This is a topic that I’ve never seen discussed, but has been on my mind a lot recently.
I’m bringing this up after seeing some controversy last month over a recent science fiction novel release, Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie, which I’ll be taking examples from, but this applies to a wide variety of novels who have any sort of content that isn’t skipping through daisy fields (although, even that can get iffy).
I think there needs to be a line drawn between what is problematic and what is a result of the world and life (not to be confused with what is a plot device, because that can also be problematic).
Let me explain using an example.
In Hullmetal Girls, the people who have been converted into cyborgs link together in groups and share a mind. It’s a giant plot point. It means your thoughts and secrets are exposed to your group and you know their thoughts and secrets.
In the scene where the four characters get linked together, one trans character gets outed. Which seriously sucks. And is a terrible and horrible thing to happen to anyone, because nobody deserves to be outed on someone else’s terms.
A lot of people spoke out about that and it’s definitely content that can be triggering and that readers should be warned about in case reading a scene like that is bad for their mental health, which is why this needs a trigger warning (trigger warning =/= problematic, though).
But, I personally believe that this certain instance wasn’t problematic. (Triggering things aren’t always problematic.) Why?
Because it’s not used as a plot device. These few sentences that outs the trans character aren’t vital to the plot. If the character was cis, she’d still play the same exact role in the novel.
I think that if the outing was a plot point that was important to the plot of the story, it could have been problematic. But it’s not. It’s a detail that didn’t have to be included in the story, doesn’t contribute anything to the story besides added diversity, and is only an unfortunate consequence of the way this world works.
This basically means that Skrutskie wasn’t exploiting the trans character to make her novel move along, which I appreciated and took note of. It’s just an unfortunate consequence of the way the world is built. Everyone–cis or trans–is having their secrets exposed. It’s not targeted to the trans character.
And this is why I feel like we need to draw the line between what’s a result of the way the world is built and what’s actually problematic.
Because although I think the forced outing is very much potentially triggering, I don’t think problematic. It doesn’t exploit the trans character. It doesn’t turn the trans character into a plot device.
If we called every single bad and sucky thing that happened to people in books problematic, literally every book would be banned.
Hullmetal Girls would be banned for forceful outing a trans character–and forceful outing is bad and therefore the book is problematic.
The Hate U Give would be banned for people being racist to black people–and racism is bad therefore the book is problematic.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda would be banned for showing homophobia–and homophobia is bad therefore the book is problematic.
(These examples are somewhat drastic, but you get my point.)
Bad things happen to people in books. It’s a fact. Bad things happen to people in real life. It’s a consequence of the world and off life.
But that doesn’t mean that bad and triggering things make a book problematic.
I think as a reader, it’s important for us to separate when a book is actually problematic (when it’s just flat out racist/homophobic/etc.) and when something that shouldn’t happen ends up happening.†
Racism happens. Homophobia happens. Forced outings happen. And these things, as much as they suck and shouldn’t be a part of any world, real or fictional, are a part of life.
This is a big & heavy topic today, and I’m certain I could have gotten something wrong. Let me know your thoughts! Do you agree? Disagree?
I want to hear your opinions, especially if you think my interpretation is wrong so I can learn + grow + understand this better.
Would very much love to hear from some trans reviewers who have read the book & their take on that scene.
†Please note that some books that do show racism, homophobia, etc. in the world as part of the world can still be problematic. The Black Witch has a world that shows racism and homophobia etc., and that in itself is fine. But the execution of the novel contributes to racism and homophobia due to the main character not actually changing very much, and that is why the book is problematic. If the novel was executed properly, the premise certainly could have created an unproblematic book. But due to lacking execution, the novel ends up as problematic.