Let Me Be A Heroine

Let Me Be A Heroine

After Wednesday’s post, I got into a conversation in the comments about representation of LGBTQ characters in fiction, and whether there’s enough of it. From an entirely objective perspective: there isn’t. From a seriously subjective and emotional perspective: hell no, there isn’t.

Now, just because I’ve come out doesn’t mean everything on this blog is going to be about LGBTQ issues. However, one of the main reasons I wrote that post was because I wanted to write this one and others like it and be honest within it, so for a little while I might be dwelling on these issues. They’ve been stewing in my mind for months and I only feel able to write about them now, so I just need to get them off my chest. I’ll be back to irregularly unscheduled posts soon enough.

I have an Excel spreadsheet called “Catalogue of Books” in which I keep a list of every book I own or have stolen from members of my family. The vast majority live in my room, but some have been relegated to shelves in the corridor, and a few are simply piled in corners surreptitiously. I also have a Kindle, but I don’t count e-books in this spreadsheet – mostly because if there’s ever a fire and I lose my books, which is one of my greatest fears, I’ll use the spreadsheet to rebuild my library, and that won’t be necessary for the Kindle items.

As a result of this spreadsheet, I can tell you that I own 326 books. Of course, there may be one or two more that I haven’t added to the list, perhaps recent acquisitions, and this doesn’t take into account the books that live in my room semi-permanently even though I don’t own them, such as The Iliad and The Aeneid, which belong to my school’s Classics department. But there are approximately 326 books of varying genres, ages, and lengths. Here are a few of them, on my appallingly messy shelves. The gap is where I removed books to research an essay.

bookshelves

I went through this spreadsheet and made a tally of how many books contained a canonically queer character – one where it is irrefutable fact rather than subtext or speculation. While those 326 include some non-fiction and some children’s books, they’re still a fairly decent example of the spread of genres and authors that I’ve read, and the percentage is probably fairly accurate.

I only counted novels where it’s actually mentioned or comes up: the author mentioning it an interview a few years later doesn’t count much for representation. These are characters where a reader who has no other information other than what’s on the page can say with absolute certainty, “This character is not straight.”

There were five. Five books out of 326, and it gets worse.

The books were as follows:

  1. Tithe, by Holly Black
  2. The Dream Thieves, by Maggie Stiefvater
  3. City of Lost Souls, by Cassandra Clare
  4. A Place Of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel
  5. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

I’ve mentioned all of these on my blog recently, and they’re all things I read or re-read in the past year, but let me tell you a little bit more about the representation within these novels. This might involve spoilers for The Dream Thieves, so I’m sorry about that. I mean, I guess it kind of involves spoilers for all of them, but that’s the only recent publication.

tithe(1) Tithe was the first book I ever read with a gay character. I was twelve or thirteen, and I’d never seen one in fiction before. Cornelius isn’t the protagonist – he’s kind of the sidekick of the main character. He gets seduced by a sadistic fairy with a cloak lined in thorns at one point; no guessing where my influences for Death and Fairies come from. It was also my first introduction to ‘shipping’, given that his mother is a Star Trek obsessive who ships Spock/Kirk (and that was how he came out to her). Actually, that’s kind of a funny story, because I’d never seen Star Trek before and didn’t realise the relationship between them was speculation and interpretation, so when I saw it I was fully convinced they were a couple and it was only later I realised that wasn’t necessarily the case. I’m pretty sure Holly Black did that on purpose.

What annoys me a little, though, is that this book says Advisory: adult content on it, at least the edition that I read and own. But only that book in the series. Not Valiant, which involves teenagers getting hooked on a magical equivalent of heroin, interspecies romance, and a whole lot of violence. Nope, apparently hardcore drugs are fine for impressionable teens to read about. But a gay character? Hamlet forbid that should go without a warning!

dream thieves(2) The Dream Thieves is the sequel to The Raven Boys, which I went on and on about with regards to its plot twists when I first read it. It’s a new release and honestly? I almost didn’t include it on this list. Because it’s subtle. I mean, anyone capable of thinking gets to the end of the book and realises, “Wow, Ronan’s gay.” There are a lot of hints earlier, too, if you go back and look for them, and Maggie Stiefvater’s confirmed it on Tumblr and Twitter. (Plus, she ships Ronan with Dean Winchester, having only seen Supernatural once.) But it’s not put in as many words, and for those in denial that queer characters exist, it would be possible to overlook it.

