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Does an Anti-Gay Character Make (Gay Author) Bennett Madison’s Teen Book Homophobic?

4331-07 copy

If a book for teens includes two characters with nascent homophobia, does that make the book homophobic? Bennett Madison, the 28-year-old young adult author of The Blonde of the Joke, happens to be a big ‘mo. Which makes it curious to see one of his books labeled as anti-gay.

In a brief review on Rainbow Books (where LGBT teen books are blurbed), the book is described:

Val is one of those students at high school who just blends in. She doesn’t have any particular friends, she skates by with a B+ average though she could do better; her physics teacher can’t even remember her name.

Then Francie joins her class and everything changes. Francie is flamboyant, defiant, she smokes, she’s always late to class, her clothing pushes the dress code: she’s nowhere in Val’s league. But for some reason, she latches onto Val, who is astonished and grateful, and willingly learns to smoke, cut class, and learn the skills of shoplifting from Francie.

[Ed: Excuse our own ignorance here; we have not read the book.]

blonde

Enter the alleged homophobia:

Val is even a little bit in love with Francie, although “not in a lesbo way.” Homophobia rears its ugly head in this book, with Val, and her brother’s ex-girlfriend referring to him as a fag, and their mother unable to fully accept him. Fourteen year old Francie sets out to “cure” him by dressing particularly provocatively, and then can’t handle it when she gets attention from a group of construction workers.

Fissures start to edge into the friendship, and it all comes crumbling down one day at the mall as Val and Francie realize that their vows to be there for each other can’t address the real issues each of them is facing. An interesting psychological story of a friendship built on the shaky structure of two girls each needing something that the other ultimately can’t give.

And this conclusion:

This would be a much better book without the homophobia–or if it was something that the characters worked through.

A perhaps stunned Madison replied to the site earlier this month, in this lengthy rebuttal:

Hi there!

I’m the author of The Blonde of the Joke, and although I usually try to let reviews lie, I surely don’t want anyone getting the impression that I intended this book to be homophobic. In fact, I am an open and enthusiastic gay myself!

And although it’s certainly possible to be both gay and homophobic– just as it is of course possible for a novel to carry meaning outside and beyond the intentions of its author– I do think it’s a little unfair to label a book as homophobic simply because the characters use slurs. Characters are characters.

I’d rather not get into a discussion of why the Francie and Val behave the way they do and use the words they do, because I think that those deliberations should be left to the reader. It’s part of the process of reading the book.

But a few questions that I hope readers consider: Why are the girls using these words? What does it say about them and their own relative positions of power that they speak this way? Are Francie and Val homophobes? (Hint: the answers to these questions may be different for each girl!)

When Val reassures herself that her bathroom makeout with Francie is “not a lesbo thing,” what are the implications? Is it realistic that she would think this way?

When Francie dresses as a ho for the supposed benefit of Val’s gay brother, is it because she really thinks she can “turn” him? Either way, what does it say about Francie that she says this?

And let’s say that Francie and Val are indeed at least a little homophobic. Does this mean that they’re not suitable characters for fiction?

The last question is the one I can answer easily: no, it doesn’t. A writer’s job isn’t to create saintly characters as models of good behavior for readers. Characters without flaws– even, at times, ugly and discomfiting flaws– are bad characters, and bad characters make bad literature. In order to be interesting, characters must sometimes behave in ways we don’t approve of. (The ill-tempered murderer Raskolnikov, racist-mouthed Huck Finn and pill-addled/ego-crazed Neely O’Hara all spring instantly to mind.)

Many have suggested to me that a writer of books for young people bears an added responsibility when it comes to matters such as these. After
all, mightn’t some impressionable youngster read my book and come away with the notion that it’s okay to go around calling people “fag”?

I mean, possibly, sure. But I give my audience more credit than that, even if it’s largely underage. I have no choice as a writer but to trust that my readers understand that I’m not endorsing any of the questionable behavior that the characters in my book engage in. There’s a lot of it. Besides the occasional homophobic slur, Val and Francie also perpetrate countless feats of extreme shoplifting,
indulge in outrageously profligate cigarette-smoking, drink while underage, smoke a little weed, skip class and curse without remorse, and– worst of all in my mind– inflict several cruel and petty betrayals upon each other.

