Our Giddy Aunts: Queer Readings of Mentors in Children’s Fantasy Fiction

With the recent revelation that Dumbledore, our favourite gay wizard, won’t be all that gay in the next Fantastic Beasts movie, I think it’s fair to say that the tide has finally turned; J. K. Rowling’s table-scrap representation is no longer enough. Readers are no longer satisfied with post publication declarations that an unaddressed, unimportant character might have been Jewish or something. This is not effective or accurate representation.

The thing we should keep in mind, however, is that J. K. Rowling wasn’t brave or unique in codifying Dumbledore’s queerness. She was just tapping into an unconscious trope that has been in children’s fantasy fiction since the very beginning.

Explicit queerness in children’s fiction is relatively new. The conscious and unconscious link of homosexuality and sex is an old and tough link to break, and is even tougher to get past a gatekeeping adult public. Children are not in charge of what gets published; adults are. It is these gatekeepers that are as capable as being whipped into a panic – like the one that saw the demise of the Safe Schools program – that decide whether or not queer characters see any representation in children’s fiction. Forgetting, of course, that children’s fiction is all about characters just like the bullied queer kids of real life. Children’s fiction is all about the ‘other’.

Children’s fantasy is filled with ‘others’, like Ged from Earthsea, Morrigan Crow from the Nevermoor series, or the inescapable example Harry Potter. Then there are those who might be completely of the ‘normal’, but find themselves feeling like ‘others’ because they’re in an entirely new world, such as the queer icon Dorothy in Oz, the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve from The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Alice of Alice in Wonderland.

It’s not uncommon for children to feel this way about themselves – approximately 1 in 4 children reported being bullied at school in 2009. This is particularly key for children who may be struggling with sexuality or gender, feeling different for a reason poorly explored in the fiction around them.

Even without bullying, growing up is difficult, and the process of changing from child into adult is a metamorphosis that overwhelms even the best of us. It is here that books become a key in figuring ourselves out through sympathy and empathy, relating our feelings of ‘otherness’ with those on the page.

These ‘others’ find themselves in places and situations that are impossible to the uninitiated. They require guidance and teaching to understand their otherness. In real life we have our parents to fulfil these roles. But it’s usually the case in fiction that these characters that give guidance don’t have the familial attachment of ‘parent’. They are the tertiary adults, who fulfil the role of parent without the prejudice and judgement that entails.

Perhaps it’s just that writers have bad relationships with their parents, but rarely – if ever – does the most important guidance required to see these characters through to the end of the narrative come from parents. It might be because the characters are orphans, or the parents are absent – both of these tropes are mainstays of the genre. Fiction for children lends itself well to wise older characters, because children’s fiction is filled with outsiders needing guidance, yet it seems that when parents are present, children don’t go on adventures.

Who does this leave? Teachers. Old women. Grandparents. Distant relatives. In many cultures, they all fall under the same word. It may have fallen out of fashion now, but that categorisation applies in English too – in short, we’re talking about aunts and uncles, informal or otherwise.

What better word is there for the adults that assume the role of parent in the absence of parent? There are honorary aunts and uncles abound in the real world. Why not in imagined worlds?

The word ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’ does not denote responsibility per se, but it does open the possibility of care. An aunt or an uncle is usually a temporary presence, but with opinions and power the same as any parent. In real life, as in fiction, an orphaned child might find themselves with an aunt or uncle.

The concept of gay aunts and uncles is not a particular new or interesting idea. It is a prevailing theory as to why homosexuality hasn’t been bred out of any population. In fiction, their presence mirrors the real world. If queer people exist to support the lives of children, then more than a few of the children supported in fiction get a little help from their queer aunts and uncles.

Children’s fiction is – for obvious reasons – devoid of sex. The only evidence that anyone has sex in the sanitised world of children’s fiction is the children themselves. This is not to say that the world of children’s fiction is devoid of sexuality – adults may be partnered, children may (and often do) have love interests, and male/female pairings are often implied by proximity.

If there’s any more egregious display of enforced sexuality, it’s in old fashioned children’s fiction. It creates love interests by convenience and proximity by pairing the nearest boy (of similar age) to the nearest girl. It’s not just something applied to the children in children’s fiction, either, but adult framed love isn’t integral to children’s fiction. Indeed, love interests aren’t key to children’s fiction at all. Alice, for example, had no need for love interests.

However, in a world where characters have enforced romantic inclinations, what happens where there is an absence of romance? What happens when a character that could easily have a heterosexual partnering – and has a convenient and proximate heterosexual partner – has none? Why are perfectly loveable characters single?