However, it’s a wonderful presentation of complex emotions and he’s a fascinating and three-dimensional character, plus it comes so late in his narrative that he’s not dominated or defined by it, so it’s pretty good, as those things go.

lost souls(3) City Of Lost Souls is a tricky one to write about because I read the entire series so quickly that the books blur into each other and I can’t remember exactly what point in the narrative we’re at by this stage. It’s the only one on the list because it’s the only one I own, even though I’ve read the earlier four – it was being sold off for 20p at my local library. But ‘The Mortal Instruments’ are important, because they’re a bestselling series with a huge audience where one of the major named characters, Alec, is gay.

And he gets a relationship! For a while. See, the other two were single, apart from Corny’s brief and fairly unhealthy encounter with Nephamael, but Alec gets to have a relationship. He’s happy. I mean, it doesn’t last, which is kind of his own fault (I’m not going to go into detail), but it happens. His story is handled sensitively, with all the complications that arise from coming out to family, and it’s wonderful. Oh, and it made me cry.

Then there’s Magnus, a ‘freewheeling bisexual’ warlock with a penchant for flamboyance, who kind of fits stereotypes while also being terrifying and, you know, a warlock. Plus, though I can’t remember which book it’s in, at some point in the series there are also background lesbians. A relationship! Girls! These things have been noticeably absent before now. They’re not exactly major characters, though. Click here for a passage that I have saved to my computer as ‘accurate rep of queer teenagers’.

a place of greater safety(4) A Place Of Greater Safety is the first on this list that’s neither fantasy nor YA. It’s a historical novel set before and during the French Revolution, focusing on the revolutionaries themselves. One of them is Camille Desmoulins, a writer with a serious punctuation fetish who writes pamphlets and newspapers inciting people to rebellion. He became my favourite character / person. (It’s hard to know what to call characters who are based on real people.)

camille pls

And he’s bisexual. I guess. You can’t call it that, because those terms didn’t come into use until the 19th century and this is the end of the 18th, so they never use it as an adjective, but it’s made perfectly clear that he plays both sides, much to the horror and distress of Robespierre. Camille gets a relationship (a wife), as well as numerous exploits of a more illicit nature (he was a bit of a player, it’d seem), and a deep, meaningful, potentially romantic bond with another male character (Danton, seemingly unrequited).

the bell jar(5) The Bell Jar is a book I’ve alternated between loving and hating, mostly because I enjoyed it after reading it once but got thoroughly fed up the longer I studied it, especially after reading critical material that pointed out all the things that had bothered me but which I couldn’t put into words.

There’s a character, Joan, who is perceived as positive by Esther until it’s revealed that she’s a lesbian. After that, Esther reacts negatively to her, viewing her as something unnatural or unpleasant. Joan, like Esther, is suffering from mental illness and is in hospital, but she commits suicide.

In other words, the only novel on this list that had a queer female character portrays her as negative and then kills her off – and incidentally, it’s one of the few events of the novel that’s fictionalised rather than based on what really happened to Plath, which is rather telling.

Didn’t I tell you it gets worse? Of five novels:

  • None of these characters were the sole focus or central protagonist of the novel. Ronan dominates The Dream Thieves (each book focuses on a different major character while continuing the story of all of them), so you could argue that he’s the protagonist, but that would only be an interpretation. Likewise, Camille is a major contributor to the Revolution, but he shares the novel with Robespierre and Danton and all the others involved, so can’t be called the protagonist.
  • A single character in a novel, or a handful in City Of Lost Souls, means the percentage is still way down below 1%.
  • The vast majority of queer characters in fiction I’ve read have been male and gay, meaning that anybody elsewhere on the spectrum is basically invisible, and female characters are grossly underrepresented in this more than any other aspect of fiction.
  • Queer characters rarely get a relationship that lasts or a happy ending. 

It’s impossible to know how many people in the world identify as LGBTQ. Some are closeted out of fear. Some are just private. You’re never going to survey absolutely everybody. But estimates suggest that around 10% of the population identifies as part of the LGBTQ community – and yet the fiction I’ve read would suggest that it’s more like 0.005%.

