Nobody’s Sidekick: Intersectionality in Protagonists – S. L. Huang

Thank you to everyone for the supportive comments and response to this first week of guest posts. I’m especially grateful to the writers for sharing such powerful, personal, and important stories. My plan is to take a week off, then come back with the next round of posts, just to break things up a little.

S. L. Huang addresses a common problem of representation: the idea that straying from the mainstream by more than one axis is too much, too implausible…especially for a protagonist. You can’t be too “different,” because you’ll knock readers out of the story.

Thank you, S. L. Huang, for dismantling that argument so well.


I’m a tangled intersection of underrepresented (female, nonwhite, queer, among others). Even before I had the vocabulary to express it, even before I had the self-awareness to acknowledge it, I remember always looking for people “like me” in media.

That’s not too surprising, is it?

It’s that same twinge of relating one feels when, say, seeing a nerd character who gets to be awesome in a story. I was always looking for those. But I also related to people who matched my identity in other ways—women, Asians, children of immigrants, people who struggled with their own inherited culture. And the older I got, and the more I gravitated toward science fiction and fantasy, the more it happened that the characters I related most to were always the side characters. The support. The ones who never got enough time for their own stories … or whose stories flat-out weren’t told.

I used to think this was just a product of my own preferences being off-beat. But over time I began to realize that the more dimensions of my identity a character matched, the further she was relegated from being a main character. From being important, a hero who would take the helm and drive the story into its own world’s legend.

It started to feel wrong, a piece of reality that kept wobbling like a busted chair leg.

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I sometimes call intersectionality “the problem of Star Trek captains.” We’ve had five series-leading captains: Kirk (white, male, American), Picard (white, male, European), Sisko (black, male, American), Janeway (white, female, American), and Archer (white, male, American). Not a single one differs in more than a single category from white, male, American.

When I was a teenager, I wrote a piece of Star Trek fanfiction with a captain who was female, half-human-Chinese-from-China, and half-Trill. And I wondered, as my teenaged self, why a series about a globalized Earth—one known for challenging barriers, no less—hadn’t had a similar one. The question made me itch under my skin in a way I couldn’t articulate at the time.

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“Nobody is a sidekick in their own life,” the saying goes, and growing up I’d never felt like one. In high school, I was bright, precocious, super excited about learning absolutely anything, and excessively opinionated. I never doubted I deserved a seat at the table.

Until I grew up. Gradually, the juxtaposition of my accomplishments with my intersectionality have begun giving me frissons of unreality, as if I’m a monkey playing the piano. I imagine I’m in a book or a movie seeing the moment my character is established: The only girl in the math seminar … who is also nonwhite and queer and will save the world!  The woman who outshoots all the men … who is also the Asian-American daughter of an immigrant and will be our Chosen Protagonist!  And I’m jolted out of the scene, the bulwark of traditional culture whispering “unrealistic” in my ear.

And I’m not the only one who’s been the girl in the math seminar, or the woman who can outshoot all the men. Not even close. My best mathematician friend is a woman who’s smarter than I am, and the last time I taught shooting the most advanced marksman was a markswoman who’d moved to the U.S. from Japan. There are lots of us, and we all kick more than enough ass to lead our own stories. The lack of fictional counterparts in SFFdom … it’s frustrating, and it sometimes makes me feel desperately lonely.

And angry.

And lonely.

Over and over, I’m constantly reminded that the mere fact of my existence is too brash and unusual and radical to be believable as a hero. In SFF worlds, where it seems every lead character is Extraordinary and Chosen and Destined … simply being born on more than one real-life minority axis is a bridge too far.

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“I’ll be your ethnic sidekick,” I said to my white friend, when she and I were planning to put together a webseries. I said it with a laugh and an eyeroll, in the way one does when one wants to mock something but is still too hesitant to challenge it. Serious-not-serious, funny-not-funny.

“Nah, nobody’s a sidekick,” my friend said. “We’re both too awesome.”

I will always love her for that.

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Zero Sum GameWhen I started the brainstorming process for what would eventually become my debut novel, I initially assumed I’d write my mathematically-superpowered lead character as a man. Probably a white man. Because … well, because. Something-something-mumble-blah about me being a nonwhite woman, and if I wrote my first lead as a nonwhite woman, no matter how different she was from me, wouldn’t that feel too contrived?

Because people from more than one underrepresented demographic are contrived.

Choosing to make my protagonist not only a woman, but a woman of color, felt … daring. Dangerous. Like people would find fault in her just for that. Not for any failures in writing or character, but for daring to exist, as a nonwhite woman leading her own story.

For existing.

I’m sitting here reading the history of my own thoughts and starting to cry. Because how many times have I looked at the television, or books, or movies, and wanted to scream, “I exist!”

I am the protagonist in my own life, in my own story. I am not anybody’s sidekick.

Neither are my characters. Neither are they.

