Amber: A couple of weeks ago, I was casually scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw that Christina had asked about ships. If you know me at all, you’ll know that I am a huge shipper; in books, on TV, and in movies. I am a fangirl, and I can’t help myself. So of course I jumped into the conversations that were going on, and the topic of slash shipping came up. One thing led to another, and I found myself getting annoyed for the thousandth time about the lack of LGBT+ representation in YA. I asked people to name books with queer protagonists, whose sexuality is not the main focus of the plot. I wanted fantasy novels, dystopia, science fiction, with characters who just happened to be anything other than straight. I got a mere handful of responses. Seriously. I got so annoyed that I ran to Lauren and asked her to write a guest post, because I think that this is an important topic of discussion, and I felt that Lauren could say it better than I could.
Let me start by telling you a little story about myself growing up. I was raised in a small village about an hour’s drive from the centre of London. This village was White. I am descended from Irish Gypsies (dark eyes, wild dark hair, olive skin tone) and when I moved into this village at the age of 7, I was literally the darkest skin tone these villagers had ever come across (I had a lot of racial slurs thrown at me growing up. Twas awesome). In this village, 80% of the inhabitants had blue eyes, despite the colour being a recessive gene (looking back, I’m going with inbreeding tbh). At my high school, there were 2000 students, 4 of which were people of colour – all from the same Pakistani family. Then, when I was 18, I went to university in Central London. My first day, I got on the London Underground, got off at my stop and stepped outside… and was absolutely blindsided by the sheer amount of racial and ethnic diversity that hit me in the face. I spent the first few weeks being completely terrified of interacting with these people, because they were so different from what I knew about the world. I didn’t know the difference between a Niqab and a Hijab, between African and Jamaican descent, between Sikh and Muslim, and I lumped everyone that looked like they might be brown under the label ‘Asian’. I was scared of getting something wrong, of making a mistake and offending someone without realising, and it took me a long time to overcome this fear and see all these different races and ethnicities as just people, beautiful, amazing people.
So, why did I react this way, when I had spent the majority of my life being looked at out of the corner of people’s eyes due to my own colouring? Why couldn’t I see immediately that these were all just people like myself, instead of some weird group that had nothing to do with me? Why was I so scared to talk to them, kept my head bowed away from them as though they were alien creatures? The answer is simple: because there was (and unfortunately still is) a lack of representation in mainstream media. Television, movies, books, they all reflected my own personal surroundings, which was incredibly insular. It meant that I had no chance growing up to learn that outside of my own tiny sphere, there was an entire world filled with different, awesome people, all of whom have something important to bring to the social table. All of my social outlets told me the same thing; Blacks were criminals and ‘Asians’ run the corner shops (seriously, watch any show from the 90s, especially British, this is what they tell you) and they are surrounded by White people. And then London happened to me and I got handed a message: sorry Lauren, but that’s not in fact how the world works.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very accepting household. When I was picked on because of my looks, my mother (blue eyes, pale skin) and step-father (also blue eyed, pale skinned) would tell me that I was beautiful, that what I looked like had absolutely nothing to do with who I was on the inside and what I had to offer the world. The same thing happened when I started wondering about my sexuality, about how I was attracted to girls just as much as boys. They told me that it didn’t matter who I loved; as long as I was happy, they would be happy for me. But although I was lucky to be so unconditionally loved and accepted within my own family, I grew up just assuming that I was different. I had dark eyes and skin because I was different, and I liked girls as well as boys because I was different. There was nobody else like me in my entire world. And as much as I accepted this fact, it was still an incredibly lonely experience. I was alien, I was ‘Other’, compared to the people that made up my world, and that world included all the fictional characters I either read about or watched on TV. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” Unfortunately, the opposite is true for me, because the vast majority of literature and TV shows are made up of white, straight, and (more often than not) male characters, and I am none of those things. According to literature, according to TV shows, my longings are not universal, I am lonely and isolated from everyone. I do not belong.
When it comes to the subject of queer representation within social media, there seems to be a pervasive sense of “not in front of me”. Time and time again I hear some variation of “hey, I’m not homophobic, I have a cousin who is gay! I’d just rather not see it on my page/screen.” But, why don’t they want to see it? Because it makes them uncomfortable, just like my first few weeks at university made me uncomfortable. And why does it make them uncomfortable? Because it’s not the norm. Because mainstream media ‘Other’s these people, makes them seem alien, strange. But here’s the catch; if mainstream media were to treat queer representation in the same way as they treat straight representation, then it would cease to be so alien. So what would happen if queer representation was suddenly made equal? Sure, some members of the heterosexual audience would be uncomfortable for a while – humans are creatures of habit who reject change as a matter of course, after all. However, most importantly? The next generation would find it normal. In the 20 years since I was at high school, people of colour have begun to be much more prevalent within mainstream media (although there is still some work to be done on that front too), meaning that my children will never go through the same shock that I went through upon venturing out into the world at large. If similar progress was made for the queer community, the same thing would happen in the future. Straight people wouldn’t feel uncomfortable, and queer people wouldn’t feel ostracized. Because guys, us queer people are just people who happen to be queer, just as straight people are people who happen to be straight. Rip off our skin and we are all the same underneath; take way who we like to have sex with and we are still all the same underneath.