So am I telling teenagers to go out and act this way? Of course not. Am I telling teenagers not to? No, not that either. It’s not my intention as a writer to tell anyone what to do. Everyone can do as he or she pleases. All I ask of anyone who reads my work– teen or otherwise– is to think about it carefully and questions.

It reminds us a smidge of movies like The Hangover, where Bradley Cooper’s character is screaming the word “faggot” — but does that make the entire film homophobic? Are its directors, writers, and producers? Or can we have a mildly anti-gay character (who might not hate homos, but certainly doesn’t use friendly language), or even an overt homophobe, without making the entire creation something to get GLAAD upset about?

An obvious trick is to make homophobic characters “the bad guys.” Surely we can’t cheer for someone who offends us!

By:           editor editor
On:           Nov 23, 2009
Tagged: , ,
  • 23 Comments
    • Landon Bryce
      Landon Bryce

      As is obvious from the comments here, gay people often write horrible, homophobic things, and usually deny that it is possible that they could be anti-gay. At least Madison knows that some gay people are homophobic. The book is homophobic because Madison offers no characters who are positive about homosexuality– they all act like it’s a sleazy disease.

      Rad the book before you defend it, please.

      It’s a nasty piece of shit.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 10:38 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • FakeName
      FakeName

      The review sounds very surface-level in its analysis. Like the reviewers were working off some checklist in deciding that the book is homophobic. I haven’t read the book and don’t plan to (I get my doses of teen angst from “The Vampire Diaries” and “Glee” on TV) but it sounds like the author attempted to create characters of a little bit more psychological complexity than the usual teenager. Queerty points out what a lo of people miss, that “pro-gay” and “anti-gay” is not a simple coin toss and that the same character (and real person) can be (and usually are) a blend of both.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 10:59 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • John
      John

      Looks like a good answer to critics to me. This fiction. Homophobia exists. It is a suitable topic for a fictional story. Realism (balance) is not a relevant issue in literature. Apparently some people, like Landon Bryce, cannot distinguish fiction from reality. I think better of most people.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 11:20 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Landon Bryce
      Landon Bryce

      Again, and without the typo, people who have not read the book will naturally want to side with the author. Heck, lots of people thought BRUNO wasn’t anti-gay, and I am easily offended. But- anti-gay attitudes go basically unchallenged in this book, as they do in most schools. I don’t think Madison is a skillful enough writer to draw the nuanced picture he intends, and the book comes across as being written by a gay men who dislikes gay men and hates women. He writes like he is unable to distinguish Huck Finn from Neely O’Hara, two characters he holds up as models in his letter.

      Of course, people will continue to defend Madison’s right to create fiction that is hostile to decent treatment for gay teens.

      And they’ll do it without having read the work they’re defending.

      I don’t think anyone who read and didn’t write the book is going to leap to the author’s defense (and there will be comprehension test for anyone who claims to have, so don’t bother).

      It’s not good. It is anti-gay.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 11:33 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Bill
      Bill

      Landon at Comment #1 states:

      “The book is homophobic because Madison offers no characters who are positive about homosexuality– they all act like it’s a sleazy disease.”

      _________________________________________________________________________________

      I don’t know what planet Landon is living on, because 99% of heterosexuals DO act like homosexuality is a ‘sleazy disease.’ And they have no remorse about the despicable ways that they treat gay people.

      Perhaps this author was reflecting a societal truth in his art?

      Just a thought.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 11:43 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mike L.
      Mike L.

      Just from what I read I can surmise that Francie is gay herself and when trying to change Val’s bro by making herself ho’ish it is like a metaphor of her trying to change HERSELF.

      Dunno.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 12:05 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • FakeName
      FakeName

      Landon sez: “Of course, people will continue to defend Madison’s right to create fiction that is hostile to decent treatment for gay teens.

      And they’ll do it without having read the work they’re defending.”

      I would hope everyone would defend Madison’s and everyone else’s right to create works of whatever stripe regardless of what treatment that fiction is or isn’t supposedly advocating toward anyone, and would defend it vigorously. The alternative is a country in which acceptable subject matter is determined by force of law. We already had that in the US, from inception until 1957 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roth_v._United_States) and gay publications were among those deemed automatically unacceptable (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One,_Inc._v._Olesen). Obviously I am not a fan of creative works that demean LGBT people but given the choice of freedom or restriction, I’ll choose the former every time.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 12:33 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • William Day
      William Day

      Am I the only one who thinks Mike L. hit the nail on the head there?