I have now, thankfully, gotten over the knee-jerk reaction that every axis I assign to a character off the straight white able-bodied American male (etc) is somehow an additional layer of disbelief I’m asking my audience to suspend. That I must justify these choices. If I ever feel that urge, I remind myself I am a perfectly realistic person, someone whose birth needed no special reason.

And I do not need anyone’s permission to be a hero.

So I’m going to continue writing my main characters as nonwhite and female and queer and disabled and nonbinary and non-neurotypical and non-Western as I want, and cross these demographics with each other as much as I want, and make my characters drive their own stories just as much as I drive mine. Because we exist.

We exist.


SL “Lisa” Huang uses her MIT degree to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction, starting with her debut novel, Zero Sum Game. Her short stories have sold to The Book Smugglers and Strange Horizons. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords, and online she’s unhealthily opinionated at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter.

SL Huang

Too Niche – Lauren Jankowski

“Like most asexuals, I spent a good portion of my life feeling broken.”

That’s the very first line of Lauren Jankowski‘s guest blog post. Think about that for a minute. Think about being one of those 1 in 100 people growing up with that message.

And it’s not even a lack of representation, exactly; it’s selective representation. Heroes have to have a romantic storyline. Villains, not so much.

Just let that sink in…


Like most asexuals, I spent a good portion of my life feeling broken. While watching a movie or devouring the fantasy novels I loved, I felt more like the villain than the hero. Not in philosophy or beliefs or actions, but being alone and not experiencing the same desires as heroes often do. The hero’s happily-ever-after almost always involves settling down with another person. Even if they fail to achieve that ending, the audience is made to root for that outcome. You read about the chemistry or sexual tension between characters. As a society, we’re made to want that happy ending: marriage, 2.5 kids, and an overall blissful family.

What about the archetypal villain? They tend to be alone (sometimes widowed, sometimes just because). Oh sure, they occasionally have henchmen, but more often than not, they’re isolated. Their arc tends to be opposite the hero’s, probably because their desires are meant to run counter. They don’t want people or family. They want power and control. This is especially true of women villains: just think of almost any Disney villainess.

Imagine being a teenager and everyone around you is sorting out their identities, discovering new labels and desires, and connecting with a community of people who share this label. Gay, straight, bi, or trans. Some of these terms are used in sex education, and all of them are found in U.S. popular culture. Learning these labels helps people discover who they are.

Now, imagine you don’t fit into any of these labels. You don’t fit into any of these communities. Imagine you can’t find a label for what you feel, your identity, because it doesn’t exist as far as you know. Imagine people telling you who you are, telling you that you’re going to fit into one of these groups eventually. Imagine that never happens.

That was the situation I found myself in: I was perfectly content with platonic friendships but experienced no sexual or romantic desire. Not even the typical crush teenagers are expected to have.  Everyone around me was pairing up, diving into relationships, and I was left feeling rather confused.

I turned to the fantasy novels I loved so much only to have them suddenly fail me. I searched desperately, often late into the night, my eyes and fingers darting over the tiny black print. “Please,” I would silently plea. “I don’t want to be alone. There must be someone like me. Someone who isn’t broken, twisted, and evil.”

There wasn’t, at least not any women. Every now and again, there would be an old white man who seemed to not experience any attraction (Tolkien’s Istari, Lloyd Alexander’s wizard, etc.). The few women found in these pages were either in a romantic relationship or evil. I was alone.

On a whim, I revisited some ancient myths and I found her. A woman who had always been there, but one who I hadn’t realized would become so important to me in the future. Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, a woman who went out of her way to remain unattached. This powerful goddess specifically demanded that she not be romantically involved with any man. And Zeus, the King of the gods, agreed! He didn’t protest or suggest that perhaps she just “hadn’t found the right one.” He basically said, “Yeah, sure” and let her do her own thing. At last, a powerful woman who, like me, didn’t appear to experience sexual or romantic desire and was perfectly fine with that. There was hope!

The years went by and I continued to search through modern fantasy for a fellow asexual woman, even before I had the term for my orientation. Books blended together and my search continued to be fruitless. There just weren’t any modern asexual women in fantasy. Whenever I got frustrated with what seemed to be a pointless search, I always returned to stories about Artemis. Yeah, she did some pretty horrible things, but she was a goddess. All deities had their petty and vindictive moments.

DoomsdayAnd then I found Eden Sinclair in the movie Doomsday. Imagine my shock, sitting in a theater, watching a woman kick so much ass and experience little to no attraction to other characters in her story. She wasn’t evil, she wasn’t a villain. Sinclair was a tough-as-nails soldier who was there to get a job done. And she was an interesting character: an orphan (an adoptee like me), someone who was a mystery. Sinclair kept a cool head in hostile territory and outsmarted every opponent she encountered. There wasn’t a large audience in the theater, but I looked around anyway, curious what my fellow movie-goers thought.

I’ll never forget the feeling that bloomed in my chest when I saw how riveted the few people in the audience were. They were rooting for her. They were rooting for someone who was like me. It didn’t matter that she never flirted with the other characters. It didn’t matter that she was an archetypal lone wolf. She was a badass and the audience loved her for it. I think I may be the only person who got misty-eyed during Doomsday, a post-apocalyptic horror film with copious amounts of gore and violence.

