Bisexual Erasure and Monosexism in Rainbow Rowell’s CARRY ON

Bisexual erasure is always a piece of poopy garbage, but it’s especially disheartening to encounter it while reading a book during Bi Visibility Week. Let me explain:

I recently read the fantasy YA book Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. I had a few apprehensions before starting it, to be honest, because I tried to read Eleanor & Park earlier this year and found it boring as well as a pretty sloppy handling of race by a white author. But the two women of one of my favourite podcasts Witch Please were going to discuss the book in the context of it being a part of the Harry Potter world (it’s legitimized Harry Potter fanfiction, essentially). The old English Lit student in me could not bare to listen to the podcast episode without having read the book. (Sidenote: if you like Harry Potter and the idea of two self-described lady scholars talking about Harry Potter with equal parts affection and critical eyes, you should definitely be listening to Witch Please, it is awesome).

At first, I loved Carry On! I loved the interrogation of so many of the details of the Harry Potter and Hogwarts world–like, house elves aren’t necessary if the students just do some of their own fucking chores. I also loved how Rowell used linguistics as the basis of magic. Magicians, aka witches and wizards, use nursery rhymes, song lyrics, and popular phrases to cast spells! I loved that Penelope/Hermione was explicitly brown! I was even amused at Agatha, a person with magic who kind of just wanted to forget about it and live in the normal world and ride horses and get manicures. And I was soooo into the Harry/Draco Simon and Baz queer romance, at least at first.

But then this book disappointed me in a way that makes me angrier and angrier the more I think about it. Namely: the way Carry On deals with queer sexuality is so deeply monosexist (enforcing the assumption that people are either gay or straight and therefore erasing bisexuality) that I want to chuck it at the wall. Unfortunately I was listening to the audiobook so I had nothing tangible to throw.

In case you haven’t read Carry On: the character named Simon who is essentially Harry Potter is in his 8th year at Watford, aka Hogwarts, and has a roommate named Baz who is pretty obviously Draco. I mean, he even slicks his hair back like Draco. For the first part of the book Simon has a long-term girlfriend Agatha, who breaks up with him. It’s clear their relationship is not great and they’re just kind of going through the motions so it’s not surprising. Pretty early on in the story we get Baz’s perspective (one of the other interesting changes Rowell has made to Rowling’s formula is that she offers readers direct points of view from multiple people). Baz tells us straight up that he’s gay and hopelessly in love with Simon. Simon never tells readers directly his sexual orientation or that he’s interested in Baz before they kiss, although many readers will likely suspect something since Simon is kind of obsessed with this guy he claims is his enemy. Some other plot stuff happens, but what we care about is that eventually Simon and Baz kiss. Squee!! So great. Unfortunately, after Simon and Baz get together there isn’t much time for adorableness before monosexism rears its ugly head.

I want to be clear I understand gay people have many different paths to how they came into their sexuality. Many gay people have stories of having different gender relationships they knew they didn’t want, especially as young people, because of the overwhelming pressure of compulsory heterosexuality. I also know some gay people who never had viscerally negative reactions to different gender relationships (sometimes only feeling a kind of ‘meh’) but feel infinitely more excited and fulfilled by same gender relationships in a way that made them realize they’re gay. If Simon had either of those experiences, that’d be great! Yay for showing the complexities of sexual identity.

But Simon’s relationship with Agatha is not presented in either of those ways. Readers are not given any indication that he dated her for three years because of heterosexist pressure or that he discovers something new with Baz that he never felt with Agatha. In fact, all I could see in my reading is that Rowell gives us evidence that Simon had genuine romantic and/or sexual feelings for Agatha, and even continues to have those feelings after she breaks up with him. In particular, Rowell shows that Simon has feelings for Agatha because he is (ironically) jealous of what he thinks might be a burgeoning relationship between Agatha and Baz. If you’ve read this book and have a different interpretation of Simon and Agatha, please let me know in the comments!

In the context of what I understood about Simon’s dating history, Simon wondering “if he is gay now” after kissing Baz and Baz badgering him about “not even knowing if he’s gay or not” are just hurtfully monosexist, even if they are realistic given the monosexist culture we live in. Not one person mentions the word bisexual or the concept of a sexual orientation of attraction to more than one gender. It is as if Simon’s newfound feelings for Baz completely negate any previous feelings he had for Agatha. I kept hoping that even the possibility of bisexuality would be brought up until near the end of the book, but the last comment about sexuality is where Simon flippantly says “I guess I am gay.”

What’s worse is that Rowell is actually using monosexism as a narrative device: a lot of the tension of whether Simon could possibly reciprocate Baz’s feelings hinges on the fact that he has/had a girlfriend and therefore could never also like a boy. I don’t think I’m alone in having found the signs that Simon was into Baz from the beginning pretty obvious, but one way Rowell gets away with that is by using readers’ assumptions that Simon must be straight because of his relationship with Agatha. The romance is essentially structured around the erasure of bisexuality! And it’s especially crappy because there are so few fiction books with bisexual boy/men characters; this is a serious missed opportunity!

Despite all the good this queer relationship in a mainstream YA novel will do and probably has done for some queer teens, I’m really sad that this unequivocally “gay now” narrative is what Rowell is presenting readers. These narratives are really harmful for bi people. The very least Rowell could have done is mention the possibility of a non-monosexual identity even if she didn’t give want to give any explanation for Simon’s dating history. I simply can’t forgive stories like this anymore because I realize looking back that they’re the kinds of cultural narratives that made me not be able to come out as bi and actually see bisexuality as a valid sexual identity until I was almost 30, over 10 years after realizing I was queer.

On a happier bisexual note, you should check out some of the other writing I’ve been doing for Bi Visibility Week, including a 100 Must-Read Bisexual Books post for Book Riot and 15 Must-Read Bisexual Nonfiction Books for Autostraddle. And in case you missed it, my last post on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian was 10 Canadian Bisexual Books to Read for Bi Visibility Week.

(By the way, I realize this post has no Canadian content but y’all said you wanted more opinion pieces and personal essays. So here you go!)

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works in the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation (Nanaimo, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
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