What are We Talking About When We Talk About “Good Representation”?

The opposite of the stereotype has long been thought of as “the positive image,” and yet it may well be that positive images also deal in stereotypes and with far more disastrous effects. Furthermore, a cinema of positive images is simply not a very interesting cinema.

Jack Halberstam, Female Masculinity, p.185

In my review of Iggy & Ace, I comment on how much I love the messiness of the gay characters, even declaring that “We need more stories about women like” Iggy, the toxic and co-dependent lesbian dealing poorly with her trauma and dragging her best friend into the bad habits he’s trying to break. This might seem like an odd thing to say. Surely Iggy is a bad representation of lesbians, if she’s such a transparently awful and unhealthy person? Well, that depends on how you define “bad representation”. She’s not a good person, but her writing is extremely good. She has flaws enough that she feels, unflinchingly, like a human being.

That being said, I can see why you’d flinch. There’s been enough problematic depictions of gay characters over the years that contemporary creators might feel a lingering anxiety: my characters can’t do anything bad, and nothing bad can happen to them. They have to be good, they have to be happy—to make up for history. They have to be good representation.

But what are we really asking for, when we ask for “good queer rep”? Much like “is this piece of fiction feminist?”, the question “is this good representation?” doesn’t actually have a single concrete yes-or-no answer. It can be tempting, though, especially in the quickfire, hot-take-filled landscape of social media discourse, to search for one.

Steven Universe main cast
Steven Universe, one of the most heavily discourse’d series known to tumblrkind

Arguably, that’s what a lot of “queer media criticism”, particularly in fandom spaces (Twitter today, and what Tumblr was famous for in yesteryears), can get boiled down to. And I get it, I do. The way marginalised characters are depicted in stories is important to discuss, important to be wary and critical of. After all those years of harmful stereotypes it’s worth holding new stories to a certain standard.

But at a point, the search for “good representation” risks chewing through nuance and context until there’s nothing left except the dry, tokenistic bones of a meaningful discussion. To borrow words from this post on the subject (on the hellsite itself), “I really do wish ‘good representation’ didn’t mean ‘how morally good is the character that is also queer’, and instead was ‘character is a good [depiction] of a queer person’”.

Representation is vital, but its meaning is lost if it’s only used as a) a yardstick to measure how “good” the work or fictional characters are morally and b) a stick to beat the creators with if they’re perceived to fail. It’s a documented phenomenon that stories that try—think the “fandom” backlash and relentless critique of series like Steven Universe, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Dream Daddy, Boyfriend Dungeon, a big queer fandom of your choice—get shredded within an inch of their life, moreso than those stories that don’t include queer content at all.

Iggy and Ace, gay anti-role models

An understandable anxiety about queer characters being represented poorly can mutate into a discourse that holds queer art to impossibly high standards, often hinged on that perceived yes-or-no question of “is this good rep or bad rep?”

Iggy & Ace would make a certain subset of commentators holler “bad representation” because of how morally grey and flawed and dickheaded the main characters are. But them being morally grey and flawed and dickheaded is the thing that made that show interesting—not to mention what made it realistic!

If you wanted Iggy to be reconfigured into something shaped like “good rep”—that is, an upstanding, inarguably good character that could serve as a community representative for all lesbians and give them a good name—she’d cease to be herself, the show would cease to have a plot, and its character-driven commentary on addiction, grief, and found family would evaporate. When we demand a standard of “goodness” (wholesomeness, even, unproblematic-ness) from our media, we risk losing a lot of potentially interesting and valuable, messy queer stories by virtue of their… well, perceived lack of virtue.

Phos from Land of the Lustrous, bad non-binary rep due to being made of minerals

The idea that “representation is important” is vital to my own work. But it’s also something I’m… finding myself less and less concerned with the more research I do and the more queer fiction I read/watch.

I find myself less hooked on “is this good representation?” and more intrigued by questions about how the story is told, what cultural context this fits into and how it’s responding, what techniques the author uses to construct and explore their characters’ queer identities, how those characters are built to be complex and flawed and how that serves the narrative.

