Friday, March 25, 2011

Not Quite On the Same Page

I've discovered a new blog - The Book Lantern - that I love, however the post that appeared today is really causing me to scratch my head. I know how I feel about what this person is saying, but I'm struggling to put those thoughts to words.

What I get out of the post is that Ceilidh is frustrated with an industry - society in general, actually - which defaults to the proto-typical heterosexual white male/female as the standard character type with all variations of ethnicity and/or sexual orientation falling outside the spectrum of "normal". Additionally, when gay characters (or characters of ethnicity) are portrayed, they take the form of the most simplistic stereotypes (gay boys who giggle a lot), or the reader is constantly reminded that this person is capital-G Gay (or capital B-Black/capital A-Asian, etc.). Characters who fall outside of the narrow white-and-straight are under-represented, and stories that do feature someone who doesn't fit that description are classified as "issue" books rather than just stories.

While I agree with the overall sentiment - that society needs to move in the direction where every variation of human being is just as normal and accepted as another - I'm not sure if I can wrap my brain around Ceilidh's argument that the publishing industry, writers included, are perpetuating a form of reinforcement of bad attitudes in their assume standard=white-and-straight approach.

First, to state my fundamental opinion on homosexuality. I believe you love whom you love. Being a homosexual is not a choice or an alternative lifestyle or something that you can turn off or turn on or dabble in or, heaven help us, "fix". God makes no mistakes, and, to quote Lady GaGa (god!), everyone is born that way. And those who insist that homosexuals don't deserve the same respect and rights as heterosexuals are practicing a form of bigotry and racism that is intolerable and ignorant.

As for homosexuality portrayed in fiction, some of the most romantic couples I have ever encountered have been gay couples. I've stated before that the Brian and Justin love story depicted on the US Queer As Folk was one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching of any ever. I wept over Brokeback Mountain and felt sorry for anyone who refused to experience such a heartbreaking story because of their homophobia. Gay FBI agent Jules Cassidy is one of my favorite characters in contemporary romance, and until his relationship with Robin devolved into something too cutesy for even my thirteen year old daughter, it was one of Suzanne Brockmann's best depicted in all of her Troubleshooters series.

If the romance is done well, I don't give two hoots if the couple is male/male, male/female, or female/female.

So here's my problem with Ceilidh's problem. If a character's sexual orientation doesn't matter to the story, why bring it up? Ever? Why tell the reader this person is gay? Ever?

If you insist on labeling a person as gay, you inherently imply that this aspect of their person is important to the story. That this person's sexual orientation makes a difference in some way. Because if being gay doesn't affect the story in any way, then why mention it at all?

Best analogy I can think of is hair color. Hair color is a trait that has little bearing on the bigger picture of a character's story. Unless a particular character is persecuted, lauded or otherwise treated differently because of his or her hair color, other than a mild curiosity on the part of the reader, specifying a character's hair color is unnecessary.

If, on the other hand, the author reminds the reader every chapter or so that the main character is blonde, hair color starts to mean something. By calling it out, the writer has given hair color importance. For some reason, the hair color of this particular person makes him/her different. Not better, not worse, not wrong, not anything. But being blonde affects how this person deals with the world or how the world deals with them.

Same thing with being gay. If a person's sexual orientation has no bearing on the story, then why bring it up? Why does a writer have to "state for the record" that any one character is gay or not gay?

Who cares if people assume that the character is straight if sexual orientation doesn't matter? Back to my hair analogy, it's like saying that there is something wrong with imagining a character to be blonde all through the book only to find out at the end that she was actually brunette. Why is it important for me to know all the way through that she was brunette if it doesn't make her any different?

Absolutely shining example is Headmaster Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series. Never once in seven books and some 4,000 plus pages of the series is Albus Dumbledore's sexual orientation mentioned. Because it didn't matter to the story. After the fact, writer J.K. Rowling stated that Dumbledore was gay, that he'd always been gay, that this was how she had imagined him from the very beginning, and she offered zero apology for that because none was needed.

And now, readers have spent seven books and some 4,000 plus pages liking and empathizing with a character who, it turns out, is just like them even though he's gay. Well, most of us readers aren't magical wizards, but you get the point.

If being gay/ethnic/blonde changes the way the main character(s) deal with the world or how the world treats them, then you can't ignore it as a trait. And then I would argue that stories that deal with how a  character is treated differently because of some specific trait are issue books.

Net, net, what I think I'm trying to say is that by insisting that gay people (or people of non-white races) have increased representation, you are saying that their gayness matters in some way. Otherwise, who cares if the main character is gay or not?

Really, in this case I feel words are failing me.


thebloodfiend said...

I see what you're saying, but if you don't state it as such, most people will assume that your character is white and straight.

If you don't say a character is black, people will assume that they are white. How many good YA books have you read that had black protagonists? There are even less good black YA books than gay YA books. So to say that it doesn't matter in a world that revolves around race is sort of ignoring the issue at hand. In a perfect world, sure it wouldn't matter. But as it stands, we have movies like Akira being produced with Robert Patterson and Justin Timberlake trying out for the roles of Kaneda and Tetsuo. If race doesn't matter, why didn't they have an open race casting call?

In the end, it does matter and if you don't affirm that your character is gay or a person of color, people with automatically assume otherwise and that hurts for people like me when they see their favorite books being brought to the big screen.