Yes, I’ve read other books where characters were queer. My 326 books don’t represent everything I’ve ever read, because I’m way too poor to buy everything. The library is a very good friend of mine, and I visit it often.

Yes, some of the characters even got relationships, and were happy. They’re very much the rarities, however. Many of the novels are actually about their sexual orientation, or the character’s arc is about coming out. Have I ever read a book where the main character, the protagonist, is queer, and that’s not the entirety of their story? Not as far as I can remember, other than in terms of interpretation. (Hamlet, and that’s a play.)

20140103_121919So how long will it be before I read a book where the protagonist is female, queer, in a relationship, and not defined by her sexuality? I mean, I’m writing one at the moment which actually fulfils all of those criteria, but I’d very much like to have a few more on my shelf. I want so many of them that I need a new shelf. Admittedly, I probably need more shelves anyway…

By writing and publishing and stocking books that suggest only a tiny, tiny percentage of the population is queer and never giving that tiny percentage a voice or a story, we’re sending a very harmful message to all those kids and teenagers growing up and looking for role models in novels. If they never see themselves as the protagonist of a story, if they’re always relegated to the background or to angsty narratives about dealing with their sexuality and nothing else, then what are they going to believe?

They’re going to believe that people like them can never be a hero.

We need queer protagonists for the same reasons we need female protagonists – we need young LGBTQ readers to see that there are people like them who can have adventures, overcome difficulties, and be strong, well-rounded individuals. It’s a matter of representation.

I’ve reached a point where I start reading a book and I realise that it’s centred on a heterosexual love triangle and I stop reading. Because I’m bored. I’ve come across that story a hundred times and I know how it pans out every single time and yet nobody has ever given me a queer female protagonist. Not one person has bothered to make people like me anything other than a background character in somebody else’s story.

I mean, they probably exist. In this world, there are probably books that have queer female characters whose character arc isn’t focused on that particular aspect of their identity. Probably? Why probably? There’s nothing probably about this, not from what I’ve seen in the media. If there are books of that nature, then please for the love of Hamlet just recommend them to me. But in nearly eighteen years, I’ve not come across them.

The reason I keep on writing gay and bisexual and asexual and transgender characters is because I want to up that pathetically miniscule percentage. But even if every novel I write gets published, that fraction is still so small and the chances of teens who need those books the most actually coming across them is tiny. It’s not about queer authors writing characters who reflect them – it’s about straight authors remembering that we exist, and bothering to represent us in their novels. It’s about people doing research and portraying sympathetic, interesting and well-defined characters who aren’t stereotypes to show that they know they’re not the only people in this world.

Homophobes are afraid that the LGBTQ community wants to take over the media. And yeah, they’re right. No. All we want, all I want, is to have the media reflect how many of us there are in this world, so that we can teach people they can be heroes regardless of how they identify.

Is that really so much to ask?

For another great post on why representation within mainstream media is important, head over to Musings From Neville’s Navel for her post on Rick Riordan’s The Heroes Of Olympus series.

Unusually, all hyperlinks in this post except the last one lead only to pictures, rather than to other posts. So if you didn’t click them because you don’t want to read anything, rest assured that it’s safe.

22 thoughts on “Let Me Be A Heroine

  1. *squees* Aaah! Thanks for the shout-out! :)

    Lovely post, I agree with all of it. (And my friend Orphu has a similar post, if you’re interested… http://mirrormadeofwords.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/heterosexuality-and-bigoted-ghosts/)

    *looks around at bookshelves* Um. Let’s see.
    …OK, this isn’t funny. I found ONE book and actually it’s an anthology of short stories, two of which are about lesbians. I have more LGBTQ+ books in my room, but I don’t own them.

    Aaaaaand recommendations of awesome lesbian books:
    -The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth (this is definitely a ‘defined by sexuality’ book because it’s about conversion therapy, but it has great writing and, well, I don’t know of many lesbian books)
    -Ash by Malinda Lo (haven’t finished this one quite yet, but SDZJGFDZKS the lesbian couple is adorable and the conflict in the story comes from their different social classes, not that they’re both girls)
    (I haven’t read Lo’s Huntress / Inheritance / Adaptation, but I’ve heard they’re excellent and have more lesbian or bisexual girls.)
    *thinks* Oh. Here. She has a list of more on her blog. http://www.malindalo.com/2013/10/ya-novels-about-lesbians-and-bisexual-girls/

    1. I’ve heard of Malinda Lo – I follow the Diversity in YA blog. I’ve been meaning to check out her books, but unfortunately my local library doesn’t stock them and I’m out of money again, so I don’t know when I’ll get hold of them… I’ll check out her list.