      Nov 23, 2009 at 12:43 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • terrwill
      terrwill

      Bennett Madison: There are plenty of outlets for teens to get a dose of homophobia in various media today. As a Gay, one would hope that if you do in fact add homophobia into your novels that you provide a “happy ending” for those negativley affected by said homophobia. I am not saying that the offending party be gang raped and ravaged by a bunch of rabid lesbians, but rather somehow give the message that it is unacceptable and just accept the Gays as no big deal. Again you proclaim yourself as a Gay (and kinda hot at that) please don’t follow the lead of the haters of the Gays and make it ok for homophobial to be acceptable in any form whatsoever……………

      Nov 23, 2009 at 12:44 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • William Day
      William Day

      @TERRWILL

      So, your argument is that people shouldn’t write tragedies anymore because there’s enough sorrow in the world already?

      Nov 23, 2009 at 12:49 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • terrwill
      terrwill

      William Day; No silly, there is enough hatefull homophobia thrown at Gay teens from the righwing-nutbag zealots. I don’t think it is ok that the poo is also being spewed their direction from a Gay. Bennet has a platform in which he can deflect some of the vile shit the Gay teens encounter and he should use that platform to do some good………………..

      Nov 23, 2009 at 1:34 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • William Day
      William Day

      @ Terrwill

      Who is to say that he isn’t doing some good? Being the main character and being the hero do not neccesarily go hand in hand. The fact that homophobia exists in his works does not mean he condones it. If everyone in his novels got along just dandy and there was no conflict, not only would it not bear any resemblance to reality, it would also be bloody boring.

      I really need to find a copy of this book, I very much dislike discussing works that I am not familiar with, but it seems to me that a story about a young woman who lashes out and is unpleasant as a result of her own conflicted feelings about herself is perfectly true to life. Teenagers do that sort of thing all the time. I should know, I still am one, despite the rapid approach of my 20th.

      My apologies for this slightly rambling post, but I do feel quite strongly about this sort of issue, with people infighting and branding our allies as traitors.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 1:54 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Landon Bryce
      Landon Bryce

      William:

      Write if you do read the book– I’ll be very interested to know if you’re as disappointed as I was. I’m not opposed to characters being morally ambiguous, and I don’t think works for kids need to be lesson driven. One of the reasons I like the works of Edward Bloor is that he doesn’t whitewash bigotry or treat complex issues simplistically. I did not find depth or psychologically interesting people in The Blonde of the Joke. Instead, I found a writer who seemed not to know why he was telling this particular story or why I should be interested in these awful, shallow people. “The World of Henry Orient” offered a much more insightful, complex treatment of similar issues fifty years ago. “The Year of Ice” is an infinitely superior modern novel about a somewhat homophobic gay kid that I also like a lot.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 2:18 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • William Day
      William Day

      @Landon Bryce

      I should probably have my gay card revoked for not already knowing this, but can you tell me the authors names? I know I’ve heard of “The World of Henry Orient” before, but I can’t think where.

      And I will try to find “The Blonde of the Joke”, although, is Madison an American author? Here in Blighty, unless someone has quite substantial fame, foreign “niche” writers don’t get published. You can’t find the works of Brent Hartinger for love nor money out here.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 2:30 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • FPS
      FPS

      I did read the book — and I’m gay — and have no idea what any of you people are talking about. It is beyond laughable to suggest that Mr. Madison’s book “comes across as being written by a gay men who dislikes gay men and hates women.” There is absolutely no evidence to support such a preposterous claim. Clearly you would like to live in a sanitized world where teenagers don’t use language like this all the time? It might be a better use of your time to get offended by things that are actually offensive.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 4:30 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Yuki
      Yuki

      I may not be a published author, but I love to write. Coming from that perspective… simply because some characters are homophobic in the book does NOT make it homophobic. I admit that I’ve not read it, but books sometimes are meant to reflect realism; there’s a huge difference in something like, say, Boy Meets Boy in which people are completely fine with any sexuality and “Ooh, I think he likes you!” to a guy is completely normal in a high school setting, and this book in which the characters have psychological issues.

