I think we need to have a discussion about “accurate representation” versus “non-damaging representation.” Remember the whole “do no harm” adage? Okay. We’re not doctors. We’re writers. But we can probably all agree that when we write a story, we don’t set out to harm our audience. God no. But when our stories about underrepresented characters become echoes of the same story, over and over, that’s exactly what we do.
I first started thinking about this pretty recently actually, during a conversation with a writer friend about a book with a genderfluid main character. The friend said some things that made a lot of sense to me. I’m still thinking about it and still learning, but the sort-of-conclusion I’ve come to is this: with writing diversity, there’s a fine line to walk between “accurate” and “damaging.” It’s true that real, bad things happen to minorities. We deal with obstacles that white cishet able neurotypical thin beautiful people never even have to consider. Sometimes we internalize these things and we sometimes then develop harmful relationships with ourselves. Not writing about these things creates inaccurate and bad representation. However, ONLY writing about these things leads to (in my opinion) a worse, more insidious problem.
Let’s say we’re talking about trans stories. I’m going to talk about transness because I’m trans and I can speak from the heart. It is very very accurate to write a story with a transgender character who is a victim of a hate crime, sexual assault, bullying, harassment, threats, violence, murder. That is a WILDLY accurate representation of reality. Trans people deal with these things every day. But writing stories only about these things leads all people, trans or not, to believe that these are the experiences that we should expect to have. Of course that transgirl was raped. They always get raped. We always get raped.
The Book of Contention everyone is talking about has to do with weight loss and mental illness, but the same ideas apply. I believe it is probably accurate to tell a story in which a fat girl becomes thin and finds love. I’m actually POSITIVE this accurately represents real experiences because thin people are treated like intelligent, capable humans and fat people aren’t. But why is this the story we’re telling? Why do we want another book that says, “Hey, fat teenage girl, you’ll be worthy of love if only you lose weight”? It’s just so damaging. Especially if a kid goes into a book with their guard down, looking for a mirror, and gets slapped with the same narrative again and again. They’re going to start to believe it. Everyone is subconsciously trained to believe it. This is why the status quo is maintained.
This conversation gets lost in “It’s that author’s prerogative to write anything she wants” and it’s even more difficult for the conversation to gain traction when the representation is technically accurate. But what if I’m tired, guys? What if I’m tired of trans people only being interesting when we’re dead? Of fat people only being worthy once they’re thin? Of mentally ill people only being acceptable if it’s made clear that they’re broken? And when? When is it okay for us to ask to stop being represented in this way? When is it okay to say enough?