As asexual visibility has gradually begun to form into a movement, there has been a predictable backlash. In genre, many creators have dug in their heels to resist the idea that so small a group needs representation. Whether it’s Stephen Moffat declaring Sherlock Holmes can’t be asexual because he’s too interesting, or the literary agent who told me “asexuality is too niche to move books,” ace phobia and the erasure of asexual voices and characters continues in genre.

When I came out as asexual, I decided to be as open as I could. I would wear my label proudly because it was who I was. Being naturally quiet and introverted by nature, this was a bit intimidating. Then I thought of other girls like me: alone and scared, desperately paging through the stories they loved in the hopes of finding someone like them and being disappointed.

Nobody deserves to feel alone or broken or invisible. People should never be labeled as too niche. Asexuals can be interesting and heroic and adventurous too.


Lauren Jankowski is an aromantic asexual fantasy author and a passionate genre feminist from Illinois. She’s the founder of Asexual Artists (on Tumblr and WordPress), a site dedicated to highlighting the work of asexual-identifying artists in all mediums. Author of the ongoing series The Shape Shifter Chronicles (Sere from the Green, Through Storm and Night, From the Ashes, Haunted by the Keres), she specializes in strong heroines and hopes to bring more badass women (including ace women) to the fantasy genre. She’s also still very much platonically enamored with Artemis.

Lauren Jankowski

Discovering the Other – John G. Hartness

The guest posts so far have talked about representation in SF/F from the perspective of people seeing themselves–or not seeing themselves–in fiction. But of course, there’s more to it. John Hartness talks about growing up “whitebread,” and how fiction helped him start to consider other perspectives, and to develop a greater degree of empathy.

There are parts of this essay that were difficult to read. There are parts that made me angry. But I also think back to my own childhood, growing up in a time and place where kids played “smear the queer” at recess (designating one random kid as “the queer,” with the rest of the kids trying to tackle him) or thought nothing of chants like, “Fight, fight! The n****r and the white!”

It was messed up. And it’s hard to look back and talk about. Which is why I appreciate John’s honesty, his willingness to look back at that ugliness, and to recognize how stories helped him to humanize those others and change his own behavior.


What in the world is a straight, white, American male from the Southeastern United States doing writing an essay about “the other?” That’s very similar to a question I asked at a convention a year or so ago when I found myself on a panel titled “Writing the Other.” I sat there in front of a roomful of writers and asked why the straight white guy who wrote books about straight white guys was talking about the Other.

I’m about as un-other as you can get in my part of the world. I was raised Presbyterian, by two parents who still lived together. I am white, straight, and I went to college. If you throw out the part about growing up poor, it was pretty much a Beaver Cleaver upbringing, complete with Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden novels. Even my reading material was whitebread!

Then I met Chris Claremont, and a little later, Mercedes Lackey. Not in person, but through their work. In 1986 Claremont was writing The Uncanny X-Men, and he, along with Louise and Walter Simonson, crafted the Mutant Massacre storyline, one of my favorite X-Men storylines to this day. It was a far-reaching crossover with massive character shifts that sent waves through the X-Universe that have been felt for the past 30 years. But that wasn’t the important part.

No, for me the important part was one five-panel scene in Uncanny X-Men #210, where Nightcrawler (the blue dude with the tail from the movies) is trapped in a warehouse by a mob that wants to beat him to death for being blue and scary-looking. Kitty Pryde, the young, pretty white girl X-Man, steps out of the shadows and calls the mob leader out on his BS while Colossus (in his non-metallic form) tries to reason with them. The dialogue in this scene opened my eyes to things I’d never considered.

Kitty: “Hey mister, who defines what’s human?”

Mob guy: “It’s obvious, girl. Just open your eyes.”

Kitty: “That simple, huh? Well, a whole chunk of my family was murdered in gas chambers because the Nazis said it was just as ‘obvious’ that Jews weren’t human. And not so long ago, in this country, people felt the same about blacks. Some still do. Is that right?!”

Kitty Pryde

Almost thirty years later, that’s the part that stuck with me. Growing up in rural South Carolina in the 70s and 80s, the Holocaust was something you learned about in History class. There was never a personal connection, because there were no Jewish families in my town. But here was a character that I had been reading for several years, telling me that her family was killed just for being Jewish.

That connected. It connected because I had never paid attention to Kitty Pryde’s Jewish heritage. I assumed she was like me, because she looked like me (only female and pretty). Suddenly I had a realization that these people I read about in history books were real people, and I got that understanding from a fictional character. Dear Alanis – that’s ironic.

But Claremont wasn’t my only teacher, and I certainly had more to learn. Late in high school, I was more immersed in fantasy literature than I had ever been before, on account of having a girlfriend who read the same stuff I did, and having a job to buy my own books. I think it was that same girlfriend who handed me a copy of Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn, and said “You have to read this.”

