AJ LLewellyn and Appropriation in M/M Romance

Sorry for the long absence between posts — and thanks to all the posters new and familiar who continue to do completely awesome and eye-opening things while I’m off in the wilds of conference planning and manuscript editing. I’m making up for the lost time by writing an extra-long post — aren’t you excited?

Earlier today, romance blog Dear Author posted a news item that m/m romance author AJ Llewellyn — oh, what was the delicate phrasing they used? — “admits adopting male persona despite being female.”

Here we go.

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Holes in the Map

Recently, the ever-enlightening Sociological Images has had a couple great posts on the erasure of Native Americans from both history and cartography. Now, I’m a map geek, and when people start talking about the social effects of cartography I tend to sit up and pay attention. And it turns out that Google Maps and Google Earth do not display Indian reservations—despite the fact that these locations are at least as socially, geographically, and legally significant as, say, national parks and forests, which are depicted as happy green pixels.

For instance, here is a Google Maps view of northeastern Washington State.

And if you scroll down to the second map, here is that same territory mapped (blurrily, sorry) on the home page for the Colville Indian Reservation. The difference is dramatic—a whole sovereign nation has been made to disappear.

This has happened before.

In 1831 a case was brought to the Supreme Court: Cherokee Nation vs. the State of Georgia. (Link goes to the Wikipedia article, because it’s pretty accurate in this case.) The state had passed laws intended to remove the Cherokee from the lands granted to them in federal treaty; the Cherokee objected to this and sought an injunction on the justification that they were by law a sovereign nation. They had a Constitution modeled explicitly on the American model—and they had a map of their land within the state of Georgia’s borders.

It didn’t help: the Supreme Court declined the case on the basis that the Cherokee were a “denominated domestic dependent nation.” (The alliteration just makes that all the more patronizing, if you ask me.) Judge John Marshall’s ruling stated: “Indian territory is admitted to compose a part of the United States. In all our maps, geographical treatises, histories, and laws, it is so considered.” (Emphrasis mine.) The Cherokee attempt at placing themselves on the “official” maps of the young United States had failed.

And despite the advance and ubiquity of digital maps, we’re still failing at this today.

Can You Have a Grey Area if You’re Whitewashing?

So lately we’ve been talking about fiction and especially fantasy/science fiction and race, and I just finished Malinda Lo’s Ash, which was so incisively reviewed by Raz. I found it an interesting read in light of what the author has to say about race in the novel, and how she leaves it open for every reader to construct race individually as they read:

I think that sometimes readers tend to give too much credence to an author’s thoughts about her own work. Every reader brings his or her background to a book, and a book’s meaning is always a negotiation between the reader (and her experiences) and the story itself.

This is a nice theory, but it begs the question: why is race left up to the reader, when queerness is built into the structure of the novel?

One of the nicest parts about reading Ash is the way characters can dance and flirt and fall in love with characters of either gender. It’s no big thing, and that’s really, really awesome. (I could read an entire book of just the queer fairy tales that get narrated at various parts of the book.) And there’s definitely such a thing as too much physical description of characters in romance (as always, Smart Bitches has all the evidence). But when she says her characters can’t be Asian because in the world of the novel there’s no Asia, it’s really hard not to respond that there are ways of describing an Asian body without using the word “Asian” and nothing else. In light of the discussions in comments about writers of color whitewashing their own fantasy novels, this reticence feels troubling. If I hadn’t read her blog about this issue, I never would have known how she viewed the characters.

Which is okay. Malinda Lo can write her books however she wants. But I do feel a little betrayed — worse, I feel like a bad reader — when I go to her blog and find I’ve missed a large chunk of the context she had in mind as she wrote the book. Not excluding the possibility that the protagonist is a person of color is not quite the same as including a protagonist who is a person of color. It’s not precisely whitewashing — but it feels kinda close.

And today I found this item about the upcoming film version of The Hunger Games:

The debate over Katniss’s on-screen ethnicity (or lack thereof) has raged in the Hunger Games fan community ever since a film adaptation was announced, owing to author Collins’ seemingly specific descriptions of the young heroine’s ethnicity. Described as having dark hair, olive skin, and gray eyes (in contrast to her fair-haired mother and sister), Katniss is thought by some readers to be of Mediterranean, Latin, Asian, or mixed descent.

