Nuanced Rep and the Need for #OwnVoices Books

‘Leah on the Offbeat’ gets points for representation, but fails to make the grade on closer inspection.

Newly released YA novel Leah on the Offbeat is groundbreaking for its portrayal of self-identified bisexual characters, but its flaws highlight the need for nuanced representation and #ownvoices writing.

Leah is the highly anticipated companion novel to Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which was adapted to film as Love, Simon in March 2018. Author Becky Albertalli has been praised for her commitment to including characters from marginalized groups in her books, including many who are LGBTQ, although she herself — as far as I can tell from extensive Googling — is straight. She also has another YA novel coming out this fall that she co-wrote with her friend, gay author Adam Silvera.

I truly respect what Albertalli is trying to do with her Simon-verse books, by writing about the kind of teens who are often missing in YA lit, and I know her intentions are good. But after reading Leah, I think it’s worth noting that the stories of her bisexual characters might have played out very differently if written by a bisexual author. I spent most of my time reading the book torn between delight that were not one but two(!) bisexual characters, and the nagging feeling that Leah and Abby’s experiences as bi teens were incomplete and lacking authenticity. As a queer, bisexual woman myself, I noticed many instances where Albertalli glossed over experiences that are unique to bisexuality. Don’t get me wrong, it was an enjoyable enough read, but I had so many questions and a sense of disappointment afterwards.

So, let’s unpack this, shall we? (significant spoilers ahead)

The biphobic elephant in the room

Even though most of the characters in Albertalli’s books are LGBTQ-accepting, there is still a lot of unaddressed biphobia going on. Just to name a couple examples:

  1. Simon makes a problematic comment in the first book where he claims it’s easier for bisexual girls to come out because “guys consider it hot.” Groan.
  2. Simon also thinks it’s “weird” that Cal Price, who used to have a crush on Simon, likes his sister now instead. He tells Leah this — Leah who is still closeted and probably feeling more reluctant to come out after that conversation.

The issue is not that this biphobia exists in Leah’s story (that’s unfortunately very realistic), but that it isn’t noted or discussed by any of the characters, or mentioned by Leah as a factor that motivated her decision not to come out. I appreciated that Leah was hesitant to come out to her friends even though Simon had already come out as gay. This rang very true to my own high school experience — I knew that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I came out, but still something held me back. I just wish we had seen more of Leah’s thought process around staying closeted (more on that later), perhaps exploring the ways that otherwise gay- and lesbian-friendly people can struggle with the concept of bisexuality.

I think it’s fair to say that a book with bi characters which fails to call out biphobia for what it is — let alone deal with the effects— is woefully lacking.

A rose is a rose…but how does it identify?

Just like in the real world, the question of labels is a thorny one in Leah.

First, I need to give credit to Albertalli for having the guts to use the actual b-word to label her bi characters — you’d be amazed how rare that is in YA fiction (or any fiction for that matter), and it’s one of my personal pet peeves. Too often the question of how characters identify is just skipped over, even though finding a label that feels right is an important rite of passage for most queer people. I also get frustrated when authors take the GFY (Gay For You) route to avoid grappling with the legitimate opposite-sex relationships their character may have had before realizing any same-sex attraction. I would recommend this great essay that perfectly illustrates these common problems, as seen in Rainbow Rowell’s novel Carry On. So, regardless of flaws, the fact that there are not one but two bisexual-identifying characters in Leah is huge for bi representation.

In Leah, the issue of how-to-label features prominently in two of the novel’s most pivotal scenes: Leah and Abby’s first kiss in Athens, and their heart-to-heart on the football field. When Abby says during the latter scene that she is “lowkey bisexual,” Leah reacts in anger and insists that lowkey bisexual is “not a thing.” Abby replies, “You don’t get to decide my label.” A lot of readers have taken issue with this conversation, arguing that Leah was being unfair and unreasonable in not accepting Abby’s label.

While I agree to some extent, I also think this was one of the most realistic scenes in terms of how a bisexual character would actually act. It seems understandable that Leah would respond with distrust and frustration, since after their first romantic encounter, Abby seemed to be implying she was straight — “I thought we were two straight girls experimenting.” This would be a nightmare scenario for any bisexual girl. So even if it’s unfair of Leah to ask Abby to label her sexuality a certain way, it makes sense in the narrative. Of course, Leah doesn’t realize that she might be farther along the journey of accepting her personal queerness than Abby is — Abby is using tentative terms to describe her sexuality because she’s still discovering it herself. Leah is asking Abby for proof and reassurance that Abby just can’t give at that point in her sexual awakening.

