Recently, Isis posted an article titled “In Defense of John Green: Why Ignoring Minorities Can Be A Good Thing.” The author of the article tackles the two biggest complaints about John Green’s work—first, that he romanticizes the manic pixie dream girl trope and secondly that he continually focuses his narratives on the white, heterosexual, upper middle class male. The author argues that these misinformed claims come from people who haven’t read his books closely enough, and Green shouldn’t be expected to write about something he doesn’t understand because it would come across as “presumptuous.”
This ignores the legitimate claims by his fanbase under the premise of, “Oh, you just aren’t thinking about it right.” There’s no wrong or right way to think about literature, even if that interferes with what the author meant (Google “author intention” and then come talk to me). In addition, writers tackle topics they haven’t personally experienced all the time; that’s part of a writer’s prerogative.
Let’s break down both of these arguments:
Firstly, the author makes the claim that Green dismantles the manic pixie dream girl trope in his writing and aims to make his readers see people as complex human beings instead of stereotypes. If you’ve ever read one of his books, you’re familiar with the pattern: a somewhat nerdy, boring white kid (sometimes with a suspiciously John-like “puff” of hair) falls in love with an insane, romantic, sexy young woman who says dangerous things like, “I smoke to die.” (That quote is from his first novel, Looking For Alaska. He also names these characters things like “Alaska.”)
While I agree with the author’s argument that Green tries to break down the manic pixie dream girl trope, he only does this to a certain extent. In Alaska, Alaska remains romanticized even through her death/suicide—she is the tragic, beautiful, unpredictable heroine with electric blue nails all the way through. Green feels like “the novel discusses in detail” how this was problematic, but it’s hard to get that from the text when what you actually see happening is everyone grieving over the sensation that was Alaska and the narrator, Pudge, coming to terms with her death instead of coming to terms with her, even though it’s hinted at by other characters.
But that was just his first book—like all writers, Green does grow. As the author says, in Paper Towns, the characters go on a wild goose chase to find Margo Roth Spiegelman, but when they find her, she makes it clear that she doesn’t need to be saved and the whole dream of her was just a projection of the narrator’s obsessions. Still better, in The Fault in Our Stars, the main character Hazel falls in love with the highly-idealized male version of the manic pixie dream girl, Augustus Waters, until his cancer forces Hazel to take care of him so intimately that we see the strong, sexy, humorous side compared directly with the pathetic, startled, human side, terrified for his life. So yeah, Green does eventually dismantle the manic pixie dream girl (person?) trope successfully and show the complexity of human people—he’s had a lot of practice, after all.
However, solving that issue doesn’t make up for his other shortcomings. Green hasn’t done anything to correct the problem of his narrators. Even when he’s not playing with the manic pixie dream girl trope, his books are still narrated by the same somewhat dopey, middle class, heterosexual white kid. His one female narrator, Hazel, is also white, middle class, and heterosexual.
The author of the article argues that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Green simply doesn’t know how to write any other perspective because he wasn’t born into them. If Green attempted to discuss the complex issues that go along with being an “angst-ridden Chinese trans woman” (the author’s example), it would probably come off appropriative and presumptuous, especially because Green has no idea how those things affect a human being on an emotional level.
Still, that’s not necessarily an excuse. Not being born into the heterosexual, white community doesn’t stop LGBTQ folks and people of color writing through the eyes of those narrators, and they are often culturally expected to. There is a difference between writing a struggle and writing a character. You can make a character a sexual or racial minority without appropriating a struggle you don’t understand. The writing team for Orange is the New Black, the hit series, have created complex, deep, humane characters of diverse races (not to mention sexualities), despite being made up of plenty of white people, such as Sian Heder, Nick Jones, and Lauren Morelli. Sarah Rees Brennan and Justine Larbalestier co-authored the YA book Team Human, which features a Chinese-American protagonist, and they’re both white women. Shying away from writing characters that don’t look, act, and think like you because of “lack of experience” is not an excuse.
Contrary to the author’s argument, the YA genre especially needs more stories that do this. The three most recent YA series to explode in popularity were all narrated by straight white people: Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games (in the case of the last one, it was arguably whitewashed by the movie franchise). There is no shortage of research about the effects that representation has on minorities: a study in 2012 showed that watching television boosted the self esteem of exclusively white boys—the very demographic of characters John Green writes about—at the expense of the self esteem of white girls and African Americans of all genders. Also in 2012, author Kate Hart produced a study that showed that and overwhelming 90% of YA book covers featured a white face, with Latin@, Asian, and Black faces covering less than 4% of books (total), and the rest were racially ambiguous. The constant perpetuation that everyone fictional is white leads to real people of color hurting because people who look like them aren’t presented as sympathetic heroes in their own stories.
Similarly, LGBTQ YA literature has actually seen a decrease in 2013. (That link will also explain to you how most of those books were published by small LGBTQ specific publishers, not the big-name publishers that school libraries draw from or that, subsequently, most students read from.) Still further, there are fewer female heroines and trans* characters remain virtually invisible.
Bringing light to the issues of discrimination that affect minorities is important, but also simple visibility is important, too. The one token minority side character in each of Green’s books (Radar in Paper Towns, Takumi in Looking for Alaska, etc.) isn’t doing enough; the main characters are still average white people and we are expected to sympathize with and learn from these average white people the most out of everybody.
The author asking us to “imagine Green complexly” sounds like she’s asking us to excuse the fact that he’s not expanding his writing because we as readers just haven’t seen him as a real human being with thoughts and feelings and are instead getting bogged up in the social justice details. Newsflash: we’re not only looking at him as a crappy white dude (oh no, reverse racism!), we’re looking at him through the eyes of fans and readers, of social justice advocates and feminists. Everyone wants to be imagined complexly, but being imagined complexly also requires us to understand that a person has both the good and the problematic. Readers shouldn’t have to forgive an author for refusing to have enough imagination or do enough research to make a character something other than heterosexual and white. This author in particular has already written books about being a cancer patient, which he hasn’t experienced first hand, either.
People who critique Green don’t do so out of malice. They do so out of concern, because he does have a position over a lot of impressionable teens that needs to be treated carefully. People who critique Green also know that they’re not asking too much of him, since most of us are avid fans anyways. John Green wasn’t born a woman, yet he’s already proved to us he can write a female character without trying to talk excessively about sexism; I think he can handle the next level of complexity his readers are asking for.