This is a submission to the Carnival of Aces themed on “Literature, Academia, and Storytelling”.
I recently had the pleasure of listening to a couple academic talks about asexuality, at the annual conference held by the National Women’s Study Association. The first, by KJ Cerankowski, discussed an asexual reading of Moonlight; and the second, by Anna Kurowicka, discussed an asexual reading of The Left Hand of Darkness. Of particular interest, Cerankowski discussed a general method for performing asexual readings. They would look for absences in the text, and take note of when “the silence is deafening”.
On that note, you may have noticed an absence in both of these talks. We’re talking about asexual readings, but we’re looking at texts that lack explicitly asexual characters. Where are the academic talks about Bojack Horseman, Let’s Talk About Love, Outer Worlds or any number of works that are frequently highlighted in ace communities?
The subject of explicit asexual characters arose during the Q&A. Someone asked “Do you have any interest in studying narratives with explicitly asexual characters?” “No,” said Cerankowski. Those narratives are relatively obvious, they said. It is illustrative of the gap between ace communities and asexual studies, that a subject of so much contention in ace communities can be dismissed as uninteresting in the Q&A of an academic conference session.
But I sympathize with the academics’ outlook, and find ace community discussions can get too narrow. I’d like to outline many different ways that people have understood ace literature, to expose everyone to alternative viewpoints.
1. Ace representation as vis/ed
Let’s begin with the currently dominant paradigm in ace communities. Ace literature is anything that contains an explicitly ace character, or a character that is so unambiguously ace that it seems like the author knew what they were getting at. Good ace representation is when the character illustrates true facts about ace people. Bad ace representation is when the story teaches misconceptions, or omits important facts.
Here, the value of ace literature seems to derive almost exclusively from its contribution to asexual visibility and education (vis/ed). It’s not about whether aces enjoy it, but whether non-aces are enlightened by it. You might even say that whether a work has good ace representation is independent of whether the work is good, although often ace readers enjoy knowing that a work has educational value.
2. Before explicit characters
Our first challenge to the dominant paradigm actually precedes the dominant paradigm. Ace literature has been a topic of discussion for a very long time, before most people knew of any examples of explicitly asexual characters. But people did not go without examples, they simply set a lower bar. People created lists like this one, a jumbled list of characters who said something relating to asexuality, or who at some point resonated with an asexual somewhere. To see how people talked about these characters, I recommend looking at old book and movie reviews on Asexy Beast:
I mean, here are two friends that live together, everyone thinks they’re gay, but they seem to have no romantic interest in each other, or women, or sex at all. I mean, how is it possible that two straight guys could go on a road trip and never once talk about girls? Answer: It’s probably not possible, and Withnail, and I, are so totally A.
This was a popular approach when I started out in ace communities, but went out of fashion as explicit characters appeared. Soon, characters who were merely resonant with asexuality became pale shadows of real ace representation, polluting our ace fiction lists with rather tenuous examples.
But that’s not to say that this approach is only a thing of the past. I’d point to Ace Film Reviews as a modern example. Possibly this is also the perspective taken by Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes fans. It’s the approach you take when you already know what you want to read/watch, and want to extract further enjoyment through an ace reading.
3. Representation as seeing yourself
A common point of friction with the ace representation paradigm, is when an ace reader loves a character that other aces deem to be bad representation. For example, asexual robots and aliens are commonly considered bad because some readers might come away with the impression that asexuality is an inhuman trait. But as far as ace readers go, we already know asexuality exists in humans, so why let a non-issue get in the way of enjoying a good character?
The key point, is that we can enjoy ace characters for ourselves, and not just because of how well they perform vis/ed. As Ace Admiral recently put it, one purpose of representation is
to allow marginalized groups to “see” themselves and remove omission-imposed limitations on what they can be while building up confidence/self-esteem
4. Abandoning the popular
My own biggest disagreement with the dominant vis/ed-based paradigm, is that it necessarily prioritizes the most popular media, which has the most potential for vis/ed impact. I just don’t enjoy popular media, so the “best” ace rep frequently falls flat for me.
The thing is, if you’re looking at mainstream TV and movies, that stuff is made for general audiences, and only incidentally for ace audiences, so even the very best examples actually say very little. Whenever there’s a kerfuffle about TV (such as that whole Riverdale thing) it feels to me like people are fighting over scraps when there are much better examples of ace fiction in more obscure media, like queer literature or webcomics.
