is very short and so ambiguous that there would need to be a press release to confirm that they aren’t straight doesn’t count as progressive in the least bit. This is an extreme example, but it leads me to a question for the young adult genre: does having background/minor MOGII characters count as progressive?
There is quite a long answer to this question when you dive into the gray areas and specifics, which I will, but the straight-forward answer is no, a passing mention or appearance of an MOGII character shouldn’t be lauded now in 2014. Back in May of this year, I posed this question to fellow members of the Goodreads’ group YA LGBT Books. The group has brought about many lively discussions about issues in Young Adult literature with regards to the MOGII characters (or the lack thereof). In this thread, user Jay D. mentioned author Robert A. Heinlein, who intentionally wove positive MOGII characters into the plot of Stranger in a Strange Land (Putnam Publishing, 1961), though they were edited out. Jay had a very succinct answer to my question. “What Heinlein did with minor LGBTQ characters was groundbreaking but it would not now be any big deal.”
Books with MOGII protagonists have sold well, and a large portion of YA readers have made it clear that they are starving for books like that. Despite this, in 2013, books with YA MOGII characters make up, at the high end of the estimation, 2.4% of all YA books published that year. And that small slice isn’t very diverse; cis gay boys made up 59% of the protagonists in the Big 5 and 75% in specifically LGBT publishers. The representation of characters in multiple oppressed minorities, such as being MOGII and a person of color, is dismal. “The book won’t make money” can no longer be used as an excuse, nor can “There will be backlash from homophobes/transphobes,” for two reasons. First off, there will be at least some backlash for every book published. Books about genetic modification and cloning, drug/alcohol use, magic, political and religious viewpoints, or violence have all received backlash. Religious groups ran to libraries in droves to get the Harry Potter series banned because they thought that the magic would encourage satanism or occultism, yet now the series is famous the world over. Publishing houses are willing to publish books with scenes of graphic violence, but many seem to draw the line at stories with happy MOGII characters. Secondly, if authors and publishers are more interested in catering towards bigots than treating MOGII people with human decency, then they are part of the problem.
We need to show authors and publishers that we are not content with tiny scraps of representation, but I know how difficult it is to contain the excitement over those tiny scraps when we are starving. We need to make having MOGII characters or at the very least not excluding them during world-building an expectation instead of something non-MOGII authors are praised for.
Part Two of We Are Not Just a Diversity Checkbox will be up next week and is about MOGII characters (or really the lack thereof) in speculative fiction. I’d love to hear your opinions on Part One; leave a comment, or tweet them to @captainbooknerd on twitter!