I’ve spent a lot of time talking about books, and listening to other people talk about books, and here’s the thing: I’m so tired of talking about “representation” like it’s a box we can just tick off and be done with. I don’t want to hear about good rep and bad rep anymore, because these are phrases that can so easily flatten and simplify. I want us to talk about characters. Characters are singular. Books are singular. Representation, as a concept, matters. But it can also be a burden, on authors and characters both. That’s a different essay for another time. I’m not going to delve into the complexities of representation and what it means here. I am going to delve into the language we use to talk about it.
When a character who isn’t marginalized does something terrible, it rarely becomes bad rep. Reviewers don’t criticize these characters for not representing their identity “well.” Straight people never have to be representation. Men never have to be representation. White people never have to be representation. I just want us to be able to talk about characters from marginalized communities in the same way. Nobody, not even in fiction, should have to bear the burden of perfection — or even morality! — all the time. We are all flawed humans.
I sometimes see negative reviews of queer books in which reviewers mourn the lack of grappling the characters do. A character doesn’t examine their internalized homophobia, maybe, or they have complicated feelings about gender that don’t get ironed out on the page. Then I watch these imperfections, these human messes that mean a character is muddling through it like the rest of us, turn into bad rep. I don’t know if it is or isn’t — representation is complicated; that’s the whole point. I do know that I want queer characters (and other marginalized characters, but you know where my passion and experience and expertise lie) to be able to do bad, messy, unforgivable things without all of us screaming from the margins about bad rep.
Believe me, I understand the painful history behind this desire for “good rep.” Publishing has a pretty bad track record. I’m not denying that harmful representation exists. Authors can absolutely write characters in ways that are stereotypical, that do harm. When they do, we need to talk about it. But just like I’m tired of people tossing around the word problematic, I’m tired of people tossing around the phrase “bad rep.” I want to know what an author has done and why it’s good or bad or somewhere in the murky middle. “Bad rep” can mean so many different things. Sometimes it means a reader simply didn’t like a flawed character. And sometimes it means an author has written a racist stereotype of a person into a book. That distinction matters.
Let’s talk for a minute about one of my least favorite tropes in fiction. It’s the one where a queer character suffers intensely (and often dies) in service of the edification/redemption of a straight character. It’s something that, personally, I can’t stomach. It fills me with swirling, seething anger. We do not exist for straight people’s benefit, and our lives are not disposable. Straight people can learn how not to be homophobic assholes without anyone getting attacked or murdered, thank you very much.
I avoid books with this trope because I know how they will make me feel and it is not a nice feeling. Years ago I would have slapped the “bad rep” label on any such book and called it a day. But here’s the thing: this happens in real life. I wish it didn’t. But it does. Straight people learn from queer people. Sometimes straight people don’t learn until something terrible happens to an actual queer person in their actual life. It is a horrible thing, and a true thing. And books should get to reflect the world as it is, which is often a disaster.
I’m not defending every book that uses this trope. I’m not convinced it has any merit. I personally think there are better and more interesting ways to write about redemption. I’m merely suggesting that we talk about books with nuance and in context. I’m begging us all to talk about characters with specificity, to dig into who wrote a book, and why, and what it’s trying to do, and who it’s serving — to look at all the messy angles instead of taking the easy way out, which is to say “don’t read it! it’s full of bad rep!” without any deeper analysis.
A while back, I stopped using the word problematic. If a book is riddled with racist stereotypes, I call it racist. If a book needlessly misgenders a character or uses their deadname over and over again, I call it transphobic. Language matters. Problematic is a vague phrase that can mean almost anything, and so is “rep.” So I’m not using it anymore. I won’t be talking about good rep or bad rep. I’m not going to praise a fun space opera with an entirely queer cast for having good rep. I’m not going to automatically pin the bad rep label on a novel with a queer protagonist who’s flawed and messy and says the wrong things. I will celebrate books that center queer characters because I love reading about my people. I will thoughtfully criticize books full of harmful tropes and characters that seem to reflect an author’s (conscious or unconscious) bias. It’s a small distinction, maybe, but I think it’s one that matters.
I long for a world in which representation in books doesn’t exist, because we are all represented. I long for a world in which it’s a given that books by queer and trans and disabled and BIPOC authors, and all authors from marginalized communities, are not only as common as books by white men, but are given the same marketing budgets. I long for a world in which these books are not banned. But this is not the world we live in, and so representation does exist, it must exist, and we have to talk about it and champion it and get real loud about it, because that is how we make change. But while we’re doing this work, while we’re having conversations about representation and what it means, maybe we can pause for just a minute to consider the language we use, and retire the flimsy phrases that flatten nuance and don’t actually serve us at all.