‘I’m Going To Read It Anyway & See What I Think’

As a blogger, I read book reviews almost daily. Whether it be here on WordPress, Tumblr, Instagram, or Goodreads, I use them as a guide to find out whether a book I’m thinking of reading is really worth it. Granted, you don’t have to use them, and I’ve often dived into a book without knowing what it’s about or what people have said about it (it’s one of my favourite things to do), but hey, reviews are useful!

As a book blogger, I also write them, and while I don’t write reviews of books that I just stopped reading after a short while for no particular reason, I do write reviews of books that I did not like and also include, if necessary, warnings about scenes or chapters that some may find triggering and/or upsetting. I want my reviews to, if positive, entice readers into picking up the book and sharing the joy that I felt. But I review the books that I did not enjoy to make aware to my readers and others who are browsing the reviews on goodreads of why I don’t think said book is worth your time.

However, at the end of the day, I cannot decide for you whether or not you read a book; my opinion may contribute to that decision, but reading tastes are reading tastes and my opinion will not be the same as yours. And that’s ok!

Whether or not a reviewer likes the book or not is very different to a reviewer stating the problematic issues in a book.

Vocal debates on this topic have been surfacing around once a month about these two definitions and how they’ve been overlapping. While the same issues happen with disabled bloggers, LGBT+ bloggers and Muslim bloggers, it’s specifically POC bloggers who are constantly being harassed online for their reviews of books that they have stated have racist content and therefore should be at least called out on to make others aware.

The problem does not lie in bloggers making readers aware of racist content, what is worrying are the many (white) people who respond to these criticisms with ‘I’m going to read it anyway and see what I think’.

In my scenario, where I give a book two stars because I didn’t enjoy it, that’s where a statement like that would be ok. Books are subjective, and ‘the writing style is poor’ is an opinion that another reader may not share. However, when POC review a book and say it’s racist, a white person cannot then decide to ‘see what they think’, because here are your two outcomes:

Outcome 1: You read the book and agree yes, it is racist. You have therefore ignored the claim of a person who actually experiences said racism in real life in favour of yours, as if there’s does not mean anything unless you’ve waved in on it.

Outcome 2: You read the book and disagree, it is not racist. You have therefore ignored the claim of a person who actually experiences said racism in real life in favour of yours, as if you can decide what does and does not clarify as racism.

I think the crux of the matter is people don’t like it when they are told not to read a book. Of course, when someone tells you not to do something, you kind of wanna do it, right? But here’s the thing, racism is not an opinion. That book, whether you read it or not, dislike it or not, has racist content. So, you cannot ‘read it and see what you think’. And when these bloggers/reviewers are asking you not to support these books, they are not trying to restrict your reading, they are trying to let publishers know that books like these cannot slide, that they are problematic and should not be getting published in the first place. Institutional racism is deep and ingrained and small justices can make large waves. Read the books if you want, but keep aware, and support the voices who are hurt by racist, homophobic, and ableist content.

You see a person stepping on another person’s foot without realising. They walk away. The person whose foot has been stepped on is hurt and rubbing their foot. They come up to you. “Did you see that? That really hurt.” Would you then question if that actually hurt them? Or would you have to find out for yourself and step on their foot too?

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Intense Publicity How It Affects Reading

I wanted to talk a little bit about hype.

Hype, by my own definition, is the feeling you build inside of people as they await for something. In this context, books.

It’s a very important part of marketing and publicity that there is hype surrounding a book. Sometimes it’s easy; the genre is a popular one, a trendy story line that always hits and never misses with it’s target demographic. Sometimes it’s even easier; the author is well known, award-winning, maybe even world-renowned. And sometimes it’s hard; it’s a debut author, niche subject matter, a risk, but nevertheless a risk the publisher is willing to take.

Hype sells. Hype gets things noticed.

But for me, and fairly often; Hype kills.

I’ve been struggling with this for a long time and I’ve never really known how to put it into words. But, since being very disappointed by a very highly anticipated book recently, I thought it would be time to discuss it.