Anthropologically speaking, the reason why we are social creatures can be summed up with the following phrase: “It takes a village”. Now however, things have changed, and now “it takes entertainment media and access to the internet”. Whereas we were separated into small groups, our ‘village’ has now expanded worldwide, and the people in charge of informing society on its rules and boundaries are the ones with access to the widest audience at any given time. In place of the religious leaders/village elders/healers/magic users, we now have music, tv shows, movies, books. They tell us through their stories how to act, how to be safe, just as stories were originally intended, back when we were all just a small group of people gathered around a fire. I doubt anyone managed to miss the internet furore over Miley Cyrus’s weird foam finger dance, because oh my gosh! Imagine all those fans of hers that are going to think that kind of behaviour is okay! And they’re right; whatever a public figure says, does, or thinks, is going to have a bigger impact on society in general, purely because they are in a position of influence. And because our current society has fallen into the trap of capitalism, we are caught in a vicious cycle: entertainment media is too scared to upset society, so society keeps on thinking their current behaviour is okay, which keeps entertainment media too scared to upset the status quo. Something has to give in order for this cycle to be broken, and just as Miley has the moral and social obligation to be a good role model over the people she has influence over, so entertainment media has the moral and social obligation to stop the perpetuation of heteronormativity. They are the ones with the power here, they are the ones with the influence. They are our village elders, and they have the responsibility of making sure that our villagers have the correct tools for making sure our society works to the best of its ability.
Until someone steps up and takes the reins for our society, those of us who see the problem, who deal with it in our everyday lives, we need to try our best to make our voices heard. While it is not our responsibility to give out the message ourselves, we are a part of this village, and we have a duty to help our elders when it appears that they are floundering. Shipping slash is a way for us to do that, for us to stand up and whisper this is how it should be done in their ears over and over until the message sinks in: something has to change. And if we whisper it enough times then at some point someone is going to hear it and realise that it is down to them to make the change. But sitting back on our haunches and waiting for them to come to the realisation on their own is just as bad – that non-action is also perpetuating heteronormativity. Refusing to ship against “canon established sexuality” does nothing other than silence our voice over how our society should be behaving. It doesn’t matter if slash subtext was meant to be read or not, what matters is that we are using this as a platform to ask the question, why isn’t it in any of the text? Slash shipping is a way for us to get our voices heard, a way to make people sit up and take notice of the fact that we are so unhappy with the current status quo that we have had to resort to making up our own stories. It is their social obligation to teach us not to oppress any of the people who live within our society, and it is my social obligation to ship slash as loudly as I possibly can until I don’t have to anymore, because they’ve got the message and made a change.
Queer representation within social media is important, and especially so in Young Adult genres, for two distinct reasons. The target audiences for these stories are at the beginning of building their own worlds; this is the time when Young Adults are learning what it means to be a social creature, to understand where and how they fit into society. All those books and TV shows out there that are centred around heterosexual love are merely perpetuating the belief that this is the Norm, and anything outside of those lines are alien, strange, ‘Other’. Instead of reinforcing this, we should be trying to eradicate it, because otherwise all we are doing is setting these people up for failure when they eventually step out into the world. Because the truth is, there are queer people within our society. You will have to work alongside us, you will have to sit next to us on a bus or a train, you will have to serve food to us, be served food by us, be given medical treatment by us. You will have to share your picnic spaces with us, watch as we kiss our loved ones just as we watch you kiss yours. Your children will have playdates with ours, and we will share your holiday destinations. You can’t escape us in the Real World, and the myth that current mainstream media is selling to you is just that; a myth. Because unlike what the media tells us right now, we aren’t actually that noticeable. All of those things above will happen to you without you even knowing. Because we’re people, just the same as you. What mainstream media should be doing is reflecting this truth, showing everyone just how normal queerness is. And YA genres need to do this so that when Young Adults go out into the world, they aren’t blindsided by this truth.
There is another reason why queer representation is so important, and it’s so that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words can be true for everyone. Sexuality isn’t something that springs up when people are in their mid-twenties – it’s something we’re born with. When hormones kick in and we all start frantically trying to work out how our bodies work, queer people are also trying to work out if their longings are normal. Well, heads up guys, they are normal, and we should be showing them that truth. Instead of leaving them out in the cold and dark, we should be showing them that their longings are universal, that they’re not lonely or isolated from anyone. We should be showing them that they belong.
So here’s the thing. Mainstream media used to reflect what was going on in society; it was a way for people to connect to others all around the world. These days, it seems to be holding tight to an antiquated belief that no longer holds true within our society. And this is why so many people slash ship and shout about it loud and clear; because mainstream media hasn’t yet got the message that times have changed. So, as a member of the queer community and a proud slash shipper, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to shout about it, I’m going to shove it in your faces, I’m going to dance naked in front of you with “LGTB+ representation!” written all over me in bright red lipstick and make you all as uncomfortable as Hell until it stops being uncomfortable and just becomes normal. Because that will mean that equality has happened.
It will mean that I belong.