Teenagers in Love
June 2, 2011 1:44 PM   Subscribe

God, this is a subject that regularly infuriates me. It's so freakin' hard to find a book with lesbian characters in actual relationships that don't end it tragic death, or female bisexual characters who don't ditch their female partner for a dude (often after the tragic death of the female partner.)

I have a lot of books. But in a recent AskMe I came up with three or four (out of almost 1000) with decent girl/girl relationships, and all of them had caveats. (With the exception of Carey's latest, which is the reason I am driving 8 hours round trip in a couple weeks to shake the woman's hand.)

And my porn writer friend tells me that she can't sell anything with f/f action in it - apparently even a threesome with two chicks and a dude counts as "lesbian erotica" if the women touch each other at all, and lesbian erotica doesn't sell. At all. So (she's in it for the money) she writes straight porn for the big houses, and is going to have to self-publish the story with the threesome scene.

It's why I adore Rachel Maddow, and why I'm still mad about Tara. It's so fucking hard to find examples of people like me who are more or less happy and successful in media - any media - when I know they're out there. I know them. Goddammit, I am one. But I still feel marginalized every goddamn time I open a book.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:05 PM on June 2, 2011 [7 favorites]

In the ensuing silence I could feel the leftovers turning from food into trash on the table.

That is a wonderful tiny apple of a sentence.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:17 PM on June 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

For all their faults, books like Annie on My Mind were some comfort when I was coming out, even though I wasn't in high school any more. And to be fair, a lot of non-queer YA books send less-than-ideal messages about relationships.

Still. "Not really more terrible than straight YA fiction" is hardly a ringing endorsement for the state of queer YA lit. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why fanfic is so popular - people are writing what they want to see, and they get readers, even if no publisher would touch them with a barge pole.
posted by rtha at 2:20 PM on June 2, 2011

I was just looking around to confirm my hunch that Hey, Dollface (1978) was one of the very earliest teen-targeted novels to feature lesbianism in a positive light, and found this interesting article, which agrees:
Perhaps because the matter of homosexuality had so long been considered taboo or perhaps because its first decade of literary life, the 1970s, coincided with the rise of the problem novel, most early homosexual fiction focused more on the problem than on the fiction. A happy exception is Hey, Dollface by Esther Hautzig. Published in 1978, four years before Annie on My Mind, it is a lively, character-driven story of the awakening love between Val and Chloe.
The article is from 1997, so it definitely predates the current young-adult-fiction boom, but it's a nice historical take on the FPP's subject anyhow (and perhaps a useful counterweight to Breselor's weird, obtuse objection to "external political motives" in fiction).
posted by RogerB at 2:27 PM on June 2, 2011

and found this interesting article, which agrees:

I kinda hate that article (which I've read before), mostly for the massive unsympathetic misreading of I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip.: ""That's how 'it' happened," he tells the reader the morning after (p. 152). Subsequently Davy's beloved dog Fred is run over by a car and inevitably the boy - and the empathetic reader - infer that this is a cause-and-effect punishment for doing the now obviously awful "it.""

I've gotten into a few 'net arguments about that book with other queer readers--"killing the dog" (a phrase which of course spoils that book, but few seem eager to, you know, actually read it, despite the fact that it's awesome) has become shorthand for "a narrative punishment doled out to kids that experiment sexually" despite the fact that this is explicitly not what happens in the book in question.

Because I'll Get There ends ambiguously--the main character feels some residual guilt about his sexual experimentation, while his dad assures him he has nothing to be ashamed of. His father also tells him that people--like his homophobic mother--believe hateful and harmful things, and that they shouldn't be listened to. And, though the main character seems to come to the conclusion that he's not gay, the boy he kisses sort of shrugs and refuses to feel guilty about it--he says that the MC should do whatever he's comfortable with, but he certainly won't feel guilty about it. And all of this happens in 1969. Which is really pretty revolutionary.

I think there's a difficult tension in perceptions of teen YA when looked at by adult queer readers in that many adults want these stories to be either very straightforward coming-out stories, where the characters experiment, then embrace queer identity whole-heartedly, or they want them to be like straight romances, but with gay characters. But teen sexuality and labeling and behavior is a lot messier than that. As a bisexual, it's especially difficult for me to fully get on board with that, because it's really rare to see narratives of pansexuality or queerness in teen lit, and the push toward these more straightforward narratives has a side-effect of bi-erasure.

