literacy

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

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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.]

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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!