As reviewers and commenters on diversity, inclusion, equality and representation in Urban Fantasy specifically and speculative fiction in general, we often have a lot of negative things to say. So many negative things to say. There are simply not enough bullets to hit all the fish packed in these barrels. Just repeatedly saying, over and over again “there are no LGBTQ characters in this book” which I am thinking of turning into a macro to save time, is a constant negative refrain I find myself chanting like a very depressing mantra.
Which means when we find something with excellent representation, with meaningful presence in the story, that matters to the plot, which avoids tropes and stereotypes it’s a blessed relief to break out the confetti and start singing it to every corner of the internet. It’s a joy to applaud the starkly powerful dystopia of Handmaid’s Tale, the epic storyline and racial commentary in American Gods, the incredible acting and plethora of differently-strong women on Orphan Black. The diversity of Class, the widely present racial inclusion of the Psy/Changeling, Bone Street Rumba, Rayne Whitmore,the Habitat Series, and Kate Daniels series all all worthy of praise and it’s a pleasure to lavish praise on them.
But sometimes it seems that we see that praise being doled out… a little over-eagerly - which seems to be an increasing recurring theme in LGBTQ portrayal now that we’re actually getting some.
Often this is an utterly cynical ploy by show creators (aided and abetted by actors, writers and all too often the media) who realise that throwing in some token diversity will get them access to a potentially loyal audience. Ultimately, as we’ve said time and time again on Fangs for the Fantasy erasure is incredibly common, most media has little minority representation or only very limited or deeply troped marginalised representation. Marginalised people want representation - anyone following social media and diversity blogosphere knows how much hype can be gathered by marginalised people desperately wanting to see themselves in a meaningful manner on television or in books. The enthusiasm is matched only by much cishet white people will lose their ever loving shit over said representation.
So when you’ve got a desperate, eager population of viewers who will definitely tune in if they think you have meaningful representation, of course they’re going to reach out to minorities to try and sell their minorities. The sad thing is that repeatedly sell the least, using articles and marketing ploys to convince us that tiny, brief, minor characters and tokens are amazing inclusion we’re all going to love. Only for more disappointment every single time as we find that hyped, amazing inclusion is another non-existent, brief token with no real presence in the show or book.
And while we certainly should not give a pass to the showrunners, producers (and writers and actors who are ridiculously complicit in this marketing and are constantly allowed to repeat this nonsense) who prey on this hunger for representation to try and sell their product; we also have to cast an eye on the media that is buying into this. Especially media which is expressly supposed to cater for and advocate for minorities. Really, Pink News I get that everyone needs hits, but when Jordan Woods-Robinson, the actor who played Eric on The Walking Dead said:
“It always brought us such pride knowing that we were able to bring a relationship to life that resonated with so many people, that echoed at a core level.”
Then maybe someone might have wanted to reel back on that? The man had less than 20 minutes total screen time over 3 seasons. People had to look up his name. He didn’t just star in a zombie, dystopian version of Rent. The fact that anyone is “resonating” with this relationship just shows how much we need more meaningful inclusion on these shows.
This is a problem other LGBT media has indulged in - The Advocate got some hefty pushback from their fawning interview with the Teen Wolf actors saying how amazingly progressive their show was. But we equally see other websites that pride themselves on their social justice or minority focus from the Mary Sue to the Backlot/NewNowNext to many others have all lept to lavish the most praise on the very least - or even just teases of the very least. Seriously, people, how many times can Star Wars and Marvel say “sorry no LGBT characters in this film, maybe next one” before you STOP jumping all over the rumours of the next one maybe, possibly having an LGBTQ character? Do you need those post clicks to pay for all the bridges you keep buying?
And that fan reaction to the Teen Wolf interview was sadly an anomaly. On social media you can happily find legions of fans gasping over how hot the sex scene was between Billy Eichner and Colton Hanes on American Horror Story (a 3 seconds scene of two torsos in moderate proximity…). We had people in rhapsodies of joy because Star Trek Discovery showed a gay couple declaring their love and movingly expressing said emotion after one had nearly died to save the other - by brushing their teeth together. Colgate isn’t this enthusiastic about oral hygiene. My dentist isn’t and I’m pretty sure flossing is a religion to her.
Even when shows do certainly have positive portrayals - like American Gods truly hot sex scene between the djinn and Salim was definitely worthy of praise: but to praise this one scene while ignoring the sad fact that Salim was a bit character at best.
When you’re hungry for representation, crumbs can feel like a feast. And when you’ve had nothing, even a small amount can feel like a lot. But disproportionate fawning over relatively small - or less - characterisations can be damaging. There’s all those cynical show producers (and writers and actors and so many more) who know they can get massive amounts of buzz, attention and revenue by waving a small token or rumour in front of us. While at the same time keeping it “low key” enough to not unduly outrage all those precious cishet white folks who always get so utterly outraged at the presence of anyone not just like them. The writers et al have no incentive to do more, provide more or treat their LGBTQ characters - or any minority characters - remotely respectfully or meaningfully.
This isn’t even about active bigotry - from a sheer economic and marketing perspective: if you have a segment of the population who will boycott, scream and generally lose their shit if you include minorities in anything and the opposite side will treat you as an utter saviour for doing the least - or less - then you have a powerful incentive for doing as little as possible to get that buzz while still flying as far under the radar of the screaming masses as you positively can. Every time we throw a parade because an LGBTQ person indulged in some loving flossing or appeared on screen for five minutes or was just rumoured to be about to appear we continue to encourage these show creators to do no more than the least
It can also be destructive on a personal level for minorities. We know what a main character looks like. We know what a meaningful character looks like. We know what important characters look like. We know when a scene is important, when a scene is moving, when a scene is exciting or epic or even hot or explicit. We’ve already said time and again how damaging it is for minorities to only see themselves as supporting cast, a minor elements - or not present at all - the pervasive message is that we deserve to be no more than minor, quiet reflections in some privileged person’s life. That we don’t matter, that we’re less important and less valuable.
But how much more damaging is it when members of that minority and publications supposedly advocating for that minority buy into this? When the producers throw a token, tiny character and expect us to be happy, they’re reinforced when we flock round to praise and hail them for this minimal inclusion. The producers tell us we should be grateful for being these minor inclusions in a cishet white man’s life - and then we flock round to agree with that, to express that very gratitude and fawning. The producers tell us we don’t deserve better than this… and we agree with them. That’s a combined message which is the very opposite of empowering.
I get it, I have been more than tempted to wave the flag and cheer every time I see someone like me on television - I’ve read literally thousands of books and am represented in less than 5% of them, we’ve reviewed over 120 shows and meaningful representation is not the norm. As I said before, when you’re starving, a crumb can seem like a feast. And of course we should enjoy our crumbs - but we shouldn’t forget that they’re still crumbs and we shouldn’t be sending the message that crumbs are what we deserve and should be happy for.