Stephen King’s Evolution on Writing Women, LGBTQ Characters, and People of Color
Photo credit: Shane Leonard via Author's website
I want to state up front this article will lean positive. I believe Stephen King has been a forward-thinking person when it comes to the rights of others, including the groups covered in this discussion. Full disclosure: he did vote for Nixon once. Most people did at the time. His wife still teases him about it.
There has been a noticeable evolution in King’s writing where representation of race, sexual orientation, and gender are concerned. In order to evolve as a person or a writer, you have to start from a position where growth is needed. Considering King has been writing and publishing for over half a century, he weathered those early decades better than most. This may be why he’s survived in the public sphere as well as he has.
There have been some negatives as well as positives along the way, though.
The Magic Black Man
There are some unpublished King novels from the early days I’d love to read, but I suspect problematic characterization may be part of the reason he has chosen not to let them see the light. In the early 70s and 80s, black characters who weren’t main characters in King's books tended to be poorly spoken and had a propensity for crime, violence, and presenting trouble for the main characters. These side characters leaned hard into dialects. Still, racism was represented as bad throughout these novels.
Some racist statements were made, but they came from the mouths of characters. I’m a big proponent of not equating characters’ words, actions, or beliefs with those of the author/creator. There are situations where authors evangelize through their writing, but some evidence outside the violence or depravity of a character written to be violent and depraved is needed to back that up. If the creator is badly intended, it almost always comes to light outside their books.
Which brings us to the so-called "Magic Black Man." King has relied on this trope more than once over the years. You've seen it before—including in movies about getting better at sports. In this trope, a magic black person uses his or her powers to help the more important white character achieve their goals. The magic black person usually disappears before the celebration, after using their trickster powers to complete their task.
The most prominent MBMs in King’s universe are Dick Hallorann from The Shining (and to a lesser degree in Doctor Sleep), Mother Abagail in The Stand, and John Coffee in The Green Mile. All were very powerful entities that fit the definition of the trope exactly. At the same time, they weren’t considered poorly drawn characters. Aside from John Coffee, they had backstory. All three were fully realized individuals. And they are reader and viewer favorites to this day.
This brings to mind another reoccurring trait King has employed when writing black female characters, both lead and supporting. Used to be, when I read King, I'd start a countdown every time a black woman appeared on the page. I wanted to see how long it took before they said the words “Honey Chile,” and how often they were going to say it. For a long time, it was inevitable, and lasted up through From a Buick 8, published in 2002.
Since then, King has written better black female characters. A black female love interest in Revival is very self-actualized, and not a “Honey Chile” appears between the covers from any generation of character.
His strongest black female character, maybe more so than Mother Abigail, was Susannah from the Dark Tower series. She was from the “Honey Chile” era. One of her split personalities was a “jive talking” stereotype, but that identity arose from trauma purposely exaggerated in juxtaposition with her more sophisticated base personality. As she integrated her identities, a more balanced and self-actualized version of her self emerged. The stereotype was never meant to define her, and was never meant to last.
Then we have the Bill Hodges trilogy and a couple related stories, wherein a young black kid assists Bill’s investigation. The kid “talks jive” as a form of parody to make his mother and Bill uncomfortable. The whole family is prominent throughout the stories, creating a cast of well-rounded characters.
Going all the way back to It, Mike Hanlow and his family had a rich backstory and real depth as characters too. So it seems King's heart was always in the right place, and like many people, his understanding of cultures not his own have improved with the times.
Much like with the black characters in King’s earliest books, gay characters were often disparaged, but again, from the mouths or minds of other characters. Many of these mentions were in passing or as asides. They took place in the main narrative on occasion, but usually from a specific character perspective.
The first substantial mention of a gay character was in a tangent chapter of It. The first victims of the reawakening monster are a gay couple getting chased for who they are. King writes an entire chapter about the bar they were in, how it had turned into a gay bar without the owner noticing. The police handle the situation relatively well and with sympathy despite it being the 1980s. The entire episode serves to point out the sinister and dark history of Derry, including the homophobia.
The most prominent use of gay characters as part of an interweaving of themes is in Wolves of the Calla, the fifth book of the Dark Tower series. In one of the extended flashbacks, homosexuality, the Aids Crisis, and King’s three-tiered system of vampires are used in a sort of overlapping metaphor. The idea is noble, and I wouldn’t go so far as to call the execution ham-handed, but I don’t think he stuck the landing. It’s not a terrible representation of the characters or the ideas, but it does seem to come off as a bit oddly toned.
More recently, King used a flamboyant gay character in one section of Billy Summers. This character isn't written to represent all gay characters, just this individual in particular. The character’s personality serves an important role in Billy’s escape after the first act.
