Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
Here’s a fun game to play: How many stories can you think of that 1)Has at least two characters of the opposite sex/gender, 2)Has these characters interact in a meaningful way and 3)Romance does not happen between any of these characters. Go ahead, have fun using the Pretty Test (which is much like the Bechdel Test, but for asexuals rather than feminists) to see just how little media actually passes. Which leaves us asking the somewhat obvious question: Why is asexuality so uncommon in fiction?
First off, we need to come up with a working definition of asexuality. Well, heterosexuality means being attracted to the opposite gender, while homosexuality means being attracted to the same gender (with bisexuality being attracted to two or more genders). So what is asexuality? Well, it’s the attraction to no genders and no one. Asexuals are sexually uninterested in anyone. Which, for some odd reason, is really hard to explain to people, but that’s a discussion for later on. Now it should be noted while I’m gonna talk about asexuality throughout the rest of this blog, I’m actually talking about a combination of asexuality and aromance. Now aromance means not being romantically inclined to anyone (with hereto and homo romance being romantically inclined to either the opposite or same gender). If we treat ‘sex’ and ‘love’ as different things, aromantics don’t fall in ‘love’ with anyone. Now there can be aromantics who are very sexual, there can be asexuals who are very romantic, or there can be aromantic asexuals who see the whole ‘love and sex’ business as something that doesn’t concern them. So why am I combining asexuality and aromance together? Well partly for simplicity’s sake, but mostly because society tends to view sex and romance as going hand in hand. When you actually look at it, sex is seen as being the final outcome of a romantic relationship. A romantic relationship between two characters is defined by the fact that they have sex with each other (or that one character has ‘won’ by convincing the other character to sleep with them). So often when it comes to fiction romance and sex go hand in hand since sex is either implied or explicitly shown to be the inevitable consequence of the romance. So then… where does the Pretty Test fall into this?
Well taking the idea that most romance in fiction leads to sex, there are very few times where romance doesn’t happen in a piece of work. My go to example of this is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, because none of the characters try to hook up with each other. And off the top of my head I can rattle off a few movies (Big Hero 6, Saving Mr Banks, Winnie the Pooh), but a lot of these films tend to be made for kids. When it comes to adult films, romance tends to be in a lot of them. In fact this tends to be a common trend: The older the target demographic, the higher chance that the piece of fiction is going to include at least one romantic relationship. Perhaps this comes from the fact that kids don’t care about relationships at such an early age, perhaps its because these stories tend to be simpler. But the fact stands that a majority of fiction tends to include romance (and by extension sex) between two or more characters. This is somewhat a fact of life. So why does this happen? Well at a guess I’d argue that all art is an extension of one’s self, so if one is a heterosexual, it’s likely that anything they make will feature heterosexual romances. Now not always (otherwise there’d be no characters of the opposite gender of the writer), but more often than not artists tend to make things that reflect themselves in some way. But 1% is apparently asexual (roughly speaking, mind you). Surely 1% of all fiction will be asexual by an extension of it? So why is asexuality so uncommon in fiction?
Well there are a few ways of looking at this. On the one hand, it’s the pressure to conform to social norms. I mean a majority of people think that sex and romance is good, so if you were to write something you’d probably follow the majority since the majority knows what it wants. I mean the best way to sell something is to make it appealing to the largest possible audience. This is why most leads in Hollywood tend to be white men (among other reasons). On the other hand, fiction that breaks out of these stereotypes is becoming more and more popular. It’s not uncommon to start seeing a female lead, or a homosexual character playing a big part. So we are getting more diverse in terms of fiction being produced. And yet asexuality still gets ignored. Why is that?
Well lets look at what asexual portrayals we do have in modern pop culture: The Doctor, Sherlock Holmes, L, Data and Sheldon Cooper. Now, what’s the common trend between the three of them besides the fact that they’re asexual? Well firstly they’re presented as being incredibly clever. More often than not a lack of sexual interest is almost directly proportional to how intelligent they are. The smarter they are, the less interested in sex they are. And while this isn’t a terrible stereotype (I mean who doesn’t like being classified as being smart), there’s another, nastier one just underneath it: Each of these characters is seen as being ‘broken’ in some way for not wanting sexual or romantic relationships. Their lack of sexual desire is seen far more of a character flaw than as a strength or a fact of life. Sheldon Cooper’s aromantic asexuality is seen as a fault because it’s what makes him ‘not normal’ (along with other things). Sherlock Holmes and L are seen to be superior beings, but also cold and uncaring due to their lack of sexual desires. Data is seen as something that doesn’t understand human relationships, hence why he’s asexual by default. And the Doctor… well the Doctor is an odd character, because he turned out to become a bit of a romantic, even though he still doesn’t exhibit that much in terms of sexual desire for more practical reasons than anything else (though the character does end up getting into a sexual relationship to almost prove their heterosexuality, and I could easily be talking about the BBC or Star Trek Voyager character in this regard). Them not wanting to have sex or romance in their life is seen as a way of distancing themselves from regular people, by making them less likely to want to associate with other people. Hell Sheldon Cooper is one of the few asexual characters on television, and he’s pretty much a punchline because of how his views of romance are far outside society’s expectations. So I should want the character gone, right?
Well… no. Because as problematic as a character he is, he’s almost literally the only piece of representation we have on television to start with. While saying “I’m like Sheldon Cooper when it comes to sex and relationships” is misleading, it’s still easier than trying to explain it from a blank slate. Because people just don’t seem to understand the lack of romantic or sexual attraction. Most people don’t understand how I can’t not want something. It’s a prejudice I tend to face in my everyday life, from either family or friends. Asexuality is seen as the unicorn: Something that doesn’t exist. So having some representation, no matter how bad, is at least a step in the right direction. It shows that people are willing to tolerate that asexuals exist, even if it’s for the butt of jokes. It’s not the best stepping stone, but it’s a stepping stone that we desperately need to get more notice. But this is talking around the question, without answering it directly: Why is asexuality so uncommon?
Well, at the end of the day, stories are about conflicts. Either between protagonist and antagonist, the protagonist and obstacles that get in their way, or between the characters themselves. And romance is a great way of establishing conflicts to be resolved. Having two characters who love each other but at the same time are fighting with each other is a great way of raising stakes and creating tension. We want to know whether or not these two characters are going to get together. But at the same time, that denies the possibility that friends can have the same amount of conflict as lovers. That friends can be just as important as lovers. Whenever we talk about romance in films, there tends to be the trend of ‘the guy getting the girl’. Now while feminists point out how sexist this is, I point out how anti-asexual it is. Because it implies that the end goal is romance (and by extension sex) when the goal is to ‘get the girl’. Trying to get the girl helps bring about conflicts and tension, with the resolution of said drama being that the two of them finally getting together. But we also need to think that their love is real for there to be actual stakes. We need to think that they’re two lovers in order to care what happens. Romance inspires conflict but, due to centuries of it being the norm, romance is often viewed as the only way of creating important conflict between characters. So add that to the fact that we just expect romantic desire to be something everyone has, and it paints a clear picture about why asexuality is so uncommon. People don’t use asexuality in fiction because of the misguided belief that there isn’t any conflict there to make it interesting, nor is there anyone out there that can relate to it. And while one day that might change, I’m certainly not holding my breath for it to happen any time soon.
So there you have it. My look at asexuality and why this is one of the few blogs you’ll see talking about asexuality (compared to all the shipping blogs out there). If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.