Queer representation is a critical issue in storytelling, so today we’re giving the floor to guest host Kristin for a discussion of asexual and aromantic characters on TV. As a pleasant surprise, there are more of them than you might expect! Not nearly enough of course, but a start. We’ll talk about how these characters are portrayed, how subtle differences can change their identity, and what it means to be ace or aro before those terms were in common usage.Download Episode 216 Subscription Feed
Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Darian. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.[intro music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: And we have a new and returning special guest…
Kristin: I’m Kristin!
Chris: Kristin, how about you introduce our next topic.
Kristin: Yes. So, I’m actually doing a topic that is pretty important to me. We’re doing ace, or asexual, and aromantic representation. And specifically in TV. So first of all, to get that out there, “asexual” or “ace” is a person who does not feel sexual attraction. They do not feel drawn to act on attraction towards another person in a sexual way. And that’s actually a definition from the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, AVEN. And then “aromantic” or “aro” is aromantic… uh, sorry. “Romantic” attraction is the desire to be romantically involved with another person. So “aromantic” would be having no desire to be romantically involved with another person. And both those things are on a spectrum. You can have everything from sex-positive, sex-neutral, to sex-repulsed asexuals, or anywhere in between those. And the romance is the same thing. You can have someone who is romance-positive, romance-neutral, romance-negative, or anywhere along that line. So romance and sex are two different things. You can have one without the other.
Chris: [laughs] Yeah. I think it’s also worth noting that there can be a difference in orientation.
Kristin: Yes, definitely.
Chris: Where somebody can have, you know, sexual attraction to one gender and romantic attraction to a different gender.
Chris: ‘Cause they’re just, you know, basically they’re different things that come together in different ways.
Kristin: They can. Yeah. And I was going to follow that up with saying that within asexual and aromantic, there can be… Or rather, in sexual and romantic orientations, you can have gay, straight, lesbian, pan, bi, all the different things that still apply.
Oren: Right. I mean, as with many things involving human sexuality, it is good… you know, these broad categories are good, but there will also be people who—you know, because people are complicated—do not necessarily a hundred percent fit into one or the other or what have you.
Oren: So, it’s good, it’s… Learn these things, they’re important, but also “don’t police people” I guess was the lesson I was trying to get at.
Kristin: And it’s something that I actually bring up a little bit later when I’m talking about BoJack Horseman. But labels… Labels are important, but labels are only important when the person who is labeling themselves is ready to label themselves. Pushing a label on someone else is… not so great.
Chris: Yeah. And I’ve known a lot of people who have gotten a lot of power from finding a label, because that label connects them with a community of people with similar experiences, and that can be very empowering. But it’s also extremely alienating, and a lot of times erasure, to have other people applying labels to you that you don’t feel comfortable with.
Kristin: Definitely. Definitely. Ace and aro are, unfortunately, the way they’re depicted in media—in television shows, books, movies, all that sort of stuff—is something that they tie to trauma. And so, you know, not wanting to be with someone, whether it is sexually or romantically, because of trauma, or because of a choice, that is… that has a different word. It’s called “celibacy.” And so I think that it’s important to make that distinction, before we get started, that celibacy is something that is a choice. And that is something that is different than what we’re talking about.
Chris: And listeners who are storytellers… If you’re keeping track of negative stereotypes to avoid in your writing, this is one that you can put down as a note.
Chris: An asexual or aromantic character should not… It’s not that they can’t have trauma, but that [trauma] shouldn’t be framed as the cause of them being asexual or aromantic, right?
Kristin: Yeah. And also—because I’ve heard it tied to a lot of things—like, being a psychopath should not also be a reason why you’re asexual.[laughter]
Kristin: I see things like Dexter and Hannibal Lecter as people that they’re saying, “Oh, well, these are people with asexual tendencies.” Well, they’re psychopathic. That’s a little bit different. They may be asexual. They may not be. But the first classification, to me, is that they’re a psychopath.
Chris: Right. We certainly don’t want to stigmatize by linking it to criminal behavior, right?
Kristin: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.
Oren: Right. And also, just to be clear, I don’t actually think that “psychopath” is a useful medical term, if I recall correctly. You know, serial killers exist. They’re very real. Right? But I don’t think that there’s even a… a medically agreed upon definition for what a psychopath even is. My understanding is that that’s more complicated than we’ve often been led to believe.
