There’s a bit of a perverse-incentives problem in writing about marginalized groups.
If you write a marginalized character, people are going to criticize you for writing it offensively. This is true whether or not the way you wrote the character is actually offensive, because there is at least one person who thinks any possible depiction of a marginalized character is offensive. You write a nonbinary trans character, someone is going to write a passionate Tumblr post about how you’re catering to the genderspecials. You write the most transmedicalist-approved depressed and dysphoric trans character you can imagine, someone is going to complain about how you’re depicting transness as endless misery. You write a trans character who’s happy and okay with their body, and someone will complain that the character isn’t really even trans if they aren’t dysphoric. If you’re popular enough, it’s going to happen.
What’s worse, some of those criticisms will be right! It is difficult to accurately depict the way dysphoria affects trans people without showing our lives as unremitting sadness and self-hatred, and many writers will err too far on one end or another. Even the most well-meaning person can reproduce transphobic tropes, and even if you get a trans person to be a sensitivity reader sometimes they won’t catch it.
On the other hand, if you don’t write a marginalized character, no one is going to complain. There should be more trans characters in general, but (except in certain unusual circumstances, such as a book that takes place at Stonewall) there’s no reason to believe any specific book should have a trans character. No one is going to write “actually, the Dresden Files should totally have had a trans character in it,” and they’re definitely not going to repeat this for every single book series that happens to not have a trans character in it.
So I see a lot of young writers who are concerned about giving offense just not writing marginalized characters at all. And that’s really bad, because most of the time, an imperfectly written marginalized character is much better than no marginalized character at all.
I don’t mean to say that it’s impossible to write a marginalized character that is worse than no marginalized character at all. For example, you could write Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. (Transmisogyny at the link, and in the rest of this paragraph.) The world would be a better place if the authors of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective had not written a story with a transgender character in it. If you are writing a comedy in which one of the punchlines is a trans woman being sexually assaulted until the protagonist reveals that she has a penis, at which point there is an extended vomiting sequence because of how disgusting it is to have kissed a trans woman, and this is all played for laughs at the trans woman’s expense, I ask you on behalf of trans people everywhere not to write any more trans characters.
If, however, you would not do any of that, because that’s horrible, then you should write trans characters. Even though you’re going to mess up!
By contrast, consider Wanda from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Wanda is, in some ways, a problematically written character. About half her characteristics boil down to “Wanda is trans and faces transphobia.” Her birth surname is literally Mann. She cannot participate in a moon ritual because the universe itself limits certain rituals to people who menstruate. She dies tragically.
But would it be better if she didn’t exist?
Wanda is, after all, a sympathetically written character. She gets to call out the forces of magic itself for not thinking she’s a woman, and the narrative is pretty much on her side. Misgendering trans people is unambiguously depicted as wrong, and the fact that the wrong name is on her tombstone is shown to be a tragedy. She has interests and traits unrelated to being trans. Her body is not shown to be repulsive.
And… as far as I’m aware, Wanda was the first trans female character in a comic published by DC or Marvel. If Neil Gaiman had been like “hm, I guess I don’t know how to write trans people, I should make Wanda cis,” it would not have summoned an unproblematically written character out of the ether. Trans people would continue to not exist in mainstream comics, and once they did exist, they might be written by one of those people who thinks vomiting after you touch a trans person is the height of humor.
I am confident that Wanda made some cis people empathize with trans people who would never have empathized with them otherwise. And I’m sure I’m not the only trans person for whom Sandman was one of the first places we learned trans people even existed.
Of course, you should always try to improve your writing, and working on not perpetuating oppressive ideas is part of that. But the hurdle to clear before writing a marginalized character is better than not writing one is very low. You have to avoid making any particularly glaring factual inaccuracies. You have to not do the vomit thing. Most of all, you have to depict the character as a person, with thoughts and feelings and dreams and fears, someone whom the audience can empathize with (even if they’re a villain). If you do that, it’s okay to screw up on something more complicated. You’re still making life better for marginalized people.