Phoebe said...

Hmm. Weird. My first comment disappeared. Trying again.

Followed your link from the book lantern. Hope you don't mind if I comment.

I think the problem with what you're proposing is that, by portraying a m/m romance (and in the anthology in question was a romance anthology), you are, in fact, declaring that this male character is interested in being with men--by definition, you're declaring that this character is gay (or bi, or queer, or what have you).

And so, by calling for mentions of sexuality only when it's relevant, you essentially are calling for the erasure of huge parts of normal gay and lesbian (and straight, and human) life: any details about their relationships or love lives or sex lives. I know that's probably not your intention, but that's the result.

I struggle with issues of declaring sexuality quite a bit. I myself am a bisexual woman, but married to a man. And so I grapple with outing myself even when it might be seen as "irrelevant." But I also realize I'm in a privileged position by having the option to not do so. Gay people don't have that option--they out themselves every time they hold a loved one's hand in public. When it comes down to it, straight privilege means that the external world won't make assumptions or ask questions when you kiss people or love someone--it's assumed to be "normal."

Lynn M said...

Actually, the open casting call thing mirrors what my feelings are in a way. Shonda Rhimes who created Grey's Anatomy once said that when she created the various characters for the show, she didn't have any preconceived notions of their respective races. Thus, any one character would end up being white or African American or Asian based on which actor proved best for the job. The characters were written "race neutral".

So my thinking is why don't writers write characters that are "race" or "sexual orientation" neutral? For example, if someone were to make a movie of any given book, the race or s.o. of any character could be anything. If the story is about a universal life experience that is not fundamentally changed by a character's race or s.o then any one can fill the role, right?

But insisting that an African American actor fill a certain roll or an Asian actor or a gay actor means that race and/or s.o. is important. And I think that's what we want to get away from. It would be refreshing to go to a movie of an adaptation of a popular book and find that the lead character is not the race you expected.

However, if race or s.o. is important to the story, there is nothing wrong with that either. I do see that the balance is very much tipped toward stories that portray the straight, white angle, and that should change as well.

Lynn M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
thebloodfiend said...

I wish we lived in the perfect world that you described. But until that happens, we writers will have to continue making it known that our non-white, and non-straight characters are people of color or gay, otherwise we'll keep on having fiascos like The Last Airbender.

Race and sexuality will continue to be important until they no-longer matter to those with money.

severus lawliet said...

I followed your link in your reply, and if I may,

For me, it's not about stating it because other people may automatically assume that he/she is white and straight (believe it or not, when I was reading Great Expectations for the first time I was convinced that Pip and Estella were black -- and I'm not kidding) but it's for other reasons.

Race, not so much, because in my writing characters aren't really affected by race. But in the world we live in, and I hate to say, people are going to look at two men or women holding hands, and they're going to think "Huh. That's weird.". Or at least a lot of them are. Admittedly, I have also fallen into this trope. However, I always manage to catch myself and go into a psychological crusade of WHY I think this way, most of the time.

I feel bad for it, but not everyone does. There are people who will say "Huh. That's weird." without feeling bad, and others who will say "GROSS!" with pure righteousness. Honestly, fairytale worlds like the ones exhibited in David Leviathan like books don't exist. As much as we wish they did, frankly, they don't.

What I'm trying to say is that no matter how much you try to stay away from it, you really can't ignore your character's sexuality for an entire novel, no matter how hard you try. It will come out in little ways, anyway.

If you're a good writer, there really is no escape. With race, yeah, because I don't think that race is that big of a factor in our society anymore. You can walk down the street and see people of all races without thinking too hard about it, but let's all be honest - if you see a gay couple, you're going to look twice.

I hope I didn't offend anyone, but that's my two cents.

Lynn M said...

I think you are right that, unfortunately, the world we live in now isn't nearly as accepting of differences as it should be.

I confess, before I watched the show Queer As Folk, the idea of two men kissing kind of weirded me out. Having grown up in a fairly conservative, small midwestern town, I'd never been exposed to that at all, and it seemed very, well, wrong is a strong word. But not natural? I don't know.

But then I watched QAF and everything changed for me. At first I was shocked at what I saw. But before long, the shock factor wore off. And the characters and their stories were so compelling, the fact that they were "gay" no longer mattered one tiny bit to me. It seemed normal and natural for two men or two women who were in love to hold hands and be physical with each other.

Now, I don't even bat an eye if I see a real-life homosexual couple walking down the street holding hands or kissing. It's just people, not "gay" people.

So in my case, what helped me become 100% accepting and get over any preconceived issues I had (and they were MY issues, no one else's) was watching a fictional TV program. I think if more people were exposed to more examples of gay people living their very normal lives, that "weird" factor would go away. Sure, there are those out there who will always think it's wrong. And that ignorance and intolerance is those peoples' issues, not the rest of ours.

It takes time to shift an entire society's viewpoint. I think with each generation, we get a little closer. My two children don't think it's a big deal at all, being gay. I just tell them that you love whom you love. And eventually our literature will hopefully reflect that attitude as well. I guess I'm a big Pollyana-istic on that point!

severus lawliet said...

Indeed! I await the time in society when this becomes so. Hopefully it happens before America's economy crumbles beyond repair. Can't we be open-minded AND well off?