Aliens and Asexuality: Media Representation, Queerness, and Asexual Visibility by Sarah E.S. Sinwell [Reactions]

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 my reactions to this chapter – you can find the detailed chapter summary here.

Before I start, I have to admit that I have seen neither Dexter nor Mysterious skin, so I won’t actually be commenting much on that section of the paper, though I’d like to invite any readers more familiar with either of those to chime in. But anyway, here were some of my personal reactions. I’d love to hear all of yours in the comments!

1. The “aliens” in “Aliens and Asexuality” were totally not what I was expecting, and actually kind of a let down.

So, I have to admit that when I first saw the book summary, I was totally expecting this to be an article about the supposed asexuality of the Doctor in Dr. Who, and got really excited (though I’m totally biased, probably because I wrote a class paper once about asexual media representation, including doctor who, that had “Space Aliens” in the title…). But it was not to be.

Alas, the actual aliens in question were really rather disappointing – the article only actually discussed the alien connection for exactly 4 sentences towards the end of the essay, and the connection is tenuous at best: apparently asexuality is “linked” to aliens because one characters asexuality was linked to his child abuse which was linked to false memories of alien abduction which displaced the “lost time” of the abuse?

I mean, I love wordplay, and I get that “Aliens and Asexuality” is a fun bit of alliteration, but it really has nothing to do with the main 95% of this paper. (If anyone in the future wants a better alliterative title for an article on media representation, may I offer up my own “The Sick, The Space Aliens, The Sociopaths, and the Socially Inept: The othering of asexual subjects in popular television.“? Still alliterative, but it’s actually more relevent to this article than the actual title.

2. The discussion of desexualization was spot on – I’d like to see it taken even further

Sinwell’s breakdown of the role of desexualization in so-called “asexual” characters was the highlight of this chapter, and I think it’s worth repeating here:

“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.”

I think Sinwell sums up the problem of desexualization quite distinctly and accurately here – namely that many  characters (and real people too) who are sometimes called “asexual” have in fact been desexualized – that is, they’ve had their ability to decide and define their own sexuality taken away from them because it posed a threat to normativity in some way.

What I’d like to see more of though is questioning whether these desexualized characters should even be called “asexual” at all. These characters do not call themselves asexual, nor (as far as I can determine) have they ever been described as asexual in the canon. They often do not identify as having a lack of attraction, they simply don’t show any where we can see. They’re being considered examples of ‘asexual representation’ only because the author looked at their lack of sexual expression and said, “aha! asexual”. So after all that discussion about these characters have nothing to do with actual community definitions of asexuality, why are we still calling them asexual? Why not just call them desexualized?

Instead, what I’d like to see is more discussion about how, despite several existing examples of desexualized characters (whose ‘true’ or underlying sexuality may be unknown or unmentioned) who could be mistaken for asexual, finding actual asexual characters – characters who own and control and actively express sexuality that just happens to not involve sexual attraction to other genders – is much more difficult. While the details of fictional characters sexuality may not seem like a big deal, having a firmer distinction between asexuality and desexualization becomes more important when you move out of the realm of fiction into the stories of real people. Many groups throughout history have been desexualized in histories and biographies in the same way fictional characters have – disabled people, people of color, women, fat people, and more. Uncritically calling such people examples examples of ‘asexuality’ just because we don’t see overt depictions of their sexuality does them a disservice and only perpetuates misunderstandings about both asexual communities and the communities targeted by desexualization.

3. The article got off to a bad start with misunderstanding/misrepresentation of existing asexual research on the first page

Like a lot of recent entries to the field of asexual research, Sinwell seems to exhibit either a poor understanding of or a blatant disregard for accurately reporting pre-existing research on the subject. Despite an extensive discussion of influential queer studies works, she makes little reference to existing groundwork in asexual research. That’s not be a big deal, considering how little asexual research there is in the field of media studies so far, if it weren’t for the fact that the one time she does bring in outside research she egregiously misrepresents the findings*. She’s clearly not unaware of pre-existing research, considering her citations. I just wish there was better (and more accurate) consideration of asexuality and the asexual community as it actually exists, maybe instead of some of that 3 page summary of the entire field of queer theory that took up like 1/3 of the article.