This is all not to say that I, personally, am smarter and better than everyone else on the Internet. I know that’s not true. And this is certainly not an instruction manual for how to more “correctly” engage with media. This is just a musing on my part, on a huge topic that even this long-arse post cannot hope to come to a conclusion on, let alone “solve”. This is also not an attempt to put anyone in particular on blast, merely me thinking out loud about trends I’ve observed and a call to consider different ways of talking about things.

If we boil down our conversations about queer art to yes-or-no questions, we miss out on all those other ones, and aren’t giving the creators their dues. If we shift these conversations beyond just metrics of “representation”, so many more possibilities emerge.

“A cinema of positive images”

Killing Eve, bad rep for its for two morally grey bi leads

I mentioned that the anxiety surrounding “good rep” stems from creators/consumers not wanting new stories to fall back into old “bad rep” stereotypes, so let’s talk about that. Here’s an example: Jack Halberstam’s book Female Masculinity devotes a chapter to representations of butch women and tomboy girls in film, noting (in summary) that while this archetype was once quite popular, it’s pretty much vanished into obscurity. Why? Well, that’s what Halberstam sets out to investigate, and ultimately suggests that it’s something to do with “bad rep”.

Looking to twentieth-century cinema, of course, means looking to films produced under the Hays Code, a system of censorship that led to the covert or not-so-covert invention of many queer tropes. You couldn’t say a character was gay, but you could use a system of visual language, character design, and behaviours to code them as such for the audience.

Butch women are an example of this: in Halberstam’s words, you wouldn’t hear the word “lesbian”, but you’d be on the lookout for “certain visual markers (guns, cigars, trousers, aggressive sexualities)” in female characters (p.230). And if ya know, ya know. Of course, you’d also inevitably be looking for “shared narrative fates (death, dishonor, disgrace)” (p.230). The Code insisted on casting these sorts of characters as villainous and/or giving them tragic endings so as to avoid glamourising or normalising these “deviant” personae. This is—largely—where we get tropes like “Bury Your Gays” and the tradition of campy villains.

Joan Crawford and her fantastic gay cowgirl vibes in Johnny Guitar

It meant that, even as the Code loosened its hold over cinema, new filmmakers became reticent to engage with what had become seen as negative stereotypes from a bygone era. So, by and large, they just… didn’t.

Halberstam notes that, especially from the ‘70s and ‘80s onwards, butch characters effectively vanished from cinema, either depicted as tomboys “growing out of” their boyish phase and into proper ladies, or just not existing in the first place. The desire for “good rep” ended up washing an entire identity and subculture off the media landscape. Halberstam writes:

This “positive” cinema works only at the expense of masculine women. How do we account historically for such an erasure? One could argue that since the butch dyke had long symbolized a homophobic stereotyping of lesbians, her disappearance within lesbian cinema was supposed to signal the arrival of positive and responsible images of everyday lesbians. But by relegating the butch to the trash heap of homophobic cinema, lesbian cinema made butch women into the scapegoat for homophobic representation.

(p. 217)

Because context is always important, here’s something to know: Female Masculinity was published in 1992. Surely an “outdated” queer studies text by now, right? There’s a whole wave of researchers currently working in this field that are younger than this book. And yet… has this problem been alleviated? When Halberstam talks about how “the emphasis placed on ‘positive images’” (p. 179) limits our capacity for engaging with queer media, I feel that ringing as true—if not more true—today.

The icons themselves, Uranus and Neptune

I remember seeing multiple posts, across time and platforms, complaining how Sailor Uranus and Neptune were “stereotypical” because they were a butch/femme couple. This is an argument about “representation” that (as I’m sure was pointed out by snarky reblogs) springs from a lack of crucial context. Firstly, Sailor Moon is from the 1990s, embedded in a particular historical moment. Secondly, and because of that first point, it’s bonkers impressive that a lesbian couple exists in such a juggernaut series from that early. Thirdly, it’s never as straightforward as mapping your expectations about American cinema tropes onto media from different countries, and the fact that this is a Japanese series needs to be considered in any conversation about its representation.

