Question of the Month: May 14th, 2019.

How explicit do you think ace representation needs to be? 

One of the most popular examples of claimed to be ace characters I can think of is Sherlock from the BBC version. Apparently actor Benedict Cumberbatch affirmed Sherlock as asexual, but as far as I know this is never stated in the show. Is it enough for someone who has some authorship over a character to say they are ace on the sidelines? Like J.K. Rowling saying Dumbledore was gay but not writing this into the original Harry Potter series? Or do you think representation should be more explicit? What about characters that fans claim are ace? Apparently some people think a close reading of Batman’s history reveals he is asexual.

I personally feel icky when a character does not explicitly say they are ace and people claim they are. I empathize with the desire to have representation, but not at the cost of defining someone else’s sexual orientation for them. I would much rather stay in the murky realm of “this character could be ace.” At most I’ll call them a “potential asexual.” Self-identification is very important in the ace community and if anything, respecting how a character self-identifies or does not self-identify can be validating in its own way. While we may deeply desire validation, I don’t think it should be done in a way that throws self-identifying under the bus.

About Talia

Talia is an asexual, nonbinary, vegan-feminist that drinks a lot of coffee and stays up very late playing Blizzard video games and writing fiction. They are working on a PhD in Environmental Studies where they think a lot about oppression as intersectional and impacting identities differentially. Talia has a particular fondness for asexuality, fandom, and Critical Animal Studies. Their personal blog is
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10 Responses to Question of the Month: May 14th, 2019.

  1. DasTenna says:

    I appreciate it when characters are self-identified as ace, homo-, pan-, hetero- or bisexual. It doesn´t feel right when creators reveal their character´s orientation afterwards, like Rowling did with Dumbledore.

  2. Coyote says:

    I have no love for BBC Sherlock. With that said, there are some limitations I see to taking a hardline “only if they self-identify as ace explicitly” approach, because not every fictional story is set in a world where the contemporary asexual community exists. I think Sam Farren’s Dragonoak is a decent example of this. It’s set in a medieval fantasy world where sexual orientation labels aren’t really a thing, and yet, from in character dialogue, it comes across pretty clearly that Rowan has had a lot of nonsexual crushes. Based on the text, I don’t think it’s all that much of a stretch to interpret her as someone who would identify as gray-ace lesbian, given the chance. It’s comparable to how she had trouble reading and very clearly is meant to be interpreted as dyslexic, I think.

    • DasTenna says:

      To me, it counts as self-identifying if characters describe their feelings if they lack the specific term for a sexual orientation. Like Varys did in “Game of Thrones” by simply saying “I´m not interested in neither boys nor girls.” when Oberyn Martell invites him to a brothel.
      I only have troubles with characters being interpreted as this or that despite nothing in the story indicating or hinting at it.

  3. coaxionunlimited says:

    The problem with representations of asexuality in media, at least for me, is that if not done correctly, even a character that self-identifies as asexual on-screen can come off as offensive and/or alienating. In my limited experience looking, I’ve never found a character who was canonically intended to be asexual whose experiences and struggles came close enough to my own for me to get emotional satisfaction from identifying with them. Furthermore, the fact that a character is confirmed to be asexual is no guarantee that they’re going to be portrayed in a healthy or satisfying way. In mainstream media (Sherlock and Clariel [of the Old Kingdom series]) the opposite is often true.

    Therefore, when I look for myself in media, I tend to look more for asexual themes than asexual characters. I look for platonic and familial bonds that occupy a central place in the narrative or a character’s life, for characters that don’t end up in a romantic relationship at the end of a narrative, for romantic relationships that require a lot of careful negotiation to get off the ground, and for non-traditional family structures (especially where two people are platonically raising a child together).

    The fandom approach of finding asexual traits in a character and therefore projecting my sexuality onto them is therefore really tempting for me – but even that has its problems. Some of the characters fandom identifies as asexual are very plausibly asexual, but fandom has its own biases and often it cries asexuality for reasons of simply not wanting to see a character in a sexual relationship. It’s unfair to call every minor in a work where most characters are over the age of majority asexual, and it’s even more unfair to call characters of color asexual as an excuse for not putting them in fandom’s romantically oriented spotlight. As a fan, I would love to interpret Carol and Maria from Captain Marvel as a queerplatonic couple – but if that interpretation went mainstream, I’d have to wonder whether it stemmed from society’s desexualization of lesbians and women of color. And even in fanworks where an (explicitly) asexual character is the focus, they very often have sex anyways. That’s just how fandom does things.

    I would say that my conclusion is it’s hard for me to trust portrayals of asexual characters in any media, whether or not they’re confirmed on any level, except where written by another ace. I don’t want to discourage non-aces from exploring asexuality in any medium they choose – if nothing else, trying to create an asexual forces a creator to empathize with one – but representation alone isn’t enough for me.

  4. demiandproud says:

    I think both explicit and implicit representation are needed and complement each other. I also think it’s good to have texts and media that aren’t strictly representation but explore issues related to asexuality or other identities, e.g. exploring the tension between peer pressure to date and nonamory could make an excellent subversion of the “you just haven’t met the right one yet” trope in romance stories.