I trusted her taste. After all, I started going out with her because I saw her reading David Eddings’ Demon Lord of Karanda. So I read Magic’s Pawn, and I fell in love with Valdemar, a love affair that has lasted since that first day I sat down to read about Vanyel and Savil and poor doomed ‘Lendel.

Mercedes Lackey writes the doomed outsider teen as well as anyone I’ve ever read, and I was immediately wrapped up in the story of Vanyel. I was so wrapped up in the story that I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that he and Tylendel are both male, and in love. I cried like a baby at Tylendel’s death, and only later noticed that I had just wept for the death of an imaginary person that I would have likely made miserable had he ridden my school bus or been in my gym class.

Tylendel could have been anyone. He could have been the kid we called “fairy” on the bus and punched as he walked by, because he was slightly built and his voice hadn’t changed yet. He could have been Wayne, the pudgy kid down the road that we picked on for being a “band fag.” He could have been any number of real people in my life, and they could have been him. And what I said to them was just as cutting and hurtful as the words in those books. Those books didn’t transform me overnight, but they gradually opened my eyes to the consequences of my behavior, to the power words have. I started, ever so slowly, to change.

I couldn’t call someone “faggot” in the lunchroom anymore without thinking of how hurt Vanyel was by his father’s disapproval, and what kind of pain that kid might be going through at home. I couldn’t make cheap Jew jokes without thinking about how that casual cruelty and dehumanization led to things like the Holocaust and lynchings in my own county. Lackey and Claremont taught me that no matter how different I am from someone, there is a common thread, a connection to be made, if I’m brave enough to let it.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t turn from a bully into a saint; it was more like turning from a nerd into a slightly more understanding nerd. But I’d like to think that my friends who live somewhere else on the rainbow know that I’ve got their back. And I have a gay wizard and a Jewish mutant to thank for it. As always, I thank Chris Claremont and Mercedes Lackey for their characters that changed my life.


John G. Hartness is a teller of tales, a righter of wrong, defender of ladies’ virtues, and some people call him Maurice, for he speaks of the pompatus of love. He is also the author of The Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books, a comedic urban fantasy series that answers the eternal question “Why aren’t there more fat vampires?” He is also the creator of the comic horror Bubba the Monster Hunter series, and the creator and co-editor of the Big Bad series of horror anthologies from Dark Oak Press and Media. 2015 has seen John launch a new dark fantasy series featuring Quncy Harker, Demon Hunter.

In his copious free time John enjoys long walks on the beach, rescuing kittens from trees and recording new episodes of his ridiculous podcast Literate Liquors, where he pairs book reviews and alcoholic drinks in new and ludicrous ways. John is also a contributor to the Magical Words group blog. An avid Magic: the Gathering player, John is strong in his nerd-fu and has sometimes been referred to as “the Kevin Smith of Charlotte, NC.” And not just for his girth.

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John Hartness

I’m Not Broken – Annalee Flower Horne

Annalee Flower Horne’s essay talks about the portrayal of sexual assault survivors in SF/F. While not graphic in detail, I thought a content warning was appropriate. As she notes, it’s not that our genre never writes about assault; it’s that we tend to do it badly.

I’ve always appreciated Princess Leia as an amazing character, but I’d never considered how powerful her portrayal and story might be to a child survivor. After reading this, I doubt I’ll ever look at Leia in the same way.


When I was a kid, I loved Princess Leia.

She was smart and capable; a leader and a hero. And unlike Luke and Han, I could see myself in her. We were both girls.

We were also both assault survivors.

The original trilogy was on a lot in my house. I saw the Twi’lek dancer pulling away from Jabba with terror in her eyes. I saw Leia in that humiliating bikini. I knew what it meant.

These days, I’m mostly just disgusted with how the movie (and the fandom) handled it, but child-me wasn’t disgusted.

LeiaChild-me saw an assault survivor who still got to be a badass. Leia left Tatooine and returned to her life as a leader of the rebellion. No one treated her differently or told her she couldn’t do the things the boys do because someone might rape her. At the end of the movie, she got the dashing rogue and the happy ending.

I wanted to be just like her.

It may seem weird to talk about sexual assault for a series about representation, because sexual assault survivors are all over genre fiction. Jim has written about how much of a cliché it is, and TV Tropes has an extensive list of examples. But seeing representations that bear so little resemblance to your actual experience is damaging. Especially when so many of those representations portray people like you as fundamentally broken.

That’s pretty much the life of a sexual assault survivor in fiction. We don’t get to be the hero. We get to be brutally raped by the villain, leaving the hero—not us, mind you; the hero—scarred and hell-bent on avenging our virtue.

There’s also the trope where writers throw a little agency our way, and we get to avenge our own virtue—but that’s all we get to do. Our entire lives revolve around a thing that was done to us, to which the only “proper” response is murderous rage and possibly world domination.

I used to wonder if I was really a survivor, because I never tried to kill my attacker. He lived in my neighborhood. We made polite conversation at the park, and it was awkward as hell, but I never wanted to hurt him.

