On being careful what we call fluff

Note: while this discusses a particular book, it is not a review. It’s an essay talking about the way we frame books like this, discuss them, rec them, promote them, and especially, review them. This was originally posted at xanwest.wordpress.com.

(As a heads up, this post contains discussions and examples of bullying, sexual harassment, outing, and sexual violence. It also discusses erasure of and silence around these things.)

Yesterday I read a queer YA book that has been almost universally described as cute, fun, and fluffy. It’s told from the POV of a gay main character who is bullied, outed, and sexually harassed.

The book I’m referring to is Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli.

Are there aspects of the story that are cute, fun, and fluffy? Definitely. The tone is generally lighthearted and humorous. One of the central aspects of the story is Simon’s involvement in the production of a musical. The gay MC has a rather sweet family, a supportive friendship group, and a central romantic arc, all of which get ample focus in the novel.

That said, the book centers around Simon getting bullied, which includes him getting outed and sexually harassed, and which drives the core of the plot. It is threaded throughout the story, intertwined with the majority of the cute and humorous bits, all the way to the end.

I’m going to ask you to take a moment to recall what you’ve heard about Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, if anything. It definitely got a huge buzz, won a bunch of awards. What I heard over and over was: cute, fun, fluffy, adorable, sweet, funny.

That did not match my reading experience.

My reading experience was deeply shaped by the bullying Simon experiences throughout the book, the sexual harassment, being outed. These things may have been mostly framed by a light tone and jokes, but they did not feel light to read. As a bullying survivor, and as a queer survivor of sexual violence, when I read about this happening to Simon, I felt deeply for him, connected with him. I also recognized that he likely was joking about these things because that was how he was getting through the day, not because he took them lightly.

I am troubled that so much of the discussion of this book frames it as solely fun, fluffy and cute, and seems to erase the bullying and sexual harassment Simon experiences. This essay is about unpacking that, and discussing why it is important to be careful when characterizing this book (and books like it) as purely fluff.

I am invested in this partly because I think fluff is really important, as a resource, especially for marginalized readers. I want queer teens to be able to find queer stories that are cute, fun, and fluffy, and not be surprised that they depict bullying, outing, and sexual harassment in detail. I want queer readers (including myself) to be able to find these kinds of fluffy queer stories, especially on a hard day when they are needed most. When we talk about books, as readers, its to help other readers know about them, and make choices about what to read and when. Calling Simon vs fluff, in an uncomplicated way, without mentioning the bullying and sexual harassment, isn’t helping readers make these choices.

I’m going to start by describing the nature of the bullying and harassment in Simon vs, which means some spoilers. I’m doing this because it feels like these elements of the story are perhaps not being perceived as bullying and sexual harassment, and that’s why they aren’t being discussed that way. It feels important to name them, to be clear about them.

The next two sections include spoilers, particularly the next one.

What does the bullying, harassment and outing look like in this book?

The novel begins with another student, Marty, having read Simon’s email exchanges with another closeted gay boy (with whom Simon has a romance arc). Marty has taken a screen shot of the emails, and uses that as a weapon to threaten to out Simon (and possibly the boy he is emailing with)…unless Simon helps him get together with one of Simon’s friends. This is referred to as “blackmail” in both the book blurb and in the text, which is told from Simon’s POV. Most of the book elapses before Marty openly admits that this is blackmail, even though he persistently threatens Simon over a long period of time.

The thing is, I got why Simon used the word blackmail. But I never thought of it as blackmail, exactly. This is a allocishet guy threatening to out a gay guy unless he does what he wants. It’s not just blackmail, it’s bullying. It’s targeting a queer person, threatening him, and using his queerness as a weapon against him. And it’s really just the beginning of the bullying, because it escalates.