Kristin: Oh, okay!
Chris: And I think it’s probably similar for the term sociopath. I think that, from what I understand, and I could be wrong, that they’re almost more useful as criminal classifications from the level of the justice system, than they are as medical classifications. ‘Cause I don’t think they necessarily are, you know, genuine medical classifications. But at the same time, there are certainly people who clearly lack empathy. Which is what we usually consider associated with being a sociopath.
Oren: Right. And I do think that with Dexter, at least, I think they had a good instinct, and did it wrong. Because in real life, serial killers are very often also serial rapists. And they obviously did not want Dexter to be a serial rapist, ‘cause that would have been terrible. So they were like, “okay, no, he only kills people. And he’s not even into sex.” And I think they could have done that in a way without trying to be like, “well, maybe ace people are all murderers.”
Oren: You know, I suspect there was a better way to handle that.
Kristin: And then just, a statistic—a lot of ace and aro people feel like our orientation is not even addressed at all, but 1% of the world’s population identifies, or self-identifies, as ace, which is about 75 million people. So that is a very big chunk of people to just be not addressing something that very closely applies to their lives.
Chris: It’s also worth pointing out that that number will almost certainly go up.
Kristin: Yes, definitely.
Chris: Right? As awareness goes up, more people will learn about it. Like, you hear a lot of people saying, “Oh, that’s how I am, and I didn’t realize it. Now that I’ve heard the term and I’ve connected with the community, now I self identify.”
Chris: And so we’re at the stages with this right now where this is almost certainly dramatically less than the number of people who will identify that way as we go on, and awareness gets bigger.
Oren: Right. And also I know… there’s a lot of people who get all like, “Oh, well, this group is only this percentage of the population, and it’s a small percentage. And why is it super important that we have a lot of characters of that type?” And I mean, on the one hand, it’s very likely that that percentage is bigger than we think…
Kristin: Mhm. Because this is self-identifying. Yeah.
Oren: Right. But even if it’s not. Even if these percentages don’t ever grow—even if they shrink—it’s still reasonable for these people to expect representation in mass media, even if they are not a large percentage of the population. The whole idea of playing this as, like, “We need to… Our characters on TV should be an exact demographic representation of the percentages we see in real life” is kind of nonsense. And no one ever applies that to privileged groups.
Oren: So, you know, just want to put that out there in case that was in anyone’s head.[laughter]
Chris: Thank you.
Kristin: So, yeah, with the representation, I just want to talk a little bit about some of the things that I’m seeing that are starting to come about in media that have been done really well.
Kristin: And unfortunately two of them are outside the United States, that I’m gonna talk about.
Kristin: But anyways, so there is actually a soap opera in the United Kingdom. It is called Emmerdale, and there is a teenage girl on the show who, in the course of growing up, starts to self identify that maybe she is asexual. And she… this soap opera is actually set in a tiny United Kingdom village, and so she doesn’t have the resources that are available to people who live in larger cities. And there’s actually storylines that are focused on her realizations and experimentations with figuring out what she is. And, you know, it’s so great that she’s also, there’s… ‘Cause I’ve YouTubed stuff about this, but… so she is shown to be accepted as well. Like, she says to a friend, “I think I’m asexual.” And the friend basically goes, “Oh, okay, how are you?” You know?
Kristin: So it’s not that thing of, you know, “I think I’m asexual.” “Uh, well, you just haven’t met the right person yet.” Or, “Oh, are you sure?” You know, it’s just an acceptance. Which I think is really important to show, because without acceptance, how can you accept it in yourself without seeing it in other people?
Oren: Right. And I mean, that kind of gets into the territory of what I’ve called “trauma porn” in the past. Where, you know, you have a person with a marginalized identity of some sort and they get a lot of flack for it in the story. And even if the point of your story is that the people giving them flack are wrong, in a lot of cases that can still be harmful. And nine times out of ten, especially for privileged storytellers, I would recommend against it.
Oren: Like, there’s a place for those stories, ‘cause that happens in real life, and so there’s a place for it. But I would generally recommend, particularly to privileged storytellers, just go with the… you know, they come out as ace and everyone’s like, “Great! You’re ace. Excellent.” Right? We don’t… Even though there is a story to be told in the issue of people… berating them, and being like, “have you found the right person yet?” sort of thing. Are you the one to tell it, is the question.