    What you describe, a character identified as queer in the paratext rather than the text itself is something else, queer-catching. The next step up from queer-baiting. It tries to take the credit for representation without actually being representation.

  5. Blue Ice-Tea says:

    I agree with a lot of the points made above. I’m sceptical of trying to force ace interpretations on ambiguous characters (I’m all for headcanons, mind you, but they’re subjective, and not as good as real representation), and wary of creators who say “This character is queer” without actually representing their queerness in the text. I definitely think we need more explicit ace representation. However, as Coyote says, not every character can or should be expected to use the modern language of asexuality, aromanticism, etc., and trying to force this language into contexts where it doesn’t fit feels wrong.

    I’d like us to bear in mind that what we call “asexuality” is going to look different and sound different in different cultural contexts, and I’d like to see characters who can articulate their asexuality in the language that makes most sense for them. Also, just as I’m sceptical of Word-of-God representation, I’m also sceptical of “representation” that consists only of textbook definitions rather than explorations of asexual experience. We may celebrate when a character says, “Hi, I’m asexual. Let me explain to you what that means,” but representation shouldn’t look like a sociology lesson; it should look like a story about a complex, interesting character who, among many other things, happens to be asexual. I’d rather read a story about an interesting character who only might be asexual than a story about an explicitly asexual character who is completely flat and completely defined by their asexuality.

  6. Javi says:

    Personally, I do say “x character is ace/agender/etc” because that’s how they are in my head. I need that. I can’t wait around for explicit representation because that is going to take too long. I would love that so much, but I’m happy to declare any character I want to be ace before we get there. I don’t have any explicit ace rep to latch onto right now. I’m not into YA, and that seems to be where all the ace characters are in books. I’m extremely sex-repulsed, so I have to stay away from Bojack Horseman. Headcanons and interpretations are all I have. And that’s what it means when I say “Sherlock is ace”. I don’t see the self-identifying thing as a problem. They’re fictional characters, not real people. Besides, self-awareness isn’t something everyone has. What if the character doesn’t know they’re ace? I had no clue until I was 31. Maybe they don’t have a clue, either. Or they don’t want to come out because not everyone is comfortable doing that. I used to self-identify as so many things that I am not for most of my life. I also let people assume that I’m straight/cis for safety. Who is to say the character isn’t doing the same thing?

    Also, the term “asexual” didn’t even exist when Sherlock Holmes was created, so there was no way for him to identify as that, anyway. I’m just going to continue seeing characters as ace because it makes me happy.

  7. Rivers says:

    I find different kinds of representation can be useful (implicit vs. explicit) for that. But I’m pretty against Word of God which is so cheap most of the time. If you, as an author, want to firmly identify a character who is genuinely presented as ace, is meant to be seen as ace, etc. but there is arguments in your readership/fandom over the canonicity of that implicit representation, I could see that as being useful. But if you just want to tack it on afterwards, you aren’t putting in the work, and you shouldn’t take credit.

    I am iffy about what I see in Sherlock because I’m pretty sure there has been a decent amount of acephobia from the creators (if I remember correctly), but I do recall some specific scenes where Sherlock is basically out which did strike a cord with some of my personal experiences. The thing that kills me is that Sherlock is a toxic ace. He does not fully understand what it is and how to properly process it and ends up seeing it in toxic ways just missing the mark of what could be.

  8. Cracticus says:

    The way I see it, unless a character self-identifies as ace or describes feelings matching definitions of asexuality, it’s not canon. Anything stated anywhere else, even by the author is a headcanon. That’s not to say headcanons are incorrect, they’re just not canonically proven to be correct.
    On a related note, I find it iffy when people call characters gay/lesbian when they’ve only been in same-sex relations and haven’t labelled themselves as such. Every time that happens I keep thinking they could be bi. I guess I’m big on letting characters define themselves.

  9. polyallsorts says:

    I’m coming to this as an asexual reader and then, separately, as an asexual writer as I think the two roles are different.
    In a sense, once a book is written, the author loses control of it. Responses to the content belong to the reader. So, as a reader, I echo Javi. If a character seems to me to have ace-related traits then, whether or not any ace content is explicit or intended, to me that character is ace. Because responses are so personal, I am very suspicious of lists that purport to catalogue books containing ace characters especially where the asexuality is inferred. One person’s acespec is non-ace to another reader.
    As a writer, a comment on two of Coaxionunlimited’s comments…that they have never been able to identify satisfactorily with a character portrayal, and that they distrust portrayals unless written by another ace. I don’t think that writers necessarily have to rely on first -hand experiences to write sympathetically and convincingly about people and so I don’t think that being ace is a prerequisite for creating a credible asexual character. Even if it is an advantage, though, it will not guarantee that a reader experiences the emotional satisfaction that Coaxionunlimited desires. Their comment echoed my own feelings prior to publishing ‘Ace in the Picture’. (A pretty explicit title!) I was really worried that someone who is asexual might be disappointed on reading it, feeling that ‘It’s not me.’ It was a silly fear because a single character must surely always be but a narrow representation of humanity, but it was a real fear. I think that (back to reader roles again) this is just something that a reader has to live with.

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