This is the principle that enabled me to stick to my idea about making a character in my novel trans… although, more accurately, ‘planned to be trans in the planned series of novels’. She has ‘decided’, in that way ones fictional characters do, that there’s no way it’s gonna come up in the first novel. She doesn’t think it’s any of the viewpoint character’s business.
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I think there’s a certain threshold of intent/execution that once you pass it – the onus is no longer on the writer to not offend, but on the audience to not get offended.
I.e. the moral blame lies on the reader for getting offended rather than on the writer for writing a character that doesn’t perfectly depict what the minority of readers feel should be depicted.
If writers take that perspective, it wouldn’t be necessary to worry about these kinds of things, subject of course to the toxic “vocal minority” effects that might tank their reviews/publicity.
If writers take that perspective, that doesn’t mean they automatically get to stop worrying about getting it wrong ever. They’re still capable of being wrong about where the threshold _is_.
If some trans people complain about a particular trans character, and proceed to happily consume some other media that has no trans characters at all, that seems like a valid preference to have. However much they say they want more trans characters, their revealed preference is that they don’t want more trans characters like that one. And even if the character is minimally decent, I can’t say their revealed preference is “wrong”.
And if creators are discouraged from writing more trans characters based on readers’ revealed preferences, that doesn’t really sound like a “perverse” incentive, it just sounds like an ordinary incentive imposed by readers on creators.
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Looking at this again, I think in my initial reading of Ozy’s post, I took “criticize” and “complain” to simply mean “having a preference and expressing it”. I don’t have a problem with trans people complaining about trans representation and expressing those complaints. And I don’t have a problem with authors taking those complaints to heart. It doesn’t matter if Wanda from Sandman is better-to-have-existed–if you don’t like her then the fact that other people liked her is not really relevant to you.
But on second reading, maybe “criticize” and “complain” are euphemisms for “propagating call-outs that tell everyone not to read the work, or to support the author”. And that’s obviously different. So… if there’s a problem here, that’s where I would locate the problem.
So I think one of the issues here is that for mainstream-published fiction (or media in general), most of the consumers are *not* trans, so the “ordinary incentive” you mention is pretty weak.
Which is why people from marginalized groups find it necessary to speak out about “this book does not represent my experiences or the experiences of people I know”. And as a privileged person I’m glad to have this sort of information to inform my reading choices. But I agree there’s a problem when it goes over the line into public shaming.
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Strong agree with @siggy.
Myself, I liked Wanda, but I also process her knowing when it was written and by whom. In short, I would hope that new writers approaching trans characters would do a better job, precisely because of the conversation surrounding Wanda. (That goes double for someone such as Hedwig.)
I think Wanda is an interesting example because she’s a fairly problematically written character! Neil, next time, please give her some non-trans-related personality traits! But it is still better that she existed.
(Caitlin Kiernan, who consulted with Neil Gaiman about his writing of Wanda, is herself a trans woman and has written some very very good stories with trans characters– all horror, though.)
There is also the basic issue that trans people are quite rare. I think that some members of (small) minorities are a bit unreasonable when they demand that every representation of that minority should appeal to (most of) the minority.
There is simply a lot more money in writing things that appeal to large groups of people than to small groups, so logically, most media will try to find broad appeal, especially if it is expensive to make. Quite often, this is at the expense of being less appealing to minorities,
Furthermore, I think that the majority has a right to make sense of reality based on their perspective by creating and consuming media that include minority characters designed by how (some of) the majority sees them, just like the minority has the right to make sense of reality by creating and consuming media that include majority characters designed by how (some of) the minority sees them.
Or to put it differently: I think that both White Men Can’t Jump and Jungle Fever should be allowed to exist.
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Yoon Ha Lee has a good post on this topic
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Mori N said:
“No one is going to write “actually, the Dresden Files should totally have had a trans character in it””
Ozy, I *know* you read tumblr… 😛
Seriously, though, good post. I think the adage of having to write a million words of garbage before you write something good applies here, too; you’ve gotta write some clumsy incompetent depictions of minorities along the way to being able to do a good job of it.
