The following is part of my series of reviews of chapters from Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives. See the review masterpost here. This section includes a detailed summary, and this post contains some of my personal comments and reactions.
Content warnings for discussion of molestation/child abuse/nonconsensual sex in one of the plot descriptions below.
This week, I’m discussing Sarah Sinwell’s chapter, which focuses on asexual representation in contemporary and fictional film and television:
“Using a Cultural Studies approach, I investigate how asexuals have been represented in contemporary (and fictional) film and television to show how asexualities have been constructed in relation to non-normative bodies and pathology. Focusing on the television drama Dexter (Showtime, 2006-2013) and the film Mysterious Skin, this paper analyzes how these representations of asexuality queer sexuality itself”
Section 1: Queering Asexuality and Situating it within Queer Theory
Sinwell begins with a brief introduction of asexuality as defined by AVEN (someone who does not experience sexual attraction), and the (factually incorrect) statement that 1%-6% of the American population identified as asexual (more on that in my next post). She then states that the ways in which the asexual community emphasizes romance over sex, and the way that it portrays asexuality as a sexual orientation/identity rather than as a pathology or a personal choice, put into question “the links between sexuality and sexual attraction, and desire, and it also challenges the meanings of intimacy, romance, sexual acts, and sexual relationships.” Therefore, Sinwell states, “Queer theory is a particularly useful tool for addressing asexuality in all it’s complexities”.
Sinwell then launches into an introduction to the concept of “Queer” as “a concept that is constantly being defined and redefined, problematized and negotiated, created and questioned“, and discusses the evolution of Queer Studies, from the more limited Gay and Lesbian studies to an expanded concept of “Queer” that includes other non-normative sexualities like sadomasochism or public sex or even heterosexuality.
The next couple paragraphs are mostly summing up the contributions of several influential works to the rethinking of queer theory, specifically Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Eve Sedgewick’s Epistemology of the Closet, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Michael Warner’s “Fear of a Queer Planet”. The emergence of asexuality studies, Sinwell argues, contributes to this reimagining of queer theory by disrupting assumptions about normative sexuality, sexual identity, and identification, leading to the thesis of this chapter:
“In this chapter, I investigate the ways in which asexuality has simultaneously been made visible and misconstrued within contemporary media. I argue that contemporary media representations work to (re)create the cultural constructions of normative sexuality by mapping asexuality onto non-normative bodies and identities. By linking asexuality to fatness, disability, and nerdiness, for instance, many media representations construct asexuality in opposition to normative notions of the body, gender, and sexuality. Additionally, in Dexter and Mysterious Skin, the focus on asexuality as a pathology redraws the boundaries of asexuality in terms of the binary relationship between normal and abnormal sexualities”.
Section 2: Asexuality, Desexualization, and Media Representation
In this second section, Sinwell discusses the relationship between asexuality and desexualization:
“Asexuality has traditionally (and often stereotypically) been represented on screen in relation to desexualization. Within contemporary popular film and television, asexuality is typically represented not through whether or not the characters themselves experience sexual desire or attraction (as in AVEN’s definition of asexuality), but whether these characters are seen as sexually attractive or desirable.”
“Characters are represented as asexual not because they do not experience sexual attraction, but because they are not sexually attractive; they are not allowed to have a sexuality because, if they were, normative codes of sexual desirability would be threatened. These representations of asexuality conflate a lack of sexual desirability with a lack of sexual desire and redefine asexuality via the desexualisation of non-normative bodies and identities.”
In particular, she cites examples in which fat, (male) asian, nerdy, or disabled characters are portrayed as being “Asexual”. Examples include:
- Fat characters as asexual: Norm on Cheers, Bonnie Grape from What’s eating Gilbert Grape
- Asian men as asexual: The San Pebbles, Sixteen Candles and Romeo Must Die (as documented in the documentary “The Slanted Screen”)
- Nerds as asexual: Revenge of the Nerds, The Big Bang Theory
- Disabled people as asexual: What’s eating Gilbert Grape, Rain Main, Sling Blade
Asian men, Sinwell notes, are also denied not only sexuality but romance – asian men can never be love interests. Sinwell also describes the desexualization of some of these characters as a way disempowering them – removing the threat of ethnic otherness in asian men, or the threat of intelligence in nerdy figures.
Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory is in particular called out by Sinwell as one of the few well known asexual characters in contemporary media, due to his failure to become intimate with his girlfriend Amy. His asexuality is further complicated by his disability, specifically an implied autism spectrum or Asperger’s disorder.
