I’ve realised I talk a lot about the need for good portrayals in books (and other media). I talk about stereotypes and tropes, about the damage of bad characters, about the annoyance of tokenism, about never being the protagonist – in fact, there’s no end of things I can rant about at great great length. There’s a lot of bad out there.
But I realise I’m actually teaching an advanced lesson, because, shockingly, the very concept of “portrayal” seems to be fraught in and of itself. And after leaving another argument about this, I feel the need to define what portrayal actually is – or, better yet, isn’t.
Now I can feel people scratching their heads – because surely this is a simple concept? If you want to portray a GBLT character, you include a GBLT character – how hard can this be? Well, apparently very difficult indeed. So what, in the eyes of Sparky, is not a portrayal?
If your GBLT character needs extra-textual support to make them GBLT – congratulations! They’re not a GBLT portrayal. Because you have not portrayed a GBLT person. This does not seem like an overly complicated thought process. If I cannot read the book and say “look, Fred’s gay” then Fred is not gay.
So that means if you decide in an interview that one of your characters is GBLT rather than actually including their GBLTness in the text, then that means you haven’t portrayed a GBLT person. If I have to consult your author notes or google every interview you’ve done or rely on gossip to inform me that your characters were actually GBLT, but your forgot to mention it/didn’t think it was appropriate to mention it/your publisher/preacher/agent/editor/pet dachshund said not to include it – then you have not portrayed a GBLT character. I am not going to give any points for inclusion if I have to google your book/game/film/series to find it. That’s not inclusion – that’s a treasure hunt.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write long biographies for characters that never work their way into the book, or you shouldn’t have author notes or even have interviews about how you envision your characters above and beyond where the text takes them. But it’s not GBLT portrayal – because you haven’t portrayed those characters as GBLT. And, ye gods, please don’t present your extra-textual retcon as inclusion.
And yes, this does mean that as far as I’m concerned there are zero GBLT characters in the Harry Potter series. *Hides in bunker from outraged fanpoodles*
And while I’ve pissed off the great beast of fandom with that line, let’s poke with another stick. Hints, suggestions and “maybe, possibly is he isn’t he” also don’t count as a portrayal. A great rapport between 2 characters of the same gender doesn’t count as a GBLT portrayal. And subtext, vague implication and most certainly slash goggles do not count as a GBLT portrayal either. Just as the author’s extra-textual notes don’t create a GBLT portrayal, nor do our own extrapolations, fanfiction, slash goggles or sexual fantasies. I used to have wonderful imaginings of Nightcrawler when I was younger (don’t judge me) it doesn’t mean the X-men included a gay character by including him.
And I know this sounds ridiculous – but it happens. In the big battle over Disney not having a single GBLT character to be found there were fans pulling out their slash goggles and subtexts and implications and listing characters they thought COULD be GBLT. Whether it was a look they held or maybe the banter between them or just because they were just such a hot couple – we’re seeing fan hope or fan fantasy presented as actual inclusion.
To another excuse often trotted out – ambiguity is not a GBLT portrayal either! At best it’s an ambiguous portrayal – at very best. But the forces of heterosexism and cissexism in society means that it’s probably going to be another damn straight, cis portrayal. In fact, ambiguous portrayals actually annoy me more, partly because you’re trying to claim inclusivity cookies without even throwing in a characterless token and partly because the “ambiguity” inevitably rests on some gross stereotyping. And if the creator intended this implication then I still call foul – straight, cis folks get to be openly themselves in every single genre and media form we can imagine, yet we have to be obliquely referred to with sufficient deniability in case the haters lose their shit? Yeah no inclusion cookies for you, unless launched with great accuracy at your head.
Speaking on the subject of heterosexism and cissexism – and I’ve mentioned this in passing before – your “unlabelled” character is straight and cis. Yes they are. Because that is the default in a privileged society – if you don’t show any information to the contrary everyone is assumed to be cis and straight. And yes, that’s annoying and yes, that’s wrong – but it’s reality. So don’t tell me your unlabelled character is really GBLT (or could be GBLT) –because there’s no way they will be read as GBLT. Also, of course, since you have presented an actual GBLT character, you have, yet again, failed to portray an actual GBLT character.
I’ve actually had comments that a character is GBLT, we just don’t know it and, afterall, people don’t need labels to define themselves as GBLT. Now there’s a lot wrong with this – but from a portrayal perspective there’s one big flaw. We’re talking about characters, not people. If I meet Fred, we killing a large number of werewolves that keep digging up my lawn and he then goes home to his boyfriend then yes, he’s gay even though I am completely unaware of the fact. The fact I don’t know whether he’s gay or not doesn’t change that he is gay. But, if I READ about the fictional character Fred killing werewolves and the book ends with the last fuzzy death and we have no GBLT label to attach to Fred? Then he isn’t GBLT – because even while a real person has a life beyond the book, a character does not. The entirety of that character’s existence is in those pages and if none of those pages include any reference to him being GBLT, then it doesn’t matter that we imagine that he COULD go home to a boyfriend, because he isn’t – he’s doing nothing. His story has ended and his existence is limited to those pages that contain nothing of his supposed GBLT identity.
And don’t’ even try to invoke the closet. The closet is what we, as GBLT people, are forced to endure to try and survive this ridiculous heterosexist and cissexist world. In fact, I’m not going to give it that much credit – this homophobic and transphobic world. And by all means portray that if it is part of the story – but closeting your characters from the reader? You think that’s necessary or that it’s impossible to show a closeted character and without extending that to the reader as well? And, really, if you’re going to do that then what is the point? Here is your GBLT portrayal who is so closeted even the reader thinks they’re straight and cis? Oh… yay, give me a second I’m going to bake you a whole batch of inclusion cookies for that one!
We are talking about portrayal. How GBLT characters are portrayed and the very first step of that has to be them being actually portrayed as GBLT in the first place. And if we can’t even do that, how can we do anything else?