I’ve spent a lot of time talking about books and listening to other people talk about books, and here’s the thing: I’m so sick of talking about “representation” like it’s a box we can just check off and be done. I don’t want to hear about good reputation and bad reputation anymore, because those are phrases that can so easily get flattened and simplified. I want to talk about characters. The characters are unique. Books are unique. Representation, as a concept, matters. But it can also be a burden, both for the writers and for the characters. It’s a different try for another time. I’m not going to delve into the intricacies of representation and what it means here. I will delve into the language we use to talk about it.
When a character who isn’t marginalized does something terrible, it rarely gets a bad rap. Critics don’t fault these characters for not portraying their identities “well”. Straight people never need to be represented. Men never have to be represented. White people never have to be represented. I just want us to be able to talk about characters from marginalized communities in the same way. No one, not even in fiction, should have to bear the burden of perfection – or even morality! – all the time. We are all imperfect humans.
I sometimes see negative reviews of queer books in which the reviewers bemoan the lack of character grip. A character isn’t examining their internalized homophobia, perhaps, or they have complicated feelings about gender that aren’t ironed out on the page. Then I watch those imperfections, those human messes that mean a character is doing just like the rest of us, turn into a bad reputation. I don’t know if that’s the case or not — the representation is complicated; exactly. I know I want queer characters (and other marginalized characters, but you know where my passion and experience and expertise lie) to be able to do bad, messy, unforgivable things without us all screaming from the sidelines at About a bad reputation.
Believe me, I understand the painful history behind this desire for “good reputation”. Publishing has a pretty bad track record. I do not deny that prejudicial representation exists. Writers can absolutely write characters in a stereotypical way, which hurts. When they do, we need to talk about it. But just as I’m fed up people throw the word problematic, I’m tired of people throwing around the term “bad reputation”. I want to know what an author has done and why it’s good or bad or somewhere in between. “Bad reputation” can mean so many different things. Sometimes that means a reader just didn’t like a flawed character. And sometimes that means an author has written a racist stereotype of a person in a book. This distinction matters.
Let’s talk for a moment about one of my least favorite tropes in fiction. It’s one where a queer character suffers intensely (and often dies) in the service of the edification/redemption of a straight character. It’s something that I personally can’t stand. It fills me with a swirling, bubbling anger. We don’t exist for the benefit of straight people, and our lives aren’t disposable. Straight people can learn not to be homophobic assholes without anyone being attacked or murdered, thank you very much.
I avoid books with this trope because I know how they’re going to make me feel and it’s not a pleasant feeling. Years ago, I would have slapped the “bad reputation” tag on such a book and shut it down. But here’s the thing: it happens in real life. I wish that weren’t the case. But it is. Straight people learn from gay people. Sometimes straight people don’t learn until something terrible happens to a real queer person in their real life. It’s a horrible thing, and a real thing. And books should manage to reflect the world as it is, which is often a disaster.
I’m not advocating every book that uses this trope. I’m not convinced it has any merit. Personally, I think there are better and more interesting ways to write about redemption. I’m just suggesting that we talk about the books with nuance and in context. I beg of all of us to talk about characters with specificity, to dig into who wrote a book, and why, and what it’s trying to do, and who it serves – to look at all the messy angles instead of taking the solution from ease, i.e. “don’t read it!” it’s full of bad reputation! without in-depth analysis.
A while ago I stopped using the word problematic. If a book is full of racist stereotypes, I call it racist. If a book unnecessarily misleads a character or uses their dead name over and over again, I call it transphobic. Language matters. Problematic is a vague expression that can mean almost anything, just like “representation”. So I don’t use it anymore. I won’t talk about good or bad reputation. I’m not going to praise a fun space opera with an all-queer cast for a good reputation. I’m not going to automatically pin the disreputable tag on a novel with a queer protagonist who is flawed and messy and says the wrong things. I will celebrate books that center queer characters because I love reading about my people. I will thoughtfully critique books full of harmful tropes and characters that seem to reflect an author’s bias (conscious or unconscious). It may be a small distinction, but I think it’s the one that counts.
I long for a world in which representation in books does not exist, because we are all represented. I long for a world in which it is taken for granted that books by queer, trans, disabled and BIPOC authors, and all authors from marginalized communities, are not only as common as books by white men, but receive the same marketing budgets. I long for a world in which these books are not banned. But that’s not the world we live in, and so representation exists, it needs to exist, and we need to talk about it, and advocate for it, and talk about it very loudly, because that’s how we bring about change. But while we’re doing this work, while we’re having conversations about representation and what it means, maybe we can pause for a minute to consider the language we’re using and pull out the flimsy sentences that flatten the nuances and don’t really serve us at all.