Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Default Mode

by: Ceilidh of The Sparkle Project

You may have already seen my latest Sparkle Project post in which I touched on this but I think it definitely requires further discussion. A few days ago, YA author Jessica Verday announced that she was no longer a part of the Wicked Pretty Things anthology, edited by Trisha Telep, because she was asked to change the gay male relationship at the centre of it to a male-female one. I was disgusted, as were many of my fellow torch bearers on The Book Lantern, and blogged my disappointment, laying blame with the publishers. Later on, the editor of the anthology, Ms. Telep commented on Verday’s post, taking sole blame for the action, and her comment said a lot about this world:

Oh dear. Might as well give you my two cents. Not that it really matters but... Don't take it out on the publishers, the decision was mine totally. These teen anthologies I do are light on the sex and light on the language. I assumed they'd be light on alternative sexuality, as well. Turns out I was wrong! Just after I had the kerfuffle with jessica, I was told that the publishers would have loved the story to appear in the book! Oh dear. My rashness will be the death of me. It's a great story. Hope jessica publishes it online. (By the way: if you want to see a you tube video of me wrestling a gay man in Glasgow, and losing, please let me know).

There are so many things that are wrong with what she said and the sad thing is, I think they’re more common misconceptions than I’d like to believe they are. Is something automatically more explicit because it has gay content in it? Is gay romance ‘alternative’, making heterosexuality the only acceptable form of love in fiction for teens? Do gay teens not read romance or something? My anger only heightened when I found out that this supposed explicit content boiled down to three kisses. Apparently the unseen fourth kiss was the final remaining horseman of the apocalypse.

But Ms Telep’s casual ignorance aside, I can’t help but think what this says about romance in literature right now, not just YA. There seems to be this default mode for almost everything in life, that of the straight white person, usually a man, and this form is the widely accepted default form of human, because everyone can relate to the default mode. (This is also an argument I’ve heard mentioned for the differences in male and female writers – men write characters for everyone but women can only write ‘women’s issues’.)

In YA, especially the paranormal side of things, the biggest selling books and most famous series are populated mainly by white straight people and the romances at the centre of them seldom feature people of colour or LGBT relationships. This isn’t to say they don’t exist but they certainly don’t get the same level of coverage as the other books. The gay characters and characters of colour tend to be relegated to being just the best friend. Of course we need this sort of visibility in fiction and this is one of the areas where YA is highly progressive, but often these depictions verge heavily into tokenism, where the character’s only defining attribute is their sexuality (the worst example I can think of off the top of my head is P.C. and Kristin Cast’s House of Night series, where the token gay best friend constantly squeals and giggles and is described as not really being a guy because he’s gay. Nice.)

Why is the default mode the right mode? It isn’t and we all damn well know it. There’s absolutely nothing stopping us from relating to people and situations different from our own other than silly preconceptions and our own cowardice. Yet this silly assumption that we only want pretty white faces and so-called safe romances remains in almost every field of entertainment. Why are there no out gay leading men in Hollywood? (I’d say Neil Patrick Harris is the most famous but he’s not a top billing superstar of blockbusters like Will Smith - also one of the few instances of a black actor getting superstar treatment – and Sir Ian McKellen is more of an ensemble actor in blockbusters than the main man.) Why are black and Asian supermodels always described as ‘exotic’? Would Twilight have sold as well as it did if Edward was a woman? Why should gay characters be defined solely by their sexuality?

Hannah Moscowitz wrote a blog post asking a lot of these questions and raised many good points. The world’s a wonderfully varied place and it’s certainly not black and white, yet our YA is still heavily populated with the same pretty white faces falling in love with other pretty white faces of the opposite sex. Books with characters of colour and LGBT teens are also more likely to be labelled ‘issues’ books, where the plot revolves around the character’s sexual or racial identity. There are some fantastic books about these subjects but why must they be the only ones for such characters?

