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[personal profile] dolorosa_12
A lot of people have been sharing Yoon Ha Lee's post, 'The problem with problematic'. In it, [personal profile] yhlee responds to criticism levelled at Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series (the first book of which is up for a Hugo this year) by trans and/or nonbinary readers — criticism which has had the effect of removing a lot of nuance from responses to the series. Worse, as [personal profile] yhlee writes, this criticism has had the effect of erasing trans readers such as himself from the discussion altogether:

All this just to say--readers are so individual in their reactions that "never write something hurtful" is untenable.

I think this is related to the going trend these days, which is to ask authors not to write works that are "problematic." But what do we really mean by that? Analysis of, say, racist or sexist elements in media is valuable, and we need more of it. But sometimes what I see is not that, but "don't write problematic works" in the sense of "don't write things that I consider hurtful."


As I am neither trans nor nonbinary, I'm not going to dictate to trans/nonbinary people how they should respond to Palmer's books (which is not what [personal profile] yhlee is doing, either), except to say that I think [personal profile] yhlee is correct when he says that Palmer's future was a dystopia telling itself that it was a utopia, and that you cannot understand her novels unless you view them from this perspective.

However, like [personal profile] yhlee, I think this response to the Terra Ignota books is a symptom of a wider problem. I saw similar discussion around queer representation in Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant, with a number of LGBT reviewers repulsed by the tragic fate of the book's queer characters, and a small minority adoring the book and feeling like their queer identities were being called into question for doing so. Amal El-Mohtar was one of the latter group, and wrote a blog post along those lines:

I’ve been watching conversations emerging — mostly on Twitter, mostly subtweeting, mostly in fits and starts — trying to categorize responses to the book according to some sort of ticky-box taxonomy of readers. I find this utterly repellent. Some people will suggest that only queer people have problems with the book, ergo it must write queer people’s lives poorly; others will counter with “well, Amal liked the book,” as if that could be the last word on the subject; still others will try to parse whether it’s my Brownness or my Queerness that has shaped my response, in pursuit of some sort of One True Response to the book.


I've not read this book, and again, I have no intention of dictating people's responses to it, or telling them that they should read a story which they are going to find upsetting and hurtful. What I find troubling is the idea that people — particularly those of (multiple) marginalised identities — feeling they have to march in ideological lockstep and respond in identical ways to identical stories, especially if there's an implication that a divergent opinion calls their marginalised identity into question (or that they have to pick and choose between one or the other of their marginalisations, as if responding to a story in a certain way means they've prioritised their identity as a POC over their identity as an LGBT person).

I have my own version of this regarding the rhetoric surrounding the 'proper' way to write women. For various reasons, partly because of my personal history, partly because of my lifelong narrative preferences, I respond much better — and will choose to read, watch or be fannish about — stories where the female characters are survivors of trauma, where their heroism has come at great cost, and where their powers are in spite of misogynistic pushback. I could list a thousand examples, but the first handful that spring to mind include the five Wives in Fury Road (victims of sexual violence), the clones in Orphan Black (who are quite literally viewed as patentable property without bodily autonomy), Jessica Jones in the Netflix TV series (a victim of sexual violence and mind-control), Laia from Sabaa Tahir's Ember in the Ashes series (who voluntarily allows herself to be enslaved in order to spy on her enemies, putting herself at constant risk of sexual and physical violence), Shahrzad from Renée Ahdieh's Wrath and the Dawn duology (a retelling of the 1001 Nights played fairly straight), Una from Sophia McDougall's Romanitas trilogy (an escaped slave with a traumatic history that's only hinted at, but which is fairly obvious if you read between the lines), Briseis and Chryseis from the Iliad (captured in war and victims of sexual violence) and Paige Mahoney from Samantha Shannon's Bone Season series, who begins the series in a very Stockholm Syndrome-y situation.

I'm not saying these are the only depictions of female characters that I respond to — some of my favourite stories entirely lack this element! — but these tend to be the fictional characters that are closest to my heart, whose stories I draw on at times when I need courage, and inspire the bulk of my fannish feelings and output. What I don't respond to, and what is very low on my list of narrative priorities, are female characters who enter their stories already powerful, suffer no trauma, and wear their power joyfully and lightly.

And yet I am constantly bombarded (at least in my corner of fandom) with categorical assertions that what female audiences want are untraumatised, joyful, uncomplicatedly happy female characters who revel in their power. This may be true for the vast majority of women and girls — as I said above, I have no intention of dictating others' storytelling preferences. But I'm told, in furious Tumblr post after furious Tumblr post, that the Whedonesque heroine — one who experiences her power as a kind of violation, and who fights at least in part as a response to trauma — is anathema, is unwanted, is hurtful to all female fans. But for me it is precisely this kind of character that gives me courage, because such characters tell me, over and over again, that I as a woman will survive, will be brave, will live on and find power in the support and community of other women, and that women with my experiences will get to be the protagonists of our own stories.

Most of the responses to [personal profile] yhlee's post (outside of the comments on the post itself) seem to have been along the lines of well, this gives us lots to chew on without really engaging in the points made. My feeling is that we'll never progress beyond this point unless people are prepared to talk about the broad spectrum of reactions to stories, and allow for this range of reactions without trying to police people's identities. I have it somewhat easy. I'm not exactly starved for narratives of my chosen type: the world abounds with stories of traumatised women taking back power for themselves, although of course some stories do it better than others. When it comes to depictions of more marginalised identities, the dearth of representation is much starker. This is precisely why the solution to bad or limited representation is not to enforce a uniform response to this representation, but rather to do everything in our power to encourage and enable more representation. (This obviously means significant structural changes to publishing, film- and television-making, and a huge amount of work in amplifying marginalised voices and making creative fields less hostile to creators of marginalised identities.) I believe enforcing a party line when it comes to people of marginalised identities responding to fictional marginalised characters is deeply harmful. I also believe that the cure for this problem is as many stories as possible, so that everyone is spoiled for choice when searching for stories that speak to them.
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