As a lot of people know, I’ve been blogging semi-regularly since 2005, but this is the first blog I’ve ever had about books and writing. I used to blog about feminism, gender equality, breastfeeding and associated activism, women’s issues in parenting, queer issues, and sundry politics. I gave up on it simply because after a while I became tired of repeating myself. I also got a little tired of every post of mine that became popular attracting a wide audience of MensRights idiots and having to hide my identity. Sure, I get an itch every now and then. This week, for example, I saw two very infuriating things in my google reader that were hard to resist. Some idiot pastor by the name of Kevin Swanson claimed that the wombs of women on birth control were full of tiny dead babies and that he’d heard this from scientists. Bryan Fischer of the infamous American Family Association held a long radio show about how gays in the boy scouts something something and Obama is sending women to war which causes their bodies to stop producing estrogen. It was tempting to fall back into my old habits.
I resisted. I am firm in my resolve not to beat my head against a desk for the rest of my life over a bunch of idiots that will never ever stop being idiots. I’m done. I’m so done.
I’m not done. I thought I was done but I realize now that this is probably a little bit impossible. See, as I tell the people who submit their work for my review: I’m not famous, but my girlfriend kind of is. She’s got over 8 million views on her YouTube channel and thousands of followers on Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and wherever else that hang on her every word. Because she loves me, she promotes my blog. This is good for me. If you’re a writer whose work I’m going to review, then hopefully it’s good for you too. This means the review of your book has access by proxy to a kind of following I have not yet developed for myself (and you may not have developed for yourself) until such a time as I do. For me, it also means that most of the people who have heard of me have heard of me through my famous for being queer feminist atheist girlfriend. It means that most of the things I’m asked to review are queer or feminist or religious or anti-religious in nature. As such the subjects of queer-positivity, woman-positivity, and trans-positivity have already come up in my reviews.* So let’s talk about it.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that you, the person reading this blog right now, are or will be in the process of writing something. Let’s say for the sake of argument that, because you came to me to read about writing, you care about being queer, woman, or trans positive. The thing you are writing does not have to be a work of fiction. It could be a non-fiction book or essay. It could even be a sales pitch, an expository article, or sports commentary. There’s always room to be trans, queer, or woman positive. So how do you do it? You might be wondering, even, how you can do it without hindering your plot or spending pages explaining every character. After all, established tropes are helpful in filling the gaps in your reader’s imagination, right? Well, fret not. It’s easier than you think.
Step One: Figure out what the popular minority tropes are and don’t use them.
I highly recommend this article I recently read from Sociology In Focus by a mother who attempts to take all the gender nonsense out of the books she reads to her daughter. For example, she encounters a story about dinosaurs wherein a purple girl dinosaur who hates or struggles with math is taught to appreciate math when her blue brother dinosaur saves her with it. To save her daughter from yet another agonizing stereotype threat, she editorializes and makes all the dinosaurs girls. Aside from girls bad at math, boys good at math, some other common stereotypes that women get really sick of seeing in art include women being described by their looks alone while men are described by varying sets of strengths and weaknesses, women always being described by what they’re wearing, women being in nurturing/caring/loving/sex-related roles, but not really affecting anything important, and women being warned to stay away from the dangerous action and subsequently needing rescue from it. It’s exhausting. For a more, perhaps excessively comprehensive list, I suggest going to TVTropes.org and starting with manic pixie dream girl.
Gay men are not always fashionable. If you have a gay guy in your work, make sure that if he’s fashionable, then that’s not all he is. Gay men are also not always lonely, promiscuous, or happy to commiserate with straight women about how much guys suck. Lesbians are definitely not always victims of evil men who turned to women for safety. They’re definitely not always feminine. Bisexual women are not always gorgeous and willing to have threesomes and they are definitely not girls who just went through “a phase.” Trans women… oh god where to start. Well, they’re almost never cannibals, murderers of cis women who want to steal their beauty, hulking strong (HRT gets rid of that), balding (again, HRT, I’m looking at you, Nip/Tuck), or whatever the hell else you saw on CSI. They absolutely do not exist to make every man in a 30 foot radius start shouting about how not gay he is. Oh, and bisexual men and trans men exist. If your writing contains those tropes, you’re not clever. You’re lazy. You are a black hole of creativity. You are the death of originality. Your work is bad and you should feel bad.
