Saturday, April 7, 2018

Highlights from Dr. Derritt Mason Lecture: Queer Visibility in Media for Young People

The NCSCL has had a busy spring semester covering visiting children’s literature scholars, and this highlight will be the first in our forthcoming series. We also had the chance to interview Canadian scholar, Dr. Derritt Mason, who went into greater detail on his upcoming project and also provided us with recommendations on Canadian authors who write for the Queer YA genre. Stay Tuned! 

In February, San Diego State University experienced a rare “cold snap” when an occluded front moved into the area. However, visiting scholar, Dr. Derritt Mason (Assistant Professor in English) from the University of Calgary was “really happy to be wearing short sleeves” on his first trip down south to San Diego. But, the weather wasn’t the only thing undergoing change at SDSU’s new Digital Humanities Center.

Dr. Mason, who specializes in Children’s and Young Adult literature, as well as queer theory and cultural studies, opened his lecture by historicizing the publishing industry’s approach to representations of queerness and diversity.  Specifically, the queer YA genre, once known for producing texts based on themes of “loneliness and isolation… (and containing a rather large amount of dead pets), were now “out and proud” and focused on generating “coming-out narratives” with “positive affects—like hope and happiness.”

In his talk to SDSU students and faculty members, Mason discussed how John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969), often “hailed as the first North American novel to openly represent gay themes…sparked a renewed investment in queer visibility” in its 2010 re-release. But, he noted, the specific (meaning, visible) “forms of queerness being represented in these newer texts for young people” also encounter a “tangling or conflict with occluded or latent queerness” found in media and literature. Mason paired Donovan’s novel with Laika’s ParaNorman (2012) film, whose production and cinematic debut seemed to echo this response of a “renewed investment in queer visibility” inspired by Donovan’s re-release. He connected this moment to the character of Mitch from ParaNorman, who refers to his “boyfriend” in a conversation with Norman’s sister at the film’s conclusion. In this part, Mason elaborated on the “range of responses” from critics. He cited how conservatives like Victor Medina called this moment a “sucker punch” which put “parents in the awkward position of having to discuss sex, especially gay sex, with children who are not emotionally mature enough.”

Mason also illustrated how other critics lauded this moment—Mitch was the “first openly gay character in a mainstream children’s movie—paralleling representations of gay identity for the first time in literature or popular media.” But, Mason was quick to qualify this comment. Even though Mitch had a “boyfriend”, Mason proffered how he could also be bisexual or pansexual, since he didn’t explicitly affirm his sexual identity as gay in the film.  

The core of Mason’s lecture centered on “occluded or latent queerness” represented in young adult/children’s literature and media. He challenged critics “who call for sexual resolution in Queer YA” and believe these books are only “good if characters grow into a coherent gay or lesbian identity at the end”, while “sexually ambiguous characters are seen as homophobic.” Although Mason emphatically believes critics are right to “highlight the risks of continually representing homophobia, anti-queer violence, and characters that are conflicted about their queer desires on the pages of YA,” he asked his audience to “consider what omissions, invisibilities, incompleteness, ambiguities, allow and invite" and how these are the moments to invite readers and critics that the acts of reading and resisting growth into a coherent LGTBQ identity instead of only focusing on how QYA has thankfully grown out forms of unresolved visibility sexuality.”

What Mason comes to understand through the works of Alexander Doty and Kathryn Bond Stockton is that “queerness is produced through the way readers read texts.” More specifically, it “speaks to how audiences generate diverse often pleasurable and sometimes subversive modes of identification and counter-identification in texts through their own reading and relational practices, regardless of the overt non-heterosexual context in a given text or how its reader might otherwise identify.”

While Donovan’s novel, I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, overtly leaves the sexual identities of Davy and Altschuler unresolved, Mason urges his audience to consider that critics ignore Davy’s most provocative and queer moments…[like his] powerful desire for delay, stasis and dwelling throughout the novel which are represented by his impulse to befriend a stuffed coyote at the museum, repetitive circular structure of his dreams, the way the delay is built into the title itself and the ‘sideways’ [referring to Stockton’s theory on the queer child] relationship with his wiener dog.”

One of the most insightful connections Mason makes is about the ambiguity reinforced in Donovan’s novel through Davy and Altschuler’s production of Julius Caesar, and how “it actually ends halfway so you never get the whole conclusion to the play.” Mason interprets this moment as an instruction manual for a queer reading because so many critics put emphasis on how people can interpret the end of the book, but the books itself actually contains a text where the characters choose to disregard the ending --so what does it mean to actually read Donavon’s novel as an instruction manual for disregarding endings when endings are the only thing that critics seems to care about where that book is concerned.”

Mason ties this moment in with ParaNorman and how “Norman’s way of seeing the world, his queer “spectator”ship is an integral part of coded queerness.” Norman, a young boy who can see ghosts, is alienated from his family and peers, and because of this Mason cites how the film invites its viewers “to consider how Norman himself is a ‘queer reader.’” “He literally sees the world differently than everyone else, interpreting and relating to it in ways that exceed the normative—‘paranormal’ in all senses of the word,” claims Mason in his talk. The crux of the movie centers on Norman finding Agatha, the ghost of a young dead girl, who was persecuted by Puritans for having powers similar to Norman. Norman’s task is to read a fairy tale to Agatha to lull her vengeful spirit back to sleep, but Mason offers that Norman “provides a queer reading with the fairy tale of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and reworks the narrative into how it feels to “be an outsider.” Mason describes how Agatha “initially reacts violently and then asks ‘how does it end?’’ When Norman replies, “I think that’s up to you’, Mason analyzes this to be a gesture to the “malleability or queerability of stories” similar to Donovan’s use of Julius Caesar and the ambiguity of the conclusion in his novel.

In a beautiful turn, Mason remarks on the noteworthiness of Norman’s answer. He claims that when Norman “delivers this ‘it’s up to you’ reply in an over the shoulder shot with Agatha’s back to the camera”, Mason observes, “while Norman is facing Agatha” he’s also looking to the audience—“the ‘you’ includes both Agatha and viewers—reminding us spectators of our role and participation in the reading and interpretation of stories including the film currently unfolding before us.”  

Mason argues that ParaNorman first places “queerness at its fringe, then its center” and the film “spends most of its running time using Norman to set up a suggestive, connotatively queer story, and then the film lays bare the Mitch punchline at its conclusion, rendering explicit the film’s more camouflaged queerness.” But, Mason suggests that although “Mitch might be a defiant character in his potential subversion of audiences’ heteronormative assumptions, there is also something benign about his sexuality. The punchline through which Mitch outs himself at the end of the movie, indeed, relies on the banality of his gayness: he was dating another guy all along, but it wasn’t significant enough for him or the other characters to mention.”

Dr. Mason left his audience to ponder on these questions: “Does the imminent explosion of overtly queer media for young people mark the dwindling of those spectral, subversive queernesses that we queers have found so inspirational? Or can we still look forward to years of watching films, reading books, and, like Norman himself, searching for ghosts on the screen and page?”

 Profs. Phillip Serrato, Michael Borgstrom, 
Angel Daniel Matos, Derritt Mason, and Tishna Asim

Thank you to everyone who attended and made this lecture possible, especially Dr. Angel Daniel Matos who introduced Dr. Mason to SDSU. If you are interested in learning more about about Dr. Derritt Mason's research into queer visibility and occlusion in media, than check out his forthcoming book from University Press of Mississippi, Sites of Anxiety in Queer Young Adult Literature and Culture. 

You can also follow Dr. Mason on Twitter or email him at