By the same token [note: HA HA HA SOB], Katniss’s colorings could also suggest a brunette Caucasian girl, as in the novel’s official marketing materials (above). Either way, it’s fair to say that Collins’ ambiguity was purposeful in this regard. So the question isn’t, “Is Katniss white?” but “Could Katniss possibly be anything other than white?”

In casting only for Caucasian performers, the filmmakers seem to close the door on that possibility.

So because race was considered an ambiguous aspect of Katniss’ identity in the book, it is considered unimportant to the people casting the (probably white) actress to play her in the movie. This is not Suzanne Collins’ fault — it is the classic White People Are The Only Real Protagonists problem in Hollywood films.

And the only antidote for that particular poison is more protagonists of color.

But if you make skin color and race a strong part of your character’s identity, you become Niche Art. And the mainstream — who are of course all white people, it goes without saying — feels like they can comfortably ignore you.

It gets worse, though:

The candidate must be between the ages of 15-20, be Caucasian, appear “underfed but strong,” and be “naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.”

Now, the point of the whole entire series — which I’ve only read snippets of, because hot damn that is some good dystopia, by which I mean thoroughly and unrelentingly depressing and so I’ll save it for summer when I’m not already halfway down Dreary Lane — is that Katniss and her family are starving. So yeah, she’s gonna be malnourished. But there’s something creepy and unpleasant in the use of the term “underfed” when you’re using it to describe 1600 actual teenage girls — 1600 is the number of unsolicited resumes received in the open casting call. (Not to mention the thought that putting “underfed” next to “pretty” in this instance only works for a given value of pretty.)

So the author’s description of the character is unimportant when considering race, but significant when considering weight.

And it all just plays to me as so terribly convenient — I don’t have to think about race in Ash because it’s up to me in my own head. I don’t have to worry about Katniss and the idealization of thinness because she’s starving, so obvs she’s not gonna be, like, fat. (Because Hollywood, they really care about realism and plausibility above all else, you guys.)

This is what it looks like when privilege reinforces itself.

You Can Take Your Sexy Star Wars Gear and Shove It

Every day it seems like another geek site is linking to another sexified Star Wars thing. Star Wars burlesque. Star Wars bathing suits. And today, apparently, Star Wars characters reimagined as classic pin-ups.

Now, I like sexytimes as much as the next person, and Star Wars has long been a bastion of nerdy sexytimes on account of a certain gold bikini. But let’s talk about context: that gold bikini appears when our diplomat princess has been captured trying to rescue someone else, and her punishment is to sit there in her undies choke-chained to Jabba the Hutt (who nobody can convince me is not secretly a giant penis).

And she’s pissed about all this. So the first opportunity she gets, she takes that chain and strangles her captor. Without remorse. She refuses to be passive and pretty, and the gold bikini is ditched because it just plain gets in the way. Leia is a princess, and she has one hell of a smoldering romance going with Han Solo, but there is more to her than her sexuality. Jabba’s fatal mistake is that he forgets this.

Point your lightsaber here (and get your mind outta the gutter!)

Romance, Race, and Invisibility

We are currently living through a romance novel renaissance. Not only are new subgenres appearing and old ones expanding — steampunk romances, no joke! — but romance authors and readers are getting more vocal, resisting the stigma of romance readers as sex-starved bonbon-devouring housewives. There is now a course on romance novels at Yale, and an academic journal that deals with the subject. Just this week the rising tide of romance ebook sales — by far the most-sold genre in digital form — was featured in an article on the front page of the New York Times.

Which brings me to China.

Read more!

Men are from Chandler, Women are from Christie

The odd couple is one of television’s go-to moves — and so is the idea that no two people are as mismatched as a man and a woman, especially a man and a woman with sexual chemistry. The whole Mars/Venus crap gets name-checked when a man and woman share the lead in a show: it’s heteronormative and reductive and can be excruciating to watch — but it’s also pretty revealing about mainstream cultural attitudes toward gender roles.

Especially when the couple teams up to solve crime. The result then is a pair of narratives in search of the Truth-with-a-capital-T: one short truth story, that starts with a body and ends with a killer and is solved over the course of a single episode, and one long one, that plays out as the couple learn more about each other and their mutual sexypants feelings.

Let’s start with the ultimate mystery romance show: Remington Steele.

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