Step Two: Go the extra mile and be daring. Make your characters individuals.
I really don’t want any whining about how hard this is. Charlaine Harris is swimming in bazillions of dollars right now after writing a queer and woman positive bestselling series that got turned into True Blood. Suzanne Collins wipes your misogynist tears with hundred dollar bills from her Hunger Games money. J.K. Rowling wrote Hermione Granger, Tonks, Ginny Weasley, Dumbledore, and Professor McGonagall then nearly outsold the bible. Meanwhile, LEGO’s marketing team is struggling to catch up after they abandoned gender neutral inspiring advertising for hypermasculinized nonsense and lost the female half of the market. Now they’re releasing hyperfeminized junk.
Don’t underestimate the purchasing power of women and definitely don’t underestimate the appeal of queer stories to the public right now, with support for LGBT issues at the highest it’s ever been and at the forefront of the public consciousness. Dare to make a male character that finds comfort in having the dishes super clean. Write a gay guy with a beer belly who came out at age 30. Write a boyish lesbian who sucks at baseball. Have your scientist just happen to be a woman and describe her by her intelligence and not by how long her legs are. Write a trans woman who blends in. Write a bisexual man. It works for Bret Easton Ellis! When you’ve got an ensemble, make it 50/50 male/female to avoid lazily created sexual tension and even make it more realistic.
Unique characters and ensembles create intrigue. They add depth and originality to your work. Do not be afraid of scaring off your readers. Color outside of the lines. And if you needed a little more inspiration to write characters who aren’t stereotypes: think of it as an easy way to trick your readers into thinking you’re super deep. It’s a shortcut, okay? Take it.
Step Three: When all else fails, fool yourself
The world is 51% women. Movies and television distribute speaking roles at a 2:1 men to women ratio. The ratio of men to women depicted in STEM fields is even more depressing. VIDA has a lot of great data on how women are represented in books and poetry (mostly from the production side). The inequalities are staggering. It’s not quite as depressing within the actual written fiction itself, but it comes close. LGB people are generally depicted lazily or hypersexually if at all, and trans people specifically are overdepicted and in a horrific manner.
I’ve been delving into the politics of gender and LGBT equality for years and years, but I’ll admit, I even sometimes fall into the traps. Sometimes, a long way into writing something, I’ll be a little tired and just need to write in a cleaning staff member to get from point A to point B. You know what it’s like. They just have to be there, in the way. And how does it come out? As a woman. Maybe even a woman of color and if I’m not careful, an immigrant. I’m not proud of it and you won’t be either, but it’ll happen sometimes by accident. You get used to seeing these things. You write a diner and the guy in the kitchen is overweight and greasy. You write a banker and it’s a well-kept white guy. Your character walks into a daycare to pick up their kid and the daycare worker is a homely woman. Most of the domestic staff are going to be women. Most of the people in positions of power are going to be men. Most of your characters are going to be white straight cis men. All this even when your intentions are pure and even if you’re not white or a man or straight or cis. You’re surrounded by it. It’s not your fault.
But you can fool yourself. I keep a tally. When my men are starting to outnumber my women, I change the genders of a few of the men. When I’m writing a woman, I refuse to describe her body or her clothes unless and until it is absolutely necessary. When I have to write a minor character that is at a computer repair shop or beauty salon, I describe the person first and then roll a die. Odds it’s a man, evens it’s a woman. Roll it again. Roll a 6 and they’re gay, roll 1-5 and they’re straight. Roll again. 1 or 2 and they’re a person of color, 3-6 they’re white. Get yourself a bigger die if you want to make this resemble census data. Stick to it. This forces you to think up a whole person before you even know what their gender or orientation or color is. It forces you to come up with a realistic individual.
Ta-da! You’re an artist.
Look over your work. Look at those characters! Look at how realistic and layered and varied they are. Look at how much better your stuff is. There, aren’t you glad you’re now a trans-queer-woman-positive writer?
*Since I am not a person of color, a person with a disability, or otherwise a member of or partner of a member of any other maligned class, I don’t speak about those things. I care about them, but I simply don’t have the requisite life experience to speak confidently on those topics.