I was reading reviews of a lesbian book that’s advertised as very dark and reception to that book seems polarized. It got me thinking about the permissible limits of lesbian media and how those are different from the limits of M/F or M/M media.
I don’t care to relitigate the ‘messy queer art’ discourse since I remain firm on my stance that the content is not the messiness, as it were, so I’ll be talking simply in terms of content in and of itself rather than speculations about authorial intent or experiences. The definition of dark varies widely; there’s some content touted as dark that I find very silly, and content touted as dark that I go ‘hm, not for me, bye’. But if you’re like me—like a lot of lesbians who gravitate toward the more ambivalent end of things—you’ll probably find discourse like ‘Akemi Homura is a psycho lesbian trope and that’s why Madoka is homophobic’ exhausting, especially when few take issue with Tokyo Ghoul having a literally predatory gay man character (he wants to cannibalize the protagonist) or Hisoka from Hunter x Hunter being the only gay man in the early story (possibly the only one period?) and he’s a pedophile.
This isn’t to say the characters from either HxH or TG are good (I think they are homophobic caricatures) but Homura is… well… just not as alarming. She doesn’t sexually assault anyone ala Shirai Kuroko from A Certain Scientific Railgun and it seems the bar for a lesbian character to be seen as a ‘psycho lesbian trope’ is astonishingly low. Many people would never think to complain about any of the gay male murderers and war criminals in Golden Kamuy, or how the homoeroticism of this show is inextricable from violence, but if it’s a lesbian—well, time to bring out the microscope! Is she ‘psychotic’? Is she too mean? Too violent? Too angry? Hmm!
(For the record, I like Golden Kamuy but there are… issues, especially since the only trans character gets killed off. And to some extent I think the homoeroticism is playful on the author’s part—I don’t believe he’s a homophobe; the scenes of gay sexuality are depicted with enthusiasm and affection—but we’re looking at the reception of this versus the reception of lesbian characters.)
Looping back to books, which is more the point, the title I was looking at is on the very far end of dark. It’s not something I would enjoy—hence the ‘not for me, bye’ reaction—but it doesn’t bother me that it exists (it has prominently placed content warnings). The thought of someone who objects to Homura coming across it does amuse me—this work would drive them to apoplexy—and that exposes the limits of what lesbian media ‘gets’ to be. Because what Homura gets up to is utterly tame.
In much the same way, there are M/M books published by big five presses that are straight up about ‘sexy’ affairs between a slave owner and theirs slave. Remember when M/M small press Riptide did an in-universe ad for human trafficking? Sure, it’s not a big five/big four imprint, but…
But the uproar continued to grow, as authors and readers shared Riptide’s previous missteps: in 2016, it apologised after one of its novels featured a black character who was referred to as “Dark Chocolate Love Monkey”; earlier, it also apologised for a website for a series set in a world where slavery remained legal, which included fake ads for buying and recruiting slaves.
Unsurprisingly it also turned out the press was run by racists. Which is to say, I’m not asking for an alternate universe where it’s F/F books that get the big bucks for wildly racist slavery narratives (and racism should be criticized regardless of the author’s queerness). But it would be nice to have a middle ground between that and… this.
‘This’ meaning a media/consumption landscape where it feels like lesbian characters can only be two things: abject victims (of homophobic attacks, ‘corrective’ rape, and various associated traumas) or balls of sugary fluff who must be all things nice and who never has negative or angry thoughts. Obsessed with a girl? That’s a psycho lesbian, buddy. Kills a man? That’s a misandrist, it’s homophobic to write her like that. It’s a traumatized victim (who must not lash out; what if that makes her a man hater?!) or a personification of cotton candy, there is no third (let alone fourth or fifth) option.