Well, now that I’ve discussed how I DON’T want asexuals/asexuality to be represented in the media, it’s time to talk about how I DO want us to be represented. This is the post that I originally intended to make for this month’s Carnival of Aces, the topic of which is Re/presentation, and which I’d encourage you to submit a post for if you haven’t done so yet. The deadline is the 31st (tomorrow) but they can be submitted a day or two late.
First, though, a couple of updates.
The Asexual Awareness Week group has started a petition to get the executive producer’s attention about the damaging portrayal of asexuality on House. Please sign it and pass it on!
If you scroll down you’ll see that the Twitter feed is back on my blog with a new account linked, so if you were following my old one you’ll want to switch to following @Lunacinzenta. I am also going to start using Publicize to automatically post links to new blog posts on Twitter, so if you prefer to follow me that way you can. I’m going to make an effort to actually continue using Twitter this time, as well.
About the ongoing House Saga: I tweeted a link to my post to Kath Lingenfelter, the writer of the episode, asking her to read it so she might better understand what’s wrong with the portrayal of asexuality in the episode. She tweeted back:
@Lunacinzenta V. well written & clearly stated. Personal anecdote about M especially upsetting. Appreciate your continuing the conversation.
I am glad that she read the post and replied. Given the limited format of this medium, it’s difficult to know exactly what she’s thinking, and I know that many people are very skeptical that she’s genuinely apologetic. I agree that she has made several troublesome statements since the whole thing started blowing up in her face. However, for a person who has never actually given much thought to the rhetoric of apologizing, on the surface of it, “I’m sorry if I offended you,” and the like seem like perfectly fine ways to apologize. That’s kind of the whole point, isn’t it? They’re crafted to seem like an apology, so that some people will accept them as one. If someone has never had much experience with weaselly abusive people, maybe doesn’t follow politics all that closely, doesn’t read a lot of social justice blogs and so on, it’s possible that they’ve just never encountered analysis of what statements like that are actually saying, so they take not-pologies at face value and even use them themselves. It’s a lack of critical thinking about that topic, certainly, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t have genuine intentions. So I’ll cut her some slack. I’m not saying that I’ve decided for sure one way or another on whether her apologies are genuine, but I don’t have enough evidence to conclusively rule out the possibility that she is sincere, so she gets the benefit of the doubt for now.
The reason I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt is because a large part of what it means to be an ally is learning from your mistakes. The damage has already been done, and because it’s a popular show on international television, it is very widespread. It can’t be reversed, but maybe it can be mitigated somewhat. The asexual community by itself is marginalized enough that we don’t have the power to do that alone. Hence the petition. I don’t want to write off potential allies for making mistakes, but rather I want to provide them with an opportunity to learn how to do better. I’m offering myself up as a consultant, for Lingenfelter or anyone else who wants to write about asexuality—if you do, get in touch! I’m trying to provide resources here on this blog by answering questions that people may have through my series of Q&A posts; if anyone has questions, you can ask them completely anonymously on Formspring.
Dealing with stereotypes
With that out of the way, I want to talk about the problematic notion of a stereotype-free portrayal of asexuality.
I think at this point we’ve reached the stage where there is a certain “stereotypical asexual” that a lot of sexual people have in mind when they think of asexuals. I don’t think they imagine that all of these traits apply to all of us. There’s room for people to break stereotypes, but there are certain things that people just automatically assume about asexuals unless they have evidence to contradict their assumptions. Like:
- Asexuals are unattractive.
- Asexuals are socially awkward and/or are on the autistic spectrum.
- Asexuals spend too much time on the Internet. Make up too many new words.
- Asexuals are cold, analytical, robot-like. Not passionate.
- Asexuals are either very sexually inexperienced, or have experienced sexual trauma. This causes us to have a lot of anxiety about sex.
- Asexuals are all celibate or would all rather be celibate.
- Asexuals are white. Maybe sometimes Asian.
- Asexuals are gender non-conforming.
- Asexuals are isolated, alone.
- Asexuals are deceptive, hide their asexuality to get dates. Or are hiding that they are NOT asexual, delusional/self-deceptive.
- Asexuals are aspiring cat ladies.
- Asexuals are all huge nerds.
- Asexuals have something physically wrong with them (e.g. hormone problems, hypothyroidism, brain tumors, erectile dysfunction, etc.)
- Asexuals think they are better than people who have sex.
This may not be a complete list of stereotypes, but it’s what I can think of off the top of my head. I fit into maybe about half of these stereotypes, and break the rest. The tricky thing is that stereotypes don’t come from nowhere. A lot of us DO fit many of them. There’s a little grain of truth hidden behind most of them, although it’s distorted because people don’t understand what’s really going on and therefore interpret what they see in a much more negative way.
