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5 March 2013

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QUILTBAG Protagonists in SF/F YA Literature

Science fiction and fantasy, as both a literary and movie/TV genre, has been dominated by straight white males for decades. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in his roles from Terminator to Total Recall. Consider Christian Bale and Tom Cruise in their leading manly-man roles in science fiction films like Equilibrium, Minority Report, Batman and soon to be released Oblivion. Given that a good number of these films are based on the works by literary greats like Philip K Dick, Asimov and others, this straight white male syndrome seems prevalent in the genre, and is sadly true for YA fiction as well.


By: Suzanne van Rooyen

Firstly, that’s a lot of acronyms for a title. Let’s unpack that.

QUILTBAG = queer, unisex, intersex, lesbian, trans, bi, asexual, gay - a convenient acronym, which pretty much covers the complete spectrum of human sexuality.

SF/F = science fiction and fantasy - self-explanatory really, this acronym refers to all the various subgenres contained within these two broader genres.

YA = young adult - a market in literature aimed at 12-18 year olds.

So now that we’ve got that out of the way, what’s the issue?


Science fiction and fantasy, as both a literary and movie/TV genre, has been dominated by straight white males for decades. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in his roles from Terminator to Total Recall. Consider Christian Bale and Tom Cruise in their leading manly-man roles in science fiction films like Equilibrium, Minority Report, Batman and soon to be released Oblivion. Given that a good number of these films are based on the works by literary greats like Philip K Dick, Asimov and others, this straight white male syndrome seems prevalent in the genre, and is sadly true for YA fiction as well.

Let’s look at recent YA smashhits: Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. J.K Rowling’s series featured a straight white male protagonist, Stephenie Meyer’s series featured a straight white leading couple (I’ll get to Jacob in a minute) and Suzanne Collins’s dystopian series featured a straight white love triangle.

Only after the success of Harry Potter, both as a novel series and as a movie franchise, did it surface that Rowling had always thought of Dumbledore as gay, not that this was ever made apparent in either the novels or the movies. Why not?

There are numerous articles about Twilight and possible racism floating around the net. Regardless of how you interpret the fact that Native Americans were the ‘animals’ in the story, what surprised me even more than a centuries old vampire willingly repeating high school, was the lack of sexual fluidity so apparent in vampire characters from the works of progenitors like Anne Rice. Even the True Blood vampires explored same sex partnerships. But Twilight didn’t feature a single gay main character. And neither does another super popular vampire series: The Vampire Diaries. Meet Damon and Stefan Salvatore - white and straight despite being centuries old vampires who confound just about every social more. Meet Elena Gilbert and her brother - straight and white. Meet the sidekicks Caroline, Matt, and Tyler - straight and white. Bonnie is the only smudge of colour on the cast and she’s a witch (why is no one screaming racial stereotypes?). There is one gay character but his appearance is fleeting and has little bearing on the mostly white, all straight main cast.

And now The Hunger Games. There was an uproar at the time of casting for the movie adaptation of the book when they cast Amandla Stenberg as Rue. Why is Rue black - fans protested. Why not? Is every character in a YA book white and straight until proven otherwise? Another character in The Hunger Games, played by Lenny Kravitz in the film, is referred to as ‘the gay guy.’ Kravitz is quoted to having said he didn’t want to play Cinna ‘too gay.’ In the novel, his sexuality is never expressly stated. He’s simply a stylist and designer, so once again stereotyping runs rampant.

YA protagonists are only gay, lesbian, bi or transgender when it’s a contemporary issue book like The Perks of Being a Wallflower starring the fabulous Patrick. I can’t name a single best-selling SF/F YA title featuring a gay, lesbian or bi - never mind transgendered - protagonist. Can you?

There is a huge gap, not only in the market, but in the mindset. Why can’t QUILTBAG individuals be the heroes? They can - just look at pansexual Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood fame, played by the openly gay and awesome John Barrowman. This is the type of heroic character I want to see in YA SF/F. While getting this sort of book out to the public through self-publishing may be the easiest route, publishing this sort of book by traditional means is proving trickier.

My own book Obscura Burning - a hybrid contemporary issue (my character’s sexuality is the least of his issues!) come science fiction novel - features a white bisexual male protagonist who has relationships with a Native American girl and a Latino guy. When I submitted this novel to agents they liked it but were nervous about the content. Thankfully, an indie press wasn’t afraid of taking on my novel and all its ‘questionable’ content. This is the beauty of the indie industry: they’re not afraid to take on books that might be controversial.

There is a conspicuous lack of QUILTBAG main characters in science fiction and fantasy literature especially in YA, just as there is a conspicuous lack of racially diverse characters in this genre. I can’t believe this is still an issue in 2013. But here’s to hoping things will change thanks to the efforts of courageous authors, fearless publishers and unprejudiced readers.




About Today's Guest Writer:

Suzanne is the author of the cyberpunk novel Dragon’s Teeth (Divertir), the YA science fiction novel Obscura Burning (Etopia) and has had several short stories published by Golden Visions Magazine, Space and Time and Niteblade. Her non-fiction articles on travel, music and other topics can be found scattered throughout the Internet. 


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