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I think that at least some discourse like this comes down to “There is a pattern in representation and I don’t like it, so I assume it does nothing for anyone in similar demographics.” I definitely think that there should be more happy stories about well-adjusted LGBT people, for instance, and I agree that –as a pattern– it’s not good to have only bleak shit out there. But here’s the thing: I like fiction about people who are going through some shit. If your LGBT characters are sad and anxious, I will probably relate to them. So when people make value judgments against that type of story as a whole, I’d like to ask them what makes their taste in a story matter more than mine.
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Another important tip: including more than one marginalized character in your work is a good way around some of these issues. If you have one trans character who’s depressed and dysphoric and one who isn’t and the narrative is sympathetic to both of them, it’s a lot clearer that you don’t think all trans folk are or should be one way or the other.
My advice for cis people who want to include trans folks in their stories is, please do so.
I think perhaps the easiest way to do this is to make the character’s transness a notable feature, but not their _main_ feature, in terms of plot or theme. In other words, it’s fine if they’re “incidentally trans.”
Have them take hormones, be annoyingly poly, make bad jokes about “mouthfeel,” etc., but perhaps avoid using them to express your (the cis author’s) deep thoughts on gender stuff. Instead, give them the same sorts of “character hooks” you’d give a cis character.
What does the character want?
If the answer to that question had nothing to do with transness or subtle gender stuff, you’re on the right track.
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I think that strongly tabooing bad treatment of a group makes it very hard for people to threat that group as normal. There is always a large grey zone where certain treatment can be seen as discriminatory, or not.
Is the person who got unreasonably angry at the black person who bumped into her a racist, or did she have a bad day and was getting bumped into the final drop that set her off, where she would have done the same to a white person who bumped into her? As an outsider it’s often impossible to tell and we usually don’t have all the facts. So we tend to judge situations based on assumptions, informed by our own prejudice and beliefs. One person thinks that racism happens constantly. Another thinks that it is rare. Neither know what the person who they are judging was actually thinking/feeling.
Did the writer who wrote a trans character with serious flaws intent to throw shade on trans people, or did they try to write a complex character? The interpretation of a text by the reader is not objective, as one can see by browsing Goodreads. One reader interprets things completely different from another.
The stronger the taboo is and thus the more harshly we react to (supposed) transgressors, the more dangerous it becomes to not put members of that group on a pedestal, treating them like a Ming vase, rather than as other people. After all, regardless of your intent, your behavior can be interpreted as discrimination when it’s in the grey zone.
A limitation of the human mind is that people tend to favor the first explanation they hear, so if a person who is very eager to assume discrimination calls someone out for supposedly discriminating on Twitter, others will have the tendency to interpret the behavior the same way, even if they would not have interpreted it like that, if they had not been primed to go looking for discrimination in the behavior.
Furthermore, if the taboo is strong, then it is rewarding for people to go after those we see as transgressors, because our lizard brain likes punishing evil. So we have an incentive to be uncharitable, because it allows us to feel good while throwing stones at (supposed) evil.
These are some reason why witch hunts, lynchings and other forms of vigilante justice are so often unjust. We teach judges to judge people by a rather charitable reading of their behavior, which has historically been extremely important to limit the negative effects of prejudice.
Forceful activism in favor of groups that are disfavored by some can very easily result in very unjust vigilante justice. This then ironically enough strongly encourages discrimination, as the risk of treating these people as you would any other, is too great.
So I would argue that there is an optimal level of tabooing discrimination, where exceeding this level is counterproductive (not just for the aforementioned reason, but for other reasons as well). It may feel that society doesn’t make enough progress, but changing culture takes time. Trying to exceed the ability for people to change actually retards progress.
PS. Note that research has found that we become less tolerant of transgression if the amount of transgression diminishes, suggesting that we have a tendency to underestimate the rate of progress.
