It Gets Better and Children’s Literature: An Overview
In response to a devastating rash of reported queer youth suicides in the fall of 2010, American writer Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller founded the It Gets Better project, a website inviting adults to submit videos that offer messages of hope and encouragement to youth who may be struggling with their sexualities in difficult environments.1 Fueled by contributions from public figures like Barack Obama and a host of celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, It Gets Better has garnered widespread attention and received over fifty thousand user-created video submissions that have been viewed more than fifty million times (“What is”). The It Gets Better book, co-edited by Savage and Miller, was released in March 2011 and appeared on the New York Times bestseller list within weeks, and an It Gets Better documentary special profiling several queer teens was broadcast on mtv and Logo in February 2012. [End Page 83]
As It Get Better’s popularity surged, however, critiques of the project quickly surfaced.2 Tavia Nyong’o notes that It Gets Better primarily hails an upwardly mobile class of white gay youth while excluding those for whom adulthood does not necessarily bring a reprieve from forms of anti-queer violence—particularly, Nyong’o writes, “gender nonconforming and/or trans” people. Sponsored by the Gay-Straight Alliance of San Francisco, the Make It Better project takes aim at the passivity implicit in It Gets Better—the idea that simply enduring adolescence will result in improved social conditions—by offering practical tools for taking action against homophobia in schools and communities and on a national level.3 In a Guardian article, Jasbir Puar expresses concern with the narrowing of queerness’ significance for both adults and youth: she argues that It Gets Better showcases a narrow class of successful adults and reinforces the idea that queer youth are inevitably prone to suicide and bullying. For Puar, many adult It Gets Better contributors are invested in versions of the family that stray little—if at all—from the heteronormative and from narratives of upward mobility that “[echo] the now discredited ‘pull yourself up from the bootstraps’ immigrant motto” (“In the Wake”). She concludes, “And thus [‘it gets better’] might turn out to mean, you get more normal” (“In the Wake”). And in a frank Facebook post, queer activist Charlotte Cooper challenges the idea that queer youth require adult stories to survive, writing, “I wish there was some kind of an It Gets Better campaign in which fucked up queer teenagers give reassurance and advice to windy and pompous bourgie grown-up homos.”
There is a provocative tension between It Gets Better’s stated purpose and the way it seems to circulate. On the one hand, It Gets Better claims to be about queer youth: the project directly addresses itself to this audience and the ostensible crisis in which it finds itself.4 As Savage notes in his introduction to the It Gets Better book, “the point of the project is to give despairing lgbt kids hope. The point is to let them know that things [End Page 84] do get better, using the examples of our own lives” (6). On the other hand, taking into account the ever-growing array of responses to and critiques of It Gets Better, the project appears to be more about adult hopes and anxieties surrounding how queer youth should be addressed than about queer youth themselves. As it circulates through a variety of media, It Gets Better accumulates (mostly adult-authored) personal stories that echo the project’s primary, teleological narrative of development and resilience and an expansive body of (mostly adult-authored) critical interventions that interrogate the pedagogical value and appropriateness of the message that “it gets better” while gesturing, more broadly, to the project’s political failings. In other words, It Gets Better does not circulate according to the ways that it imagines its audience.
The focus of this article is this tension between It Gets Better’s purported objective of providing youth with hope and its circulation as a venue for adults to work out their anxieties about the...