4. Why was there no discussion of characters who have actually explicitly been presented as asexual?

I think one of the other big things that jumped out to me about this article was the lack of discussion of actual explicitly asexual characters (i.e. those who are explicitly described by the author or in the original media as “asexual”) as opposed to characters who could under some readings be seen as “asexual-ish”). Of the characters the author chooses to discuss, the only one that comes even close to being any kind of “explicit” asexual characterization is the character in Mysterious Skin, who is offhandedly referred to by another character as “asexual”. In the last page of her essay, she does mention that she has learned about Gerald Tippett of Shortland Street, arguable one of the first explicitly asexual characters in television, by reading the AVEN forums, but she does not comment on how that character’s existence or portrayal might affect her argument at all – it’s mostly just included as an afterthought.

Now, it’s common for authors to focus on only a handful of their favorite examples when analyzing analysis, so while I find some of her choices a little odd, I wouldn’t usually consider it major flaw – if it weren’t for the fact that when discussing counterexamples to popular media trends of ‘asexuality’, she mentions both House MD (as a show that counters the “disability=asexuality” trope by showing disabled characters as sexual beings) and Huge (as a show that breaks the “fat=asexual” stereotype by depicting fat characters as still being sexually attractive/attracted) – and yet she completely fails to acknowledge that these two shows are also some of the only shows that actually include *explicitly* asexual characters. (In Huge, the camp counselor poppy (a recurring character) comes out to another character about identifying as asexual; and House MD features a [horribly stereotyped and rather demeaning] episode with an asexual-identified couple which, while being terrible representation from an asexual point of view, is also perhaps one of the best known examples of explicit asexual representation in mainstream american media). There’s such a huge potential for some really good analysis there, so it’s a huge missed opportunity and kind of an odd omission.

This is also, I think, a part of why I’d like to see more work from researchers who are already familiar with asexual community discussion of their chosen topics. We’ve already done a lot of work on many of these subjects (like collecting examples of explicit asexuality in media, creator comments, and other useful resources) that could serve as a great bridge for researchers who are just beginning to study the topics we’ve been discussing more casually for years, instead of them just stumbling around on their own and missing what to us seems obvious.

5. The discussion of asexuality as pathology was sound, but didn’t say much that was new to me.

I think it’s good to finally have some formal academic discussion of the way asexuality in media is portrayed as abnormal, as a pathology. But as someone already involved in community conversations about media tropes, this is just bringing to mainstream academia the same things we’ve already been talking about for years. I would have liked to see more about how asexuality is not only linked to pathology (like murderous impulses or disabilities) but is actually viewed as a pathology in and of itself, even when not associated with other problems – like, for example, the way that House MD treats asexuality as a disease to be cured in and of itself. Of course, since the article didn’t really talk about any actually asexual media characters, there was never really any discussion of what treatment of explicit asexuality in and of itself looks like.

6. AVEN is not the Asexual Community, and the Asexual Community is not AVEN.

This is a more minor comment, but this article also strays a bit into the trap of assuming that AVEN is the entire asexual community, and that all asexuality is AVEN. In her conclusion, Sinwell posits that AVEN and it’s culture of blogging, podcasting, and other creative works may be the answer to the asexual representation problem – and she’s mostly right, except for the fact that AVEN is only one small part of a larger asexual community in which these trends are taking place.  She gets off to a seemingly better start by noting at the beginning of the paragraph that “other social media and blogging sites” also contribute to ‘queerly re-imagining asexuality’, but by the end of the paragraph she’s back to solely naming AVEN as the source and host of all this potential future blogging and podcasting (which especially odd when you consider that asexual blogs aren’t even hosted on AVEN). Is it so hard to just say “asexual community” instead of “AVEN community”? .