I think you make a good and important point in a well-written way, but the level of relevance to Ozy’s post about putting marginalized characters in fiction seems very thin on the ground. You seem to be making a very general argument against too much confidence in judging that any behavior whatsoever with regard to marginalized people (of which writing a character in fiction I suppose is one quite non-central example) is prejudiced at all.
Well, I think that the issue that Ozy addresses is a specific instance of a far more general issue. The basic mechanism is:
– there exists prejudice against a group
– activists want to reduce that by tabooing (=punishing) prejudice
– for quite a bit of behavior, it is ambiguous to observers whether prejudice plays a role
– people stop treating this group as they do others, because doing so results in punishment
– the group now faces less active hostility, but more passive hostility (being excluded)
You can fill this in for writing:
– prejudice exists against trans people
– activists taboo ‘problematic’ trans characters in books
– turns out that you can interpret nearly anything as problematic
– any writer who writes a trans character gets attacked
– people stop writing trans characters
But also for daily interactions:
– prejudice exists against black people
– activists taboo microaggressions
– turns out that you can interpret very many things as a microaggression
– Whitey mcWhiteson never feels safe when talking with black people as a result, because he has seen people get attacked over questions he also asks white people (“where are you from?”)
– during lunch, Whitey goes sit next to a white person during lunch break, so he can enjoy his break.
– if a black colleague sits down next to him, she has a bad time, since the conversation is stilted and labored, so next lunch she goes sit with other black people
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As a writer I found it relevant, for sure – the strength of the taboo and potential reaction creates an anxiety that can lead to a decision not to take the risk.
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Funny enough, I recently rewatched Ace Ventura, not having seen it since I was a kid. I remembered that vomit scene, and I could’ve told you the details about it… and yet it didn’t really click for me just how homo/transphobic that movie was until I actually sat down and watched it again. You didn’t even mention the (to my mind worse) scene when Ace finds out that he’s kissed a man, and proceeds to vomit, clean out his mouth with (buckets of) toothpaste, and shower himself while sobbing.
This totally didn’t register for me when I watched the movie when it first came out, btw.
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mel boiko said:
Sure, Wanda is in many ways a stereotyped portrayal, all sexwork-fashion and red lipstick, and used as a killable plot device as was the custom. There’s a lot to criticize, and I think the critics are perfectly valid and should exist. But I think a lot of people miss my favourite nuance about her: namely, the theology.
First, trans women being barred from Sacred Feminine magickal circles is, regretfully, an actual thing in the real world. Dianic Wicca was one of the pioneer outbreaks of modern TERFism. The theological justification was that the mystical feminine power is supposedly grounded in moon-blood and the divine miracle of pregnancy; as usual, cis women who are sterile or don’t menstruate happily get a pass, but trans women are fake because of that. I have a lot of respect that Gaiman could see how problematic this was back in 1991, and chose to talk about it in a high-profile comic book.
Second, I adore that Gaiman decided to portray the issue as the Dianic-style goddesses actually being transphobic. It would be an easy sentimental solution to say that the followers are bigoted and the deluded, and the Goddess is all loving and accepting. No, their shitty Goddess Herself is bigoted, the rules of the mystical sphere are bigoted. This feels much more real to me—to the extent that the Dianic Goddess exists (as a memeplex or whatever is your theological epistemology), she’d be transphobic. And that Wanda gets to say “stuck it to their divine asses, I know who I am” is very cathartic, and resonates with my experience in navigating the ideological world while trans.
The third point requires some grounding on Sandman cosmology. In Sandman, gods are contingent beings, part of the creation and not a priori creators; they reflect their local believer’s mores and beliefs, rather than being eternal, universal beings. There are however eternal, universal beings, appropriately called the Eternals. The oldest Eternal is Death, who will outlive every being and every god and come for each of them in their turn. And when Death comes for Wanda, not only she accepts her womanhood without fuss, but her spiritual appearance is portrayed as feminine, as Wanda’s self-image. That is, within the local, contingent, human magickal-theological-moral systems of the Dianic-like witches, Wanda isn’t accepted as a woman; but from the Eternal point of view, which is to say in truth, she’s one.