A lot of the books, shows, movies that I have fallen in love with are often ones that I’ve found on my own. The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo was still only circulating in the U.S. where I saw someone on Youtube mention it. I’d never heard of it, nor were people constantly talking about it. I found a hardback online for so cheap that I bought it and read it straight away. Que my love. But I often wonder if that would be different if people would not stop recommending it, if it was talked about in every Twitter chat and was announced on everyone’s TBR, if there were giveaways and competitions left, right, and centre. It’s a beautifully written story by a now auto-buy author for me, but would I enjoy it if I say, picked it up now?

Switch to a few days ago, where I had to write a two star review about a book that I’ve been excited for since July last year and have been greatly disappointed by. The plot, the setting, the concept all sounded so promising when I first heard of it. In my review I go into detail about how much the hype ruined the book for me, about how I may have enjoyed it more without the anticipation. It’s probably true; I wouldn’t have scrutinized it so much. My expectations were through the roof from the reviews and the talk around it. But at the same time, would I have? Like I said, I’d heard it once and was initially interested. Imagine, if that was all I heard about it; people didn’t talk about it as much and it wasn’t the subject of every fourth tweet on my Twitter timeline. Does the amount of hype really decide if I like a book or not?

It’s the same with shows too. I tend to enjoy them a lot more when I haven’t been either forced to watch them or pestered by everyone. I don’t watch Game of Thrones. I didn’t watch Breaking Bad, Stranger Things etc because people wouldn’t shut up about them. They’re probably great, but the expectations I now have are so high that I’m not ready to experience the disappointment.

But then am I a part of the hype machine? I do not stop banging on about certain books that I’ve fallen in love with, particularly Jandy Nelson’s books and Radio Silence by Alice Oseman. I mention them in almost every chat, bring them up in every conversation about book recommendations. Do I contribute? I suppose, it’s always about the writing; many live up to the hype and many don’t. It depends on the hype too; I remember when Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season was being compared to Harry Potter, and when I read it I couldn’t believe that it had been compared to one of the best selling series of all time. But the second one? When the hype had died down and I’d decided to give it a second chance? Much better! Had the writing improved? Were my expectations way low? Probably a bit of both.

How does hype effect what you read? Are you seduced by the excitement and anticipation, or are you more of a finding a diamond in the rough kind of reader? Are there any hyped books you didn’t enjoy? Let’s talk!

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The Four Star Crisis

I did not realise that the star rating system was something I used so much in my life.

I use it for books, films, restaurants, hotels, years (2016 got 0 stars obviously), nightclubs, makeup, I could go on. But recently I’ve been having trouble try to explain myself as to why I’ve given a book a certain number of stars.

Goodreads doesn’t exactly force you to use their star rating system, but enough people still complain about it, one of the biggest complaints being that there aren’t half star ratings. I get it; you’ve signed up to a website where you want better explain yourself as to why you loved/hated a book. You want to be a little more precise, and sometimes a star rating system doesn’t really do it justice.

And while I haven’t really had a problem using it before, I’ve noticed a trend in the books I’ve been rating.

I bloody love to use four stars.

A lot of people on their blogs have a set of guidelines as to what they mean when they give a book a certain amount of stars, but I’ve never done that. I didn’t want to be so rigid in my rating, but it now comes across as slightly confusing, especially to myself. The only star ratings that seem to explain enough are one star (fucking awful) and five stars (fucking incredible), and while I rarely use two stars because I might as well just knock it down to one and only use three if the book was average, I use four stars to the point where the books rated do not have the same opinion from me anymore.

Four stars, for me, has been the ‘could have been five stars, but wasn’t just quite there’, which is a good enough explanation. But recently, the lines have blurred. The books aren’t mediocre, but they’re probably not something I’d read again. Some are strong four stars and some are weak four stars, but does that mean I’m using four stars too liberally? Is a four star a watered down five star or a heavily concentrated three star?

Why must you torture me this way, four stars??

Am I being too nice? Too cruel? Looking at my Goodreads, there’s far too many four star books; some I read the sequels eagerly, and some I have given away almost instantly. I turned my back on those books.

Maybe it’s time for something different. Maybe the star rating system is not good enough to explain how I feel about a book. Not all the books I read can be four stars. Otherwise, what’s the point in rating them if they all have the same rating?

How do you go about rating books, if at all? What do you think about when deciding how many stars to give a book? What makes a book receive a half star, or even lose one? What’s your opinion on the dreaded four star dilemma?

