Problematic vs. Plot: When Bad Things Happen & People Act Badly, but It’s a Consequence of the Book

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.

much love, vicky

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 problematicThe 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.





26 thoughts on “Problematic vs. Plot: When Bad Things Happen & People Act Badly, but It’s a Consequence of the Book

  1. You made a good point.
    Sometimes i come across reviews that call out authors for having negative opinions about people or things, whereas it’s just how the world they are creating work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yeah, I feel like bad things happening are a part of books, but there’s a difference between writing a bad thing & portraying it badly or never resolving it, and there’s also bad things happening because that’s just how things work.

      I think worlds with bad things (see: the black witch) can definitely end up bad, but just not all of them are?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read that particular book, but I also have noticed that it’s a problem. My biggest frustration though, is when authors (often of fantasy) include for ex. racism in their world (or any opression) and never have any characters talk against it or point it out as wrong in any way. I think there’s different degrees of problematic as well, even the word problematic makes me cringe now, but what else can you call it? Like I’ve passed on several books because it’s promoted as having a disabled mc and they are magically cured, which is not something I (chronically ill) want to be reading while being really sick (but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book necessarily). I wish I knew how to easier get though the nuances of talking about these things

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely think including racism and not addressing it is not a great thing *cough*the black witch*cough* 😦

      Problematic is a huge spectrum of sorts and there’s definitely a wide range it can go.

      And about your example, I think you’re spot on. I feel like there’s a difference between reading something that you don’t want to read (i.e. people being magically cured, Asian girls dying) and the idea actually being problematic? If it’s something that happens really frequently in novels, then it could end up problematic (see: black sidekicks getting killed) because the author is being lazy and now relying on stereotypes, but when it’s a relatively rare occurrence, bad things happening don’t always have to be problematic or make it a bad book.

      thanks for stopping by! you bring up a lot of great points!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t read the book, but I followed a bit what happened on Twitter.
    Anyway… my opinion is mixed.
    Another thing that I heard is that one of the ace character was exposed to a sex scene because of the link. Anyway, as a person in the a-spectrum myself, I didn’t feel like seeing or feeling a random sex scene is a problem itself (still not something I would like to feel. Seeing sexaul content is not a problem for me, on the contrary). Yet I get why someone can be disturbed by this.
    So, to be honest, my only critique to the author at the moment would be about having done a poor choice with showing the characters’ identity. Not that it happened itself. It just happened. But was that really necessary, using determinated scenes and feelings?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These things happening (forced outings, forced sex visualization) aren’t things we want happening in real life. But I also feel like it doesn’t warrant the giant label “PROBLEMATIC” because bad things happen in books, especially when it couldn’t really have been avoided due to how the world was built, y’know?

      The mind linking thing has a whole other purpose in mind, and I feel like these things (the outing & the forced sex visualization) are a side result of that and sort of part of what makes the book body horror.

      It definitely really sucks to see, but I don’t really know how they could have avoided this happening in the novel. It’s definitely something that needs trigger warnings etc., because readers need to know if these things happening. I’m not really sure what you mean by the last paragraph, do you mind clarifying? Or maybe an example about showing the character’s identity better? I’m a tad confused, sorry!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sorry, for reasons my phone is messing up with the answers 😓 Let me try again 😂 I was trying to say that maybe there could have been a way for the characters to speak up on their own before being linked, knowing what it would happen. Since I don’t know how the book went, this is just a guess. At least to be ready. Anyway, at the same time, if I was one of the character, knowing about the link I would be “oh, well, if it’s inevitable”… so is not like I don’t get what you’re saying.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. yeah, it’s unfortunate they just didn’t really have a lot of time to interact before they were all shoved in a room together and linked together.


        Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a great post, Vicky! And something we all need to be aware of. I definitely feel people need to sit down and properly critique novels — use their critical thinking skills — to discover if a book or a scene is actually problematic or just, you know, the actual plot. I feel like a lot of books that book twitter has kind of taken down fall into the latter category and it’s a bit disheartening to see so many people take scenes out of context or not critically engage with a text. There are definitely books that are problematic — hello, The Black Witch — but I think that if someone doesn’t like something in a novel or is upset by something, that doesn’t automatically mean that the book is problematic. There are plenty of books in which I didn’t personally like (or was upset by) the representation of bisexuality (the first one that comes to mind is Autoboyography) but that doesn’t mean the books are bad or dangerous or problematic.
    Not every piece of fiction is ever going to be 100% unproblematic because no human being is 100% unproblematic. That’s just not the way the world — or people — work! And fiction is a reflection of humanity.
    (Also! This case is why trigger warnings should be the norm too!!)
    Awesome post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your insightful comment, Laura! and yeah, I think book twitter can DEFINITELY get a bit crazy about things, especially when most of the people haven’t read the book :S

      Even off of book twitter and on goodreads, I see people take passages out of context ALL THE TIME.

      This was such a wonderful comment honestly I think you said what I was trying to say, but better XD. I feel like all fiction that isn’t sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns could be bad, but it doesn’t make them problematic.

      (& trigger warnings are so important!!!)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a great topic, Vicky! There’s this cyberpunk game that came out earlier this year called “The Red Strings Club,” and there was a bit of a kerfuffle because it has a scene where a trans character gets deadnamed by another character. But it’s a shitty thing said by a shitty character and doesn’t detract from the fact that the trans character is interesting and very well-written. Plus, one of the developers is trans so it doesn’t really makes sense for cis people to be all up in arms about it.

    The line between showing problematic behaviour in a responsible way and contributing to problematic behaviour can be a fine one. But it’s still there and we should learn to recognize it instead of pulling out the pitchforks every time.

    Also, I really should be commenting on your blog more instead of just lurking. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oh lol don’t worry about lurking! i’m just awed people are reading my stuff lolol

      and YES! I think problematic behavior doesn’t always make a book problematic, especially if its done correctly and denounced in a certain way. the twitter mob mentality can get really crazy sometimes!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with some of your points here but I also kind of feel that because the outing wasn’t a plot point it made it more problematic? It was hurtful and problematic in the way it was handled by the characters and while I appreciate that none of the characters treated them differently (which was nice), I just don’t know that it was necessary. That whole scene kind of read to me like checking boxes for diversity and it didn’t sit well with me personally. Not to mention I don’t appreciate the author coming into reviewer’s spaces to go after them for being bothered by this content. It all just sat wrong for me personally.

    Great post, Vicky!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmm, I’m just wondering how the characters could have handled it better, because the way I read it was they were all put into a room together by the Marshal and bam! linked together with barely any warning. Do you mean how they reacted?

      I feel like it did seem a little like Skrutskie was unveiling all her diverse characters in one place but I guess I’m just not really sure about how she could have written that better based on how the story & exos work.

      The going after reviewers thing was definitely not right and I in no way condone that! That’s a very separate issue though (authors should never do that) and different from what could make the book problematic.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If I am being honest I just kind of wish the whole scene didn’t happen; I think that the character reactions were pretty true to what would occur if I were in that kind of situation. For me the scene didn’t really do anything for the story overall and I personally found it to be a way to reveal a bunch of diversity in the cast of characters in one fell swoop.

        I don’t know that the scene was necessary, and that fact is what makes it a little more problematic for me if that makes sense?

        Thanks for asking those probing questions! I really do enjoy talking through things like this and you are making me think about things in different ways, which I really appreciate! Problematic kind of is a catchall word now and I think that the root of your discussion topic definitely does ring true the more I think about it. Maybe this isn’t problematic, but it definitely was unnecessary in my opinion and I don’t know how else to describe that?


      2. Ahhh I see! I guess Skrutskie could (if she really wanted to) move that scene later in the book and not dump it all at once.

        Problematic has definitely grown into an umbrella term for a wide range of things, and I wish we could define some things better than just labeling problematic on it! I get what you mean that it probably wasn’t the best way to introduce diversity to the novel :/


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