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“No one is going to write “actually, the Dresden Files should totally have had a trans character in it,” and they’re definitely not going to repeat this for every single book series that happens to not have a trans character in it.”
I’m pretty sure there’s an entire blogging sub-genre doing exactly this.
But you’re right that you won’t get a special quantity of crap thrown at you over simply not having minority characters. It’s like being zebra 24577 in the middle of the herd.
” Even the most well-meaning person can reproduce transphobic tropes, and even if you get a trans person to be a sensitivity reader sometimes they won’t catch it.”
Some real humans embody tropes.
If I wrote a character as a 100% carbon copy insert of some real humans I’ve been friends with for years with all the warts and boils on…. I’m sure I’d get some people screaming at me for making them absurd characterchers.
Also some real humans are walking extremes or embody negative traits associated with their groups.
there’s an old anecdote:
In the movie Good Night and Good Luck, initial audiences thought the actor that played McCarthy was too over the top to be believable. Except, they didn’t use an actor, the show the actual footage.
Real humans are often like that.
And it’s a general case that’s easier to think about if you think in terms of groups where there’s no social taboo against viewing them negatively.
Some people criticised the film District 9 for some of the characters being over-the-top-genocidally-racist against the bug-aliens when chunks of the script were direct quotes of conservatives talking about immigrants. I know I’d struggle to write an authentic character to match some of the deep-south hyper-religious conservative kids out there. I’d keep trying to make their narratives make some kind of sense from some kind of angle.
When I watched “Ace Ventura” I didn’t think of Einhorn/Finkle as a transgender character. I thought he was a cisman who had disguised himself as a woman in order to conceal his identity so he could pursue his criminal vendetta. I didn’t think he transitioned because of dysphoria or because of a strongly felt internal sense of gender that didn’t match the one assigned at birth. I thought he disguised himself as a woman so his victims wouldn’t see him coming until it was too late. It was a purely pragmatic disguise.
I also interpreted Ace’s extreme overreaction at the thought of having “kissed a man” was a joke at his expense, that I was supposed to be laughing at him for having such a ludicrous disgust reaction. But I can definitely see how that joke can also be interpreted as a joke where the viewer identifies with Ace’s transphobia/homophobia.
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I think “this character who socially and biomedically transitions is not trans for Reasons” is a pretty silly argument. Like… certainly some men have sex with men for reasons other than attraction to men, and there are reasonable definitions of gayness and bisexuality for which those men would not be gay or bi. (Of course, there are also many reasons why an MSM category is useful, and all MSM face homophobia even if they are not personally attracted to men.) But if you write a horrifyingly homophobic story– one in which one of the “jokes” is the hero sexually assaulting a gay man and then vomiting because he touched him and he probably has AIDS– being like “this person is an MSM and not a gay man” is not a real defense. Still homophobic.
“I think “this character who socially and biomedically transitions is not trans for Reasons” is a pretty silly argument.”
Just out of curiosity, do you think this is the consensus view in the trans community? I’d never considered it before today, but my first thought would be that someone who transitions for instrumental reasons is fundamentally different from someone who transitions because of gender identity. I’ve never seen the movie, so I can’t comment on the specific situation, but it seems like an interesting question in general.
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mel boiko said:
@shemtealeaf: A real person who transition for instrumental reasons but who still identify with their originally assigned gender (wth does that?!) is different from trans people.
A character who looks like trans, walks like trans, quacks like trans, and is the butt of disgusting transphobic jokes like trans is, within the narrative, structurally the same as a trans person. Like ozy’s example with the gay character, or any other parallel you can imagine yourself (if you make a character who is called José, speaks with a Spanish accent, makes a living selling tacos and is the butt of a wetback joke, you can’t defend your joke by saying he’s actually from an Irish family in Brooklin so it’s not about Mexicans.)
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mel: I mean, I think if you biomedically and socially transition, you are similar to trans people in some important ways, and whether you’re “a trans person” depends on what you mean by trans. Certainly such a person would not experience gender dysphoria, but they might experience transphobia, the complications of medical transition, and other common trans experiences. (I join you in going “who does that?”)
