Wednesday, June 06, 2012

10 Things Fiction Writers Need To Remember About Sexuality (1-5)

1. Sexuality is not about what people do when they are naked.

It isn't even what people do.

There are often horrified objections against any hint of homosexuality in children's literature (such as King and King) or even comic books (see the recent article on Batman's sexuality and for once, do read the comments). Writers for adults seem only slightly less reluctant to include queer characters in prominent roles. The idea seems to be that if you mention queerness, in any context, it has to be accompanied by a colour-illustrated guide to all possible sexual acts.

Heterosexuality, meanwhile, is everywhere. Even the most sanitized fairytales - the sort where the Gingerbread Man survives at the end (honestly, my nephew has a copy) - feature heterosexual couples, romance and romantic potential. In broader fiction, heterosexuality is frequently segued into places where it is neither necessary nor realistic, as code for everything from this is a happy ending to this character is a "real man". Straight characters don't have to actually have relationships in order to demonstrate their heterosexuality; they just have to notice people they find attractive, flirt a little, refer to their romantic past.

Queer characters can be handled just the same, without reference to tribadism or even double groom wedding cake toppers. Equally...

2. Queer people can be the center of stories which aren't all about sexuality.

Okay, so we've not entirely arrived at the stage where the presence of a woman protagonist doesn't make some people classify a book as Chick Lit. It's only in the last ten years that movies with black male protagonists which aren't all about racism have become entirely unremarkable. There are very few books or films with a queer protagonist which aren't mostly about their sexuality - even when they are about real life queer heroes like Alan Turing or Oscar Wilde. The only exceptions I can think of in mainstream literature are early twentieth-century classics which feature bisexual protagonists, and a small handful of films.

There's nothing wrong with books about sexuality; nothing at all.  We need these stories too. But I think writers often resist the use of queer protagonists because they don't want to write a consciousness-raising novel that winds up in the LGBT section of the book shop. I'm just saying, you don't have to.

This is especially the case with science fiction and fantasy, where it is possible (if you chose) to create worlds in which homosexual relationships are completely unremarkable, so sexuality is genuinely never an issue. This is perfectly possible, but very rarely done. Foz Meadows wrote a great post on Default Narrative Sexism and the same applies for homophobia; if you can make up all the rules and it still sucks to be queer, make sure you're doing it for a good reason.

3. Queer people don't exist to help straight people along.

It's absolutely fine to have queer people who are secondary characters; best friends, family members, colleagues or whatever. Secondary queer characters can be wonderful; Carlo is by far the best thing in the generally quite wonderful Captain Correlli's Mandolin (things do go dramatically downhill once he's out of the action, thus the generally). In Harlan Coben's Tell No One, the lesbian sister-in-law is an important ally (played by the lovely Kristen Scott-Thomas in the film, which is great - maybe even better than the book!). But these characters have to be complete people, with their own stories, with their own self-interest, even if their main role in the story is to help the protagonist (or indeed the villain).

Think about black guys who, for a long time, played the buddy or sidekick to the white muscle-bound hero in American action movies. These guys were often quite funny, more laid-back, less emotionally repressed, prepared to show fear or love for their friend when the going got tough. They were also expendable - they often got mortally wounded just before the final confrontation with the bad guy, in order to give the white hero reason to finally get in touch with his emotions and massacre several dozen henchman.

Then there was the Lethal Weapon franchise. Danny Glover's sidekick character is complete. He is a more rounded, complex, realistic character than Mel Gibson's grumpy hunky Lethal Weapon of the title. He has a family, he has plans for the future, his life and his relationships develop over time. He does not exist to help the white guy. He exists to do his own job, to be a father, to fulfill his own ambitions and just happens to be an excellent ally to his white hero chum.

There's no shortage of Gay Best Friend characters in fiction, especially romantic comedy movies and sitcoms, but few of them (that I can think of, though this isn't my genre) have their own complex home lives, work lives and dreams which have nothing to do with their straight bestie. There's a lot romantic comedy could learn from Lethal Weapon - more rounded buddies and more explosions!

This is something Sparky has written about a lot, finding himself cast in the complicated role of The Gay Uncle.

4. There are probable and improbable consequences of sexual activity. 

When Four Weddings and A Funeral came out, I was thirteen and remember hearing a doctor on Radio 1 listing the various sexually transmitted diseases that Andie McDowell's character, Carrie, would most likely have contracted, and how many times, over the course of her 33 love affairs. The doctor had a point and the chances are that a real life Carrie would have faced the occasional course of antibiotics. However, in terms of story-telling, this was information we didn't know or expect to know.

