Achieving a Wide Variety of Representations

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:

  1. Asexuals are unattractive.
  2. Asexuals are socially awkward and/or are on the autistic spectrum.
  3. Asexuals spend too much time on the Internet. Make up too many new words.
  4. Asexuals are cold, analytical, robot-like. Not passionate.
  5. Asexuals are either very sexually inexperienced, or have experienced sexual trauma. This causes us to have a lot of anxiety about sex.
  6. Asexuals are all celibate or would all rather be celibate.
  7. Asexuals are white. Maybe sometimes Asian.
  8. Asexuals are gender non-conforming.
  9. Asexuals are isolated, alone.
  10. Asexuals are deceptive, hide their asexuality to get dates. Or are hiding that they are NOT asexual, delusional/self-deceptive.
  11. Asexuals are aspiring cat ladies.
  12. Asexuals are all huge nerds.
  13. Asexuals have something physically wrong with them (e.g. hormone problems, hypothyroidism, brain tumors, erectile dysfunction, etc.)
  14. 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.

Book Review: No Touching by Aileen Deng

This book leaves me with one burning question. I have got to know: What the heck is the deal with cherry pies?

The main character mentions cherry pies about 20 times in a 237 page book (I skimmed every single page to count, but I was tired so I am sure I am slightly off), way more often than any other mention of food. There are an additional four or five mentions of cherries not in pies, which means that if they were evenly spaced, you’d get a mention of cherries about every ten pages. Now, it’s one thing to have a motif, but the way that this one was implemented was awkwardly inappropriate. The main character seems to have this weird obsession with cherry pies that arguably borders on some kind of sexual fetishism. I’m not kidding. Check out this passage:

“Mom goes to get the cherry pie from the oven. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Homemade cherry pies are the best. The sweet smell grows stronger as Mom brings it out and cuts us each a big piece. I seem to be getting high just from the sight of this treat. As soon as I get my piece, I dig in shamelessly. The cherries taste perfect as the warm juice gushes out. The crust is crispy but blends in softly with the filling. I put one cherry aside to save for later as the ultimate dessert. I’m having ten orgasms at the same time.” (page 74-75)

There is no qualification that Tiffany is using such sexual language as a joke, so it seems that she is working herself into a genuine sexual frenzy, here. Now of course this isn’t what every mention of cherry pies is like. Most of it is stuff like this, from page 72: “Dinner is delicious as usual. My parents are great cooks. I am very excited about the cherry pie in the oven.” (No kidding!) But she doesn’t actually introduce the motif by telling the reader that cherry pies are her favorite (actually on page 194 she says her favorite is cake and ice cream… oh really?), she just starts mentioning them a lot, in rather inappropriate moments. For example, upon hanging out with a guy she’s only very recently met, she begins mentally making a list of their future dates, and the only item on this list that she bothers to mention is to “bake a cherry pie together” (page 122). I can only conclude that cherry pies are supposed to symbolize SOMETHING, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what, and Tiffany never elucidates us.

Traditionally, of course, cherries and cherry pies are symbols for the vagina, loss of virginity, and promiscuous women. Food more generally is also often sexualized. Given this history and the overtly sexual way in which the pies are described, it strikes me as incredibly inappropriate to pick as a motif for a character who is supposedly asexual. What does it symbolize? What purpose does it serve? It seems only to misdirect the reader to make a more sexual interpretation of the main character, perhaps to think she is not really asexual, but just repressed or has some kind of sexual dysfunction. I assume we are NOT supposed to make such an interpretation, since the book is actually marketed towards asexuals, and the author seems genuine in her desire to portray an asexual character. However, it is not easy to take this character seriously. Because… well, I’ll just come out and say it: Tiffany is insane.

It takes a seriously unhinged person to imagine that your pillow is your imaginary boyfriend, make up a detailed back story about this boyfriend, and make out with your pillow-boyfriend so often that the seams on the pillowcase actually begin to come apart. And then, upon getting a real-life date, to feel like a guilty cheater for not telling him about the imaginary boyfriend. How are we supposed to sympathize with this character? Honestly? She seems to be a psychotic loser. I may be asexual too, but that is no basis for feeling empathy for an unlikeable character (much like mutual asexuality is no basis for forming a relationship with someone who is otherwise incompatible), especially when that character is somewhat questionably asexual in the first place; if the book had been marketed differently, I would assume that this is a classic case of an unreliable narrator, because of her penchant for lies and very shallow level of self-examination springing from her unwillingness to face uncomfortable truths (she thinks that she is sane because she knows that she is insane… how does that work?). Instead, I will assume that this is a case of the author not doing enough research. Amusingly, there is a little cafe in this book where asexuals go to hang out, and a couple of other asexuals just walk up to the main character and ask her if she is asexual the very first time she goes there, with no prior planning on the internet. Wish it were that easy to meet other asexuals in real life!

