Book Review: owwSIC’s “Lesbi In Love”

In case you guys didn’t know, Come To My Window is a lesbian anthem.

SO. Guys. It’s been what…three months? Three months since I last posted anything. Believe you me guys, I had plans to do more posts since Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  I wanted to write about all the great work #romanceclass has been doing, how great the reception was for #romanceclass at the Manila International Book Fair, and a host of many other things.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I re-entered the rat race, and getting back on the corporate carousel often had me just faceplanting on whatever flat surface as soon as I got home. It was that or I didn’t want to do even more writing after spending the whole day writing.

So what is it that finally lifts me up from the blogging/writing rut I’ve found myself in recently?  As with most aspects of my life, rage and indignation is what’s got me going now. See, at the Manila International Book Fair, Precious Hearts Romances launched their Rebel Fiction imprint, and one of the books launched was Lesbi In Love. Here’s the blurb:

Mary Jovelyn Salazar or MJ for short can’t feel any sexual attraction towards the opposite gender. Sagad hanggang buto ang pagkainis niya sa mga lalaki. Mas gusto pa niyang magsuot ng mga damit-panlalaki kaysa magpaka-girly girl. Secretly in love din siya sa best friend niyang babae mula pa noong high school. Kaya, bakit may nararamdaman siyang something kay Ross Eliseo Valentin, ang notorious playboy ng school campus?

Can someone enlighten her, please?”

Oh boy.

Lesbi In Love

I tried really hard to read this book and not let my opinion of it be colored by the quite frankly offensive and stereotypical representation of the L and G parts of the LGBT community. Even as I was reading it I was actively, actively looking for things that I liked or I thought were done particularly well, because I didn’t want any discussion of what I think is problematic with it be derailed by accusations of elitism or snobbery.

And you know what? There were things that I did like about Lesbi In Love, even if it didn’t look like it from my Twitter timeline. It’s pretty big and popular on Wattpad, it seems, and readers aren’t stupid. There has got to be something in this story that they have gravitated towards, and I think I may have found it.

But the question is, will that germ of a good idea be enough for me to overlook what are some really, really problematic aspects of this book? Well, as I persevered in reading the book over the course of two weeks…I got my answer.

THE GOOD

Like I said earlier, there’s something about this book that has helped attract a lot of fans, and I think I may have found it. If you look at it separate from its problematic LGBT representation, it’s a cute, funny story of a tomboy — and not in the Filipino sense of the word — who finds out that yes, maybe she is a “real” girl after all.

The love interest, Ross Eliseo Valentin, is charming and adorably cocky. He’s a smart-alecky boy-next-door type that I notice has become a lot popular in the Filipino pop culture landscape at the moment — aspirational with just the right amount of jologs to make him attainable to the audience this book is catering to.

Humor is also a big part of this book, and for the most part the humor does land. A lot of it is the kind of street humor and sight and sound gags that you find in a Vice Ganda film, so if that’s not what you’re into you may find it a little grating.

There are a couple of subplots that veer a little too much into the telenserye/Holy Week special territory for my taste, but I assume are a great hit to the audience that this book intends to cater to.  There are some conventions that you have to hit in books like this, after all, and Lesbi In Love does it well.

THE BAD

The book runs to almost 400 pages, and to be quite honest it really should have ended more or less around the 300-page mark. There’s a long, drawn-out conflict in the last 100 or so pages of the book, and it’s a conflict that could have been set-up much more elegantly in the earlier parts of the book.

The journey towards resolving that conflict also involves a lot of characters basically saying the same thing over and over again to the main character. It’s dramatic the first time around, but it gets really grating by the time the third character delivers basically the same speech to MJ.  We get it already.

Lesbi In Love and its treatment of gender roles also did not sit very well with me. A muscle car has to be owned by a lesbian or a straight man because a straight girl cannot possibly be expected to drive it. A coffee shop that is beautiful and classy can only be owned by a woman, because a man can’t possibly create something gentle.

Maybe if I was a lot younger, I would have dismissed it as “typical romance fare”. But the problem is that I am already ancient, and I’ve read my fair share of romance novels. And I know that there are books out there that manage to push against or even subvert those gender roles without sacrificing kilig in the process. It can be done.

THE UGLY

It’s this inability to have his characters break from these gender roles and norms that feed directly into some of the most problematic aspects of Lesbi In Love. If one character plays this gender role, then surely he or she cannot be expected to be able to accomplish another role typically expected of the opposite gender. Couple that with a lack of understanding of the difference between gender and sexual orientation, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

(Don’t know the difference between gender and sexual orientation as well? In the simplest terms, gender is what’s between your legs. Sexual orientation is what you’re attracted to. Gender=male or female. Sexual Orientation=straight, gay, lesbian, etc.)

MJ and her friends Anton and Alex, for instance, think that being a lesbian is being a man, and that being a man means not being vulnerable or open with their feelings. All throughout the novel, MJ berates herself for feeling, denigrating it as something only women do. This mistaken belief that “lesbian=man” also leads to some really unintentionally offensive exchanges that the author probably thought would show how much of a gentleman Ross is, but only ends up accomplishing the opposite.

