Your fave is problematic; deal with it.
- I’m not here to bash authors or to tell you not to pick these books up. I’m just being honest about what I believe is not good LGBTQIA+ representation at all.
- Spoilers for WINGER.
- When I say queer I mean LGBTQIA+.
We have all been there. You hear about this AMAZING BOOK, everybody in the blogosphere/BookTube/Twitter is talking about it and giving it 5 stars left and right…so you decide you have to read it! And you do. You spend money on a book you feel is going to rock your socks off, you get comfy in your favorite reading spot, you have some snacks handy, and then you get down to the reading part. Except, the book sucks. Or, more accurately, is making you very very angry. Oh boy, wasn’t that a horrible decision?
It’s like being excited about a flight to a foreign country you have heard incredible things about. But then, when you actually get there: everything’s too expensive, the people are rude, you get food poisoning, and on your way back home the plane crashes…you were incredibly excited which somehow turned into being incredibly disappointed. And isn’t it worse when it happens with a book you picked solely because it of the ~QUEER REPRESENTATION~ you so badly need in your life and that’s exactly the part the book completely ruined?
That’s what happened to me when I picked up Winger by Andrew Smith (Simon & Schuster 2013). The book is VERY popular all over BookTube, which I frequent, and I decided to give it a try because it sounded interesting. Winger is not sold as a queer book at all; it’s a coming-of-age story of a white cishet boy in a boarding school, but every person who I saw recommending this book praised the fact that it had a gay character, and my brain thought, “Hey it must be an important part of the story if everyone keeps mentioning it, right?” Wrong. Well, sort of. There IS a gay secondary character, Joey, who becomes best friends with Ryan Dean, the protagonist, and that’s pretty much how far Joey’s story goes. He’s there to counsel and help Ryan Dean, while Ryan keeps reminding us that no matter how much they hang out HE’S SO NOT GAY OKAY, and to assure us that TWO DUDES HUGGING IS INCREDIBLY GAY BUT HE’S NOT GAY NOPE NOPE (just in case you forget he tells you every two pages or so, hahaha so funny!). Ryan is a 14-year-old boy, he’s immature, and we are reminded by him and others of this fact all the time. But that’s NOT the problem here. The problem is that by the end of the book we know almost nothing about Joey, who by then had turned into Ryan’s best friend, besides the fact that he’s gay. And in the last ten pages or so, to shock us, Joey is beaten to death in a hate crime. Are you going to tell me this is a story queer kids are supposed to be happy about? Are we supposed to be happy about a gay character who’s clearly just a prop in the story, that was simply put there to further the protagonist’s pain, and for this to be called representation? What message are you sending to queer people out there? Are we just here to make straight people feel better about themselves and then get beaten to death because that’s just the way the story ends? Because we don’t need or deserve happy endings, right?
LGBTQIA+ people are complex human beings who are more than their sexuality, and if your story does not get that across, then I’m sorry but why have queer people in there at all? (Or women for that matter, who in the case of this particular book are just other props in the story, only there to be liked and/or criticized by Ryan and the other boys.)
And this is not the only occasion where something like this has happened. I’ve found or been told about similar cases regarding other books, where a cishet character gets the front seat, telling the story about the queer character the book is supposed to be about (Luna by Julie Anne Peters and Shine by Lauren Myracle), and that’s where this turns problematic: queer voices are silenced while heterosexual voices are raised. The experience of a queer kid is told from the point of view of a straight character, who shares their “traumatic” experience, and it turns into how much this affects the “ally” instead of the actual person who’s going through this, and don’t we have enough of that in our daily lives?
You also have stories about sexuality where one orientation is respected and another is not (or maybe we should call it the case of the slutty, indecisive bisexual because god forbid your orientation is not seen as black or white). Examples of this: The Bermudez Triangle (Razorbill 2007) by Maureen Johnson, also called On the Count of Three (Penguin Young Readers Group 2013), and The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George (Viking Children’s 2012).
While I’m sure these authors were not trying to be harmful with their books, the result was. And I for one am sick of the many amazing LGBTQIA+ stories out there being ignored, and the problematic ones praised. I know everything and everyone can be problematic or offensive one way or the other, but that doesn’t mean we should stop being critical about the media we consume. After all, representation matters, but shouldn’t it be accurate in the first place? In the words of Emily, we are not just a diversity checkbox.
And, if you are wondering about books that DO get minor queer characters right, you NEED to check out Georgie’s post. Books like that do exist, and it’s just as important to highlight those as it is to critique the ones that got it wrong.
So now I ask you: Have you read any of these books? What did you think about them? Any other problematic faves you know of?
Nadia spends most of her day tweeting and daydreaming. Lover of books, comics, dogs and chinese food. Find her on twitter @heartless_tree