I really dislike the way that asexuality is defined in this book as a lack of sexual DESIRE, not attraction, and equated with the stereotype that asexuals don’t or can’t enjoy sex. That’s a cop-out definition which ignores the existence of people like me, who are asexual but CAN enjoy sex. In fact, the whole character seems to be based on the stereotypical idea of what an asexual person is like, with an especially negative twist. Tiffany is insecure, socially awkward and even succumbs to an anti-sexual superiority complex:

“I evaluate my asexuality to figure out whether it’s done more good or bad to my life. On the surface, it doesn’t seem too appealing. It’s almost as if I were built differently. I don’t feel what I think I should feel. However, this misfortune sometimes makes me feel better than everyone else. In a weird way, I’m above the level of needing physical pleasure, which is philosophically ranked the lowest in human nature by Plato. Material possessions and bodily pleasures are shallow and mindless, having the power to slowly destroy the human race, to reduce us to nothing but slaves to non-living objects, and to weaken our noble mentality and willpower. What is most sublime and should be focused on is human knowledge, which inspires the never-ending quest for information to enlighten our mind and soul.

“I feel like a saint now. I am not degraded by desperate, sexual urges. I am virtuously unaffected by the most basic human need. I am a goddess. I stop myself before becoming convinced that I possess magical powers to heal the poor human sex slaves around me.” (page 89)

Imagine what sexual people would think of asexuals if they read this book! I’d also like to point out that Tiffany masturbates (she even says she can get herself off within seconds!), and that eating food (for enjoyment, which she clearly does) is just as much a “physical pleasure” as having sex, so it is incorrect for her to claim she is above the level of physical pleasure. And there are tons of scenes with her eating way more food than the situation warrants or fantasizing about eating lots of food; she does truly seem to need cherry pies as some sort of emotional comfort. There is no mention of her having a fast metabolism or anything like that, and there is never any physical description given of her besides the fact that she is Chinese and other people say she is pretty. And she says at one point that she feels “a hundred pounds lighter,” so I suppose that we are meant to assume that she weighs a lot, too. Which I think is also part of the stereotypical idea of what asexuals look like.

I also have very little sympathy for Tiffany because she seems to get teary-eyed about EVERYTHING. In fact, all of the characters do, except for Peter (who is happy all the time). The author seems to rely on tears and cliches as a shortcut for showing emotional pain, when really, people don’t act like that. And this truly cripples the book. All of the characters’ behaviors are extreme, to the point that they can’t be taken seriously; however, I think these would be plausible situations if they were toned down somewhat (except for the imaginary boyfriend part). This book actually would work really really well as a comedy. As it is, it’s very funny, but it’s funny in about the same way that The Room is funny. If this book, as it is now, were actually meant to be a comedy, though, I would feel a bit insulted because it would come dangerously close to satirizing asexuals. However, I think it was really meant to be a positive portrayal, but the author just didn’t quite make it to a level of deep emotional honesty with regard to the characters’ actions.

The fact that this book was self-published speaks volumes about its quality. It reads like a rough draft. What it really needs is revision: the attention of a ruthless editor and some asexual beta readers would have done wonders for it. It really does have potential, because it’s a good set-up. The storyline and plot twists are pretty great. It needed to be critiqued by an intelligent and thoughtful group of people knowledgeable about the process of writing, who wouldn’t sugar-coat things and just stroke the author’s ego several times before being published, pushing each successive revision to the next level. I feel somewhat bad for probably really damaging the author’s ego as it is, but harsh criticism really goes with the territory when you put yourself out there like this, and I think it’s more important to be completely honest in a review. I really, really wanted to like this book… but unfortunately, I just couldn’t. However, on the positive side, I did greatly enjoy the author’s sense of humor, and I think she has a knack for comedic situations. Dialogue especially is her strong point. I hope that she will hone this talent and keep on writing.

In conclusion, I have very high standards. I give it 1 star out of 5.