      From what I can garner of the description, it is not meant to be homophobic. The characters are meant to overcome their issues and even reflect real-life experiences that some people may have.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 4:54 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • WillBFair
      WillBFair

      I don’t have time to read teen fiction. But this seems like pretty shallow stuff. Of course he has a right to write it. And he’s probably an ok stylist. He’s also probably too young and ignorant to treat serious topics. He reminds me of that barebacker who wrote Milk telling the world at the DC rally that his love is pure and sacred. Please. Give Madison ten years and he may produce something decent.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 9:06 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Matthew Rettenmund
      Matthew Rettenmund

      THE HANGOVER example is interesting; that movie *is* homophobic, and that scene certainly is. For me, it never bothers me if homophobia is in a movie unless it seems as if the homophobia is used as a way to win over the audience and get them to relate. In other words, like in TEEN WOLF or THE HANGOVER, where you’ve got slurs used in a “yeah, I totally agree!” kind of way. Not at all bothered by books or movies where the homophobia is realistic and it’s clear the work isn’t endorsing it. Not sure what the case is with this teen book, though.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 9:15 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Nancy Silverrod
      Nancy Silverrod

      As the reviewer quoted above, I want to make the point that I look at the books I review in the context of other current books, as well as considering them within the context of what has historically been published on the subject.

      I stated that I felt the book would have been better either without the expressed homophobia, or if it had been handled in a different way. I did not say the book (or the author) were homophobic.

      People who read reviews of children’s and young adult literature do so for a number of reasons: to sell them in a bookstore, put them on the shelves at a library, and to make recommendations to young people about what new books might be good reads. In the case of books which address LGBT issues, it is important that the reviewer discuss how those issues are handled, particularly if a young LGBTQQ person is likely to read the book.

      I think Madison has written a very intriguing psychological novel, and I still think that the homophobic remarks expressed by the characters were unnecessary to the plot, and detract from an otherwise fascinating book. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book to an LGBTQQ teen. Other teens are likely to find it quite interesting; my blog, however, aims to recommend (or not), books specifically for an LGBTQQ youth audience.

      Nov 23, 2009 at 11:17 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Brian
      Brian

      Childish Landon Bryce comments. Enough.

      Nov 24, 2009 at 10:59 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • TommyOC
      TommyOC

      A pro-gay book doesn’t have to be overtly pro-gay. More important than how the gay character is treated concerns how the gay character reacts. And that reaction is the message little ‘mos far and wide will take from the book.

      Nov 24, 2009 at 3:01 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • PopSnap
      PopSnap

      I understand what he means. Just step into any high school in Ameirca, you’ll hear “Faggot!” and “That’s gay” ect. but if you asked them if they thought gay people should get married 9 out of 10 you’ll usually get “Sure, why not? It doesnt bother me/ I don’t care”.

      Nov 24, 2009 at 3:23 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • FigureitOut
      FigureitOut

      It seems like the majority of people who have left comments here have not even read the book. I suggest that before speculating, all of these people go out and get the book. At least pay the author that respect.

      Coming from someone who HAS read the book, most of these comments seem pretty far off-base. The book has little to do with homosexuality at all–there are a few offhanded comments that are basically just to shape the characters. But I don’t think its unnecessary at all. Each “homophobic” comment adds more psychological depth to each character, and ultimately makes them more interesting, which I think is what Madison was trying to do.

      The way I interpreted it, the brother’s ex-girlfriend called him a fag in an endearing way, not a bitter way–she was jealous that he wasn’t into her, because she was obviously still loved him. Criticize all you want about how “fag” can’t be a term of endearment, but I think its closer to that than a homophobic slur. As for the bathroom makeout, I don’t think that Val was “reassuring herself” that it was not a lesbo thing, she was merely stating it. It didn’t seem to me that it was necessarily negative. I think that just because Bennett didn’t say it in some ultra-pc gushy way, everyone interpreted it as homophobic, but to me Val was just being a normal person who wasn’t overly sensitizing homosexuality. In doing this, he’s making homosexuality NORMAL, which is progressive, not homophobic.

      It seems to me like Madison is simply writing a book written for the people of his generation. I think Madison’s use of language shows that he is actually much more progressive and open about homosexuality than anyone else who has read/reviewed this book, because he’s using the language not as slurs but actually twisting the slurs to have a different, less negative meaning.

      And come on. Really? Please don’t compare Madison’s use of language to the Hangover. He’s not using it to be funny or to gain popularity from 20 year old frat-boy tools. If you can’t figure that out, you need to become a more savvy reader. This book is extremely well written and clever, and the exact opposite of homophobic.

      Dec 2, 2009 at 8:30 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·

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