If you pay attention, it’s easy enough to spot every news story about asexuality in the entire English-speaking world. That’s what I do, I subscribe to Google alerts. Although I don’t read every story, because they’re mostly the same.
Oddly enough, this really isn’t possible to do for fictional representations of asexuality. This is partly because fictional representations have accumulated for a much longer period of time. But the biggest problem is that it’s so subjective. Nobody really agrees on which characters “count” and which do not.
For example, the most commonly cited asexual characters are the Doctor from Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes. But it seems to me that this is just because they’re popular characters to begin with, not because they’re particularly great asexual representations. The Doctor’s an alien, Holmes is the archetypical workaholic. In both cases, it seems like a tool to make a “weird” character and to avoid romantic themes. I can’t say that either character resonates with me.
What’s missing? What does an asexual character need to have in order to resonate with me? Or, to put it more profoundly, what is the essence of asexual experience? Obviously, this is a subjective question, and I’d love to hear your answers in the comments.
My own answer is that an asexual character must be self-aware of the difference.
It’s possible that somewhere in Sherlock or Doctor Who canon, the characters acknowledge their own difference, but if so, no big deal is ever made of it. The result is rather jarring to me. Doesn’t Sherlock think it’s odd that he’s not interested in relationships?
Or (at the risk of discussing a show I’ve never watched) take Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon is incredibly intelligent, but shows a complete lack of self-awareness. In the famous “Sheldon has no deal” quote, it’s Sheldon’s friend who identifies him as Not Into Anyone, not Sheldon himself. Come on, Sheldon’s got to know something’s up!
This seems to be something that allosexual people just repeatedly fail to predict about asexual people. Asexual people know they’re different, and know this difference has a profound effect on their life. So-called “asexual” characters don’t ever seem to talk about it. This is also true of “asexual” stereotypes of people with disabilities or people of certain ethnicities. Here’s Kaz talking about “asexual” stereotypes of marginalized women:
These, you see, are the things I do not see in the stereotypes about various groups of marginalised women:
I don’t see them organising, making their own communities, creating their own vocabulary. I don’t see them talking – about life and love, about having sex or negotiating relationships or aromanticism, about how strange the whole sex thing is from the outsider’s point of view, about anything like that. I don’t see them going on talk shows, doing interviews, being in pride parades or indeed doing anything visibilitywise. I don’t see them in discussion with LGBT societies, I don’t see them in talks with psychologists about the DSM-V and the problem that is HSDD. I don’t see them reading and writing erotica (some from the anthropologist’s perspective, some because they just find it hot), I don’t see them making sexual jokes, I don’t see them laying out their attitudes towards sex (fascinated? Indifferent? Repulsed? In-between? A combination?). […]
Out of all of these things missing in “asexual” stereotypes, the most basic is self-awareness.
I would go so far as to say that self-awareness trumps the fact that the character is inhuman. For an example that I’m actually familiar with, I have to refer to webcomics, because I love webcomics. So my example is Ms. Jones from Gunnerkrigg Court. Spoiling very little, Ms. Jones is not human, and does not show any emotion. But she is self-aware of what sets her apart from humans, and even discusses the time she realized this. She has (in my opinion, and the protagonist seems to think so as well) an unhealthy way of conceptualizing the difference. But then, so did most of us when we were younger. Ms. Jones resonates with me where Sherlock Holmes does not.
Do you disagree? Do different characters resonate for you? Let us know why!