But whilst fiction is full of unlikely events, there are several unlikely sexual things which happen in fiction all the time. I know I'm a pedant but I do get cross when 
  • A modern, educated, sober man and woman are overcome with lust and decide to perform the baby-making act without condoms, when they're not really into each other and the last thing either of them wants is to become a parent. It happens in real life, but it is rare - even when people are overcome with lust, most people can think of other ways to get one another off (see the colour-illustrated guide that comes with every mention of queerness). Failing that, very many women have access the Morning After Pill.  When none of these steps are taken, there must be a reason.
  • However dire a situation is, nobody has an abortion. Some women do prefer to carry a desperately unwanted pregnancy to term rather than have a termination - that does happen - but there are always deep-seated reasons. In fiction, unhappily pregnant women dismiss the option with as little as "Well, my grandmother was vaguely Catholic." or "I don't like doctors." 
  • Conception occurs during the first and last sexual encounter that a couple has. In real life, it takes the fertile heterosexual couple an average of about a year to conceive, having vaginal sex a few times every week. In fiction it happens all the time. Not saying it shouldn't happen (I've known real life cases where it has), but when it does happen, folk tend to be staggered by the incredible odds.
  • Contraception is used but fails and conception happens anyway. Accidents do happen, no contraception is 100% reliable, but the odds for failure are very low and fantastically low when we're talking about a single sexual encounter as opposed to a long-term relationship. 
All the same, don't take risks kids. Other unusual but not exactly rare things happen in real life that never happen in books - like women getting unexpectedly pregnant without the use of IVF in their late fourties and early fifties. Why does that never happen in books?  .

5. Romance is not necessary for a complete character, a complete story or a happy ending

You know how it is. You get to the end of the book or the movie and two random characters who haven't shown the least bit of sexual or romantic chemistry fall into one another's arms (frequently, one of these characters is the only woman in the story). This is sometimes forgivable, sometimes annoying and sometimes deeply uncomfortable.

Usually, it fails because the whole romance hinges on the idea that any straight man and woman could get together, and the writer hasn't really thought about why these two people might find one another attractive before deciding they should get together. Sometimes it fails in a particularly unpleasant fashion because the writer has assumed that any kind of conflict between a man and woman will pass as a Beatrice/ Benedict antagonism-cum-flirtation, when in fact the writer has written two people who could never like one another on any level.

Rarely, but most frustratingly, it fails because the writers have created a character who is an aromantic asexual. One of the things that bugs me the most among the very many things that bug me about sexuality in The Big Bang Theory is the writers' insistence that Sheldon Cooper should have a girlfriend-boyfriend relationship with the highly-sexed bisexual Amy Farrah-Fowler (or as I like to call her, Blossom). He isn't in love with her and he has no interest in physical contact, let alone sex. Amy, on the other hand, is sexually aroused by a group hug. If it made any sense that they were together in the first place, it would be a truly tragic pairing. As it is, it looks like an attempt by the writers to create yet another heterosexual couple in perpetual inevitable conflict, at the cost of the two best characters in the whole show. Grrr!

A little note: I'm not in love with the word queer but I mean everyone who isn't straight and even QUILTBAG doesn't quite cover it (I saw an even longer acronym recently, but it was decidedly unmemorable). 


GirlWithTheCane said...

I'm glad that I'm not the only one who's wondered why Amy and Sheldon are constantly getting shoved together. Their characters would both have a place in the show without a "relationship" to each other, and it just makes me sad that the writers insist on trying to make Sheldon interested in having a sexual relationship when he's been so clearly written as an asexual person.

Very thought-provoking post. I'm looking forward to the second part of it.

The Goldfish said...

Thank you! It really bugs me because both are such great characters, who are both a bit like people we know in real life but not the kind of people we usually see on TV (although as Lisy has written about, the writers apparently insist that Sheldon doesn't have Asperger's, as we might imagine).

R.Louis said...

I greatly appreciate this list myself, particularly the "A story does not need a romance". I am a social asexual myself, and so it's completely aggravating to have liked a premise or a character and then get stuck watching them make kissy-faces or belligerent sexual tension with someone else - or worse, derail a perfectly good plan to pursue or rescue their love interest. I can understand the need to add tension, but for God's sake couldn't they come up with a better reason that doesn't reek of unprofessionalism when you're writing such people? (I was interested in Flashpoint up until I watched the trailer and the 'new guy' broke the rules three times in a row to hit on the female teammate.)

Hershele Ostropoler said...

WRT Big Bang Theory (which I stopped watching a while ago because I didn't like how it addressed gender and intellectual attainment), from your description I'm reminded of people who talk about 7-year-olds having boyfriends or girlfriends.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks for your comments

R Louis, I'm totally with you about sexual/ romantic tension. I mean, the way that happens in fiction, you'd imagine that no two people of compatible genders could work in the same office without having pointless arguments because really they want to make love to each other on the desk. This is especially bad in disaster/ thriller stories where the Earth is about to explode and the main characters can't co-operate because of what's happening in their pants.

Hershele, yes - absolutely! This has happened with my nephew and his close female friend since he was three. My parents make "Woo!" noises when she's mentioned, as if they could make him blush. I hope he's baffled, because otherwise he's going to realise what they mean and think he can't be friends with girls. He's six next week!

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this excellent article, and have also been perusing your articles on disability in fiction (as a newly minted author I am trying to be aware of my privilege and biases)
I just commented to draw your attention to 'GSRM' - Gender, Sexual and Romantic Minorities. It is the most inclusive acronym I have come across and I am a bit enamoured with it. As someone who is a gender and sexual minority but does not particularly enjoy any of the LGBTQ words, it was a bit life changing :D Hopefully you like it too!