On the other hand, Sinwell notes, there are gradually increasing examples in which fat, asian, nerdy, and disabled characters are starting to be depicted as sexual beings. These representations, however, are typically restricted to characters with otherwise normative bodies and genders.
- Fat characters as sexual: Huge, Drop Dead Diva, Double Divas, Mike and Molly, Hairspray
- Asian men as sexual (and even non-heterosexual!): Harold and Kumar Go to Whitecastle, Better Luck Tomorrow, Ethan Mao
- Nerds as sexual: Napolean Dynamite, Chuck
- Disabled people as sexual: Friday Night Lights, House MD
Sinwell also notes that while fat women are starting to be depicted as more sexual, it is often depicted as being “despite” their undesirable bodies, and is a very male-focused heterosexual desire; fat men, on the hand, are still mostly portrayed as asexual.
Notable, though, these characters also never describe themselves as asexual or identify their lack of interest as a sexuality; unlike narratives of homosexuality or bisexuality which focus on self-identity and “coming out”, asexuality is rarely named or identified.
“Indeed, one of the reasons asexuality may be unseen (and unheard) onscreen is precisely because it is not recognized as a cultural category or a sexual identity.”
For the next and final section, Sinwell moves on to a discussion of examples where, rather than being defined by a lack of sexual attractiveness as in the examples above, characters’ asexuality is defined by their lack of an ability to experience sexual desire or attraction.
Through analyzing the ways in which these media explicitly address asexuality and its interrelationships with normalcy and pathology, I explore categories that question how asexuality is culturally constructed in relation to normalcy and how this relates self-identification, self-actualization, and the cultural constructions of “normal” sexuality and identity”. Within both Dexter and Mysterious Skin, as I’ll discuss, mental disability (and pathology) are written onto the asexual and asexualized bodies of these characters as a means of constructing their (ab)normalities, thus reinforcing many of the same stereotypical associations of the asexual body with an othered, unfit, pathological body.
Part 3: Asexuality, Pathology, and The Normal: Dexter and Mysterious Skin
“As discussed previously in this chapter, asexuality has often been understood as pathology. Often associated with sexual trauma, sexual abuse, hormonal imbalance, or sexual disfunction, asexuality has historically been considered an emotional and sexual disorder rather than a sexual preference or identity. However, rather than “queering” asexuality by representing it in such a way as to depathologize it or destigmatize disability, Dexter and Mysterious Skin only reinscribe the boundaries between the perverse and the normal by writing them onto asexual bodies.”
Dexter is the story of a Dexter Morgan, forensic expert with the Miami Police, and also a secret serial killer with an ethical code: kill only other killers, and don’t get caught. Dexter is also one of the more talked about depictions of asexuality in current television. Although much of the show is focused on Dexter’s process of stalking and killing his victims, it also discusses his personal relationships, including those with his sister Deb and his girlfriend/wife Rita.
Dexter’s asexuality is linked to pathology and psychosis: In the pilot episode, he claims that he has no feelings, fakes all human interaction, and does not understand sex – like all the other social interactions he fakes, it’s just a way to “play the game” of being normal. We also later learn though flashbacks that he witnessed his mother’s murder.
“In reference to his girlfriend Rita, he says, “When it comes to the actual act of sex, it always seemed so…undignified. But I have to play the game.” Here, “playing the game” becomes not only faking his relationships with his sister and his coworkers, but also faking sexual attraction and desire. Being normal is understood as necessitating sexual desire.”
This performed heteronormativity and sexual desire serve to mark him as normal despite his murderous instincts; his sexual interactions are motivated not by sexual desire but by a desire to hide his killer instincts and be normal, and this emphasizes the idea that one must be sexual to be normal.
When Dexter starts having sex in season 2, it is unclear whether or not he is experiencing sexual attraction or desire – one incident is linked to violence, and the other is an attempt to form a meaningful emotional connection. In some ways, this is a queer break from the assumption that to be asexual is to never have sex; but the depiction of asexuality as abnormal still enforces the idea of asexuality as pathology. Sinwell quotes Prause and Graham: “Implicit in the debate about what constitutes a “normal” level of sexual desire is an assumption that some level of sexual desire is normative.”
Dexter’s abnormality, however, is not only because of his asexuality, but also because of his psychosis – “His inability to desire sex is thus intrinsically linked to his status as a psychopath and murderer.” Instead of queering asexuality, Dexter links it with pathology and emotional and psychological dysfunction.