10 thoughts on “Aliens and Asexuality: Media Representation, Queerness, and Asexual Visibility by Sarah E.S. Sinwell [Reactions]

  1. Since you invited us to “Chime in” if we know Dexter…

    I’ve only seen the first two seasons of Dexter, plus partway through season 3, but I think I may have already seen most, if not all, of the episodes that deal with Dexter as a seemingly asexual-ish character. The TV series Dexter seems to consider both romantic feelings and sexual feelings to be emotions that their main character, who they call a sociopath, can’t feel. The only real thing Dexter seems to feel is a strong urge to kill which he’s felt ever since his childhood, and all other emotions are things he’s been “faking”… but the journey of Dexter is perhaps a journey of a character coming to realize he can enjoy sex with people, and actually does care about Rita and her kids, and it’s sort of one of those tales of someone who, while not called asexual in canon, could fit the definition, but then, as he becomes “more human” (less of a sociopath, someone who is beginning to experience typical human emotions), his asexuality turns more into something more like… demisexuality, perhaps, or even just completely goes away, in favor of heteronormativity and making Dexter the heterosexual man the viewer is rooting for him to be. The viewer wants him to be happy, and as the show starts off, he’s unable to feel happy, in addition to being unable to feel sexual attraction or desire, because he’s unable to feel, at all. And as the show progresses, it paints the harmful message that in order to feel happiness, you can’t possibly be a person who is interested in actively avoiding sexual situations, who would prefer to not have sex — that’s only what “broken” human beings like Dexter are like.

    I remember reading once an account of an asexual person saying that before they learned of the term asexuality, Dexter was the first place they stumbled across the notion of a person possibly being able to not experience sexual attraction, of someone not enjoying sex, etc…. and it was oddly validating to that person, despite it being presented as a symptom of a broken human being. That story broke my heart, because of all of the representations to make you feel less alone… I mean Gosh.

    Dexter is one of the few TV shows out there that had a format very conducive to representing the experience of being asexual, actually, because we hear, as narration, Dexter’s thoughts and feelings explicitly laid bare for us as viewers. We get explicit lines in the script that are not a part of “unrealistic conversations” because there doesn’t need to be a conversation for the topic of his exact thoughts and feelings toward sex to come up. As early as the pilot, to help us understand Dexter’s life, they can just add in the first person narrator of Dexter’s voice telling the viewer:

    Every night is a date night in Miami, and everyone’s having sex. But for me, sex never enters into it. I don’t understand sex. Not that I have anything against women, and I certainly have an appropriate sensibility about men, but when it comes to the actual act of sex, it’s always just seemed so undignified. But I have to play the game. And after years of trying to look normal, I think I met the right woman for me. Deb saved her life on a domestic-dispute call, introduced us, and we’ve been dating for six months now. She’s perfect because Rita is, in her own way, as damaged as me…. Rita’s ex-hubby, the crack addict, repeatedly raped her, knocked her around. Ever since then, she’s been completely uninterested in sex.

    Then, in season 1 episode 4, despite not actually being comfortable with his girlfriend Rita’s first sexual advances toward him, he ends up receiving oral sex — and once it happened and he found it wasn’t so bad. He felt like he couldn’t refuse and still seem human, though, which ties into a whole additional aspect of compulsory sexuality and consent issues and… you know…

    And in episode 8, “Shrink Wrap”, the whole situation turns into Rita being ready to have sex and Dexter considering himself to have “sexual hangups” and his narration in this episode includes:

    Shit. I can’t have sex with Rita. Every time I sleep with a woman, she sees me for what I really am — Empty — And then she’s gone. But I don’t want Rita to go, which means I have to deal with this.

    which is less about his feelings toward sex and more about his fear of actually being intimate with her, and fear of being discovered as a serial killer. This is highlighted when his “therapist” (it’s complicated) mentions later in the episode to him:

    THERAPIST: The reason you avoid sexual intimacy is because you don’t want to surrender control.
    DEXTER: No, I’ve surrendered control. It’s not like my girlfriend hasn’t been, you know, south of the border.
    THERAPIST: That’s not what I’m talking about. Intimacy — Really letting go face-to-face — There’s nothing more difficult than that. The minute you start to accept who you are, you just might feel free enough to share that intimacy together.

    The episode leads up to him having sex with Rita. It’s… it’s really not a show about asexuality at all, but it does provide some interesting fodder for discussion of the pathologizing of what is often how asexuality manifests for real, non-serial killer, human beings in everyday life, and even of things like rape culture.

    • Oh, wow, thanks for all the input! It’s good to hear from someone who actually knows the series.