Marty does more than threaten Simon. He also outs him, publicly, on an open internet forum for all his peers to see. He doesn’t just out him, either. He does it in a particularly loaded and awful way. He posts something on the internet where he pretends to be Simon, uses his full name, and invites all the boys in the school to have “anal buttsex” with him. This is more than just outing Simon. It’s sexual harassment. It’s evoking queer hatred that uses slut shaming to target gay men. It paints a target on Simon’s back for further sexual and queer hating harassment and bullying. Which then occurs throughout the rest of the book, as a constant part of Simon’s school experience. The book describes incidents of bullying and sexual harassment that include: a group of boys joking about taking turns sexually assaulting him, lewd gestures and comments, constant comments as he walks the halls, queer hating slurs used to deface pictures of him. The bullying and sexual harassment is so widespread that Simon doesn’t even try to identify which people are doing it, and it’s pretty clearly implied that we as readers only hear about some of what happens to Simon at school.

Simon being outed is important in the story; it drives a good portion of the rest of the book. And being outed is an intense and awful thing for him. But how he gets outed, that it involves sexual harassment of this nature, that it’s the culmination of bullying, and sets him up as a target for more bullying by others…those pieces are also very important. It feels like the text minimizes them. I’m going to unpack how I think the text does that.

When Simon tells Marty off, he focuses on getting outed and how that is not ok. He doesn’t hold him fully accountable for the bullying, for the sexual harassment, for placing a target on his back for other bullies. Simon’s sister doesn’t name how it’s more than just outing, and neither do his friends. When his friend finds out about the blackmail, she doesn’t name how this is bullying and not ok, she gets angry with him for what he was forced to do. Marty doesn’t hold himself fully accountable, either. He makes a ton of excuses for most of the book, attempts to elide what he is doing. Later on, the text gives a bunch of space to Marty apologizing, at length, multiple times, with a ton of explanation. He never names the sexual harassment aspect of this, or takes responsibility for setting Simon up to be targeted by other bullies. In my read, it feels more like the text is asking the reader to empathize with Marty than that it’s attempting to hold him accountable for his actions.

Some of the bullying Simon experienced from others in school does get challenged textually and by other characters, including an adult in the school, and the outing gets challenged, but that’s really it. A lot of it gets elided, feels minimized, ignored, especially the sexual harassment aspect. Which might be what Simon is doing to survive it (although it’s not framed that way, textually). In my reading experience, because there is nothing in the text that challenges the sexual harassment, not even a hint or a moment, something to show the impact on Simon, someone to say that part of it was wrong and violating, it felt like the text treated it as if it wasn’t real or important, didn’t need to be challenged. Like the “real” problem was only that he got outed, and that he was “blackmailed”.

This translated into the reviews, I think. The book doesn’t frame it (or challenge it) as sexual harassment or bullying, in the text or the blurb, and most reviews don’t do that either (a few reference bullying). Many of the reviews that do reference bullying seem to only refer to one incident of it, one that was challenged by several other characters in the book, including an adult at the school. When I read the book, I saw a pattern of bullying targeting Simon that traced throughout the story, beginning with the threats and “blackmail”, and escalating as the story went on. It makes me wonder what folks think bullying is? Does the absence of physical violence mean that folks don’t think of things like this as bullying? Does what Simon experienced from Martin somehow not count? What about the multiple things that happen to him at school after he is outed?

Some of the reviews I read gave trigger warnings. The ones that did include trigger warnings generally listed that a character gets outed and often listed blackmail and homophobia. They didn’t talk about sexual harassment or bullying. And these reviews pretty much all framed the story as solely cute, fluffy, and fun.

What does it mean to frame stories like this as purely fluffy, fun and cute?

Here’s the thing. Bullying, harassment, and violence targeting queer people often include sexual harassment and sexual violence. That is incredibly common, and a very important aspect of the experience, for survivors. This is something we need to talk more about; it’s often erased or minimized when talking about the way queer folks are targeted by violence.