In the next piece, Mysterious Skin, asexuality is again linked with pathology and childhood trauma, but it is also tied into queerness.
Mysterious Skin tells the story of a boy named Brian, who (along with a friend) is molested by a baseball coach, in an experience so traumatic he blocks part it off. While he suffers from nightmares, bedwetting, and blackouts, he attempts to cope by attributing his missing memories to an alien abduction – but over the course of the movie, the truth is revealed.
While Brian’s friend Neil (who was also molested) reacts with sexual promiscuity, hypersexuality, and prostitution, Brian is portrayed as having the opposite reaction – when a girl attempts to kiss and have sex with him, he rejects her, and in doing so rejects sex itself. One of Neil’s friends also describes Brian as “asexual”. When discussing the night of the molestation, Neil describes Brain as “your face looked like it had been erased” – so too was his sexuality.
“Here, asexuality is not only linked to childhood trauma, but it is also linked to alien abduction. These links map ideas of alienation and queerness onto Brian’s experience. The idea of alien abduction explains “lost time” and displaces his childhood trauma and abuse, but it also alludes to the queer experience itself. Here, asexuality becomes linked not only with “alienness”, but also sexual difference. In addition, the interrelationships between asexuality and hypersexuality are seen as two extremes; promiscuity is seen in opposition to asexuality. Yet, both promiscuity and asexuality are constructed in terms of pathology and opposition to the “normal”. Interestingly, though the film explains these pathologies in great detail through flashbacks, it does not address the question of treatment or provide an indication of either of the boys’ sexual futures. Instead, asexuality – and hypersexuality – are linked solely to pathology. Though the film explores Brian’s traumatic past as a means of explaining his asexuality, it does not enable a rethinking of asexuality outside of this traumatic and pathological context. In fact, it assumes that asexuality is a natural response to such trauma instead of drawing out the larger implications of these connections in relation to queer theory and heteronormativity.”
Part 4: Conclusion
“When asexuality is represented within contemporary media, it is often limited to representations that blur the lines between asexuality and desexualization. These representations misname and misrepresent asexuality as a lack of (normative) sexual attractiveness rather than a lack of sexual attraction. Even when asexuality is represented as a lack of sexual attraction or desire, as in DExter or Mysterious Skin, these representations restrict our cultural understanding of asexuality to one defined by trauma, pathology, and abnormality.”
On the other hand, Sinwell notes, AVEN is constantly reinvestigating and renegotiating the cultural meaning of asexuality, through spongebob fanfiction, vlogs, forums, and blogs for both the asexual and sexual community – thus exploring asexuality beyond just pathology and abnormality.
Sinwell also remarks on being introduced by AVEN to Shortland Street, which features perhaps the first character to come out as asexual on mainstream television, and the (A)sexual documentary, which features discussion from asexuals and provides a context for rethinking asexuality.
The AVEN community of blogging, podcasting, and fanfiction perhaps represents the most promising site for future media representations of asexuality.
“By interrogating social and cultural constructions of asexuality that move beyond sexual dysfunction and non-normativity, these participatory cultures redefine asexuality as queer and open up a space for asexuals within the LGBTQ(A) community”
Sinwell Author Bio:
Sarah E. S. Sinwell teaches in the Program in Media and Screen Studies at Northwestern Universirty. She has published essays on Being John Malkovich, Green Porno, and cell phone culture in Film and Sexual Politics, Women’s ‘Studies Quarterly, and In Medias Res.
Other Asexual Research Cited*:
- AVEN, http://www.asexuality.org (as accessed in 2008; no specific pages or sections mentioned)
- Bogart, Anthony “Asexuality: Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample” (2004)
- Bogart, Anthony “Towards a Conceptual Understanding of Asexuality” (2006)
- Gressgard, Randi “Asexuality: From Pathology to Identity and Beyond” (2013)
- Hinderliter, Andrew “Methodological Issues for Studying Asexuality” (2009)
- Poston, Dudley, and Amanda Baumley “Patterns of Asexuality in the United States” (2010)
- Prause, Nicole, and Cynthia Graham “Asexuality: Classification and Clarification” (2007)
- Scherrer, Kristin “Coming to an Asexual Identity: Negotiating Identity, Negotiating Desire” (2008)
*I like to include this because seeing which works an author chooses to cite can be one way to gain insight into their interaction with the existing research. I’ve only included only articles which are primarily about asexuality-as-sexual-orientation. General queer theory articles, and articles about things like “disabled people aren’t asexual” are excluded (unless they also acknowledge asexuality-as-orientation).