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Queerbaiting: It’s Time To Stop

I’ve never started a blog post angry.

And maybe, some would say that I should come back to it later, collect my thoughts so that I can write this piece with…I don’t know, a more level head, instead of a hot one?

Well, no, I’m not going to do that, because I’m tired™. I’m so tired of the entertainment industry and the lengths it goes to hurt others and in doing so, form the very dangerous opinions of others.

Continue reading “Queerbaiting: It’s Time To Stop”

La La Land & The Way I’m Consuming Entertainment

There is really something about going to the cinema on your own.

There is no quarrel with what you’re going to see, nor what food you’re going to eat. You can choose exactly where you’re going to sit, and you are most definitely going to be on time. Everything works in your favor when going to see a film alone, with the only problem being that you can’t actually discuss the film with anyone afterwards. You’re left there, with your thoughts, until you go home and find someone to talk about it with, and this is probably someone who hasn’t seen the film anyway.

Seeing La La Land was my first experience seeing a film alone, and it wasn’t until half way through that I realised something was wrong.

I suffer from depression, and one of the main symptoms is lack of focus/interest. Sometimes I do struggle to watch a whole film or I take a long time to read a whole book, but in this scenario I was entirely focused; I had no other stimuli to distract me from what was on screen, and I nearly teared up right there in the cinema because I thought my mental health was destroying this lovely experience I was supposed to be having.

But, this is ridiculous! I’ve been to the cinema before, watched a film before, and been disappointed with the film. It wasn’t my lack of interest to blame, it was the film in those instances. So why was it different now?

I realised I knew exactly what it was, and I was a mixture of both grateful and sad.

La La Land should be a film that I fall in love with. Not only is it about artists who struggle to do what they love while understanding that ‘doing what you love’ doesn’t always pay the bills, it’s musical, colourful, and has stunning cinematography. I’m known to be a fan of this kind of film-making. Films like Moulin Rouge! Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and Her. Shows like Pushing Daisies, The Get Down, and Sherlock. Visually stunning media is my jam, and La La Land should have been a perfect addition.

It had a love story, music, dancing, heart-breaking moments. But this thing that I’d realised about the way I was now consuming media had upset me so much because I had thought it had ruined my enjoyment of the things I love. But it hadn’t. What it had actually done is brought me more awareness about the issues regarding who wins and who doesn’t when it comes to the film industry.

(La La Land spoilers ahead)

La La Land does not actually have a plot. Like many films that are just made to win awards, the film has a basic premise with the distractions of fun musical numbers and pretty colours. But, because of what I’d learned through listening to people discuss the racism in certain books, I could only see Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) obsess over Jazz and how it should be played/listened to while everyone else around him (the people in the band, in the jazz clubs) was black. Jazz is a genre of music derived from the black communities of New Orleans. It was played in speak-easies and in clubs and at parties and has grown into a whole genre that can be enjoyed and played by everyone. But it irked me so much that, this large part of black culture was so prevalent in this movie…and we still focused on the one white guy in the room. The only speaking role a black character had was John Legend’s character, and he was painted as a little bit like an antagonist who wanted to ‘ruin the jazz sound’. It was Sebastian who we were supposed to be rooting for; that one white guy who we’re supposed to consider a visionary when actually he’s just doing what all the black extras are doing, but also throwing hissy fits because things aren’t going his way.

I’ll watch things and the first thing I’ll notice is ‘everyone is white’, and you don’t realise how prevalent it is when you can do it with almost all films and shows. Sherlock is set in London, where 40% of the British Muslim population lives, but according to Sherlock’s London, they just do not exist. HBO’s Girls is set in Brooklyn, where half the population is POC, and all the main girls are white.

Race is not just the issue, but sexuality too. I can watch a show, a film, or read a book and the first thing I will notice is ‘everyone is straight’. Everyone. No matter how many couples you throw in there (I’m looking at you, Sarah J. Maas and Stephenie Meyer), every single one of those couples is straight, and it’s so frustrating because I’m disappointed. How can you thoughtfully write a book, a show, a film, and just completely disregard a whole group of people so easily?

