Let’s Talk About LGBT+ Representation… Again (February Special #2)

So, my original piece on the topic of LGBT+ representation two years ago was the worst thing I have ever written, I disown it completely, and I decided to take another crack at it. The reason for this is because I, in the midst of crunch time between classes, work, etc, idiotically decided to cut corners and put out an article too short to actually make its point, and which accidentally came off way too much like those insufferable folks online who insist representation is “forced into everything” and other nonsense like that. And that is not my goal, quite the opposite in fact. So, time for another bite at the apple, I’d like to remake/expand upon the original argument to hopefully make my point better. But before that, I would like to make it very clear that this is working off the basis that representation is a good thing overall and a net positive inclusion in stories, rather than examining the worth of its existence at all, I am interested more in what aspects can be done with it to make it more engaging and poignant, so everything I have to say should be viewed from that lens, and I don’t want my words being twisted to support some sort of anti-representation message.

I mentioned last week that my three theories of romance appeal were leaving out a fourth one, and it’s time to talk about that fourth: Romance as Statement, which is particularly relevant to discussions of representation. This is really more of a subcategory than anything, because it’s incredibly rare to encounter it on its own. Broadly speaking, Romance as Statement is using romantic elements to make a statement on elements related to it, usually some form of cultural or political statement. This is particularly relevant to discussions of LGBT+ representation in the political climate of the modern world, for the simple reason that our modern political climate has turned the existence and validity of LGBT+ dynamics into an inherently political statement, owing to the open hostility to the community from social conservatives. As a result, it is impossible to meaningfully discuss the nuances of LGBT+ inclusion without discussing the wider political scene and how that influences the attitudes and behavior of creators who tend to be either overly conscious of the implications of their writing (and cautious as a result), or completely unaware of them. Either of these, taken to their furthest logical extreme as is so often seen in modern discourse and creative circles, can wreak utter havoc on a story, so an important question to be posed is how exactly to thread that needle. And this is where we come back to Romance as Statement as a concept and really have to dive into the merits and drawbacks of it.

One thing I would like to establish beforehand is that if Romance as Statement appears primarily as an inescapable byproduct of the inherently political nature of art and representation, that is absolutely fine and I have no particular quarrel with the concept. What I’m far more concerned with is the use of romance elements with the express intent of making a statement with them, because that can go extremely awry extremely quickly. And this is a risk that comes from making direct statements on current issues, every statement has implications that often ripple much further than the direct meaning of the thing being said, and diving headfirst into cultural issues necessitates a level of understanding of those implications that many people either don’t have, or overthink. Obviously, the solution to this issue is not to “just don’t make statements at all”, like some people would have you believe, it’s simply to think through the particulars of your statement. Between the two extremes of either not thinking of implications at all and accidentally saying something toxic (see, Steven Universe’s piss poor portrayal of “forgive the sexual assault metaphor”), and being so terrified of causing a reaction that you end up failing to actually make a statement with any teeth (see, The Rise of Skywalker hyping up the existence of a gay kiss, only for it to be completely glossed over). Of the two, the former is objectively worse, but the latter is more personally irritating to me. This issue is omnipresent when it comes to portrayal of LGBT+ issues, and it manifests in many ways. For example, explorations of when LGBT+ relationships can turn toxic are absolutely valid as a subject matter, but someone who doesn’t think about implications could accidentally imply that these problems are inherent to LGBT+ relationships, while someone who is overly conscious of their implications might be gun-shy of depicting toxic dynamics at all for fear of accidentally sending such a message, and such stories can come off as saccharine or toothless. A big part of storytelling, especially in a genre such as Romance or Drama, comes from this sort of conflict, and being afraid of depicting it is a really tragic loss in my eyes. While being careful to avoid toxic implications is definitely a good thing, it can’t be something to paralyze a creator from fear of possibly screwing up. Poorly made statements can always be amended or disavowed, but the same cannot be said for statements that are never made. So, one key rule for making statements, especially in regards to LGBT+ issues, is “Think through the implications of your statement, but don’t think so much that it stops you from saying anything of substance; be transgressive, but not toxic”. However, there is one more thing I really want to bring up, a nasty side effect of what can go wrong when priorities are wrong in this field.