Then there is Elevation, a lesser-known work in which a lesbian couple tries desperately to make it in Castle Rock, which has a certain political angle concerning homophobia. It is a short book, but includes a very thoughtful exploration of people understanding each other and coming to respect one another.
Based on these examples, it can be argued that King has utilized LGBTQ characters with mixed results. His representation of queer people is improving, but could still use some work.
The Female Perspective
Generally speaking, King has written strong female characters throughout his career, same as he has written strong characters in most other categories. Examples of female characters facing sexism, overcoming abuse, beating the odds, etc. are numerous throughout his catalog of work.
That's not to say his understanding of the female perspective is perfect.
I had this joke that in slasher movies, if the girl had sex, she was in trouble, but in a Stephen King novel, if the husband had sex, the wife was in trouble. This played out in The Mist, It, and a number of other stories over the years. The husband cheated and his wife died off the page. The husband cheated and his wife was kidnapped and turned catatonic until she could be rescued by a magic bicycle. In all these cases, the husband seldom had to answer for his infidelity.
We see another example is the Bill Hodges trilogy. Bill has a quirky female sidekick who he keeps telling to smile more. Bill is the right age and demographic for someone with this habit, which most women find annoying at the least. It is presented that Bill is helping her with his “smile more” routine. I suspect King didn’t fully realize the female perspective on this issue.
Largely, King’s work recognizes the imposition of men over women. Even in the recently released Fairy Tale, he makes insightful observations about women trying to be heard in society. Overall his representation of women has been more successful than his representation of the black or LGBTQ community. Some would argue there are less pitfalls for a writer to avoid when writing women as opposed to writing other marginalized groups. Having a successful novelist for a wife couldn't have hurt.
The Twitter Years
I asked several people who fit into the above categories about their feelings toward Stephen King in regard to representation. A few mentioned the “magic black man.” Most said they didn’t think of King as a problem in that area. A few did mention his role as a gatekeeper and his refusal to see personal bias as an issue for him. Many of these missteps played out over Twitter.
Stephen King was late in joining the social media platform, but finally did so at the urging of his sons. For politicians and celebrities, Twitter often serves to get them in trouble, get them fired, and then give them space to issue a short apology after getting in trouble and fired. King has navigated this all pretty well, but he is not without controversy.
During the Obama administration, a Republican delegation was in a train accident while traveling for a planning retreat. A dump truck driver died on the tracks. King made a tone-deaf joke about the wreck being a good metaphor for the Republican Party. This was pre-Trump, when the country wasn't quite as polarized as it is now. Not a terrible joke, but he never seemed to understand why people were upset with him, including non-Republicans. He finally said he didn’t realize the truckdriver had died, but that the Republican Party threatens lives every day with their policies, so on and so forth. The apology had the same flaws as the initial tweet. He couldn’t seem to get that people would find joking about a terrible accident tasteless. His inability to "see the point" would be an issue in other controversies.
For example: Stephen King edited a horror anthology with Bev Vincent on the theme of flight. Criticism arose regarding the representation of women in the anthology. King gave what would become his go-to answer on the issue moving forward: he didn’t see gender or color, just story. Of course, this overlooks the possibility that his unconscious biases might cause him to lean towards white male authors’ stories. He didn’t seem to think himself capable of such biases. He didn't understand his position as a gatekeeper had the potential to impact female and minority creators.
Another time on Twitter, King launched into a pre-existing and long-term discussion on female representation in award shows, especially female minorities. The point was made that not only was old-fashioned sexism holding people back, but the unconscious bias of gatekeepers as well. The movement asserted that there needed to be a concerted effort to read and watch more broadly, on purpose. King entered the conversation, both making and missing the point with his stock response: “I don’t see gender or color; I just pick the best work.” People in the ongoing discussion came after him, hammering their original points. In a follow-up tweet, King acknowledged that underrepresented groups did need to be recognized more in these settings.
Despite his missteps, King has used his platform over the years to promote the work of many authors, including female writers and authors of color, and he continues to do so.
Before she became synonymous with transphobia and trans exclusionary radical feminism, King had praise for J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series. He used her work as an example of how to write a compelling story with characters who want worthy things, as opposed to Twilight, where the girl just wanted a boyfriend. He even included Harry Potter symbology in the Dark Tower series. As Rowling leaned into her controversial views and doubled down, King called her out on her exclusionary language. She did not react well, as you can imagine.
Navigating a half century in publishing is tricky business—not just staying relevant, but staying out of trouble as times change, while your old work remains out there for people to judge by new standards. King has done better than most on that front.
It seems he still has some things to learn regarding the issues of unconscious bias and the responsibilities of gatekeepers. We all do.
While some of his earliest stories may not have aged perfectly, the bulk of his writing shows three dimensional characters that represent other groups well. Most importantly, his writing demonstrates an ongoing evolution toward improvement on these issues that is promising for the future.
To leave a comment