Last week, the Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award was given to a book I’ve long found painful and disappointing: Brian Katcher’s Almost Perfect.
It seems this book is receiving attention because it is one of very few young adult novels in which a major character is transgender, and because it is perceived to “promote acceptance” of transgender people. (More on the deeply insufficient project of “promoting acceptance” in a moment.)
This post comes with a few caveats:
SPOILER ALERT: I am going to reveal major plot elements of Almost Perfect.
TRIGGER WARNING: This post discusses a book that repeatedly objectifies trans women’s bodies and disputes the realness of trans people’s genders. It also portrays transphobic violence. I will be quoting passages from the book here.
PREREQUISITES: This post is not Trans 101. If you find yourself asking questions like “what is cisgender?” or “but aren’t all trans people really ____?” I suggest doing some reading. There’s a pretty nifty and subversive Trans 101 here and a nice set of Trans 101 posts linked from Questioning Transphobia‘s sidebar (scroll down). If you’re up for more extensive reading, I highly recommend Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity.
COMMENTS: I’m not currently moderating comments—the conversations we’ve had about street lit on this blog have been largely respectful and productive—but I will be keeping an eye on this post and reserve the right to change my approach if necessary. [UPDATE: I am moderating comments as of 2/15/11.]
Still here? Okay. So Almost Perfect is narrated by Logan Witherspoon, a cisgender, straight boy in a small town in Missouri. Logan is angsting over a breakup when a new girl comes to town, Sage Hendricks. Logan and Sage grow close; she insists they’re not dating but it seems like maybe they are; they kiss; Sage reveals that she’s trans; and Logan freaks out. For the rest of the book, there is tension between Logan’s desire for Sage and his horror/disgust/fear about dating a girl who is trans: they fight; they make up; they flirt; he freaks out again; they have sex; he dumps her; she tells him off. Then she gets attacked; he takes her to the hospital; they part ways; she is cold to him; they go to separate colleges; and she writes a goodbye letter forgiving him for everything.
Sage is in many ways an appealing character: she’s sharp-witted, brave, funny, and often refreshingly assertive. She neither embodies stereotypes about trans women nor ostentatiously defies them; she is very much her own person and very likeable in her own right. It is easy to see why Logan is drawn to her. I suspect much of the positive reaction to the book is because readers like Sage as a character. And many readers believe the book has a “message of acceptance” because Sage is a round and likeable character, and because Logan ends up (kind of) regretting how he treated her.
It is worth mentioning that Almost Perfect is one of only a handful of YA books with major trans characters. Two problem novels came out in the mid 2000s, Luna and Parrotfish. Last year, there was Catherine Ryan Hyde’s Jumpstart the World, which also portrays a trans character through the eyes of an anxious cisgender narrator (and apparently draws on the story of Leslie Feinberg, who had cut off family ties with Hyde, without Feinberg’s consent—Hyde has responded to Feinberg’s comments here), and this year comes Cris Beam’s much more thoughtful and respectful I am J, told from the point of view of a trans boy in New York. (All of these books, as far as I know, are written by cisgender authors.) Because of the small number of representations of transgender characters in YA literature, each representation takes on a proportionally large weight, which is one reason I find the shortcomings of Almost Perfect particularly heartbreaking.
Here are some basic truths: We all, including trans people, deserve to have our genders recognized as real and treated with respect. We all, including trans people, have a right not to have our bodies scrutinized. We all, including trans people, deserve friends, family, and, if we so choose, partners who respect our whole selves and treat us, including our bodies, with care and compassion.
Almost Perfect may carry a “message of acceptance,” but it falls far short of supporting those truths.
I said I wasn’t going to do Trans 101, but here’s a very brief review. A trans girl? Is really a girl. Really. If you’re a boy? And you like a girl? That doesn’t make you gay. Really. Even if she’s trans.
Why do I say this here? Because Katcher, never, not once, says it in Almost Perfect. When Logan freaks out, it is all about Sage being “a boy.”
“Sage is a guy. A boy. a MAN.” (p.100)
“I’d made out with a boy” (p.101)
“…by the way, I’m really a boy.” (p.122)
In particular, Logan is constantly worried that his attraction to Sage makes him gay. Not only does the narrative never problematize Logan’s homophobia, but it never spells out its obvious refutation.
The narrative never insists that Sage is a girl, perhaps because Katcher himself doesn’t believe it. At his most contemplative, Logan convinces himself to take Sage back into his life, musing,
“This was not a guy. Not a girl, maybe, but certainly not a guy” (p.150).