This happens frequently in children’s fiction because it’s not necessary to explore adult feelings. But adults reading children’s fiction can’t help but wonder about the inner lives of characters. Who does Dumbledore love?

The absence of relationships is as questionable as the presence of them, because for a long time, representation of any queer characters – happy ones, anyway – was illegal.

The absence of relationships isn’t the only evidence, of possible queerness. The circumstantial evidence is as varied as it is flimsy, but it’s no less flimsy than a knowing glance between two Valkyries in 2017’s Thor Ragnarok. Queer people have been forced to see representation where there’s questionable evidence and word of God for decades. Who would have known that Mrs. Danvers was apparently a lesbian without this handy Wikipedia article?

Fiction is filled with flamboyant bachelor uncles, and interesting albeit reserved bachelorette aunts. Flamboyance and extravagance are stereotypes now, but in previous years they could be seen as cultural markers. Dumbledore was extravagant and weird. What is flamboyant if not a bird that catches fire? Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci and Howl, though both textually heterosexual, were both flamboyant and extravagant in an era when the term metrosexual was uninvented. In the Nevermoor series from Jessica Townsend, we have the extravagant flouter of rules, Jupiter North. These are, of course, male stereotypes. The female stereotypes are little murkier.

The maiden aunt trope is one based in reality, and one that is replicated in many children’s narratives. When healthcare for women started becoming a Thing, so was Incredibly Deadly War, leaving many women widowed or without husband. How many of these women were happy to do without we will never know, but their presence has endured in fiction, even outside of the realm of children’s fiction. The Austen novels are nothing without their maiden aunts.

Of course, many of these women – in real life at least – lead unpartnered lives as wholesome heterosexuals. But there are innumerable queer women who would have found this arrangement invigorating, either because they preferred the same sex or preferred no partnership whatsoever. The maiden aunt could be seen as a miserable character, or they could just as easily be fulfilled and happy without a man.

Outsiders in their own worlds, they provide an anchor for ‘others’. These flamboyant uncles or interesting aunts provide a glimpse into the future for characters that are otherwise incapable of imagining a future as an ‘other’.

In real life, the adults we see as children are the adults we believe we can become. The most normal of which are usually our parents, and possibly our grandparents. If our families are large, we might see a deviation from the parental norm through our extended relatives – our aunts and uncle, our cousins and niblings, adults that don’t need to exist in a nuclear family unit to be happy and healthy adults.

When J. K. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore was gay in 2007, there was a short silence and then burst of applause at Carnegie Hall. Applause for representation? Or an acknowledgement of something that has always been there?


Words by Mark Tripodi

Mark is a writer and comedian. He is a host on Radio Adelaide’s Pride and Prejudice and The Range. He also hosts The Piecast.

Genre Fiction vs Literary Fiction: why the literary canon of dead white men sucks.

There are two kind of people in the world: people who think Literary Fiction has more merit to society than Genre Fiction, and people who are correct.

 
Ever since the printing press made novels a commercially viable and accessible hobby, some group has been out to decry them as dangerous or a waste of time. These days many people, particularly in academia, make the distinction between works that are Literary, and books that are not.

 
Genre fiction encompasses a wide range of subcategories, from romance to crime to fantasy and sci-fi and everything in between. Historically these have been the “pulp” novels, short pieces of fiction with flashy covers to be consumed en mass. It’s entertainment. An escape.

 
Literature, on the other hand is Art. It’s a reflection of our own humanity, in all its raw edginess, thrown up at our face to make us really THINK.
Or at least that is the perception.

 
In reality, we can see some interesting biases when we break down the demographics of the writers and the intended readership of each of these genres. Great literary works are usually written by men. You know their names; Joyce, Hemmingway, Capote, Fitzgerald, Melville, etc. They’re the Big Names. The greats. They’re also typically from privileged social classes, and they’re white. And critics write about their books and their privileged white protagonists as exploring universal ideals. As representing all of us in some sort of singular truth. Like we’ve all been dissatisfied middle-aged men in crappy relationships.

 
Books by women, which tackle similar ideas, are instead labelled as “Chick-Lit”, and tend to be lumped into the Genre Fiction category. Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Elliot, all had to publish under male or anonymous pseudonyms because of course “women weren’t capable of literary merit”, only finding proper academic recognition more recently. And in laymen’s reading circles, their work is still considered the domain of bored housewives and the boozed up book clubs of middle-aged-women. The content of their stories may be identical to their male peers, but it’s automatically diminished because of their gender. Because while female readers tend not to be so discerning, male readers apparently are incapable of relating to anything if there isn’t a penis involved. Or so the gatekeepers of the literary canon would have you believe.