In real life, I’m not defined by my sexuality, it’s merely incidental to who I am as a person. We need more of these books on our shelves (and we shouldn’t have to trick readers into buying them by misrepresenting covers, like the infamous first cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, the recent paperback editions of Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix or the original cover for Jackie Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass. The UK cover of Malinda Lo’s wonderful book Ash also fails to mention the gay romance which I think does it a disservice.) We need more representation of the variety in life – and we need to do it right - because if we continue to accept the default mode these horrible stereotypes are allowed to flourish and turn into something even uglier than they already are.


  1. (By the way: if you want to see a you tube video of me wrestling a gay man in Glasgow, and losing, please let me know)

    I don't get this comment! Is there some context to this that I'm missing out on, or is she being needlessly facetious?

  2. I think it's her pulling the equivalent of the I-have-gay-friends card. It didn't work.

  3. I think she meant that gay men would be angry with her or something. Who
    knows? It sounds out of place to me.

  4. ... As mentioned by somebody before me, I, too, fail to understand the video comment made. Gay men are men too - what's so special about arm-wrestling one??

  5. I don't think we'll ever find out.

  6. I think this is a really good, general/broad covering of the issue. It's something important that people need to be aware of. I'd say though, maybe next time you talk about race and/or sexuality, that you take a more nuanced approach? Maybe anchor it in a particular case so you can get at more of the arguments/intricacies of what's actually happening when these things happen ie) what power relations are being reinforced, what frameworks/histories led to this certain identities and relationships being normalized, ie.

    I really like the example you started out with, because I'm especially interested in tackling the issue at the institutionalized level - I think there's a lot we can say about how the publishing industry is organized, their marketing practices, certain pressures placed on both authors and editors that might lead to certain decisions being made! And this idea that YA is somehow more diverse than say the adult world...I wonder if we can test that theory?

    So much potential for discussion/research/analysis within the one topic of diversity (understandably broad - and certain issues shouldn't be lumped together or conflated --> for example, the politics behind publishing a book like Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix would most definitely be different from publishing a book about a Chinese girl going on a magical adventure - in contemporary New York. A lot of things you can say there)!

    Hope you guys continue to talk about this interesting topic! I really love what you guys have to say about stuff. I'm glad SOMEONE's saying it. XD

  7. We're definitely going to branch out on this topic. The portrayal of people
    of color and gay teens in YA really bothers me. Did you know that
    middle-grade books cover race better than YA books do? It's really sad.

  8. I'm going to make some comments that are controversial, so don't yell at me... please.

    One of the main points I got from this post is that people aren't defined by their sexuality, but I disagree. Of course it's not the ideal, but isn't Bella defined by her sexuality? I think the reason we don't get a female Edward as her love interest is because, as a character, she's little more than a lustful girl who loses her identity in those "intense eyes." And that's what our readers want. They want to lose their identities. I would even go so far as to say that my homosexual friends would far prefer to lose themselves in the Edward/Bella saga than in one that more accurately represents their experiences... because their experiences fall under the category of 'issues' books. I've never met a homosexual whose experience of romance was warm and fuzzy or passionate, and only that. Of course that's true of most heterosexual relationships too, but I've definitely met more swoony, twitterpaited girls head-over-heels for guys than for girls... because, again, I haven't met a SINGLE homosexual whose sexuality wasn't an 'issue.' This is possibly more of a reflection on a society that makes it an issue than on homosexual relationships, but that doesn't change the fact that homosexuals (and probably the majority of heterosexuals I've encountered) ARE defined by their sexuality. SHOULD they be? That's another question entirely. But I don't think we can be all that upset with an industry that's trying to sell books when my homosexual friends would give anything to experience what they see with Edward and Bella rather than the "issue" - packed truth of their lives.

  9. I get what you're saying, and for the most part I agree. But I am sick of
    books making sexuality and race the biggest defining characteristic of gay
    teens and people of color. Straight white characters don't go on and on
    about being straight and white so why do I need to be reminded that gay
    characters are gay every time they speak and that black/hispanic/asian
    characters aren't white every time they appear. It's annoying and a huge
    insult to my intelligence as a black teen. I don't think about being black
    constantly. So when white authors place such importance on race, rather than
    casually mentioning it once and leaving it alone, it annoys me. Even John
    Green doesn't get out of that rut.

