Friday, August 5, 2016

Problems with Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin (Review Take Two)

Two months ago, I made a review of Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin. I gave it three stars, which, for me, isn't that bad of a rating. I liked the book! But after a couple months of consideration, I realized this book had even more issues than I previously thought. I mentioned some of them in my original review, but it wasn't until I read other reader's reviews that I really saw the issues. I really want to readdress them, and I want to share with people the problems in this book. Honestly, I want to share the problems with the AUTHOR, who, as far as I can tell, is cisgender (not trans or nonbinary), and I want him to realize the problems this book has because I'm hoping he'll write a new book that's...not as bad. Yup.

For those of you who don't know, this book is about a genderfluid teenager. I think it's worth mentioning that I am transgender. Specifically, I'm a demiguy (I partially identify as a guy, but not entirely) whose gender is also pretty fluid (it's complicated). I think I have at least some merit in discussing this.

Problem #1: The Inaccurate Representation of Dysphoria

I'm doing this one first because, well, it's probably going to take the longest.

This book represents dysphoria as something that is caused and fixed by clothing. Believe it or not, your expression/what kind of clothes you like to wear has absolutely nothing to do with gender. At all. Hell, I would be comfortable in a dress. The problem, and the reason why trans people like to dress like how their gender (stereotypically) does, is because they want to appear as that gender. Like, it's hard to pass as male while wearing a dress, which is quite unfortunate because I have a TARDIS dress that I'm in love with, but I feel like I can't wear it. I usually wear it anyway because idgaf about your bullshit.

Anyway, back to the point: THAT'S NOT GENDER DYSPHORIA. That's called being gender non-conforming, meaning that you don't dress in the stereotypical ways of your gender.

Simply, there are two different types of dysphoria (some people would argue that there's more, but I'm just going to keep it the way most people say it): social dysphoria and body dysphoria. What are these, you may ask if you don't spend enough time on that side of the internet? I'll include the definition for dysphoria too, just in case anyone's confused about what the hell I'm talking about.

Dysphoria [also called Gender Dysphoria]: an experience of discomfort or disconnect with one's assigned gender, often accompanied by a strong desire to change one's sex to better match their identity or to be called the correct gendered language. [Source] <- You can also learn more there.
Social Dysphoria: the sense of dysphoria specifically linked to social situations. It is typically caused by social assumptions relating to gender, such as gendered birth names, pronoun use, assumption of social roles, or body language. [Source] (It was slightly edited.)
Body Dysphoria: distress, discomfort, confusion, anger, sadness, or disgust experienced because a person's body doesn't match up with how they feel it should be. Certain parts of a person's body, usually primary or secondary sexual organs, face shape, body shape, etc., will cause body dysphoria. The solution is usually transition (taking hormones, getting surgeries, and the like) to help an individual feel more "at home" in their bodies. Commonly experienced among transgender people.
**Important Note: Not all transgender people experience dysphoria the same way, nor do they always experience the same types of dysphoria. Don't assume they do, please.**

Honestly, in my own opinion, it doesn't seem like Riley even experiences dysphoria, though I assume that's caused by the author not seeming to know what dysphoria even is.

Dysphoria is not something that can be cured by a dress or styling your hair in a certain way. Wanting to wear a dress or a suit or whatever has NOTHING to do with being transgender. Going back and forth between wanting to wear a dress and a suit does not make you genderfluid, wearing some kind of suit-dress hybrid does not make you androgyne, and dammit being naked does NOT MAKE YOU AGENDER. Clothes do not equal gender. Come on, guys, we're supposed to be crushing gender roles here. Ugh.

As I said before, I'm pretty sure Jeff Garvin is cisgender, meaning he has a male body and is a dude blah blah blah. I wouldn't expect him to understand what dysphoria feels like, but I also wouldn't expect him to write a book about a gender fluid character. On his website, he said he did a lot of research. My question is, did his research involve any actual genderfluid people? Did somebody with dysphoria approve of this??? 

Dysphoria is not something that is easily dealt with. The sheer amount of times I've burst out crying (with my luck, usually in the middle of a test that's going to decide whether or not I'm allowed to live) because I looked in the mirror or was called a girl or looked down at my chest and went wtf is that weird fatty shit doing there? is pretty insane.

Or maybe the problem is actually caused by the next problem, which was a pretty major mistake if you ask me.

Problem #2: Riley doesn't have a biological sex/assigned gender at birth, does have a gender-neutral birth name, and also looks completely neutral without really trying

Well, okay, they probably do, but it's unknown. For the whole book. This, in theory, is actually a pretty interesting idea *cough*that's totally been done before but whatever*cough*, but it really didn't work for one key reason: dysphoria. 

Body dysphoria relies on uncomfortable body parts. Social dysphoria relies on not being able to pass. How the hell am I supposed to relate to Riley when they don't even have to try to pass? I mean, I have short hair and wear clothing from the guys section and bind my chest and put a sock in my underwear (it's called packing, google it) and lower my voice, but do you think I pass? Fuck no. It's not that easy. Despite what Mulan has taught you, cutting your hair and wearing guys clothing is not all it takes to look like a dude.

