A bit of background, before we begin: I adored Simon vs. The Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. I loved Love, Simon even more. I read the book in one day and dragged my roommate along to see Love, Simon the night it came out. I regularly watch the movie when I need a pick me up or a good cry.
I’m also bisexual, and if you’ve read my previous articles, you know that I’m incredibly passionate about accurate representation of the entire LGBTQ community, but especially bisexual representation. I’m a creative writing major, and I hope to bring diversity and accurate representation into the young adult category of fiction because, let’s be honest, while it has gotten better, it’s still pretty lacking.
And finally, the last bit of background: On April 24, 2018, I walked into Elliott Bay Book Company as soon as it opened and asked for my copy of Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli. The man who gave me the book teased me a bit―the books weren’t yet on display, or even out of the boxes―but it was all in good fun. Or maybe it wasn’t. I didn’t care. Becky Albertalli had done so well with Simon vs. The Homosapiens Agenda, I was more than ready to see her take on bisexual representation. No comments made during my purchasing of the book could bring me down.
So you can imagine my disappointment when I finished Leah on the Offbeat and discovered that the representation just wasn’t what I had hoped for. I had an emotional attachment to the characters because of Simon’s story, but some of them were dropped while reading Leah’s. Maybe it’s too late to wrestle with my gripe about Leah on the Offbeat, but seeing it was voted Goodreads Choice 2018 Winner and is now being advertised as staff’s picks in a number of bookstores I’ve recently visited, I couldn’t help but think there’s no time like the present. So here it goes.
Leah’s character is admittedly done really well. She’s closeted when the book begins, out only to her mother, but as the story progresses, and her crush on Abby grows, she realizes she’ll eventually have to tell her friends that she is bisexual. I appreciate that Albertalli didn’t replicate Simon’s story in terms of coming out to the parents―Leah took care of that before the novel started. It’s not that coming out isn’t an important part of the story, but since that’s what Simon’s story revolved around, I was glad to see a different take. Leah’s mom knows. She’s cool with it. Leah herself is confident in her sexuality. She doesn’t doubt whether or not she’s bisexual just because she hasn’t been with a girl (a common thing, which yours truly can vouch for). She is concerned with her “firsts” (first kiss, etc.), but that’s also a pretty common thing. Leah remains to be a good, reliable character. She is not the problem with this story.
The problem is the way in which Abby’s character is shown. I don’t want to assume that everyone is familiar with the “don’t tell your mother” trope, so here’s a brief explanation: the “don’t tell your mother” trope falls under the “slutty bi trope,” which essentially implies that bisexual people will have more sexual relations because they are attracted to everyone. The “don’t tell your mother” trope takes it to a new level, because it implies that whatever is happening between two people is somewhat shameful, but that’s what makes it fun. There’s a lot of problems with this, (one of my biggest pop-culture issues being that it comes from a Demi Lovato song, and she’s literally bisexual, but now it’s used against her), a couple obvious ones being the stereotype of bisexuals being hypersexual, another being that it implies bisexuality is something to be ashamed of. Leah doesn’t fall into either of these―but Abby does.
Abby starts out the novel as heterosexual. She’s still in a relationship with Nick. After they break up, some of her interactions with Leah get a little flirty. It’s harmless―right up until they go on a college tour together, and Abby kisses Leah, saying something along the lines of, “We’re pretty good at this for two straight girls.” Leah, obviously, is annoyed, telling Abby that they’re not both straight girls, and that Abby just took Leah’s first kiss from her. There is some awkwardness, which is to be expected, and after the college tour, Abby has to figure out what she wants. Her character is meant to be free-spirited, never too aggressively defining herself, all that good stuff. It’s a nice way to craft a character, right up until it’s decided that the character is bisexual. Then it just comes off as, and plays into the “I don’t want to define myself, I don’t want to check a box next to my name, why can’t I just be who I am” trope. It allows for the “don’t tell your mother” trope to be used in full swing. It allows for someone to do whatever they want and use their lack of named sexual identity to be their justification. Being free spirited is super valid until it’s used to hurt someone, and in Abby’s case, it is. Her unwillingness to define her sexuality exploits Leah’s emotions.
When Abby comes out to Leah, she says that she’s a little bit bi. She isn’t willing to fully admit that she’s bisexual, which to Leah (and to me) is somewhat annoying. It makes it seem like there’s something to be ashamed of. Leah (thankfully) doesn’t fall for it, and walks away without committing to any sort of relationship with Abby. She tells Abby she can’t use her while she figures it out. This meant a lot to me because it showed Leah’s confidence in her sexuality; she doesn’t have to settle just because she’s bi. Throughout the book, we see that she isn’t really a confident girl. She’s a plus-sized young adult, she has social anxiety, and she’s dealing with all the high school drama we all dreamt of getting away from. The one thing she does have is confidence in her sexuality. She’s a bi woman, and no one can take that away from her or make her question it. Of course, because it’s a YA novel, there’s a happy ending where Abby accepts who she is, and she and Leah go off to college, room together (Really, Albertalli? Really?), and everyone is happy.
I wish there had been more of a point to show Abby working on accepting her sexuality. I wish Leah coming out to Simon and Bram hadn’t been an accident―they happen to see Leah and Abby kissing―and had been portrayed in a more planned manner. That would have been truer to Leah’s character. I wish Abby had stayed true to her character, too. Remember when Simon comes out to her? How well she responds? That Abby would never do what Abby does in Leah on the Offbeat. Because of the good gay representation in Simon vs. The Homosapiens Agenda, I fully believed we would get good bisexual representation in Leah on the Offbeat. I thought I would love it as much as I loved Simon’s story. I’m really glad that Leah didn’t settle, that she knew what she deserved and she waited to commit to Abby until she knew Abby could reciprocate, but overall I was disappointed. These aren’t the characters I grew to love in Simon vs. The Homosapiens Agenda, and this isn’t the representation I grew to expect from Albertalli.
Leah does a really good job at being good representation of a bisexual character, but because her focus is on Abby, our focus is on Abby, and Abby unfortunately does not follow Leah’s lead. Overall, I don’t think I would recommend Leah on the Offbeat, and that really does hurt me. If you really want to read it, get a copy from the library or borrow it from a friend who already bought it, but I don’t think it’s worth the buy.