I certainly never tried to take over the world. I really don’t know where writers get the idea that sexual assault causes sociopathy in survivors, but it’s lazy bullshit and I wish that trope would just die already.

A lot of folks have suggested that all rape and survivor tropes should just die already. I remember reading one article suggesting that every time a woman on a TV show is raped, a male character should get his balls cut off, for parity.

It took me a long time to unpack why that bothered me, but it comes down to this: I have not been maimed. Popular media often drastically underplays how awful rape is, but it also overplays the fallout. I don’t want to dismiss survivors who really do end up with acute stress disorder and severe PTSD. We need to hear those stories, because the people living them need to know they’re not alone.

But that’s not always how the story goes. One out of every five women is an assault survivor. If you think every woman you know has beaten those odds, it may be because survivors don’t look and act like you think we will. Many survivors get on with our lives. We manage as well as we can. We heal.

For me, the effects have always been subtle. There are books I won’t read and shows and movies I won’t watch. I have a phobia you’d never guess was related to having been assaulted unless I told you.

I show up at work early, because we have open seating, and I want to be sure to get one of the desks with the wall behind it so people can’t get behind me without passing through my peripheral vision first.

I’m happily married, with a steady job and a lot of friends. I build cool stuff and have too many fandoms, and don’t actually spend a whole lot of time thinking about that thing that happened when I was a kid. I wrote most of this post while pacing around my neighborhood alone after midnight, because I know where monsters lurk, and it isn’t the damn bushes.

I still want to see survivors in fiction. I just want them to be whole people. They should have goals and dreams and inner lives that don’t revolve around that one thing that was done to them. They should get to be heroes, villains, lovers, and liars without anyone reducing them to their survivor status.

These days, I understand that this isn’t what Lucasfilm was going for with Leia. Like so many survivors in fiction, her story was only important when the film could pass it off as sexy. Reducing her to her survivor status would have ruined the bikini shot.

I’m glad child-me didn’t get that. I’m glad I was able to project onto Leia the capable survivor I wanted to grow up to be. Her happy ending mattered to me, because it helped me imagine my own.

But now that I’m living that happy ending, I want more than to see my heroes completely stripped of agency for cheap fanservice. I want to see what child-me saw in Leia: survivors who get to save the day, fall in love, and experience the whole range of human emotions without anyone—including the narrator—treating them like they’re broken.


Annalee Flower Horne is an open-source developer and science fiction writer from Washington, DC. You can find her on Twitter, her website, and the Geek Feminism blog. Her fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Fat Chicks in SFF – Alis Franklin

One of the things I loved about this series last year was that it made me think. Each essay pointed out things I’d never considered, or helped me to get a better understanding of other people’s experiences. This year’s essays are no different.

In reading Alis Franklin‘s post, one of the things that stood out for me was a comment toward the end. She talks about how it’s easy not to think representation matters when you see yourself in so many stories that you don’t comprehend what it’s like to not see that reflection…but that it’s also easy to think it doesn’t matter when you never see yourself. Because your invisibility becomes “normal,” and it never even occurs to you that it could or should be any different.


I was in high school. I had glasses, dead-straight straw-brown hair with bangs a decade out of fashion, and a tendency to wear too-big tie-died t-shirts featuring screen prints of aliens and dragons. I was good at English, bad at Math, terrible at sport, and spent most lunchtimes playing games with colons in the name, like Magic: the Gathering and Werewolf: the Apocalypse.

In other words, it was the 90s, I was a nerd, and I knew I was never going to be a hero.

Don’t get me wrong. This latter realization wasn’t because of the bookishness, the bad fashion sense, or even my complete inability to run or catch or throw. It wasn’t because I had no friends. I had plenty (all the better to play TCGs and RPGs with). I wasn’t because I was bullied (I wasn’t), or didn’t date (I did).

It wasn’t even because I was a girl. Well, not really. At least, that was only half of it.

Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? I knew, at the tender age of thirteen, that I would never be a hero because I was a girl, and I was fat.

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There are no fat chicks in SFF. And by “SFF” I’m including the broad tent of my teenage nerdish interests: sci-fi and fantasy novels and TV shows and films, yes. But also video games, comic books, trading card games, horror, urban fantasy, roleplaying games. The works. There might as well have been a great big NO FAT CHICKS sign hanging outside the entrance. And me, peering in through the flaps, loving the show but always knowing I would never, ever be it.

There are no fat chicks in SFF.

There are geeks, sure. Geeks a-plenty, and I loved the Willows and the Mizuno Amis as much as the next bookish loser. But Ami wore a sērā fuku and Willow cosplayed a vampire by putting on skintight leather pants. All it took was one look from that to my own chubby knees to realize that would never, ever be me. The geeks might inherit the Earth, but–for women, at least–they had to look hot while they did it.

(Years later, I found out about “fat Willow,” the version of the character that appeared in Buffy’s original pilot. By that stage, the fact that actress Riff Regan had been replaced by waifish Alyson Hannigan for the “real” show wasn’t enough to elicit much more than a resigned sigh.)