I think, when you grow, and your tastes change, and what you look for in entertainment changes, you always get a little bit annoyed. If you re-read a book that you loved in the past but then realise it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be, or watch a film that looks right up your street but it’s just not the same, I think you do feel a sense of loss. But, to think that this awareness has ruined my taste is a very ignorant way to think. In fact, I want to see it positively, because it’s enlightening. I feel like the blinkers have finally come off, and I’m now seeing the screen in wider definition.

I am tired of seeing/reading the stories that are constantly being told about the same groups of people, written and created by the same groups of people. And this is from me, a cis, able-bodied white person where most of western entertainment is about me.  I cannot even imagine being a young child and consuming so much media and never seeing yourself represented, never seeing the black actress in the main role, never reading about a girl in a Hijab saving the world, or never watching a boy fall in love with another boy. Entertainment plays a large part in forming opinions and views of the outside world, and while the film industry is changing and progressing into something more inclusive, it baffles me that films with the same plots still take all the awards for being revolutionary.

La La Land has won a lot of awards, and I can definitely see why. While the storytelling is a little different and is definitely a homage to the golden age of cinema, it is still the same story being told. It is still two white, straight people falling in love. It is still a story of struggle where there is no struggle, just handouts and connections.

Go see La La Land. Go and enjoy yourself. Laugh and cry and sing a long with it; I am not saying it cannot be enjoyed (clearly, it can be), but for me, this film has definitely been a turning point in the way I am going to enjoy books and films and shows from now on.

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Your Fave Is Problematic, What Happens Now?

This is not a new topic.

This is not something that has started happening suddenly. You just didn’t hear it, either because there wasn’t a platform that could let people be heard so quickly or so easily, or because those voices are the voices of people who are ignored and oppressed.

That’s right, a book you love, a book that may even be your absolute fave, has been called out as problematic.

So no book is perfect. I know, I know. But the sooner that is said, the better. The whole reason this discourse exists is because of that sentence; it is physically impossible to find a book that no matter who reads it, everyone will love it. Because it doesn’t exist.

With that in mind, let’s give this blog post a bit of context:

The online book community is a big one, especially on Twitter, where we are constantly in discussion about everything and anything, which is fantastic. But one thing that continually has the community divided is the calling out of problematic content, either already published or about to be published. Like I said, this is not something new; problematic books have been called out for years, but it’s a little more recent that it’s been done using Twitter threads by bloggers and other authors.

An example of universally accepted calling outs are Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey (and I’m lumping them together because a) one is a product of the other, and b) they both fall victim to the same criticism). These two series are well criticized for being misogynistic, perpetuating rape culture, glorifying abusive relationships, and romanticizing abusers. People got defensive, and instead of actually listening, they shouted.

This reaction is natural, but also does nothing to help the matter.

More recently, and on a smaller scale (to a certain extent), minority voices in the online book community have started calling out problematic books on Twitter. Examples include Sarah J Maas’ books, soon-to-be-released The Continent, and in the last few weeks, Nevernight. I wanted to write this blog post because before, I felt I could not speak about this subject from a personal point of view; but now that one of my favourite books of 2016, Nevernight, has been called out, I feel like I can talk about this in a way that will hopefully speak to others who have been in a similar situation and even perhaps dealt with it in the wrong way.

Because ooh boy, does it get dealt with in the wrong way.

So I read Nevernight around mid-July as an ARC. I loved it, and bought a shiny new hardback version when it came out. I raved about it in almost every bookish chat I joined on Twitter, and gave it a glowing review on Goodreads. Cut to a few months later, after seeing multiple call outs about other books that I neither care about or haven’t read, I see Nevernight be add to the pile people like to call ‘do not touch with a barge pole’.

Shit, I thought, and began reading every single thread and consistently monitoring Jay Kristoff’s Tweets like a hawk. Why? Why is this happening to a book I love?

In all seriousness, this is probably going to happen to a book you love.

So, while I’m bisexual and female, I still have a lot of privilege; I’m white, cis, able-bodied, and middle class. But let’s focus on white. As a white person, I have not been subject to racism. I have seen racism, most definitely, but I have never experienced it personally. And so it’s harder for me to notice implicit racism in the books I read because white people can very easily ignore racism, and they do, because that’s what society has taught us to do; everybody is a little bit racist, to quote Avenue Q.