Not only are MJ’s views about what it means to be a man propping up toxic masculinity, it also casts a pretty negative light on the book’s “lesbian” characters. Three paragraphs in (I kid you not) and the book is already reminding readers of the harmful stereotype that yes, lesbians hate men. Because, you know, it’s only lesbians who have cause to hate straight men and the patriarchy. Because lesbians are men and men hate men who aren’t nice to women.

Since the gender roles that these characters prescribe to frowns at men having feelings, any type of homosocial interaction is treated as a joke or with disgust. Believe it or not, one of the most commonly used insults in this book about a “lesbian” is some variation of “Bakla ka yata ‘eh!” The three “lesbians” in this book use it against each other, MJ uses it against Ross when he and her brother develop a friendship. It’s maddening.

For a book with a “lesbian” main character, it shows a depressing lack of knowledge of what it’s like to be an LGBTQIA person, of the nuances and the heartbreaks and the struggles that the LGBTQIA go through. There are so many ways this book hurts and offends and insults that there were times when I was reading it that I literally wanted to fling it across the train but I didn’t want to hit an innocent co-passenger.

I’ve already talked about how gay is an insult in this book and how it props up harmful stereotypes, but there are still so many things that made me want to scream.

Early on in the book, for instance, MJ wishes rape upon Ross. And not just any ordinary rape, mind you, because that isn’t horrible enough. She wants him to be gang-raped by a dozen gay guys. Because rape is funny and gay guys haven’t been stereotyped as predators who victimize young boys. Not at all.

There’s also the gall, the gall, to appropriate “love knows no gender” to celebrate a heterosexual romance. It’s on page 148, check it out. The book also doesn’t even try to hint at the possibility that MJ could be bisexual. It’s precisely moments like these that show how the lack of knowledge on gender and sexual orientation can end up with disastrous results.

WHY DO THIS WHOLE POST?

Just to be clear, I’m not asking that all LGBT characters be made into paragons of virtue that can do no wrong. That’s just as bad. I want LGBT characters that are people, who have the same complexity that we bestow on straight characters.

But when you’ve only got three “lesbian” characters — two of whom only seem to be attracted to men, and one who eventually ends up liking a man — then that’s a problem. When you don’t even acknowledge that bisexuals exist, then that’s a problem. When you constantly use gay as an insult, use gay gang-rape as a threat, then have no actual gay characters be part of the narrative, then that’s a problem.

Why is it a problem? LGBT people only get limited slots on the Pinoy pop culture landscape. Sure, there are gay guys, but only a specific type of gay guy. Lesbians? I can literally only recall one character, and that was Cherry Pie Picache’s character in On the Wings of Love. And forget about the rest of the letters in LGBTQIA. That paucity of representation has more repercussions that you may think.

Imagine growing up being one of a handful of straight men, in a world where all the other guys are gay and where the  depictions of straight men in pop culture are rapists. Novels? Rapists. TV? Rapists. Film? Rapists. News? Rapists. Your two daddies, not knowing that  you’re straight, constantly rag on the straight character, constantly bemoan how perverted straight people are. And as much as you try to convince yourself you like that cute guy in class, you know deep in your heart that it’s not true. You might be one of those straight rapists you see on TV, but you also know that that’s something you’d never do. Is it possible to be straight and not a rapist? Why couldn’t you just have been born gay? Why does it seem like the only kind of straight guy you see in media is one that is definitely not you?  Can you imagine how much that fucks you up? If you can’t imagine that, then congratulations, you’ve just realized how privileged you are. Literally every piece of media is geared towards you, and you have a plethora of representations to choose from while the rest of us fight it out for the crumbs.

So if you’re a straight guy writing about LGBT characters, and the only representation you give us gay people is “You can change back to being straight” or “You’re part of a gang of gay rapists”, it’s more than a little fucked up. If you’re going to have an LGBT character in your work (and you should, because we exist in the real world), please have more than one, and make them actual people and not stereotypes? If you can only have one LGBT character, Jesus Christ, don’t make him or her part of a gang of gay rapists.

THE VERDICT

To be honest I’m not really happy with this review, as I feel that I’ve rambled on and on and tried so hard to find some good points about the book because I didn’t want the stuff I found problematic about it be overshadowed by accusations of elitism or snobbery. I just hope that you guys get something out of the mess above.

But if there’s anything else I’m more unhappy with, it’s Lesbi In Love.  Everything that’s problematic about it far outweighed any good I could find, and there were plenty of moments when it was just hurtful. I don’t think the author meant to do it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it did, and that it could have been avoided if only some research was made.

If you’ve read this when it was on Wattpad and you liked it, that’s totally okay. What I think of the work is no judgement on you as a reader.  But do recognize that this thing that you like is deeply problematic. And recognize why someone from the LGBT community may not care for this at all.

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