Books were worse. Even before I knew phrases like “male gaze” I was rolling my eyes over the endless litany of SFF heroines with an obsession for describing their cup size in extravagant detail. I didn’t think much about cup size as a teen, but I sure did think about my muffin top and double chin and bingo wings, and how it would be nice to once–just once–read about someone who had all of those and yet still saved the world.

Boys had it better. Not great, admittedly, but better. Weight in male characters can be a marker for the down-to-earth everyman (the Bilbos of the fantasy world), or can go hand-in-hand with power, both in the physical (Broadway from Gargoyles) and political (Londo Mollari, anyone?) sense. There’s certainly an argument about the limited roles fat guys are found in–comic relief, “the heavy,” older mentors–but at least more than one of them exists.

Fat chicks get Dolores Umbridge; the “toad-like” sadist, whose attempts at femininity and beauty are there to emphasize the horror of her perversion of the mother archetype embodied by “acceptable” fat characters like Molly Weasley. Ditto The Little Mermaid’s Ursula (anti-mother), or Discworld’s Nanny Ogg (mother). Don’t get me wrong, I love Ursula and Nanny as much as anyone, but I was thirteen and much too young to be trapped into an adult woman’s archetype. Meaning I would’ve loved someone my own age as well as build to look up to.

I got one, after a fashion, in 1995, when Terry Pratchett introduced Agnes Nitt. Agnes, like Nanny, is a talented witch … one whose primary talent–resistance to mental manipulation–is predicated on her hostile relationship to her own fatness. Agnes’ unhappiness with her weight has given her a split personality: Perdita X Dream, her “inner thin girl.” When Agnes loses control, such as when being hypnotized by vampires, Perditia  takes over.

You can be fat (I guess), and you can save the world (once or twice), but gods forbid you be happy while you do it.

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Around the same time Agnes Nitt was making her entrance on paper, MTV made an animated adaptation of Sam Kieth’s comic, The Maxx. It’s a semi-surrealist superhero deconstruction, and though it never quite got the momentum that the Frank Millers and Alan Moores of the world did, I loved it.

I loved it because of Sarah. Because, for the first time, I’d seen myself.

Sarah is a geek and a loser. She wore the same big, round glasses, the same oversized sweaters and shapeless jeans, had the same mess of un-styled (albeit curly) hair. She wanted to be a writer, like me, was standoffish and vulnerable, like me, and–most importantly–she was fat.

Just like me.

Sarah - Maxx

And yet, Sarah’s narrative arc doesn’t revolve around her weight. On her outsider status, yes, but she’s no Agnes; cast a skinny chick in Sarah’s role and her plot would be unchanged. Except Sarah wasn’t skinny.

She wasn’t helpless, either. Sarah is one of the protagonists, one of the characters who both moves the action and through whom the action moves. She’s flawed and imperfect, dealing with problems both mundane (depression, a fraught relationship with her mother) and fantastic (her father is a semi-dead rapist sorcerer who dwells outside reality). She’s lonely and angry and awkward, yet the narrative doesn’t deny her humanity or her importance. Sarah is, in other words, a hero in the context of the story in which she’s placed.

And, as a teenager, I identified with her. Hard. Because she was someone I knew I had the potential to be. Someone I wanted to have the potential to be, warts and all.

In the twenty years since I first saw Sarah, I can count on one hand how many times I’ve identified so hard with a fictional character. Sarah’s who I think about in conversations about diversity and representation, particularly when anyone dismisses the idea as unimportant. Because, thing is? If I hadn’t had a Sarah, I’d probably think representation was unimportant, too. It’s an easy position to take, not just when you’re so used to seeing yourself everywhere you don’t know what it’s like not to, but also when you’re so used to not seeing yourself that it doesn’t occur to you things can be so radically different when you do.

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So. This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to tell you it gets better. Because I was a fat girl, into SFF, and I found my One True Representation, and it changed my life. That’s, how this goes, right?

Yeah. Right.

Thing is, it didn’t get better. I had Sarah and her rage and Agnes and her body hatred, and they were one of only a handful of characters who looked like me in an ocean of others who did not. Because there are no fat chicks in SFF, except for when there are. But how statistically insignificant does that number need to be before people will allow the hyperbole? We can test it, you and I. We’ll play a game. You name a fat woman from a videogame, comic book, fantasy, or sci-fi title, and I’ll name six thin chicks and a fat guy. Who do you think’s gonna run out of examples first?

I don’t have any answers here, no uplifting mortal. Only anger, and a rallying cry. I want more fat women in genre fiction. I want fat women whose narratives don’t revolve around their being fat, and whose fatness is not used as a lazy shorthand for mothers or for monsters.

I can’t turn back the clock and force things to be better. I can’t be a teenager again, watching the same shows and reading the same books, but this time finding them populated by big girls who laugh and love and fight and save the world. Whose big bodies are symbols of beauty and of power, not shameful obstacles to overcome. I can’t do that. But I can say there are girls out there now, girls with muffin tops and bingo wings and chunky knees, and they’re looking for heroes of their very own.