But talking about obscure media requires a radical shift in perspective. I cannot realistically expect other people to like what I like, nor can others expect the same of me. And I often find it boring to read people discussing ace literature that I haven’t read and do not care about. So if we are to share a conversation at all, we need to move away from discussing specific examples, and towards discussing common patterns. That’s the philosophy behind Ace Tropes, a blogging series I started in 2016, which was adopted by Sara K and continued through early 2018.
5. What about creators?
So far I’ve mostly been talking about the audience perspective, but there’s also the other half, the authors. I don’t wish to imply that authors have any sort of homogenous perspective, but it’s worth highlighting how creators can depart from the dominant paradigm. For example, Claudie Arsenault has talked about exploring aromanticism through the act of writing:
I did not set out to explore my aromanticism by writing Claude. Heck, I was still fairly solidly in denial about it. That is nonetheless what happened. I started slipping tiny bits of my experiences with romantic attraction, and articulating them within a character that proudly claimed the label made them hard to ignore. In hindsight, it feels obvious that I was validating myself through a character who had long finished his own questioning.
What’s of primary importance here, is what the author puts into the work, not necessarily what the reader gets out of it. In my experience as a reader of independent creators’ works, the results can be a mixed bag, as creators can sometimes be hyperfocused on a specific experience, or they can fail to convey what’s so ace/aro about a character. But we need not center my experience as a reader; we must recognize the value in the act of creation itself.
6. Asexuality Studies
Finally, we return to the radically different perspective described in the introduction, that of academic literary critics. In contrast to most ace community viewpoints, academics don’t always center asexual characters, explicit or otherwise. Moonlight, The Left Hand of Darkness, or The Kids Are Alright have characters that might be interpreted as asexual, but that’s not necessarily the point. Generally, the point is to establish new ways of looking at literature, usually through texts that have previously been discussed by queer theorists.
For example, KJ Cerankowski didn’t only discuss the possibility of reading the protagonist of Moonlight as asexual, but also speculated on the possibility of an asexual story structure. In many stories, sex or romance can serve as a narrative endpoint, but asexuality questions whether there ought to be a singular endpoint. So an asexual story structure might avoid the expected endpoint, or end in stasis. In Moonlight, the ending denies a resolution to the romantic relationship, and instead flashes back to a moment in the protagonist’s childhood, where he is alone staring at the moon.
Another way that academics depart from ace community perspectives, is that they are very interested in what we would consider very bad representation. From the academic perspective, even literature that promotes misconceptions is interesting, precisely because it is a window into common misconceptions. An example may be found in the work of Ianna Hawkins Owen, which examines black desexualized archetypes such the mammy.
Although I’ve explored various perspectives through six neatly separated bullet points, there is much overlap, and diversity within each perspective. I’ve established that the vis/ed-centered paradigm is not the only one, and that people can also center ace resonances, indie works, ace creators, or even ace story structures. This is not to say that prioritizing vis/ed is bad, but I hope to have expanded your mind beyond it.
When thinking about representation and the wide range from head-canon or implicit to explicit and centre-stage, and externally focused versus a broader range of representation, I have to say I found the framework Rowan Ellis proposed for Queer Cinema the best one I’d seen, offering two dimensions for critical analysis and essentially concluding we need (and have) queer stories across the board. I’d say the same is true for asexual respresentation, as well as other identities, especially those where discrimination still primarily takes the form of erasure.
LOL, so I just wrote an article about how I hated that same video. Summarizing my issues: a) the use of the assimilation/liberation dichotomy is overly judgmental about people’s tastes, b) she conflates conformism with targeting straight audiences and non-conformism with targeting queer audiences, c) she conflates stuff like racism and femmephobia with targeting straight audiences, as if queer people were free from such prejudices.
That’s not to say that it isn’t useful to think about how texts vary along multiple axes. I haven’t seen people talk much about whether works of ace literature are conformist or non-conformist. So, that points to a potential future topic. I do not think it would be appropriate to speak of “liberation” or “assimilation” if conformism is not one of the issues at hand.