When stories that include this kind of content are painted purely as light, fluffy, fun and cute, it sends a message to survivors. A familiar one, that’s often sent, about bullying, sexual harassment and anti-queer violence: that it will be ignored, that people will pretend it away, that it’s not ok to talk about it. I finished this book, and went back to reread a bunch of the reviews, seeing fluffy, fun, cute over and over and no mention of the sexual harassment, no reviews that use the word bullying. It felt like this oh so familiar blanket of silence. I know this blanket of silence well, as a survivor of bullying, sexual assault, sexual abuse and sexual harassment, including in the context of queer and trans hatred.

I worry in particular that the sexual harassment isn’t challenged in the book, or named in reviews. I wonder…if there was a book where a character posted something like this about a girl, on an open internet forum for all her peers to see, someone pretending to be her, using her full name that invited all the boys in the school to have sex with her…would that be challenged in the book? Would that be named in a trigger warning as sexual harassment? I have a feeling that it would be. It’s worth considering why it wasn’t here.

I am going to take this hypothetical one more step. This kind of sexual harassment is really common, and girls are frequently targeted by it. What might it be like to be a teen girl who has been or is currently being targeted in this way, and to read Simon vs, to see how nothing in the book names this or challenges it as sexual harassment, how it’s not in trigger warnings, how almost everyone calls the book cute, fluffy, and fun? Are you worried about this hypothetical teen girl reader, and the message she might take from this?

I worry about the message that any and all survivors take from this, especially teen survivors. Please don’t only worry about the girls. Trust me, they are not the only survivors.

I will tell you this: as a queer and trans survivor reader who is an adult, it was hurtful to me that this has been left out of the way folks talk about this book. And I have many years in the trauma field to bring to my understanding of why this might be left out, elided, erased. Teen readers who are survivors of sexual violence, who deal with this kind of bullying and sexual harassment…they are reading these reviews, listening to this buzz, checking out this promo. What message does this erasure send?

What does it say to teen readers who are survivors of bullying, that this story is solely painted as adorable?

What does it say to teen readers who are survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault, that this story is discussed as purely fluffy?

What does it say to queer teen readers that this story is presented as a just a cute fun light read?

For that matter, what does cute, fluffy and fun mean for queer MCs in YA? Does it always include bullying, violence, outing, or sexual harassment? Does this story feel so fun to readers because it’s fluffy and cute alongside those things instead of just bleakly only about those things?

Ideas for ways to discuss books that are complex like this

There may be fluff and cuteness in Simon vs, but that’s not all there is. Even though the tone of the book is generally full of humor, this not just a fluffy story. We need ways to talk about stories like this. Queer stories that include romance, humor and friendship, and also include hard things like bullying, sexual harassment, and being outed.

I can tell you how I talk about books like this. For me, one of the keys is holding the complexity, holding both aspects of the story in how I talk about it. I often talk about the way stories like this balance humor with the hard things, and are able to hold them both. I talk about the different strands of the story—the romance arc, the bullying, the relationships Simon has with his friends, the play, and how they intertwine. I talk about the tone, the voice, and how it felt to have hard things framed with humor. I name the kinds of violence and trauma that are part of the story, often not just in trigger warnings, but definitely in those.

For me the key questions are:

  • How can my review be clear about the fact that the story is both humorous/fluffy and also has difficult intense content?
  • How can my review give other readers the information they need about the content of the book? (I especially consider readers who share experiences depicted in the story, like queer teen readers and teen bullying survivor readers in the case of Simon vs.)
  • How can my review avoid erasing/minimizing/eliding experiences of violence depicted in the book?

We each review and discuss books in different ways, ways that suit our own style and interests. I’m not suggesting mine is “the right way”. I’m talking about how I do this, to offer one set of ideas to bounce off of. I want to hear yours.

What ideas do you have? How do you approach stories like this? What are you hoping from reviews of stories like this?

2 thoughts on “On being careful what we call fluff

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