And I can ask you, oh fearless reader, what you plan to do to help them.


Alis Franklin is a thirtysomething Australian author of queer urban fantasy. She likes cooking, video games, Norse mythology, and feathered dinosaurs. She’s never seen a live drop bear, but stays away from tall trees, just in case.

Exponentially Hoping – Merc Rustad

Last February, I started running a series of guest posts about the importance of representation in SF/F. These essays were eventually collected into Invisible.

I was talking to a friend about last year’s collection, and he talked about struggling a bit with a kind of gut-level defensiveness, like some of these stories almost felt like accusations. And maybe they are. Not accusations that we’ve deliberately set out to hurt or exclude anyone. But instead pointing out a painful truth: that we’ve overlooked people. We haven’t seen them, and thus we’ve unthinkingly excluded them from our stories and our worldview.

I don’t think of these essays as accusations. It’s not about making anyone feel guilty. It’s about seeing. It’s about understanding. It’s about learning. It’s about all of the things that good stories are supposed to do.

This first essay comes from Merc Rustad and talks about that feeling of exclusion. About growing up with the message that you were “different,” and feeling like those differences needed to be destroyed so you could fit yourself into one of the rigidly defined gender and sexual boxes our stories and our society presented.


There’s this sickening feeling I get when presented with a form–no matter what it’s for–that demands you check one of two boxes: male or female. There’s no third option. There’s no blank space to write “other.” Those two little boxes, with no alternatives (and an inability to leave them blank) send a very specific message: if you don’t pick one, you don’t exist.

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I grew up in a highly conservative, Christian, insular community. It did not precisely foster a sense of understanding or tolerance of anything Other. If you weren’t a straight, cis, neurotypical, able-bodied (ideally male) member of society locked into rigid gender roles, well, then what the fuck were you? You obviously weren’t a person. I was suffocating; I didn’t belong and everything around me was holding up giant neon signs that flashed messages like “obviously you’re female since you were born with a vagina” and “no, you can’t be a boy, you don’t look like one” and “there’s no such thing as someone who’s not binary-gendered, stop lying.”

I knew something was different. For most of my life, I thought those differences needed to be destroyed.

Books and movies were an escape–especially science fiction and fantasy. Here were vehicles into whole new worlds where anything was possible. Maybe there would be people who felt like I did: not a girl, not entirely a boy, not explicitly attracted aesthetically to one gender, not agreeing with an arbitrary sex assigned at birth. I devoured speculative fiction in equal parts adoration and desperation. I wanted to find things that could show me how to cope with the reality I lived in.

What I never quite grokked, early on, was why everyone seemed to be binary gendered, cis, and straight. “He” and “she” were the mainstay pronouns. Men were attracted to women, and women to men. Crossdressing was either dramatic disguise or comedy. Everyone agreed with their birth-assigned pronouns. I was constantly confused by this. It just did not click for me why the inevitable pair-up was man + woman.

I was dragged to a conference once when I was in my early teens–I don’t even remember what it was about, other than it was religious-based–and the speaker showed a photo of two gay men kissing. The audience was horrified. Very vocally. I sat there going, “But it’s so sweet! Why is everyone upset?” and started panicking because I seemed to be the only one who wasn’t bothered by the photo. For the first time, I was afraid I would be attacked or worse because I didn’t think the way the people around me did.

I was looking for something in fiction beyond that “normal” that was presented everywhere, only for a long long time, I didn’t know what it was I needed. I liked buddy cop movies and team movies, and since they were mainly all men, I started wondering why the guys didn’t get together. It just seemed like a natural trajectory, you know? Why did so few people agree with me?

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It took until I was in my early twenties before I discovered there were words to describe my identity–words like non-binary and trans* and queer. I remember looking at a list of diverse writers on Bogi Takács’ website, and specifically noticing the word neutrois. I looked it up.

“Neutrois is a non-binary gender identity that falls under the genderqueer or transgender umbrellas.”

Fucking epiphany, you guys. I stared at that website and started crying. I was so happy. So fucking relieved that there was actually a way to describe myself–and that there were other people out there who were like me. It’s like being able to breathe for the first time in your life.

I started thinking maybe I wasn’t irreparably broken.

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I love SF/F. It’s my genre and it has so many amazing stories and possibilities. Sure, there are problems and not all stories are perfect. But there’s so much potential out there. We all crave stories; we want to see ourselves represented, especially in positive ways. Happy endings shouldn’t be reserved for the straight people.

But when you never see yourself, when you look and look and find nothing, it strengthens the doubts that society and “real life” have already imprinted: you shouldn’t exist.

It’s bullshit, of course, because YES YOU DO DESERVE TO EXIST. And to be happy and safe. You. Yes, you.