      1. OK. I think they might be ebooks now, too.

        I hope to publish some of my stories with queer protagonists someday… right now I’m working on this high fantasy thing with a lesbian couple who fight with swords and I think one of them is royalty but I might change that later and it’s set in a Middle-earth-ish world. *nods*

  2. I just looked at my LGBTQ shelf on GoodReads, and I see exactly what you’re talking about. Of the 312 books I’ve read and posted on there, 15 have a gay or lesbian character (none have anything other than that, as far as I can tell). Only in 6 of them is one of the main characters (and 4 are a series). In only one of those is that character female. And only 5 out of 15 books shows a gay couple (always male, never female) ending up in a happy relationship.

    That’s really freaking sad.

  3. I don’t see it as such a bad thing that there isn’t much in the of LBGT+ literature. I mean, the amount of the population that isn’t straight is tiny, and writers have to write for a large audience if they wish to be widely read. But, if you have a problem with it, you should definitely keep writing that kind of character into your stories. That’s what writers do, huh? :)

    1. It may be small (though 10% actually isn’t really that small? Given how big the world is), but it’s not as small as the media it makes it out to be. Of the people I talk to on a daily basis, approximately half of them identify as queer; of the books I read on a daily basis, approximately 1% of characters are queer. Which is, actually, kind of a big problem.

      There are thousands of children and teenagers growing up believing there’s something wrong with them, believing they’re not good enough, believing they can’t be a hero. And guess what? They’re expected to relate to straight people in stories. I don’t see why it shouldn’t work the other way: LGBTQ characters aren’t limited to LGBTQ readers.

      You can still appeal to a wide audience while having queer characters. I know it’s radical, but I thought I was straight for nearly seventeen years and yet when I came across an LGBTQ character in a novel I didn’t freak out or put the book down. Just as I can relate to male characters or straight characters or ethnic minority characters even though I’m female, queer and white, straight people can relate to queer characters.

      And representation and giving people role models is more important than selling a large number, really.

      If my comment comes across as irritated, that’s kind of because the dismissal of this issue as “not such a bad thing” is actually really hurtful. The percentage is small but not tiny but you seem to be forgetting that people are capable of reading books about queer people even when they’re straight. It breaks my heart to read this because I know that one of the reasons I can only find five books of over three hundred is because other people think the same way — “If I write about queer characters, nobody will want to read my book.”

        1. Actually, it’s not really my feelings I’m worried about. It’s about the principle of the matter, and how it affects the whole LGBTQ community, because your viewpoint represents a larger attitude within society.

          I mean, good on you for helping homeless people, that’s awesome and important, but … don’t let some issues deflect your care from other things? Or even if they’re not what you’re super passionate about, don’t automatically perceive them as unimportant. I think is what I’m trying to say.

          1. Oh don’t worry. I definitely don’t see these issues in particular as unimportant. Mainly, I just wanted to encourage you to write about it if you believe it needs to be said. From what I can tell, you’re a pretty fantastic author, so I think people would definitely want to read something you wrote on the subject. I agree with what you said about the fact that most books with gay or lesbian characters tend to focus too heavily on the character’s gay or lesbianness as the sole point of the plot. A lot of people may not want to read that, so a book with a LGBTQ main character that actually had some other plotline would definitely be inviting and probably a very good thing for the genre as a whole.

          2. That’s what I hope to see more of. And that’d make them more universally appealing to a larger audience, as they’d be interesting in terms of plot. I think the publishing world is becoming more aware of this, up to a point, but it’s got a very, very long way to go.

  4. Interesting point. Now that I think of it, you’re right; I only know three absolutely-for-sure queer characters I’ve read about in books, and all of them are mentioned in this post. And that /is/ harmful…until I watched Glee, I was completely unaware about LGBT issues. Or anything LGBT at all, really, unless you count the strange, strange portrayals of them here in the Philippines. I’ll definitely be writing more queer characters from now on.