Names and pronouns...that's a huge part of dysphoria. I would've loved to have been given a gender-neutral name at birth, but I wasn't. I had to change mine, and explain it to all of my friends and family and random people in the grocery store. Passing wearing only gender neutral clothing and an androgynous haircut? Forget about it. Everyone knows I was assigned female at birth just by glancing at me. I would kill to be in Riley's position. That's...really not an exaggeration.

Problem #3: The Absence of "They" Pronouns

From the authors perspective, I actually understand this one (editors are the worst, trust me I've had intense grammar fights with a few of them), but it still pisses me off. Whether you like it or not, there are people in the world that use "they/them/their" pronouns. It's a pretty excepted way of addressing someone who is neither male nor female, since it's already a word in the English language.

It's also worth pointing out again that this second definition is a thing:
Riley always referred to people they didn't know the name of by "he or she," which not only got annoying, but was also completely unnecessary. "They" pronouns exist. Hey look! I've been using them this whole time for Riley! I also have a ton of friends that use "they" pronouns. I'm still pretty iffy on whether or not I should tell them to read this book considering it completely ignores their pronouns. You don't need to say that they're grammatically correct, but at least acknowledge that there are people in the world that use them.

Problem #4: Lack of Other Nonbinary Genders

I don't think I saw one other gender besides male, female, and genderfluid. Just...what? Sorry? I exist? I have friends that also exist? (I mean, I think so.) It's like, yeah lets talk about nonbinary genders! What do you mean there's more than genderfluid?

Yet another reason I hesitate before recommending this book to a nonbinary friend...there's a good chance their gender's not here. I mean, I don't expect you to mention every gender known to Tumblr, but at least mention a couple? Agender? Androgyne? Demigender? Bigender? Genderflux? ANYTHING?!?!?!? If you're going to be inclusive with gender...please include more than just genderfluid. Thanks. Appreciate it.

Problem #5: Genderfluid Inaccuracies

I'm not trying to say that Riley's type of genderfluidity isn't a real one - it totally is, but it's not the only one. Ahem, hello! Once again, I exist! Ha. Ha. Ugh.

Genderfluid people aren't necessarily people that are sometimes female and sometimes male. Actually, I've yet to meet someone who's like that, but I've heard they exist. Many (if not all) of the genderfluid people I've talked to go through more than two genders. Some go between male, female, and an in-between gender or two. Some go throughout all the genders. Others, like me, only go through certain genders. For me, that's neutral/genderless sometimes, male, and the genders in-between. For others, it might be something totally different. But that's still being genderfluid. What goes into being genderfluid? Having a fluid gender. You're welcome.

Back to the problem - Riley is only ever male or female. Sure, it might get a little confusing if your main character is switching between several genders, but hey, that's my life. I found it kind of sad that so many people now think that that's the only way genderfluidity can work, when it's really not. Honestly, people saying how much this book taught them broke my heart. Please don't use this book as your only source of information! PLEASE!

So what would I rate this book now? Well, I kind of want to give it one star just for failing to accurately represent trans people or nonbinary people or genderfluid people. I feel like dysphoria is a big part of any book with a trans character...and this one failed miserably, but I'm going to give it two stars. Mostly because I actually liked the characters and the writing and all that (except for a few Doctor Who inaccuracies that I broke down in my previous review). With all the other issues, I don't even think it's necessary to mention how unlikely the plot is, but that's just me being picky.

Would I recommend this book? I'm not sure. I want to encourage books with nonbinary main characters (and LGBT books in general), but I also want them to be accurate. This book fails in many key ways that are pretty vital to a book with a trans character, but is it a bad book? No. I kind of want you to read it so more books with trans characters become a thing, but I also want you to realize that this isn't how it works for most (if not all) transgender/nonbinary people. At all. I don't know if that was helpful or not.

What did you think of this book? Are you going to read it? Do you think my problems with it are valid? Do you agree or disagree? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!

PS: Please share this post if you liked it! I really want people to know that this is NOT how it works, and that's it's a hell of a lot more complicated than that. So many people said that this book taught them a lot about being genderfluid, and I want people to know that it taught them wrong in many ways. It's important.


  1. It was really interesting to see your opinions on this book's representation of a gender nonconforming peron. As a cis female myself with limited knowledge of genderfluidity I could easily have been tricked by this representation into thinking this was the norm. Hopefully someone writes a novel with a good representation because for me part of the joy of reading is understanding others better and considering being genderfluid is something I doubt I will experience an accurate representation of someone who is would be a good way to learn about what that is like.

    1. I really hope someone writes a novel with better representation than this too! Honestly, this was was such a disappointment. I was so excited for it... I feel like the only way to get the accurate picture would be if it were written by a nonbinary/trans person themselves. That's why I've started semi-writing my own books, but unfortunately that's not at all what I have planned for my life. XD I'm sure someone will come around eventually!

  2. This was a really interesting article. I don't know nearly enough of genders myself, so I'm glad that this was so informative. It sounds like it would be very difficult to write a book that accurately describes the complexity that goes into it. However since it is a good story with good characters (inaccuracies aside, of course) I think I might read it if I come across it. Now, what I really took away from this: you have a TARDIS dress??? I'm so jealous!!!