@ mel boiko
I haven’t actually seen the movie in question, so I might be totally off base, but I was imagining a slightly different situation. If the character in question is specifically an Irish person who is trying to blend in with the Mexicans for some nefarious purpose, doesn’t that put a somewhat different spin on it?
@shemtealeaf: I wouldn’t think so, no. The author making a wetback joke is still basically saying that that stereotype _would_ apply to him if he _were_ Mexican — it’s still a joke _about_ Mexicans whether or not it actually has anything to do with the particular character it’s directed at.
I haven’t seen the movie, but according to a plot synopsis, the only reason why the villain transitioned was to take revenge. Having the villain or hero take extreme measures to achieve their goal is a typical plot device. In superhero comics/movies, this regularly includes temporary or permanent body transformations.
In classic Hollywood movies, cross dressing was sometimes used (especially for comedic effect), where the gender role & biological differences were typically addressed, but not dysphoria in the way that we recognize now. I think that back then that was not recognized/understood at all. So you’d have guys having difficulty wearing heels, not acting feminine, getting in situations where they to their disgust get to kiss a man, being happy to get to wear male clothes again and deal with their love interest as a man so they can express their love, etc; but not mental anguish over being made to conform to other gender roles or feeling uncomfortable with one’s body. It was typically addressed very practically, where the return to their gender role was presented as: “yay, now I can walk properly again since I no longer have to wear heels,” not “yay, now my mental anguish is over.”
Ace Ventura might be very specific to its time, where gender surgery became know to the general public, but not at all understood, so perhaps that’s why the movie crammed it into a more classic cross dressing-style plot. I’m not sure whether it is fair to judge the people involved based on current levels of understanding, current taboos, etc.
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A Game of You came out in 1993, a year before Ace Ventura Pet Detective. I think A Game of You serves as a reasonable benchmark for what one can expect from a person in 1993, which is to say that it was written by a person who sometimes made problematic writing choices but who has basic empathy for transgender people.
For that matter, Some Like It Hot came out in 1959, and is a crossdressing comedy, and has a depiction of trans issues that is a thousand times better than Ace Ventura Pet Detective.
Further, I didn’t say anything judgmental of the people involved, except that Ace Ventura Pet Detective is horrible and they should have not written a trans character. For all I know the screenwriter has spent the last twenty-five years working for trans activist organizations.
@Aapje: I think it’s perfectly fair to judge the people involved for having a roomful of men *literally vomit* at the thought that a woman they were attracted to was “really” a man. It doesn’t take a nuanced understanding of trans issues to see how deeply homophobic that is if nothing else, and that homophobia wasn’t any less gross twenty years ago than it is now.
@Valiant: Yeah, that makes sense. Thanks for the clarification.
I don’t think that it is -phobic for a person to go ‘juck’ when a person that they initially thought to have features they are attracted to turns out not to have them. For example, let’s say that you see a person from the back with very nice hair in a hairstyle typical for the other gender and get a little excited, building up a fantasy in your head. Then they turn around and you are gravely disappointed by what you see. For example, their looks may not match the quality of the hair or the gender may be wrong or they have a mustache, which you are not attracted to.
Then the ‘juck’ is about the mismatch between desire and reality & your fantasy being shattered in a thousand little pieces. It doesn’t mean that you hate people with mustaches or begrudge others for being attracted to them.
Note that a gay person could react the same way when it turns out that a person is the other gender (and a decent number of gay men seem to have a lot of disgust of female genitalia).
As for the vomiting, Carrey is known for over the top slapstick comedy, so isn’t this how the genre works? He takes how someone might react and then amplifies it greatly to make it absurd. I don’t think that anyone will understand his behavior as normal.
Not that it influences how it’s seen today, but for full context, that scene was a direct ZAZ-style parody of The Crying Game.
As always, it’s easier to criticise people for an imperfect attempt to do good than for not trying at all.