It’s also disappointing that although there is a non-binary character in the book, that potential factor of bisexual identity is never addressed. Part of the reason many people in the bi community are so sensitive to being forced to label a certain way is that most of us realize gender is not a binary, and many of us experience attraction to non-binary people as well as cisgender men and women. Abby could be feeling “lowkey bisexual” because she is grappling with that reality and maybe even considering a label of “queer” or “pansexual” instead.

Of course, we’ll never know, because Albertalli’s books are heavy on dialogue and light on interior monologue. Even though the conversation between Leah and Abby about labels was realistic, I think we needed to see a lot more introspection on Leah’s part (since the book is told from her point of view) to avoid Leah being seen as a problematic policer of labels, rather than a legitimately hurt and confused bi teen. Throughout the book Leah continually avoids conflict and dwells in miscommunication, and Albertalli’s dialogue-centric writing style creates a lot of moments where the reader has to assume Leah’s inner thoughts and motivations.

As the world becomes more open to gender identities outside the traditional binary, the less useful — and less universal — current labels will become. We need new language, and a better understanding and acceptance of the fluid nature of sexuality, which sometimes defies labels. It would be extremely refreshing to have a YA book meet this conundrum head on, but it will probably be a while before we see that happen.

To be or not to be in the closet

Overall, I wish there had been more introspection from Leah on why she stayed in the closet for so long. It would have been interesting to see her grapple with the double-edge sword of being a closeted queer teen: you avoid possible homo/biphobia from your peers, but almost guarantee that you will have trouble initiating queer relationships.

We see this with Abby, when she decides to hedge her bets by qualifying her kiss with Leah. She tries to downplay the drunken kiss because she doesn’t actually know if Leah is queer or not. Similarly, Leah feels like she must put her guard up and immediately suspects Abby of being just a straight girl experimenting, which Abby then confirms by saying so (even thought it’s not the truth). It’s an endless cycle of completely avoidable conflict — but only if the characters were both out of the closet. They both hesitate to take the gamble of vulnerability with each other, and get their happy ending so much later than they could have as a result.

I know Albertalli is capable of writing such introspection in her characters. The author does a great job of showing Leah’s internal struggle with her weight, especially in the fitting room scene. The intersection of her body image and her sexuality is also something that could have been explored — her body type is definitely underrepresented in bisexual narratives. Either way, I left the novel wishing we had spent a little more time inside Leah’s head, rather than listening to her and Abby talk in circles around their problems. Albertalli sets her characters up for these kinds of thoughts and conversations, but doesn’t deliver. I noticed this habit of letting her characters avoid the nitty gritty details of conflict in Simon, too. There’s a lot of buildup and emotional investment, but no payoff.

Okay, maybe a few things were left out… but does that really matter?

I think so. This is still one of the few mainstream, heavily-marketed YA books featuring bisexual protagonists — how effectively it portrays those characters could have a lot of influence in the publishing world. But most importantly, I feel frustrated for other bi readers like myself. They will read this book hoping to see themselves in the characters, and instead will see their unique experience of sexuality glossed over and given a cookie-cutter, heteronormative ending. It’s a cute book, but it lacks depth. Perhaps Albertalli didn’t realize the degree of authenticity and nuance her narrative was missing, but that’s not much of an excuse.

So, are privileged people not allowed to write marginalized characters?

None of this is to say that Albertalli shouldn’t write about queer characters — she just needs to be more mindful about how she’s writing them. I think it’s important for authors like her to write outside of their privileged worldview, because the alternative is the literary status quo of story upon story about white, cishet, able-bodied characters. If authors are worried about playing into stereotypes and harmful misconceptions when writing about characters who aren’t like themselves, an easy solution is to hire a sensitivity reader — ideally someone who actually belongs to the marginalized identity in question. Sensitivity readers will look over a story and make note of any aspects of a novel that don’t ring true to their experience as a marginalized person, or that perpetuate harmful ideas. And there’s always good old-fashioned research. If you’re not sure you’re the best person to write about a certain kind of character, consider promoting another author’s book instead, one that does so authentically.

My hope is that stories like Leah’s and Simon’s can exist on the shelf next to an abundance of #ownvoices novels (a wonderful hashtag created by Corinne Duyvis to describe books with diverse characters written by authors from that diverse group). It’s easy to be disappointed by books like Leah that aren’t necessarily harmful, but miss the mark in important ways, when there is still such a lack of books with bisexual characters written by bisexual authors. The voices of authors like Becky Albertalli continue to be privileged over marginalized authors in crucial ways (who gets published, where they get published, how their books are promoted, etc.). Until there’s greater parity in publishing, I think it’s necessary to bring critical attention to the fact that the presence of diverse characters does not always translate to meaningful rep.

Leah on the Offbeat is by no means a damaging depiction of bisexuality, but still falls short of authentic representation.The flaws of the novel underscore the importance of #ownvoices literature, and provide a flashpoint to continue the cultural conversation on how privileged authors can best write diverse characters.