      One of the things I’ve heard from other people who are more familiar with the book and the TV series is that Dexter is actually much more consistently asexual in the book (and also more consistently emotionless and morally dubious). It sounds like in the TV adaptation, they decided after the first season or so that they needed to make Dexter more relateable (by cutting down on the morally dubious actions and increasing the amount of emotions – including sex drive and love), and that they also needed more sex appeal because that’s the only reason people watch television, right?

      Does that sort of mesh with your experience of the series?

      (see this post:

      • Thanks for linking me to that! I had never seen it, since it was written years before my journey into the asexual blogosphere. ;) But yeah, that’s a really great post to read, I just finished it, and it is an interesting interpretation. I was thinking of maybe checking out the books the TV series was originally based on, but I have not yet — in fact I’ve never done that, if I find a TV show first usually that is the only version I end up being familiar with… but anyway…

        Yeah well it’s been over a year since I’ve seen season 2, I think? and I’m trying to remember but I’m pretty sure he’s painted as actually sexually interested in Lila, who seems to maybe be a sociopath violent criminal just like him, and he’s so interested in her in every way including sexually… and then in season 3 he’s with Rita again and it’s just… it seems like you’re supposed to believe that he truly has changed so much from the person he was in the pilot, by that point. He has, by that point, lost all hints of sex-aversion or asexuality.

        So yeah, I’d say it is an accurate assessment of the TV series to say what you just said. They changed what book Dexter was to be more of a normal guy – in every sense of the word, meaning not asexual anymore but rather heterosexual.

  2. I think your reactions here are pretty much all entirely spot on. I noticed she mentioned no explicitly asexual characters, even though I actually — for a second — really thought she was about to mention an explicit one when she mentioned the series Huge, since the only context in which I’ve ever even heard of the series was in asexual online spaces where people mentioned that a character explicitly “came out” as asexual on the show, or like a video clip of that scene being in the related vids on YouTube if you watch a vid with asexual in the title. :P I didn’t even think of the obvious House connection as well, but thank you for pointing it out.

    I also had forgotten but I too thought this article would be about aliens, especially after reading Hibernia’s blog post fairly recently, lol… And you’re absolutely correct that your suggested title would’ve been way more accurate. The title was quite misleading and could’ve been improved in so many different ways. :P

    Overall… my main reaction to your reactions post here is just to nod along vigorously and be like “Yes, yes, that!”. ;) So thank you for sharing your thoughts. And for sharing what the chapter was. I, for one, really appreciate it.

    • Oh, right, I had completely forgotten that Quicksilver had a literal asexual alien! Maybe we should writer a better paper titled “Actual Aliens and Actual Asexuality” ;)

  3. LOL at using Huge and House to discuss media representation of asexuality without even mentioning any of the asexuals in those shows.

    I think omitting discussion of explicitly asexual characters leads to a very one-sided picture. According to Sinwell, media representation of asexuality is improved by depictions of even non-normative groups as sexual. So the only way to improve media representation of asexuality is to have even less of it?

    • To be charitable, the original call for proposals requested full papers by I think Nov 2010, which was before the asexual house episode came out (in Jan 2012), and only a couple months after the Huge episode aired (in July 2010). So if she submitted a paper she had already written at some point in the past, it may have been from before those episodes aired.

      On the other hand, the paper also mentions the completion of Dexter (which ended in Sept. 2013), so obviously some parts of the paper had been updated well after both episodes aired.

      And even if it’s arguable that it would be hard for her to rewrite the whole paper to include those shows on short notice, how hard would it be to even just add a footnote in there somewhere?

      Plus, even if she was too out of touch to know about House and Huge, she obviously still knew about Shortland Street, so yeah the decision to omit discussion of them is…suspicious.

  4. What I was thinking, seeing the list of shows she discussed (and which she didn’t), was that she entirely focussed on American shows and films. Does she explicitly mentions that that’s the focus of her paper? It does seem really strange and iffy to me that she doesn’t even discuss Shortland Street even though she’s clearly aware of the show itself.

    I agree with your remarks and Siggy’s comment that the exclusion of shows with self-identified asexuals in them is really strange. You’d expect that those are the kinds of shows someone would be interested in analysing…

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