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These kinds of discussion always remind of a very specific moment that representation issues started giving me the heebies a little bit. The instigating event was Claire and Marten from Questionable Content being set up for a romance.
The Internet being the Internet, many readers were interested in whether Claire had a penis. They weren’t particularly delicate about the question, also because Internet, and many people asking the question were asking it for shitty reasons. There was blowback against this, because Internet, and that’s where it caught my eye. The most common refrain wasn’t just “get lost, *-phobes” it was using this as a ‘teachable moment’ to tell people that it was RUDE to ask about Claire’s genitals because that was a private matter between her and her boyfriend. A sort of ‘none of your business’ answer. The question was both forefronted and unanswered by the comic itself during a sex scene, so it’s probably fair to say that Jacques endorses this view and thinks that asking the question makes you kind of a cad.
Thing is, privacy is the LAST thing that a fictional comic strip character has, even neglecting for a moment the fact that they lack internality and are just drawings. The people trying to protect Claire’s “privacy” were a giant mob of thousands of people who had been watching an endless string of private moments in these characters’ lives. That’s arguably the single driving force of QC fandom, if not a core element of fiction itself. So while a protective instinct was laudable given the general tone of the conversation, they reached for an ethical injunction that only makes sense when pointed at real people and started applying it to fiction where it makes no sense.
The only explanation I had at the time for this behavior is that it was ethics-as-fashion. “Signalling” wasn’t in use quite as much at the time (at least in my corner of the Internet), but that’s what I’d call it these days- following a script because they’re trying to climb a particular social ladder with that script, and actual moral reasoning would have worked against that goal and risked nonconformity. In other words, Claire’s function as ‘trans representation’ was to allow cis people to demonstrate their excellence to other cis people.
And probably that’s true for many (most?) examples of ‘representation’ that aren’t produced by the community in question and with mostly their consumption in mind. Part of why representation is so fraught, I suspect, is because fashion is a treadmill, and fiction lasts longer than this season’s style. Even if you can keep up with the terminology, the writing itself won’t. Nor will the representation competition between cis people settle out to a stable codified ‘correct’ way to represent trans folks, because then everyone could do it and you couldn’t figure out who was winning. And of course trans people are also locked in a similar status deathmatch with both cis and trans folks quite independent of social justice as such, and as gatekeepers of correct terminology they can play havoc with the whole situation by demanding mutually incompatible things that are winning moves locally and complete gibberish globally- although in their case there’s a mitigating self-interest factor in increasing visibility &c.
But one thing I’d tentatively suggest based on this model is that trans representation in particular tends to bring out the knives because the pressure *from cis people* for representation is higher, and so any given example of trans representation comes cheaper when a particular trans person is considering the cost-benefit ratio of a callout post. The definitive gay-rights victories of the last decade have created enormous pressures in the blue-tribe straight community to be ‘on the right side of history’ when it comes to sexuality and queerness, and that gives individual self-interested trans folks a wider margin to use slash-and-burn tactics for local status gain.
My experience is that many, if not most people don’t actually reason from principles. Instead, they have taboo’d certain patterns. This becomes obvious when the principle is violated, but not the pattern, and many people have no problem with it anymore, even though the harm exists. Or when the pattern exists, but the principle is not violated, where they get upset, even though no harm is being done, like in your example.
Sophia Kovaleva said:
I’m actually not sure if the world would have been a better place without the transgender character in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective if it’s literally the only way by which you can get trans representation to the mainstream, which may or may not have been the case back in 1994.
The issue here is that, as far as I can tell, very few people can make sense of their gender feelings if they’re not aware that being trans is an option. In a situation like that, any portrayal, no matter how hostile, is better than nothing. Same applies to other LGBTQ+ identities: if the only way one can learn about them is through homophobic jokes and anti-gay propaganda, then it’s probably better than nothing.
This isn’t the case for people whose identities are already solid, so this seems to be a situation where the interests of questioning/self-closeted people and those who have figured it out are in a direct conflict.