Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for November, 2021 is Popular Culture Narratives. We invite submissions on various aspects of pop culture, throughout this month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly email your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org
The asexuality visibility movement has become more active within the LGBTQIA+ community in the past two decades, thanks to organisations such as AVEN (The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) which have been curating online database since 2001 for people on the asexuality spectrum (who like to be referred to ‘Aces’) all around the world.
This digital platform along with Tumblr has helped catapult many other Ace activists to spread more awareness about this ‘invisible’ sexual orientation, as well as counter narratives of heteronormativity in our societies. In India, the Indian Aces is an online community that has become a successful resource to navigate conversations around marriage and family which are considered a sacred duty. With more awareness posts on social media, the members of the asexual community including celebrities like Indian television actor Sriti Jha, U.K based model Yasmin Benoit, Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme have been coming out, and more people are getting comfortable to embrace their asexuality.
AVEN defines an asexual person as, “someone who does not experience sexual attraction or an intrinsic desire to have sexual relationships.” However, this does not mean that an asexual person does not desire a romantic relationship or has no interest in having a sexual relationship with their partners. This simply means that they do not have the ‘natural’ urge to pursue sexual actions towards others. This distinction needs to be made clear as asexuality is already a very misinterpreted sexuality.
It is difficult already to put in words a sexuality that is a lack of something abstract. Imagine how hard it would be to show a sexuality that is an absence of another abstract concept we call ‘sexual attraction’! No wonder, Aces hardly find themselves represented in popular media.
For years, the Ace community has had to ‘assume‘ a character to be asexual to claim them as their own, to feel understood by the general allosexual (person who feels sexual attraction towards others) audience. Pop culture characters who are assumed to be asexual such as Sherlock Holmes from Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Doctor Who from the BBC’s Doctor Who series, Elsa from Frozen, etc. serve only so much as projection of self onto the characters.
But it is not sufficient representation as the characters themselves do not acknowledge their sexual identity. In the context of their individual stories, their wit, quirkiness, strength and responsibility supplement the lack of sexual partners or desire that they seem to exhibit on screen and in the narratives. Not to mention, these characters have major trust issues and are depicted as anti-social. This may be problematic since the essential aspects of the Ace experience that should be conveyed are overtaken by other aspects of their personality.
However, pop culture is slowly but surely making amends for the lack of asexual representation. Today, we can identify asexual characters across content, who document Ace experiences well, especially in the queer space of the heteroromantic asexuality spectrum. Todd Chaves from Bojack Horseman (2014-2020) is naturally the most obvious canonically Ace character to cite an example. Todd ‘comes out’ to his best friend Bojack in the fourth season, while also coming out to himself. He says, “It actually feels nice to finally say it out loud. I am an asexual person. I am asexual.” What is more comforting is that Todd’s coming to terms with his sexual identity manifests into real action wherein he develops an app for fellow Aces to meet, an aspect of his story that is neither ridiculed nor abandoned later in the series.
In the realm of superheroes, as of 2014, a canonical asexual character has shown herself. DC Comics does not disappoint when it comes to queer representation (having just recently announced Superman’s son Jon Kent as bisexual). The Ace character in discussion is Prime Earth’s Tremor (Roshanna Chatterji) who is a person of colour with Indian origin as well as an open asexual character. In The Movement Volume 1 #10, while talking to Jayden ‘Mouse’ Revell, she reveals that she is an asexual and so a relationship between them is not possible.
Also read: Experiencing Love As An Aromantic Asexual (Aroace) Person
Another good asexual character representation is Park Mae-yi (played by Lee Bong-ryun) from the Korean drama Run On (2020) who states in a conversation that she is an asexual. Later in the show, Mae-yi is shown to fall in love at first sight with another male character. Both of them are shown to engage in romantic activities such as watching movies together, holding hands and kissing. But Park Mae-yi makes it a point to reassert that seeking a romantic relationship with her partner does not make her not asexual, that she still identifies as an asexual person.
In the year 2020, we also got a whole 3-minute of an episode dedicated to asexuality in Netflix’s hit British drama Sex Education (2019-present) wherein Florence (the Ace character) barges into Jean, the sex therapist’s office and sounds her concerns of feeling ‘broken’, a feeling that the asexual community is all too familiar with.
This is where we see one of the most effective scenes validating asexuality as a sexual orientation. Jean also makes Florence vis-a-vis the audience understand that, “sex doesn’t make us whole. And so, how could you ever be broken?” I can name more Ace characters but perhaps this is where the Ace representation in pop culture begins to fall short. After much debate on whether SpongeBob from SpongeBob SquarePants (1999-present) is queer or an ally, Nickelodeon finally announced in 2020 that SpongeBob is in fact a proud asexual character.
The problem with this is the erasure of homo/bi/poly romantic and aromantic attractions within the Ace representation in popular media. SpongeBob, since the conception in 1999, has been considered “somewhat asexual” by the creator and ‘gay’ by the fandom. However, confirming that SpongeBob is only asexual removes the representation of people who identify as asexual and gay/bi/poly or aromantic. Moreover, the revelation of SpongeBob’s queerness is a decision taken outside of the world the character lives in, making him just a commercial and superficial canonised Ace character who cannot integrate a part of his identity into his own world.
Another problem with the portrayal of asexual characters in pop culture is that some characters may resonate fully with the Ace community and they may clearly state they do not feel attraction or desire for sexual intimacy but the omission of the label ‘asexual’ leads to an unconfirmed Ace character which does more harm than it does good in terms of representation.
To elaborate, character Raphael Santiago from the hit American drama based on the Mortal Instruments Books called Shadowhunters (2016-2019) confesses his love for Izzy and when she leans in for a kiss, he refuses and says, “I’m not like that. I’m just not interested in sex.”
The second character who comes to mind is Shouko Tanimoto from the anime The Case Files of Jeweler Richard (2020), who tells her friend, “When it comes to boys, I am so clueless that I don’t even know what it is that I don’t know (translated)”. She later says that she doesn’t understand liking someone in any other sense, than how she likes her parents, hinting towards her aromantic and asexual identity. What both the characters are implying are very close to asexual experiences but not stating the identify itself ends up doing disservice to the Ace community, no matter how relatable the character experience is.
Another popular character closer to the Ace experience is Jughead Jones from The Archies Comics who relates to aromantic asexual experiences by rejecting all kinds of romantic advances towards him. However, there are no panels of him claiming the ‘Aro Ace’ identity. When The CW’s Riverdale which was adapted from The Archies Comics came out, fans were hoping to see a canonically AroAce Jughead but the creators not only changed his easy going and happy personality but also made him into an allosexual character resulting in asexuality erasure from the popular teen drama.
Of course, there need not be a golden, do-no-wrong character for every Ace representation in pop culture narratives but when representation is already scarce, it is important to give the characters the right language and labels so that the audience who are coming to terms with their own queerness, have the vocabulary to express and know for themselves that they are not alone.
To conclude, I would like to leave this quote by Angela Chen, author of Ace: What Asexuality reveals about Desires, Society and the Meaning of Sex, “Representation not only reflects, but actually changes reality.” I am hopeful that one day we shall see more diverse asexual and romantically queer characters on-screen and in stories but till then we can appreciate and celebrate the handful of Ace representation we have today.
Also read: What’s It Like Being Asexual In India | Asexuality Awareness Week
Featured Image: Business Insider