So when I read Nevernight, I did not see racist depictions of any kind. But just because I did not see them, does not mean they’re not there, and this is why the online book community is causing so much drama.

Anjulie, a fellow book blogger, has a very insightful and educational blog post on her experiences with Nevernight and how, as a WOC, she read the book and saw these depictions, and better explains it all than me.

Now, this has happened, and people are calling my favourite book ‘trash’ and tweeting ‘yeah, this is coming right off my TBR pile’, what the Hell is going on? And what can I do?

The reality? Nothing.

Me reading Nevernight is in the past. Me falling in love with Nevernight has already happened. On the one hand, I could stand up and say ‘Yeah this book sucks’, but there are tweets and reviews and instagrams of me saying I love it, and so me saying I think this book sucks would be a fat lie. To me, it does not suck, but at the same time, I cannot ignore what people are saying about it. I can’t disregard how hurtful these depictions are to people just because I like the book. What, if you’re in this position, you should be asking yourself is not what should you do, but what shouldn’t you do.

First off, please, do not defend the book. This is not the same as disagreeing with a review where someone has said the book is shit, this is you, a person not affected by the problematic content, denying a person who is affected by the problematic content a voice. At this point, in a world where minorities are still oppressed through even craftier ways such as casual racism, we need these voices to call us out! And if you are a person who cares more about the book than the fight for equality within literature, then we’ve got a real problem on our hands. You also do not need to defend the author; a lot of people rushed to Jay Kristoff’s aid to harass the teenagers who were hurt by the depictions in his book. Jay Kristoff is a grown ass man and handled the situation fairly well, and you tweeting ‘They’re just cry-babies’ just makes you look like a cry baby.

You also need to not ignore these criticisms, just like you wouldn’t if you were considering reading the book. Nevernight has been slated for having the ‘savage’ depiction which, when based off of actual indigenous or native cultures, can be really damaging and racist. I am not about to ignore these criticisms; I want to know why I didn’t pick up on it before, and also I want to listen to the people who are speaking about it, because it is them who understand better than I do, and it is them who have to deal with this shit day in day out.

This doesn’t mean I have to toss my copy of Nevernight in the trash. But this also doesn’t mean I have to persuade people to ‘read the book then form an opinion’.

The best thing, at this point, is for me to understand that Nevernight is problematic, and to support the voices that are saying so by hoping that Jay Kristoff can do better. Because that’s all you can hope for; I don’t want Jay Kristoff to stop writing books, nobody wants to say to an author ‘You need to stop writing’, and so when problematic content crops up, all you can say is do better, please, because this should not be happening in 2016, in a community that prides itself on being diverse and inclusive.

Maybe an example with a much wider scope is Sarah J Maas…yeah, all of her books. SJM has a massive following, but almost all of her characters are white (with the POC characters appearing in one book at a time and dying at the end), as well as having skewed portrayals of healthy relationships and weird carbon copies of male characters that have ‘animalistic’ traits that force them to be dickheads. Despite mass uproar about this, people still try and defend their fave by calling POC jealous of SJM’s success, as well as voting for a SJM in every goddamn category in the Goodreads Awards. But you know what? You can still enjoy SJM while still calling for better, you can still hope that SJM sees the criticisms of her book and how they affect her readers (‘I want a boyfriend like so-so’), while reading every single one of her books, and the only way to do that is to make sure that the criticisms are heard loud and clear, instead of seeing the people who are genuinely affected by SJM’s lack of racial diversity as the enemy.

So what happens now?

The book you love is problematic, but that does not mean you are not allowed to like it anymore. Sure, the way you feel about it might automatically change, but this is pretty healthy. There are many people who still read/watch content that know how problematic it can be and have an awareness of the things it needs to improve on, but can still say they enjoyed the content as a whole. Coming up soon, I have a post where Nevernight is listed as one of my favourite books of 2016, because it is, but instead of pretending the criticisms never happened, I will explain them and hope people will take them into account before reading. Will this mean less people will pick it up? Probably. Are some people going to see the criticisms and call Nevernight a ‘dumpster fire’, hell yeah they are! This is the internet. But you can still listen to the people who are deeply affected by this on going racial stereotype that just does not seem to stop. It is far worse to flat out ignore what has been said than to acknowledge that sometimes even your faves don’t get it right.