Furthermore, the narrator keeps making reference to Sage’s “real sex” (and sometimes “real gender”), as if to undermine her femaleness. When in fact—and here’s some more Trans 101—our real sex, and our real gender, is the one we present to the world, the one we understand and experience ourselves to be (though sometimes those are different from each other and sometimes they change—this is the simplified version)—yes, even if we’re trans.
It will perhaps be argued that it is unrealistic to expect either of these characters to believe these truths. Logan is the product of a small town where traditional gender roles and homophobia are the norm; he has only even heard of people being trans on talk shows. And Sage is an eighteen year-old trans girl who is lonely and frustrated, whose father is ashamed of her, and who has understandably low expectations of those around her. And I agree—for Logan to easily transcend his upbringing would ring false. And for Sage’s part, she is isolated and has very little support; her willingness to accept friendship and affection even from someone who has rejected and insulted her, and not to stand up for herself entirely (though she does at one or two points) is only too believable.
But as a reader and a writer myself, I know there is more than one way to express a viewpoint within fiction. The same narrator who interjects ominous foreshadowing
“Maybe I should ask someone out. Find a girl, and if things didn’t work out, at least I’d tried. What was the worst that could happen?
I would find that out very shortly. (p.23)”
could just as easily provide a framework for understanding Logan’s anxieties. Or how about the time Sage prints out “some information about transgendered people” from the internet for Logan? Rather than reject the information, perhaps Logan could have taken a look and let a few key points inform his understanding. This technique could be a bit didactic (though I think Katcher is a skilled enough writer to have handled it smoothly), but the alternative is to let Logan’s anxieties about Sage’s gender and her body rule the narrative.
Logan’s anxiety about Sage’s body does, in fact, rule the narrative. And yes, I can believe that a boy like Logan would be obsessed with Sage’s body. But I also believe that making that obsession Sage’s problem is completely inappropriate, and aside from one or two admonitions not to stare, nothing in the narrative supports Sage’s right to privacy with regard to her body.
Predictably, Logan is obsessed with Sage’s genitals from the moment he finds out she is trans.
“Now, my mental image of her filled me with horror. Big, hairy balls. An eight-inch cock. Flat, hairy chest and hairy back” (p.100).
“The idea that I’d actually tell anyone that the girl I liked had a penis struck me as perverse.” (p.104)
And after they have sex,
“Sage had kept her shorts on. but if she ever got careless one day and I actually saw it[....] It would turn me off so much that I’d never be close to her again” (p.254).
Barely if ever does the narrative challenge Logan’s constant focus on Sage’s genitals, or the idea that a penis always essentially signifies maleness, or the disconnection and violence of sleeping with someone whose body one refuses to see as a whole.
Most painful is that Katcher allows Sage to offer no resistance to Logan’s invasive harping. Consider the scene where Sage describes being suicidal as a sixth grader:
“…that night, I locked myself in the bathroom and took out one of Dad’s razors.”
“Christ, Sage, you didn’t try to cut off your wang, did you?” (p.165).
She doesn’t cringe. She doesn’t glare. She just answers the question.
In the end, Almost Perfect lets cis people completely off the hook. Sage is held up as a character to sympathize with, and perhaps to pity, but the narrative never for a second suggests that the way U.S. culture treats gender ought to change. It is enough, the book tells us, for cis people to try to accept trans people. In her final letter to Logan, Sage writes,
“I’m sure you’re beating yourself up, thinking this is all your fault. But sometimes bad things happen, and there’s no blame to be placed. You didn’t always do the right thing, but you always tried” (emphasis in the original, p.353).
But it’s not enough to try to accept trans people. It’s not even enough to succeed. There is nothing virtuous about “accepting” trans people; respecting other people, including trans people, is part of basic human decency. And does “acceptance” even mean respect? Or does it mean, “It’s okay to be trans, as long as you don’t ask me to do hard things like get your pronouns right or refrain from asking invasive questions about your body?”
Maybe the message of Almost Perfect is that Sage (and by extension, all trans people) deserves better than someone like Logan Witherspoon verbally abusing her, jerking her around, abandoning her, and then eventually being sorry for his actions. And maybe that message will bring some reader a few notches closer to respecting the next trans person they encounter.
Is that enough? Is it worthy of an award?
I think not. I think we all deserve better.