Now, we’ve talked about statements made as a side effect of just telling the story, but cases do exist where making the statement is the priority, and other elements come second to that. I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, other elements in the story tend to suffer when this happens, and I find that such messages tend to be more concise and memorable when delivered directly as political statements without the superfluous fluff of narrative conventions. On the other hand, not every story with this intent is like this, and just as there is merit to the point that direct political statements are more concise and distinctive, so too is there an argument to be made that formatting it as a story makes it easier to introduce to an audience who may be unfamiliar with or unconvinced on the political topic itself, for example Platoon codified the sheer brutality and horrors of the Vietnam War and the Invasion of Cambodia far better than any statistics list ever could. The crucial difference, really, is that even leaving aside the message they tell, films like Platoon are still fundamentally compelling stories at the end of the day, and this is something people caught up in messages can often forget. While themes are, more often than not, the most important aspect of storytelling, that doesn’t mean the others don’t matter. Without compelling characters and some form of engaging narrative, those themes are ultimately lost on an audience that lacks investment in what’s happening. And this is where we loop back to the question regarding representation that I posed in my original article back in the day. While representation itself is both easy to do and fundamentally a good thing to have, it cannot be your only concern, or else you start to lose sight of other elements that ultimately undermines the message you were going for. When, two years ago, I said that representation ought to have a point beyond the message inherent to its existence, this is what I was talking about. For a story’s representation to land with an audience, there needs to be more than just that representation message present. And, to be clear, this is a very broad category. A story that goes for the Romance as Charm style while starring a gay couple the way half the Yuri genre does absolutely fits this requirement, as does a hardcore Character Study drama about people dealing with toxic aspects related to their identities or relationships and experiencing personal growth as a result such as Stars Align. But both of these have worth as stories beyond just the message inherent to representation, and that is something to keep in mind when writing. This second rule could be described as “Representation on its own cannot carry a story, back it up with strong storytelling to help the message land more effectively.”

Finally, something I would like to talk about is a divide between two schools of thought on the topic of how representation should be handled. The first argues that traits like gender or sexual orientation are fundamentally benign traits (that is, traits that do not necessarily affect a person beyond the areas covered directly by their existence) and thus can easily be included without having to affect anything, while the other posits that because the LGBT+ community does experience unique problems in life that their cishet counterparts do not, and meaningful discussions of these issues are both warranted and a net benefit to the story overall. I half agree with both of these. While I agree that things like gender and sexuality are benign traits, I think there is value in exploring them as part of the narrative. And while I do agree that the LGBT+ community is very poorly treated by society as a whole, and that exploring this can make stories more dramatically compelling, I would also argue that that’s beyond the scope of many stories on the topic and that there are plenty of aspects beyond society’s views on the subject that are worthy of being explored. And this is where we come to the actual position I hold, which is somewhere between the two. While I do believe that every story which includes mentions of LGBT+ issues should make an effort to explore them and how they relate to the characters involved, the actual exploration can be as simple as telling a fluffy romantic subplot featuring a gay couple, or as complex as diving into the intricacies of someone exploring and coming to terms with aspects of their own identity and how it relates to society as a whole, and both ends of that spectrum are perfectly valid. This third rule can be described as “Explore the issues, and make that exploration as simple or complicated as you want; not all exploration must be deep, but it should still be there.”

Between these three rules, the really basic aspects of making good representation are covered, and so long as you keep the right mindset when telling a story and treat the issues with the dignity and respect they deserve as relevant social issues, you will do fine. I cannot stress this enough. A lot of times, people writing on issues like this, especially if they don’t personally belong to the community, will be met with accusations ranging from “appropriating struggles” to “telling a story that isn’t yours to tell”, both accusations I’ve seen commonly lobbed against people writing about these kinds of issues in the past. And let me be clear, in most cases, they are both full of shit. The former is simply misapplied, a story about gay or trans characters going through the struggles of living as a gay or trans person in society is not appropriation, because it’s still directly about the issue itself, regardless of who the author is. And the latter is flatly wrong in general. While that argument usually comes up in discussion of portraying other cultures and usually is rooted in the author’s unfamiliarity with a culture they have not experienced (which is still wrong as a line of reasoning, some of the best studies on culture in human history come from people who were not part of that culture, such as Lermontov’s writings on the Cossacks), it can be applied to discussions of LGBT+ issues rather frequently, where it is even less justifiable. What matters is knowledge and understanding of the issues, not the checking of arbitrary personal boxes. And while that knowledge and understanding does require work and research on the part of someone who hasn’t experienced issues being discussed, that kind of research is honestly common among people within the community too. Just having a trait like being gay or trans does not automatically anoint you with some special knowledge on the issues, and people regardless of their identity can educate themselves enough to understand and show respect for the topic. That aside, I hope this cleared up my actual thoughts on the topic of LGBT+ rep and proves potentially useful in answering any questions about the basics of the topic.

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Author: WhenSomethingCriesAgain

Several years ago, I found myself positively brimming with opinions and insight, with no way to express them, so I began writing, and found that I liked it. I decided to start a page to keep records of my writing, and hopefully convince a few people to agree with my ideas.

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