Even conformism vs. nonconformism would be tricky with ace fiction. Do we say a text is “conformist” when all its ace characters decide to have sex, or do we say a text is “conformist” when it implies you can’t or shouldn’t have sex with anyone who doesn’t “match” your sexual orientation? Do we say a text is “conformist” when it touts the “no sexual attraction” definition of asexuality, or do we say a text is “conformist” when it treats asexuality as “not liking sex”? Do we say a text is “conformist” when its ace characters all do have partners or when they all don’t have partners? There are just too many diverging possibilities to conform to.
This is probably influenced by my experience as a(n asexual) fandom historian, but I feel like conformism is actually a lot more clear cut than other sexual orientations’ representation? Like, I think there is a case to be made that–especially at certain times/in certain situations–aspiring to normative relationship things like marriage or reproduction could have been per se disruptive to the cultural norms in the fiction, even though those things are ultimately in service to conforming to the culture in the long run. Whereas ace fiction lies much more in the execution, if that makes sense. Like, it’s all very internal, and the bucking of norms is in the intention, not the action. To that end, I don’t think it’s hard to find “conformist” portrayals–those that are ultimately very reassuring to society’s expectations. Typically these characters are either very individualized in their orientation and therefore not actually a “threat” to anybody’s ideas (i.e. they Take Up no Space), or they ultimately end up in a totally “normal” relationship and have no problems forming that relationship or within it ever. This happens especially and most insultingly with gray characters (to the point where if I see a “demi” tag I basically expect it to be “magic one true love” nonsense), but it also happens in “slash lite” -type ace fics (My first thought was of Queenie’s post on acefic a while back, but it’s actually touched on less than I remember…)
And, like, this distinction is going to be hard to draw, so I apologize in advance if I fail, but: my thoughts on whether or not to label a fic as “conformist” (not that I ordinarily do, but for the purposes of this post) have nothing to do with yes/no questions like “do they have sex with a partner or not” or “do they have a partner or not” or if fic ends with a romantic pairing living “happily ever after” and everything to do with the execution and framing. Unlike, for example, DADT-era Stargate fic, where certain yes/no questions could give a baseline of the “subversiveness” of the text, or certain fandoms foundational to the modern culture of media shipping/slash (e.g. Starsky and Hutch, The Professionals, Xena: Warrior Princess, I’m going to assume X-Files although I haven’t read enough to say myself). In all of these, there’s a “safe” way to play it (often WNGWJLEO), and then there are more daring writers (well, okay, X-Files is a different case, but from an asexual perspective a lot of them are still COWARDS) who choose to portray the characters as having various aspirations (e.g. coming out, getting married, having children) and that’s kind of all you need, norm defying achieved(TM). But then we fall into the question of how radical the desire to have a relationship that mirrors the dominant model in society can truly be and it’s all so very complicated and subjective.
Whereas you can have two ace characters doing the same action but have one framed as reassuring and the other as disruptive. Yeah, they got married, but was it for ~true love~ or tax benefits? Okay, they said out loud they were asexual, but will it have any impact on the narrative at all, or are they just… a normal guy… who doesn’t happen have a love interest… I guess? Was there any negotiation in forming this relationship, or did their partner just immediately accept them** and I guess that’s it, relationship solved? Does this character care to find out if there literally any other aces in the universe or nah, don’t worry about it, it’s just this one character’s quirk? Because it lies in intentions and motivations, you can very easily say if it’s conformist or not because, well, the author/characters tell you.
I can relate most of this to the non-fanfic ace rep I’ve seen (although I confess I don’t read any of the books), but I think it’s a little starker in fic because of the driving force to couple people off and strong focus on partner-type relationships and also the sheer numbers game that there are as of this writing 18,267 works tagged in “Asexuality Spectrum.” And even though I just went on that whole spiel about it being hard to tell from the tin: I can usually tell before I click on it what I’m getting myself into. The distinguishing features of conformist and non-conformist ace fiction make themselves apparent pretty quickly, at least as far as I have read, disclaimer, disclaimer, &c.
**This is not to degrade wish-fulfillment-type stories, which I personally have 100% written, and not really relevant to what I’m talking about, but you can’t be too careful on the internet
As someone who has read quite a bit of ace fiction (though not ace fanfic), I don’t think conformism is so clear-cut. I’m with Coyote on this one. There are some works of ace fiction which are clearly more or less based on research of real ace people, but I don’t think that is the same thing as conformism vs. non-conformism.
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