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”? .