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I wrote “How To Become A Robot In 12 Easy Steps” while mired in a vicious cycle of believing I didn’t deserve anything good precisely because I didn’t fit a cis/het/binary mold. I needed to speak up and tell a story that I wasn’t seeing and needed to know existed. It was that or disappear.

I’m humbled and grateful when I hear from people who connected with it. I realized, then, I can write things that give other people hope. And that is a powerful realization. If my small contribution can help someone else know they are not alone, then it’s worth all the struggle to put words down and send them out.

Until very recently, I haven’t felt like there was the possibility for non-binary characters to exist, let alone to be happy. I’m most involved and interested in short fiction and film, and while I feel film tends to lag behind prose in terms of gender and sexuality, short stories right now are blooming. (For example: “This Shall Serve As A Demarcation” by Bogi Takács, or “On Shine Wings” by Polenth Blake, or “Stalemate” by Rose Lemberg.)

There have been movements and stirrings and rumblings in the genre to be more inclusive of diversity, and despite those who protest and frantically try to keep SFF a staid, unchanging monolith–change is happening. And it’s glorious.

When I think about how much younger!Merc desperately needed any hint that there were people like them out there, when I think of how happy I get now seeing non-binary people represented in fiction (and in positive ways!), I’m reminded why my voice–why all marginalized voices–matters. Why we are all needed.

I want to create a genre where kids like me won’t have to suffer and yearn for representation in what they read or watch. I believe every positive, respectful portrayal of characters of all sorts of diversities multiplies hope exponentially. And we need that.

One day, perhaps there will be infinite boxes, or an option not to check off boxes at all. Until then, we have stories we can tell ourselves and each other, and the more welcoming and wondrous those stories are, the better it is for everyone. We all need hope, in the end.


Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer and filmmaker who lives in the Midwest United States. Favorite things include: robots, dinosaurs, monsters, and tea. Their stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Fireside Fiction, Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, Scigentasy, and Vitality Magazine. When not buried in the homework mines or dayjobbery, Merc likes to play video games, read comics, and wear awesome hats. You can find Merc on Twitter or their website.

Merc Rustad

David Gerrold on Star Trek and Social Justice

David Gerrold, the writer of “The Trouble with Tribbles,” posted a response on Facebook to an article that’s been making the rounds, complaining about how the “SJW Glittery Hoo Ha crowd” is DESTROYING science fiction. Said article references Star Trek: The Original Series as an inspiration for engineers and other “real” SF fans.

Here’s an excerpt from Gerrold’s response:

I was there. I know what Gene Roddenberry envisioned. He went on at length about it in almost every meeting. He wasn’t about technology, he was about envisioning a world that works for everyone, with no one and nothing left out. Gene Roddenberry was one of the great Social Justice Warriors. You don’t get to claim him or his show as a shield of virtue for a cause he would have disdained.”

“Most of the stories we wrote were about social justice. “The Cloud Minders,” “A Taste Of Armageddon,” “Errand Of Mercy,” “The Apple,” “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” and so many more. We did stories that were about exploring the universe not just because we could build starships, but because we wanted to know who was out there, what was our place in the universe, and what could we learn from the other races out there?”

“Star Trek was about social justice from day one.

The full post is on Facebook, and is very much worth reading.

Jurassic Tweets

I’m still working on catching up after the weekend, including an unexpected-but-minor round of edits to the Fable book, incoming guest blog posts to review and edit, and getting back to Revisionary. Plus brainstorming a short story for an anthology project.

So in the meantime, I present you with a short and silly Twitter adventure from last week, also known as How Jim Amuses Himself While Waiting For His Flight:

 

RadCon Pics

I’m back from RadCon! Physically, at least.

The convention itself was a great deal of fun. My thanks to the convention for inviting me to be Author Guest of Honor, and even bigger thanks to Liz, Turtle, and all of the volunteers who worked to make the con happen.

Through no fault of the convention, travel was a bit of a mess. Our first flight home was cancelled and rebooked … or so we thought. As it turned out, Alaska Airlines only managed to rebook the first leg of a three-flight trip. So even though they assured us we were all set, we got to Seattle and were told our flight to Michigan was overbooked, we didn’t have seats, and would we like to stay in a hotel and fly out at 6 in the morning?

But we eventually made it back. I’m exhausted, way behind on email and other stuff, and could use a 12-hour nap, but I’m home.

I came away with bunches of pictures. Flickr has the full RadCon Album. A lot of these were shot at a distance, including the fire troupe pics, which were done with the new 55-250mm lens.

Here are a few of my favorites…

Scenery from the plane:

Mountains

Cosplay!

Harley, Joker, and Ivy Dark Crystal Cosplay Team-up with Mario

Ignition Fire Troupe:

Ignition Fire Troupe Ignition Fire Troupe Ignition Fire Troupe Ignition Fire Troupe

Giant Fluffy Polka-Dot Dog!!!

Giant Fluffy Dog!

All in all, it was a fun weekend. Now I just need to get my brain back. I’m pretty sure it was lost somewhere between Seattle and Chicago. Hopefully one of the airlines will find it…