February 10, 2017

My quirks are not for your entertainment | How quirky gets in the way of diversity

In today's world, there is nothing more important than diversity--accepting people as they are. It is not a choice to include everyone, regardless of race, sexuality, gender, disability, but a duty. Diversity has two main components, inclusion and respect. This is an all-or-nothing game so you cannot claim to respect someone without including them in your lifestyle, art, and literature. The reverse is also true: there is no point in including someone if you misrepresent or diminish their existence and struggles. 

One of the biggest offenders of polluting diversity is inclusion without respect, which can be seen in the sudden influx of "quirky" YA characters. There are a lot of characters who have some kind of defining characteristic that is not normal, therefore, it is a quirk. 

Many books nowadays are trying to pass off quirks and "cute" abnormalities as diversity. They take a complicated, complex, and meaningful topic like depression or suicide, and then trivialize the meaning by making it a "quirk" instead of a real issue.

The most common example is the diminution of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (aka OCD). There is a misconception that anyone who has the tendency make things nice and neat has OCD. We frequently tell people that they are "completely OCD" if they like to organize or clean. But just because you like having a clean room does not automatically diagnose someone with OCD. In order to have OCD, you have to display a variety of symptoms which disorder your life in a major way. OCD is not an occassional quirk, even though it may seem like it in today's pop culture. 

This issue has even gone to the extreme of wanting quirks in order to be special. Most notably, Jennifer Lawrence told Jesse Eisenberg on The Tonight Show that she wanted a quirk after he explained his OCD tendencies. You can watch the interview here. 

For a more personal example, I sometimes have trouble with speaking. I tend to stumble over my words and stammer quite a bit. In real life, this is quite annoying and one of my worst habits. Every day, I wish that I could just get my words out without the frequent stops and backtracks. But, in a YA book, this would be seen as a "cool feature" of my character that can "make me stand out from the crowd." In short, my habit that causes me embarrassment and stress would be glorified into a "quirk" to attract potential love interests. 

This reversal of bad habits and, sometimes even serious conditions, is a roadblock on the quest for diversity in YA. As long as OCD, depression, and other serious problems are seen as cute quirks, then diversity will be barred from the genre.

The most obvious example I have is Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach. Not one, but two main characters, are special snowflakes because of disabilities and serious "quirks." The love interest, Zelda, is a typical manic pixie dream girl who is glorified for having suicidal thoughts. In fact, the main reason that the protagonist, Parker, falls in love with her is because they want to "fix" each other. The whole time she threatens to kill herself and claims that she has nothing to live for, but she is portrayed as an ethereal and charming and funny and clever character who is the epitome of love. Her depression becomes something that makes her special, unique, and desirable. That line of thinking perpetuates the normalization and underestimation of depression and its severity.

Also, the protagonist is mute. His whole character revolves around the fact that he cannot talk. The reader never learns much about him besides that fact that he likes to write (because he cannot talk) and he loves Zelda (after only three days of being with her). His quirk defines his character instead of being just one facet of his personality. Instead of helping me understand Parker and his situation, his disability was used to simply create sympathy and shallow intrigue. 

Disabilities are not the end-all-be-all of characterization. It is extremely dangerous to define characters by their quirks and abnormalities because it might ultimately lead to a glorification or normalization of serious, and potentially life-threatening, disorders, which is the opposite of what diversity is supposed to do.

These shallow, superficial quirks are a misrepresentation of diversity that create a bad precedent for future authors and readers. Diversity should be more than skin-deep, more than a stereotypical special snowflake. Diversity is not the same as quirky. 

What do you think about quirky characters? How can we stop diminishing diveristy with quirks? Have you read a book where a character was defined by a cute and superficial quirk? Have you read any books where a disability or bad habit was glorified? 

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