    I'm guessing that it's different for gay teens, mainly because it's
    something they can hide or lie about if they wanted to. And it being gay is
    something that really disgusts a lot of people, and homophobes aren't called
    on their homophobia as frequently as people are called out on being racist.
    But I can't hide my skin color. I grew up going to all white schools or all
    Hispanic schools and I know that race doesn't matter when it comes to
    personality. Sure, it makes things awkward at times when you're writing for
    a character of another race, but in the end, it shouldn't matter. I write
    black/white/asian/Hispanic characters all the time. I write male characters
    all the time. Why can these authors do me a favor and show some actually
    realistic diversity in their novels? Patrick, in the Perks of Being a
    Wallflower is gay, but he doesn't come off as the token gay friend. If you
    took away his sexuality issues, he'd still be a developed character.

    That was way too long. And don't worry about being controversial. We're all
    controversial here. And we don't yell--except at trolls.

  10. I'm glad I read this post because I haven't even heard of whitewashing before. It is incredibly disappointing. Has anyone noticed that girl/guy romances seem to be better marketed than homosexual ones? All of the LGBT books that I've read, I've had to seek out on Goodreads or been recommended by a friend--all of the paranormal guy/girl romances hog up the shelf display space at Barnes and Noble.

  11. That's even the case with David Levithan's books. His books about straight
    characters are more well known than his books about gay characters.

  12. I've definitely met more swoony, twitterpaited girls head-over-heels for guys than for girls

    No offense, but you probably haven't met many gay men or women--or teens--who were in love. Though gay teens, particularly, have to navigate more logistical issues WRT hiding their sexualities from their parents or their societies, of course they get swoony and twitterpated. A dear old friend of mine recently came to visit with his new boyfriend and they were cuddly, giggly, and blushed frequently--they just radiated love. I mean, how can you watch something like this wedding video of a gay couple that's been together for more than 60 years and say that it's not all about the warm, fuzzy passion?

    Yes, there are problems that come with queer identities (which arise from society and not those identities intrinsically), and there should be a place for exploring those problems in media. But denying representation of that very real, palpable, genuine love only exacerbates that issue--the more invisible gay couples are, the less accepted and "normal" their love will ever be seen to be.

  13. Maybe it was the part about wrestling him in Glasgow. Maybe there's something amazing about Scottish gay men.

  14. Do you mind if I steal this reply? I mean, really.

  15. Those people have been together longer than my grandparents. It takes some amount of love to stay together for that long.

  16. Huh. I always thought Boy Meets Boy was his most well known book.

  17. His books with Rachel Cohn are now his most well known. Especially Nick and

  18. Very interesting perspective. I was having such a hard time articulating my reaction and thoughts that I had to do an entire blog post rather than try to squeeze it in a too-long comment, so it's here:

  19. As a Scottish bisexual woman, Telep's whole spiel confused me. I'll need to investigate to see if Glaswegian gay men are somehow more magical than the rest of my nation. :P

  20. Hmm, bummer. I can try again:
    Hope this works better.

  21. When you do, please tell us! I'm really curious.

  22. As a gay girl I've got to say that my experience of teen love is that it's just as passionate, swoony & intense, if not more so, because it felt illicit & scandalous.
    And if you've not met one queer person whose sexuality wasn't an

    issue I'd suggest your research pool is very limited and/or young.

  23. +1!

    One day, we'll live in a world where everyone is the same and equal and doesn't CARE about anything other who you *are.* Or so I hope...

  24. Oh wow she doesn't even seem sorry. Thank god I am not the only one who noticed that about the HON series. I can't stand the MC but what bothers me the most about it is the way the gay characters come across. I hate that she made them out to be girly and bimbo-ish. I mean what the hell is that? I felt quite offended when I came across it and it just put me of the whole series.