 
The argument is made that because a story may involve magic or dragons or zipping around outer space, that you can’t really learn anything from these characters. That these characters are unrelatable and certainly couldn’t fulfil the truest purpose of any Art form: to hold up a mirror of ourselves. But any reader regular of Genre Fiction would disagree.

 
Fundamentally, Literary and Genre Fiction books are the same. All these stories typically feature protagonists struggling with some issue or another, interacting with friends, family, enemies. Even if the physical events in genre fiction may be a little more extraordinary, the interactions, the relationships, they’re still the same. They’re still entirely relatable. In the Harry Potter series, we can still follow Harry’s feelings of loneliness at being an orphan and his trepidation at being flung into this whole new secret world he never knew about, even if it is a magical one. There are still fundamental emotions and problems that he experiences that aren’t invalidated by all the fantastical elements. And even these fantastical elements can stand in for excellent metaphors for real world problems. The class divisions between Pure Bloods and Muggle Borns is clearly an allusion to race and class issues. The Death Eaters could be a stand in for Nazis or the KKK. And Voldemort is whatever genocidal dictator you want him to be. In many ways the Harry Potter series is a highly sophisticated political statement about standing up to discrimination and banding together to fight hatred with love. And one might say that these messages are far more palatable told in metaphor here than in a preachy book which tries to shove it in your face.

 
Science fiction in particular has been a vehicle for societal criticism since its inception. Women have especially used this genre to criticise patriarchal constructs, such as Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, as an exploration of gender roles and the possible utopia in a world without men, or Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a harrowing examination of religiously-motivated oppression and the hypocrisy of the anti-feminist pro-life movements which sacrifice the lives and autonomy of women. Dystopia – as a specific subgenre of science fiction – is renowned for its sharp political criticism, often even having real world consequences. Countless instances have sprung up just this year in the United States, with women donning the stark red robes and white hood of Atwood’s handmaids to protest the Trump administration and it’s repealing of abortion laws. These fantastical books are full of symbols and metaphors that can really speak to the heart of an issue, more so than something entirely contemporary. So it would be entirely foolish to simply dismiss these genre books because they were written by women or set in a world that isn’t 100% identical to our own. And such texts are exceedingly worthy of academic analysis, alongside any classic literature.

 
This level of societal critique isn’t limited to sci-fi either. Horror often features monsters which reflect our own societal fears – vampires were originally a stand in for the sexually charged and foreign (non-Anglo Saxon) “other”, zombies are frequently used as a metaphor for mob mentality and consumerism etc. Crime fiction can help us make sense of the truly dark elements in our communities, and try to either cathartically bring to justice murderers and rapists, or to help us explore and confront their psychology. Romance fiction has historically been an outlet for female sexuality and empowerment, an especially crucial role for women living in patriarchal societies which try to otherwise shame and oppress their desires as “sinful”.

 
The final argument here is that Literary works are seen to be written in a more technically pleasing way; in deep and dancing prose that reads almost like poetry, and truly marks this story as worthy of study. Firstly, not all works placed into the Literary fiction category are well written. Secondly, what defines something as well written can come down to taste, as well as historical context. Many books in the Literary canon are rather old and overly-wordy – partially because back in the day writers, such as Dickens, were paid by the word. And while some people consider it to be high art to be able to spend several pages musing on the colour and texture of wallpaper, as some deep literary message, most modern readers don’t have time for that crap.

 
The way we tell stories has changed. Genre fiction tends to be much more fast-paced, with a greater focus on plot and action, over the deep and lengthy stream-of-consciousness musings you might find in many older novels. This isn’t to say that writing today is better, or worse; it’s simply different. But continuing to uphold only this old classic style of writing as superior stinks of elitism. In labeling some books “better” than others, we’re also using our reading lists to judge one another. Someone who reads exclusively Salinger and Tolstoy isn’t inherently a better person than someone who prefers Meyer and Rowling. In fact it’s telling that in most scenarios it’s the people whose reading lists are exclusively Salinger and Tolstoy can be those who try to demean other readers. Just because a text is more difficult to read does not make it better than a page-turner.

 
Ultimately the takeaway here is that the label of “Genre fiction” has historically been used to diminish the significance of work that otherwise empowers and explores the voices of marginalised people; people outside of academia, women, people of colour, and the LGBT+ community. To participate in such literary snobbery is to deny these demographics a worthwhile voice. And while labels like this are indeed important, especially from a marketing and book-selling perspective, it’s foolish to think that said labels are any sign of quality. There are good and bad books in each category, and if you put side your preconceived notions, you might even find something that unexpectedly speaks to you.


Words by Simone Corletto.