    Curious, though; what do you think should be the ratio of queer characters to straight in a novel? ‘Mortal Instruments’ had more than I’ve seen so far, but you pointed out that “…A handful in City Of Lost Souls, means the percentage is still way down below 1%.”

    As for recommendations…well, for books, I have none (unfortunately.)

    For an /amazing/ web-comic (with gay robots, bi angels, and amazing storylines) look at Gunnerkrigg Court (http://gunnerkrigg.com/?p=1). Don’t let the initial art put you off – it definitely gets better, and the story is just worth it.

    If you’re willing to look at Glee fanfiction – and I /promise/ it looks almost nothing like fanfiction and is much, much better than what the actual show has become – you might want to try the e-book Dalton, which is available online for free(http://daltonebook.tumblr.com/post/9071959281/dalton-ebook-update-now-with-chapter-26). It’s fun and sweet and well-written, and I don’t think you even need to be familiar with the show to fully appreciate it.

    Lastly, while it’s not stated in the movie, Queen Elsa from the movie ‘Frozen’ seems to have become the poster princess of Disney’s LGBT community. I’ve been recommending the film to everyone that I know left and right, but if nothing else you should definitely watch her ‘villain song’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEJ566EnNgM).

    1. I’ve definitely come across more in TV and films – Dance Academy, Doctor Who, Torchwood all have queer characters, for example, just naming a few off the top of my head. And fanfic’s kind of a given – I read quite a lot within the Les Mis and Hamlet fandoms and ‘highbrow’ as their source material might be… well. They’re imaginative.

      :)

      I don’t think you can necessarily set a target percentage. You’re unlikely to have one single queer character who is out and still hangs around entirely with straight people – birds of a feather flock together. They’ll do it if they have no other choice but they’re more likely to find somebody who understands, even if it’s just to commiserate with. So singular, isolated queer characters aren’t much fun. Really I would just like there to be more of them. Everywhere. ALL OF THE REPRESENTATION.

      1. I wonder why there is more representation to LGBT characters in television than in books (to the point that my sister actually called them mainstream). Is it because there’s not only one decision-maker, I guess? Playing as the devil’s advocate, maybe some writers or editors assume that because there is already quite a bit of representation of queer characters on-screen (for some of them, at least), they feel it’s unnecessary to do it in books? Or maybe they thought it’d become cliché?

        Or maybe because since there’s not as much room in books to look at different characters, they don’t want a queer one to be taking so much room with their own story. It’s mostly a given that queer characters = a coming-out arc, even if it’s a small one, unless the story’s set in a different time or place. The Harry Potter series, for example, would probably had to have a few more hundred pages in their already-thick volumes if, say, Ron or Hermione was actually a homosexual (now that I think of it, if the former was it would’ve made him a whole lot more interesting…). Not to mention the uproar if it was Draco.

        The challenge with that would be how many romantic arcs the author can show, I think. (And that’s especially a challenge for those who don’t actually like writing too many of them.) Aside from transgendered people (maybe), it’d be difficult to show the representations of all the sexes if they don’t have love-interests, since I don’t think many people would randomly shout out, “I’m pansexual, by the way!” Unless something like a gay-straight alliance is added in the story, though if it’s not needed the relevance of that will probably be questioned….any suggestions?

        1. Characters can casually mention an ex-girlfriend or something; the way they look at celebrities and people they might mention having a crush on etc… while it’s not always possible to bring it in, it’s amazing how often straight characters get confirmed as straight just by how they talk about people etc.

  5. I own about 150 books and 30 (20%) of them contain some kind of canon LGBTQ character, 3 (2%) of those even contain transgender characters (though all 3 of them are recent purchases – within the last year). Also in 10 of these books the characters ore the protagonist/ main character.

    But I do see your point as I can assume that my library is pretty atypical and if I was to include the 50 or so books that I share with my mother I would probably only have one more LGBTQ inclusive book ( bringing my total down to 16% which happens to still be above the estimate but in no way makes up for the lack of representation in the libraries of others

    1. Oh and only two of those books contain lesbians. Five contain bisexual characters and none contain any of the queer spectrum.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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