Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Different Type of YA Hero

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog article for a predominantly sci-fi blog run by Loup Dargent. The article I wrote, "QUILTBAG Protagonists in SF/F YA literature," quickly became one of Dargent's top 5 articles on a site covering a diverse range of topics, not specifically geared towards a QUILTBAG or YA audience. Since this article proved so popular there, I thought I'd post parts of it here and ask YAtopia readers for feedback.

For those unsure, QUILTBAG stands for queer, unisex, intersex, lesbian, trans, bi, asexual and gay.

From the original article:

Science fiction and fantasy, as both a literary and movie/TV genre, has been dominated by straight white males for decades. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in his roles from Terminator to Total Recall. Consider Christian Bale and Tom Cruise in their leading manly-man roles in science fiction films like Equilibrium, Minority Report, Batman and soon to be released Oblivion. Given that a good number of these films are based on the works by literary greats like Philip K Dick, Asimov and others, this straight white male syndrome seems prevalent in the genre, and is sadly true for YA fiction as well.

Let’s look at recent YA smashhits: Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. J.K Rowling’s series featured a straight white male protagonist, Stephenie Meyer’s series featured a straight white leading couple (I’ll get to Jacob in a minute) and Suzanne Collins’s dystopian series featured a straight white love triangle.

Only after the success of Harry Potter, both as a novel series and as a movie franchise, did it surface that Rowling had always thought of Dumbledore as gay, not that this was ever made apparent in either the novels or the movies. Why not?

There are numerous articles about Twilight and possible racism floating around the net. Regardless of how you interpret the fact that Native Americans were the ‘animals’ in the story, what surprised me even more than a centuries old vampire willingly repeating high school, was the lack of sexual fluidity so apparent in vampire characters from the works of progenitors like Anne Rice. Even the True Blood vampires explored same sex partnerships. But Twilight didn’t feature a single gay main character. And neither does another super popular vampire series: The Vampire Diaries. Meet Damon and Stefan Salvatore - white and straight despite being centuries old vampires who confound just about every social more. Meet Elena Gilbert and her brother - straight and white. Meet the sidekicks Caroline, Matt, and Tyler - straight and white. Bonnie is the only smudge of colour on the cast and she’s a witch (why is no one screaming racial stereotypes?). There is one gay character but his appearance is fleeting and has little bearing on the mostly white, all straight main cast.

And now The Hunger Games. There was an uproar at the time of casting for the movie adaptation of the book when they cast Amandla Stenberg as Rue. Why is Rue black - fans protested. Why not? Is every character in a YA book white and straight until proven otherwise? Another character in The Hunger Games, played by Lenny Kravitz in the film, is referred to as ‘the gay guy.’ Kravitz is quoted to having said he didn’t want to play Cinna ‘too gay.’ In the novel, his sexuality is never expressly stated. He’s simply a stylist and designer, so once again stereotyping runs rampant.

YA protagonists are only gay, lesbian, bi or transgender when it’s a contemporary issue book like The Perks of Being a Wallflower starring the fabulous Patrick. I can’t name a single best-selling SF/F YA title featuring a gay, lesbian or bi - never mind transgendered - protagonist. Can you?

There is a huge gap, not only in the market, but in the mindset. Why can’t QUILTBAG individuals be the heroes? They can - just look at pansexual Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood fame, played by the openly gay and awesome John Barrowman. This is the type of heroic character I want to see in YA SF/F.

My question to you is, do you think YA is there yet, ready to treat a teen's sexual preference as just another aspect of character like eye colour or hair colour? Should a teen's sexual preference always be an 'issue'? Would a teen Capt. Jack Harkness even be believable or does being that comfortable with who you are and who you love come only with age?


  1. Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the collaboration by John Green and David Levithan is centered around gays, and it reached the New York Times' bestsellers list.

  2. I think part of the problem that people have with not including minority characters -- of any type -- is a fear of portraying them badly. I think a lot of writers are perfectly accepting of diversity in real life, but fear making their characters into caricatures or inadvertently saying something they didn't mean to.

    For example, if I write a character who's a jerk, and also happens to be gay, will people think I believe that gays are jerks?

    It's an oversimplification, for sure, but I wonder if that's not the mindset a lot of writers have. It's sort of like the rule about using brand names: Don't do it unless you're only going to say something nice.

  3. To Shannelle, Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a good example but it's contemporary, not science fiction or fantasy. There are a lot of great contemp. LGBT books.

    To TL Bodine - yes, I think you're right. We need to get past that fear but it's going to take time.

  4. That fear is exactly what I think holds people back. I have a WIP with a deliberately fairly diverse cast, a lesbian romance subplot, and it's contemporary scifi. The racial aspects of the characters, for me, has been the most difficult part to get right, outside of my own culture. I'm just lucky to have several friends with different backgrounds I can run it by and say, "Does this seem authentic?".
    On the already published side, the only one who immediately springs to mind is Malinda Lo. Her fantasy books very frequently have lesbian MCs.

  5. I agree there should be more diversity!
    A YA paranormal book that features queer characters that I can think of is Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely series. Irial and Niall clearly have a relationship... a very strange one with their own dynamic, especially once Leslie comes into play. But it's made clear that they are/used to be lovers. Other than that, Sarah Rees Brennan's Demon's Lexicon trilogy features a gay character that becomes important, and Holly Black's books often portay gay characters. She's also co-edited an anthology of gay&lesbian fairy stories.
    But I agree, these books tend to be less well known than things like The Hunger Games etc...

  6. I'm about 25% into a YA dystopian called The Summer Prince. The entire cast is shown to be sexually fluid and the setting is Brazil so that's different too, except the MC who has so far been represented as paler than the others and totally straight. Why author why? Anyone else read this book?

    Will look up those books mentioned by Leigh and Carmen. Thank you!

  7. To T.L. Bodine, you're absolutely right. Though I write contemporary where diverse characters appear more frequently, not SF/Fantasy, I feel a fair amount of anxiety writing characters that are LGBT or belong to a different culture/ethnicity than I do.

    I suck it up and write them, anyway, of course.

    It's like SF/Fantasy is 20 years behind the trend. In truth, I believe those diverse SF/Fantasy books are being written, but not picked up because publishing houses fear they'll sell fewer copies.