This is part of a series on tropes in fiction with ace characters. To link or follow this series, please use the “ace tropes” tag on this blog.
Relevant clip starts at 0:52. This scene from Shortland Street shows Gerald looking up “celibacy” and then clicking on a wiki about asexuality. In the next episode, he tells a doctor about it, who does online research of her own.
The most common way for people to learn about asexuality is to go to the internet. So when fictional characters do online research, it’s truth in fiction.
Online research can occur in a variety contexts. An ace character might not have the words for their experience and find the words online. Or they may have heard the word “asexual”, and use the internet to learn about it for the first time. Or they might have already learned a little bit, and go online for followup research. Or they might already know about it, but look online for communities.
Also, it doesn’t have to be an ace character. Sometimes non-ace characters will look up asexuality in order to better understand, or better help an ace character.
Sometimes characters look up asexuality, are satisfied to learn that it’s a thing, and that’s the end of it. Sometimes they look it up, and that sets up a much longer journey of discovery. Sometimes, as in How to be a Normal Person, there’s a whole subplot about how they set up internet for the first time just so they can look it up.
I also note that sometimes online interactions are depicted when characters are not trying to do research, as in this page on Shades of A. But that is beyond the scope of this trope.
Why might an author avoid the online research trope? Many works of fiction occur in different worlds or different periods of time, where online research simply wouldn’t make sense. I also think that stories generally prefer to depict face-to-face interactions instead of online interactions. Even when online research is portrayed, it tends to occur between scenes, and merely be a setup for face-to-face interactions.
And why might an author use the online research trope? Often, showing online research is a way of providing a positive model. If you as a member of the audience don’t know very much about asexuality, the work of fiction is directly suggesting a way you can learn more. Some works even name specific websites you can use–for example, Blank Spaces referred to Tumblr, and even included a shoutout to Queenie.
On the other hand, online research can also go wrong. For example, in Shortland Street, Gerald’s first reaction to his research is to go drinking and ask his doctor for a cure. There’s also an important scene in Of Monsters and Men between ace character Seth and his partner Peter: [cn: sexual assault]
[…] Seth smacked Peter’s hand away.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
Peter pulled his hand back with a sheepish little smile. “Look, I was reading, and I saw that sometimes asexual people enjoy certain things and can even orgasm. So–”
Seth got to his feet and wrapped his arms around himself as he stared down at Peter, who remained sitting on the floor. “So you thought randomly touching me was okay instead of asking me first?”
Examples like these show that research alone is not a shortcut to understanding.
All the Wrong Places by Ann Gallagher
Ball Caps and Khakis by Jo Ramsey
Blank Spaces by Cassi Lennox
How to be a Normal Person by T. J. Klune
Shortland Street (TV show)
Of Monsters and Men by Caitlin Ricci
- Do you agree with me that the main purpose of this trope is to suggest the audience do online research of their own? What other purposes might it serve?
- Do you like that online research is so commonly portrayed, or would you rather see more face-to-face interactions?
- What sort of problems might online research resolve, and what problems might it create or leave unresolved?