Fourthly… well, consider if it’s really fair to say that butch/femme couples are an overdone stereotype. We all know intrinsically that they’re a “negative image” because of that history outlined above, which has filtered down into more widespread pop cultural awareness. But when was the last time you saw a butch/femme couple, or even a butch heroine on her own? They’re certainly not littered all over the ground; I can count the butch lesbian characters I’ve encountered in my own media experience on one hand (Gideon Nav of The Locked Tomb, Jane Su of One Last Stop among them—both from very recent books, so maybe that signifies a coming shift).

And even if they did fit into recognised stereotypes… should that be where the discussion about them as queer representation ends? What kind of characters are they? What role do they play? Does the story depict them as rounded people and their relationship as loving and complex? How does this fit with, or differ from, other depictions from the same era? There are deeper questions to ask, but often, I think, “the emphasis placed on ‘positive images’” invites us to fixate on surface level.

I’ve used butch lesbian characters as an example here, but these issues extend beyond them (that being said, definitely read Female Masculinity in full if you’re interested in more—it’s a good and handy book, albeit deeply disheartening in places because Halberstam writes about yet more problems we haven’t dealt with in the nearly thirty years since it came out). Humans like to put things in simple categories. It makes sense that we would grasp for a switch to flick between “good representation” and “bad representation”—or, in Halberstam’s words, “negative” versus “positive and responsible images”.

It makes sense that, if something is recognised as “bad”, our instinct might be to chuck it out completely for fear of perpetuating bad things, rather than unpack that “badness” (butches are seen as negative, but why? What traits have been villainised and what agenda does that serve?) or try to imbue or discuss it with more complexity (plenty of real human beings identify as butch lesbians—they’re not “bad rep”, they’re people!).

Because in following that instinct, we lose the nuance that’s so crucial for talking about and writing queer stories. In fact, in some cases our attempts at discussing media through a progressive lens can loop back around to conservative ways of thinking.

“D*mn, h*ll”

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, bad lesbian rep for depicting the “unclean” complexities of an abusive relationship

In September 2021, a page from a particular American library group circulated social media: a proposed ratings system for young adult fiction. This system categorised YA based on degrees of “appropriateness”, ranging from YA-1, which included “little to no violence” “no sexual topics” “light profanity: d*mn, h*ll”, through to YA-4, a category for works containing “extreme gore” “in-depth sexual topics” and “excessive alcohol use and partying”. The Christian conservative bias behind what was being proposed as a “universal” ratings system soon became obvious. Given how vague phrasing like “sexual topics” and “justified violence” is, it’s probably not unreasonable to assume these might be used to sticker texts dealing with, say, LGBTQIA+ identity or realties of racism, as “inappropriate”.

It was removed from the web, but you can find it preserved in screencaps in commentary threads such as this one by author Foz Meadows. As you can imagine, there were some pretty good memes about this, ranging from silly to scathing. Many involved in the publishing industry were dunking on this, but many chimed in from a reader’s perspective as well, noting that this would probably only succeed in making YA-4 sound really cool.

But of course, as Meadows reminds us: “a YA ratings system isn’t being designed with teens in mind; it’s so adults can more easily decide whether a given book is “appropriate” for their teen, the better to restrict their reading, because god forbid they learn/read independently.”

Who are these concerned mothers to decide upon a universal methodology for what topics are “appropriate” and what subjects should be represented, or kept from, young readers? What content is allowed in the books they would rate low on this scale and deem acceptable for wide consumption? Again, their wording is vague enough that it could conveniently be used to condemn a whole range of written experiences they deemed unacceptable… regardless of how those metrics actually reflected the potential real lives of young readers.

I bring this up because it serves as a neat demonstration of the obsession with “cleanliness” and “appropriateness” in strict conservative discussions about fiction. And it makes me holler, because really, it’s only a few switched-out phrases away from being indistinguishable from some pieces of online queer media discourse.

I have seen, with my own eyeballs, earnest posts decrying certain works and listing their impurities with the same vigour and—it seems—the same concerns about “cleanliness” as these religious Utah housewives. Though they might do so through the language of “problematic” and “bad representation” rather than “inappropriate”; might make a callout post rather than calling their school board. The same techniques are in play: not analysis of content and context but a dot-point list of the topics covered and a surface-level, knee-jerk reaction to whether they are “good” or “bad”.