But hey, there will always be better books. As long as you find them and read them and love them. There will always be books that get it right, that deserve to have the exposure.

Only you can decide if you like a book or not, the rest is just influence. I wrote posts on why liking things isn’t a bad thing and why disliking things isn’t a bad thing either. But completely disregarding problematic content is blind faith, and is part of the problem of why there is a lack of diversity within books.

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Fetishisation & LGBT Representation

So a television show has taken over my life. It’s not the first time it’s happened.

I recently started watching a Norwegian show called SKAM, which feels like a tamer version of Skins where I actually like all the characters and the plot lines aren’t juvenile. Skam is currently in it’s third season, and each season focuses on a specific character who all attend this one high school in Oslo. It’s a small time show, and has not garnered much attention until season three; where the main character is teenage boy, Isak, who is coming to terms with the possibility that he might not be straight and falls in love with another boy.

This sudden surge has got a lot of people questioning just why it is suddenly popular, but I think it would be stupid to not assume it’s because this show has two cute boys kissing in it. And the original fans of SKAM have noticed this too.

This does not apply to SKAM alone; shows, films, and books have all gained attention if there is a couple you can ship, and while seeing queer canon couples in media is hard evidence of progress, it can also pose many problems.

I’ve written many blog posts about books with LGBT representation, about why personally seek out LGBT fiction and also explain why all the stories I write include LGBT people in them. It is a subject close to my heart, and being queer myself, I think it’s very important to represent the diversity of sexuality in many ways, but especially on the subject of puberty and your teenage years.

It is why when I saw a gif of two male characters kissing, I sought out SKAM.

But there is a fine line between being desperate for LGBT representation that you’ll consume anything with it in, and fetishising queer relationships. It’s difficult, because fetishisation can very easily come across as support; having a whole army of viewers/readers/consumers enjoying a story that is predominantly about a queer couple/character and being full on vocal about it speaks volumes to writers, showrunners, producers, studios, and publishers. It is telling these gatekeepers that ‘this is the content we want to see, we want LGBT people in the stories we share, so please include them.’

However, at the same time, you have these same fans not enjoying content when there are no sexual scenes. At the moment in the SKAM story line (from when I drafted this post), Even, Isak’s love interest, has not been around for a few days (and is not replying to Isak’s texts). SKAM releases clips of the upcoming episode every day to create suspense, and it sometimes feels like I’m watching reality television. It leaves the viewer begging for more content where they will see Isak happy (he’s very stressed and sad at the moment) by us all chanting to bring Even back. But at the same time, are we wanting Even back so that Isak and Even can make out? If that’s the case, what is the point in the heart-wrenching story of Isak coming to terms with his sexuality? Of homophobia in his high school? Of his family situation?

These are not examples of being an LGBT ally, nor is it being supportive of LGBT relationships in fiction. This is fetishisation; when you do not want a story, when you could not care less about the struggles and the discrimination that LGBT people deal with on the daily, you just want to see two hot guys kiss. And it’s the same reason we look down on lesbian porn that is purely for the male gaze (and not actually for queer women).

I feel like this kind of viewership/readership is what creates queerbaiting. Queerbaiting is a downright stupid thing that is a result of consumers wanting to see ‘cute LGBT relationships’, and writers/producers/studios finding a way to gain that viewership without pissing off conservatives and the average viewer. Shippers will be able to identify subtle hints, while the rest of the nation can peacefully watch their shows without having to be confronted with ‘the gays’.

Examples of this include shows like Teen Wolf, that continually pointed out the possibility of Stiles being bisexual, including amping up shipping opportunities with another character, Derek Hale. However, if you completely disregard that idea, you can easily ignore it, as it is clearly not the case. And, as producers and writers have said in interviews, Stiles is straight. Yet they still include queerbaiting within their show to make sure they do not lose that viewership.

SKAM, like many shows, novels, and films (although less so), are front runners in the demand for more representation. They are unabashedly diverse, representative, and supportive of the LGBT community and their stories. I think if you love to ship (as we all do), I hope you are able to take a step back and consider why you are doing so. Of course, you want to see them together because you love them together, but it’s important to not boil down queer story lines to just their sex scenes. It is bad for representation as a whole and does no good in the long run.

And don’t get me started on real life shipping.

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