Take number ten. Asexual people who are married to non-asexual people get a LOT of flack, with many people just automatically assuming that they must have led their spouse on before the marriage (I’d provide links to back this up, but mostly I see this going on in comments sections of various articles dealing with asexuality, and I forget where exactly I’ve seen it, so if anyone has any examples, feel free to provide them in the comments). They take for granted that asexuals know their orientation before getting married, which in a lot of cases is not true. A lot of asexuals spend years not understanding what’s wrong with them, and only start coming to the realization that they are asexual after they’re in a marriage that isn’t working out well for them because of the issue of sex. This is only aggravated in religious circles where abstinence before marriage is considered the only moral alternative. So the little grain of truth to the stereotype is that sometimes people find out their partners are asexual after they’re already invested in a relationship. The problem is that then they assume more understanding and control over the situation than the asexual person actually had in reality, and from that assumption they conclude that the asexual person intentionally deceived them… because they’re evil or something, I guess. The second part of this stereotype of the “deceptive asexual” was reinforced during the recent episode of House. It’s true that sometimes people identify as asexual and then later realize that they are sexual after all, but people tend to look for any instance of that happening and then interpret that as evidence that all of us are lying, or lying to ourselves. Either way, it’s hugely exaggerated and distorted from what’s really going on.
At least a third of these stereotypes, if not more, are connected to stereotypes about other groups of people, like nerds and non-NT people, which are themselves interconnected. And the asexual community does appear to have a higher-than-average proportion of nerdy people and people on the autistic spectrum. Most likely this has to do with the visible community being based on the internet—there are local meet-up groups but they aren’t seen as much as AVEN, and due to the rarity and invisibility of asexuality they’re hard to plan without the aid of the internet. Nerds tend to be more likely to actually post and stay connected to the internet communities. I’m sure there are asexuals out there who aren’t terribly well-connected to asexual communities because they aren’t online that often.
Obviously, some of these stereotypes, like 10, are so damaging that they should never be reinforced. It’d be fine to explore a character who discovers that they’re asexual after being married, but not one who lies about being asexual in order to get married, because that wouldn’t be a fair representation of reality. But when it comes to stereotypes like “asexuals have Asperger’s” and the like, there’s a point where refusing to portray an asexual with Asperger’s becomes an act of erasure. It is even more an act of erasure when it comes to non-fictional media representations. Are asexuals with Asperger’s unfit to represent the rest of us in news pieces and documentaries because they aren’t NT, because they don’t “prove” that asexuals are perfectly normal? Of course not.
But if the ONLY representations of asexuals out there are asexuals who have Asperger’s, then we have a problem. Because there are a lot of asexuals who don’t fit that stereotype, and then they are erased.
So the key thing is not to try to avoid all the stereotypes, but rather to portray a wide variety of asexual characters who are fully developed, and break stereotypes in different ways. Pay attention to the balance of how asexual characters are being portrayed, and if there are already too many portrayals of one type and not enough of others, don’t contribute to it by making yet another character fit stereotype x. At the same time, we have to be mindful that we don’t slip into tokenism, including an asexual character who ___ just because we want to fill a quota, without being mindful of whether we can write that character well or not. Certain things, like characters with traumatic pasts, are sometimes used as a cheap way to give depth to a character without fully exploring their trauma in a thoughtful way. Asexual characters with trauma, especially sexual trauma, need to be extra-thoughtfully explored because there’s a lot of room for unintended “debunking” of their asexuality. Perhaps until we are more well established as a legitimate sexual orientation, it’s best to only explore asexual characters whose sexual traumas happened because of and were not the cause of, their asexuality. I’d trust an asexual writer infinitely more than I would a non-asexual writer trying to tackle topics like this. At this stage in our visibility efforts, though, fictional characters who are asexual are quite likely to be regarded as unreliable even when they aren’t meant to be read as such at all.
But as far as non-fictional media representation goes, we should all feel free to tell our own stories, whether they make asexuality’s legitimacy seem “unassailable” or not. We do have to be careful about where and to whom we try to tell our stories, because some journalists will be unscrupulous about attacking asexuality if they can find a “flaw” that they think they can use to “disprove” asexuality. I think a lot of journalists take the idea of being “fair and balanced” too far, and insist on providing a dissenting point of view even when the dissenter is clearly making things up. And some people, like Tyra Banks, who canceled her planned segment on asexuality because she couldn’t find an asexual married couple in the United States who were willing to volunteer, are only looking for one specific kind of asexual story to tell. So there’s a lot of erasure coming from both outsiders and people within the community who are so anxious about presenting an image of asexuality that can’t be attacked that they reflexively erase people who have aspects of their past or personality that people typically latch on to in order to claim that asexuality can’t be real. Those people often have a lot of anxiety about talking about those aspects of their stories, because they are so frequently attacked or erased. It’s very understandable that someone wouldn’t want to come forward and open themselves up to that kind of hostility. It’s much easier to just omit those parts of the story. But because these parts of our stories get omitted so frequently, they’re extremely difficult for non-asexual writers to research, and since the issues aren’t well understood, asexual writers are likely to find their fiction attacked as “unrealistic.” Thus, I tend to feel quite strongly that we need to explore these trickier topics in works of non-fiction first.
Good portrayals of asexual characters and good, balanced representations of asexuality in media require a lot of research and careful thought. Many non-asexual people who have not been involved with the community really underestimate the amount of research that they need to do in order to create a fair and thoughtful representation of asexuality. Above all else, we need stories about asexuals where those characters are NOT “debunked” by the facts presented in the story. My hope is that we can get people who want to write about asexual characters to actually run their stories by real-life asexuals for critique BEFORE they are published. Maybe we need to create some sort of organized group of asexual beta readers for that purpose. I would join that group in a heartbeat if it existed.