It’s not a call for censorship, per se, but these blanket moral judgements on what texts should be red-stickered in a library system based on “wholesomeness” crawls a little close for comfort—much in the same way that “fandom discourse” calling for certain indie games and cartoons to be blacklisted for their perceived lack of “wholesomeness” crawls a little too close. I wonder, sometimes, if these people know what they sound like.

A break for nuance in this post about nuance

Sayaka of Bloom Into You, bad rep for being sad and sometimes mean

Again, this is not directed at everyone who has ever looked to fiction through this sort of lens—you’re not equal to a Christian librarian because you’ve used words like “problematic”, I promise! As I said, I’m speaking in broad terms, of trends I and others have observed, and I don’t want to put anyone on blast—particularly because, I suspect, many of the people making these zealous and pedantic posts regarding “representation” are young people earnestly trying their best with social justice and media crit ideas they maybe haven’t fully had the chance to absorb.

We get excited when we learn the tools to be critical of media, and we love to share our thoughts and opinions with others; we get a serotonin rush from putting what feels like A Good and Clever Opinion into the world, and another one when people interact with it. Goodness knows I made some critical, snarky posts of my own when I was younger and swept up in the entry-level feminist criticism ethos of fandom Tumblr circa 2013, both on that platform and on this very blog. Not to mention the hours I spent on TVTropes—that sure did imbue me with a passion for slotting things into categories, yes-or-no this-or-that style.

We passed those posts around, we joined in conversations about what TV shows seemed to be doing wrong based on our growing knowledge of tropes x, y, and z. It’s easy to get caught up in the fervour, especially about something as personal and emotional as a piece of storytelling that reflects your own marginalised experience. It’s easy to get loud and nitpicky, especially if that kind of negative critique is what’s in vogue. Human beings like to talk about stuff, and we parrot the lingo and points of view of other people and work that we find interesting.

And the way marginalised people are represented in media is important! It’s a perfectly valid thing to be passionate about! It just drives me bananas to see queer creators getting flack for daring to make even slightly messy art from both hand-wringing conservatives concerned with “clean literature” and ostensibly social-justice-minded queer commentators concerned with “bad representation”.

Not to mention the fact that, of course, this makes it so easy for the former group to infiltrate the latter—or even more insidious ideologies (think TERFs, anti-feminist alt-right nonsense, pick your poison) that can dress themselves up oh-so-nicely in progressive politics and understandable concerns. Who benefits from this kind of petty in-fighting? Not marginalised creators, that’s for sure.

“You better be good, [everyone’s] watching”

A novel with bad rep and UNjustified violence!

This panel of authors, focused on queer monsters and villains, has a lot of interesting things to say on this topic. As authors of mostly YA fiction, each individual notes that there is a profound pressure to write ideologically sound characters who may function as role models. Because, as Adam Sass summarises, “You better be good, young readers are watching!” You better be good hangs over so much queer art, the call coming from both ends of the horseshoe. 

Zoe Hana Mikuta, who appears on that panel, wrote a fantastically fun book called Gearbreakers where her young, sapphic protagonists commit great acts of feral violence, including murdering multiple people on-page. A bisexual character who kills people? You can’t have that! That’s a terrible role model! Never mind the fact that these characters are excellent, complex depictions of traumatised, war-weary adolescents who have rich interior worlds and get to be the stars of an epic sci-fi narrative. Eris rips out someone’s cybernetic eyeball, so she’s “bad rep”. Begone with ye! Cast it out! That’ll net this a YA-4 rating for sure—not wholesome in the slightest!

Ciara Smyth wrote a moving coming-of-age story called The Falling in Love Montage that captures and addresses the anger and ennui a young person might feel when they’re faced with an uncertain future with heartbreaking accuracy and resonance… but the girls don’t end up together in the end, which enforces the “sad sapphics” trope, so it’s “bad rep”. Saorise is realistically cranky and rude to people as she attempts to process her possible impending loss of agency and death due to disease, so she’s a bad example of a lesbian protagonist. Out the window! We can’t have it!