So. Yeah. I dunno. That article makes me grar.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:42 PM on June 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

But, on a related note, recently read this self-published YA that's a gay retelling of the Persephone myth that had an unabashedly positive lesbian relationship at the center.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:45 PM on June 2, 2011

On Writing Gay Characters is extremely relevant here
posted by Blasdelb at 2:53 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

And, having finally read to the end of the OP (sorry, was working), I guess that sort of seems to be part of the author's point, too: that these messy narratives of teens yearning for heteronormativity are actually somewhat true, and many books on the other side are kind of terribly unliterary/kinda bad. Like, I recently read this Alex Sanchez book about bisexuals called "Boyfriends with Girlfriends" and though the queer girl's story really resonated with me, I kind of wanted them all to shut up about how being a bisexual is okay and jesus christ, he actually ended the book with a rainbow flag flying over her head, like, literally.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:59 PM on June 2, 2011

I remember reading They'll Never Make a Movie Starring Me but the apparent lesbianism apparently flew right over my head at the time. The only part I really remember from that book is when Alice dyes her hair and it doesn't seem to turn out very well. Maybe my adult mind will understand it better :-)
posted by Calzephyr at 3:04 PM on June 2, 2011

Yeah, I tend to avoid coming-of-age novels for that reason - whatever the big crisis is, the odds that it will be handled subtlety are pretty damned low.

I hear the issue of bi-erasure - my best book-bitching friend is bi and has rather a lot to say on the topic. But I have trouble getting past the collective message that it's fine if you like fooling around with girls, because you're going to end up with a boy anyway. Sure, that seems statistically true from my rather limited and chronically single perspective, but it's not very friendly to those of us for whom that isn't an acceptable option, and frankly I don't think it does bisexual women any favors either.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:06 PM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it's really, really hard--and I'm not sure what the answer is, and particularly what it should have been for these historical books (I can't help but feel, in many ways, like it's just not patently fair to look at them without taking historic context into account). I think teens yearn for narratives that make them feel "normal," and the truth is that a lot of messy sexual experimentation and intense crushes of all sorts are normal--and that ultimately, some girls who do that stuff will end up gay, some will end up bi and in relationships with women, or relationships with men, and some will end up straight. And often the "end result" (so to speak) of the process of coming into your sexual identity isn't even evident until you're in your twenties. I think it's hard for authors to balance the need to reassure teen audiences with the need to tell an honest story.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:14 PM on June 2, 2011

Yeah, I'm less specifically concerned with novels aimed at teenagers than just the media milieu as a whole. Maybe I should be - this kind of social change is definitely generational, and teens now who read stuff that broadens their perspectives may be the people who write the books I feel we're missing in ten or twenty years.

But that doesn't make my personal library any less depressing.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:20 PM on June 2, 2011

I think I was lucky to be a teenager in a big city in the 1990s. As an early teenager, I remember reading (and watching) Maurice (still a favorite) and watching the first gay character on One Life to Live; a few years later, I saw When Night is Falling and then the movie of Orlando - and then I discovered an entire gay & lesbian collection at the public library. None of these novels/films were aimed specifically at teenagers (which was fine for me), but they filled my need to learn more about glb & gender-queer people.

I also read The Well of Loneliness - but I never counted that as a "lesbian is cured" novel, but that it spoke to the pain and difficulty of being gay at the time. The bi-character ends up leaving her lover for an easier relationship with a man, and the lesbian ends up alone - but not repentent, just angry and asking for God to change the world.
posted by jb at 3:48 PM on June 2, 2011

Oh - there is one book I remember, only now I can't remember the title. It involved two girls from a small town who were in a relationship, and then moved to New York City -- it was set in the 1950s. Mostly what I remember is that both were confused by the butch-femme dichotemy in the lesbian community (they didn't want to have to choose a role and stick to it). Anyone remember this book?
posted by jb at 4:03 PM on June 2, 2011

Teenagers in Love

Has anyone called Dion & the Belmonts?
posted by jonmc at 5:44 PM on June 2, 2011

Weird example y'all probably haven't thought of, but Judith Krantz did two lesbian relationships (not main characters). I didn't like Princess Daisy too much and I remember very little of it, but there was one in it. The one I remember is Fernanda in Dazzle, who's spent her entire life (and getting married 5 times) trying to find the guy who can get her off....and instead she gets off with a sweet lady. I thought that was pretty adorable, except for the part where the lady was married. But oh well.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:46 PM on June 2, 2011

Ah, after much googling, I found that the book I remembered was Side by Side by Isabel Miller, which I (mistakenly) thought was a sequel to her Patricia and Sarah or A Place for Use. These are good books for young women.
posted by jb at 8:07 PM on June 2, 2011

sorry - that should be A Place for Us
posted by jb at 8:08 PM on June 2, 2011

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