Hi everyone! I’ve been thinking about starting some discussion posts for a while, and decided to start off with a topic that’s been on my mind for years. As we continue to push for diverse books, it’s always important to recognize the good, the bad, and the ugly, so that we can continue to improve and progress. In this case, I want to start off talking about sexuality and its direct or indirect relation to a character’s villainy.
I first started thinking on this after reading In the Afterlight, the conclusion to The Darkest Minds trilogy by Alexandra Bracken. There was a fair amount of backlash to the revelation that Clancy Gray, the main villain, had used the feelings Nico had for him as a means of manipulation. It was unacceptable, one-sided, and traumatic for his victim. He built a quasi-relationship purely for his exploitation when he clearly knew better. Clancy Gray is, for all intents and purposes, a terrible human being. But, he is a well-written, complex character. And even though Clancy’s intentions were terrible, it led me to wonder where sexuality and villainy meet, and when it becomes problematic.
Queer people have been ostracized, vilified, and stereotyped for centuries. Poor treatment of queer characters in mainstream media continues to be far too prevalent, despite all the attention that has been brought to it. Most notably, the “Bury Your Gays” trope has garnered attention in relation to how many lesbian characters have been killed off of TV shows. Gay men continue to be stereotyped as flamboyant and overtly feminine, and bisexuals are either overlooked or criticized for being indecisive or sexually promiscuous. Transgender characters are often played by cisgender actors, and gender identities which fall under the transgender umbrella (i.e. non-binary, gender fluid, gender queer, agender, etc.) are virtually nonexistent in the media. These are all very serious hurdles – ones that need to be addressed and overcome. Progress is being made, but it is slow and always in danger of spiraling backwards under our current administration in the United States. But in order to truly progress, we must consider queer characters which have been written as imperfect people.
The push for diversity in young adult fiction has led to an astounding number of books with really, really good representation. Whenever I pick up a novel that has been heralded as having good LGBTQ+ rep, I do so with a healthy amount of fear, expecting the absolute worst. Some have fallen short. Some have exceeded my expectations. But Clancy Gray was the first taste I got of a villain who had at least some amount of interest in same-sex relationships.
I continued to ponder LGBTQ+ villains when I read Dare Me by Megan Abbott. In the novel, two women were shown to have an explicit attraction to each other. They were also objectively horrible people. A lot of people were angry, saying that the book pushed dangerous ideas of young girls exploring their sexualities against a backdrop of questionable actions. However, my ultimate takeaway was that that was simply a facet of who those girls were. They were women interested in women, yes, and they were flawed human beings. But those two things were never related. There was no moment where the two concepts connected, no vengeance inspired by wrongdoings they had experienced as a result of their sexual orientation. They weren’t bad people because they were queer. They were bad people, and they just so happened to be queer. I saw no problem with two girls exploring their identities, no matter how that discovery came about. Everyone has a different experience with figuring themselves out, and no judgment is passed in real life on those who unfortunately went through terrible experiences and ended up discovering who they were.
Is it always problematic, however, to write a character whose villainy comes as a direct result of their sexuality? Shine by Lauren Myracle introduced a person whose sexuality was directly linked to his villainy. In that case, a closeted gay man in a conservative town committed a hate crime against an openly gay man due to his insecurity in his own identity. I read this book a long time ago, but I remember Myracle handling the topic with deftness. No one excused the boy’s actions, but no one dismissed his struggles either. A path to mutual understanding was forged, but never to outright forgiveness.
What’s the point of all of this, then? To express the need for explicitly flawed LGBTQ+ characters. Every real life human being has flaws. What makes books so incredible is that we can find ourselves, even the worst parts of who we are, in fictional characters. We can reach understanding by way of others. When we push for diversity, we must also push for realistic depictions, even the painful ones. The YA community must not fall into a trap of making LGBTQ+ characters villains all the time. They should not be tokenized or the only representation in a series. When they are, authors step into dangerous territory where the context surrounding the character takes on a greater meaning than the character themselves. They can be heroes, too, despite – or even because of – their flaws. So long as authors do not belittle a character’s sexuality, make that the root of one’s problem, dismiss an attraction between two characters of the same sex, or play into dangerous stereotypes, we should be able to read about LGBTQ+ villains. With an open and critical mind at all times.
Don’t be afraid to pass judgment if you think an author has handled diversity wrong. It’s what teaches them to do better next time. But do not also want for LGBTQ+ characters who are all perfect, all the time. Their flaws are what make them real, and their trials and tribulations will help questioning readers better understand themselves. The never ending quest for the most ideologically pure, completely unproblematic media is futile. It will only lead to a life of enjoying absolutely nothing. Just as every human being can be a hero or a villain, so can queer characters be either. But imperfection and queerness is not linked, and queer villains have a place in literature and in history which should be respected.
Note: If you feel that anything I’ve said is incorrect or offensive, please let me know so I can reconsider my writing. I’ve run this by multiple people within the LGBTQ+ community, a community I am a part of myself, and wanted to ensure this post would not be misconstrued. So, full disclaimer, I am a bi, cisgender woman. Let me know your thoughts on this topic! My intent is to start an open discussion, not to harm anyone by way of ignorance.