Lesbian necromancers, bad rep on account of all the necromancy

Emery Lee’s Meet Cute Diary is a poignant and clever take on the romantic comedy formula, depicting an emotionally abusive relationship with gentle nuance and posing uniquely queer critique of normative romance narratives while ultimately offering its trans protagonist a happy ending. But that protagonist is annoying, and chatty and vain and always making mistakes that drive the plot forward, plus it depicts an abusive relationship so clearly the author endorses such things. Bad rep! Toss it in the river!!

Okay, I’m being flippant now. I’ll stop, but I won’t apologise.

(I had so many of these to whip out for The Locked Tomb, but unfortunately most of them contained major spoilers, so I’ve held off. Plus, if we’re being realistic, a callout post about this series would probably get stuck on the fact that Gideon is 18 and Harrow is 17 and that, my friends, is an age-gap relationship…)

The you better be good, everyone’s watching model leads us into, I think, the main problem with focusing on “representation” above all else. It’s in the word itself: this implication that every queer character is a representative sent from the community who must make a good impression on the world. This means thinking about each piece of queer art almost like a diplomatic envoy. If we write “bad rep” the mission has failed and we risk chaos.

Bad rep for… God, who even knows. I’m tired by this point in the post

And again, again, there is some weight to that. Media depictions do influence the ways that marginalised groups are imagined in popular consciousness. But nuance and variety are just as important to “representation” as the fact that any given character is queer. We live in exciting times where the amount of queer rep genuinely is increasing exponentially, so we have room for a variety of stories. Not every artwork needs to function as an envoy-style “representative” of all queer people ever.

When we demand “good rep”, what are we asking for? For queer characters so flawless and narratives so wholesome that they can never offend anyone, on either side of the queer consumer/homophobic industry gatekeeper divide? For a box to tick so we can feel ideologically good about enjoying or not enjoying a thing? If we only want what’s squeaky clean, we’ll miss the amazing, raw, evocative, moving stories that come with mess.

Instead of clamouring for “good rep”, we should ask what we might lose if we continually chase and chastise queer creators for their stories and their characters being objectionable in some ways. We want “positive and responsible” representation, but, as Halberstam wrote, “a cinema of positive images is simply not a very interesting cinema.” And should art not, first, try to be interesting rather than perfect?

If we hinge all our media criticism around yes-or-no questions, we’re not doing media criticism. If we don’t engage with things in their historical and cultural contexts and just… God… rely on quick spicy takes from Twitter and dot-point lists of why a work is “problematic” from Tumblr or whatever they’re doing on TikTok… it’s nothing good. We can do better. We owe queer storytellers and their art (and the art of textual analysis) better.

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Filed under Things We Need to Stop Doing

4 responses to “What are We Talking About When We Talk About “Good Representation”?

  1. I’d been thinking about this stuff for a while but didn’t know quite how to say it, so thank you for writing this. I do feel that LGBTQ+ creators are sometimes held to impossibly high standards in our own community. Everybody has to be perfect and wholesome, and that’s not realistic. Queer folks have flaws, everyone does, and some of them can be real jerks. I think you can write morally grey or even villainous queer characters, without resorting to the homophobic stereotypes of the old days.

  2. A great discussion post… good and bad rep can be subjective, but I think the majority are chacing after more authentic rep. A lot of the tropes and stereotypes come from bad and/or inexperienced writing on subject matter with little knowledge (or some sociopolitical agenda.) The fact that this is even a discussion means that there is enough rep to talk about, which is showing a trend of more queer content entering the mainstream. Personally when it comes to god or bad rep, I can get behind a story where the queer characters are coming from a place of complexity, realism, and authenticity. If the character is grounded in these elements I find I really enjoy the story no matter how dark, or hair-brained the plot can get because the characters feel nuanced and modeled on reality.

  3. Pingback: 5 Favorite Anime Blog Posts from 2021 Week 47 - Crow's World of Anime

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