Chris and Kristin: Yeah.
Oren: And usually the answer is no.[laughter]
Kristin: And I mean, yeah, you get into the thing of where there’s, you know, demisexuals and graysexuals and things like that, where it’s one specific person, or the connection of friendship between them, that causes them the sexual feelings or the romantic feelings. But that’s for the person who’s figuring themselves out to figure out. And any information that you look up about being ace or aro or anything like that, you’re going to find information on demi and gray and all that sort of stuff. Because they all tie in with one another, and it’s all part of being on that spectrum.
Oren: It’s also definitely a thing of… The more detail you want to get into, the more research you need to be prepared to do.
Oren: Right? Like, if you just want a character who is ace, you should still do some research, but you probably don’t need to do exhaustive research. If the character’s just ace, you know, they’re still a person. They still react more or less the way most people react in most situations. You don’t need a huge amount of information to figure that out. But if you want to do like, a “coming out as ace” story… that’s going to need more info.
Oren: You’re treading on serious… on potentially dangerous ground there.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, if you’re ace, and you want to tell that story, you’re speaking from your own personal experience. You have, basically, expertise to draw on. If you’re ace, you have lived experience of that. If you’re a person who doesn’t have that lived experience, you are essentially telling somebody else’s story, which means the burden is much, much higher on you to do a lot more research to get it right. And you know, in our experience, most privileged storytellers don’t have that level of commitment that’s required to get it right.
Chris: But you don’t have to go to that level of effort. You can have somebody who’s already done… already previously realized that they were ace, and gone through that process of identity adjustment, and just now in their… [at] the point of your story, they just are confident and they know they’re ace and it’s not a coming out thing anymore.
Kristin: Yeah. It’s more of a… They just live their life, and they are who they are, and they’re comfortable in that. And they react to the situations that they’re in the way that they normally would without the questioning part becoming a huge thing to them anymore.
Oren: I do have to say, I was actually pleasantly surprised with how many ace characters that there are.
Oren: Like, I expected it to be closer to zero, but I found a surprisingly high number. I mean, it’s still not enough—just to be clear—but it’s more than I thought. And I do think that this is specifically asexual…I haven’t found a single aromantic character who is not also ace.
Kristin: Cassandra Clare has written a book, The Mortal Instruments and it’s been made into a TV show, Shadow Hunters. And so Raphael Santiago is written on page to be ace and aro. On the TV show, he is ace and gray romantic.
Oren: Oh, so apparently… This one I thought was really cool. So people—at least according to what I’ve researched—people had started being like, “Hey, is this Raphael character ace?” And Cassandra Clare had replied, like, “I meant him to be, but I haven’t made it explicit yet. So I don’t get credit.”
Oren: And she did later… in a later book, she did make it explicit.
Oren: But it was such a classy move, in a world where creators try to tell you their story is more diverse than it actually is.
Oren: For her to recognize that “yes, it’s perfectly valid for you to interpret the character that way. That’s how I interpreted him, but I also didn’t… put it there. And so I’m not going to get that credit until I actually do it.”
Kristin: I mean, there are tons of shows and books and things like that, [with] characters where someone says, “Oh yeah, this character was meant to be ace,” but it was never actually said, or indicated, in the show or book, and stuff like that. But that’s a different thing. That was, you know, a lot of them were earlier. A lot of them were maybe put out before… before the terminology was there. Something like The Golden Girls. With Rose, where that came out in the eighties, and the terminology wasn’t there, but they actually did say on screen, the character of Rose says things like “I wasn’t interested in sex before I got married, and once I did get married, and had sex, it wasn’t something that I was… I don’t understand sexual desire still,” you know? So it was one of those things where the words sort of indicated it. Even if they never came out and said… the Rose character didn’t come out and say, “I am asexual.”
Oren: Right. They do the same thing on Game of Thrones, actually, where Game of Thrones obviously is a modern story. So in the real world, the terminology exists, but it might feel a little out of place if a character in Game of Thrones started talking about being “asexual.” Like, using that term. Because it’s a fantasy story, so it might feel a little weird. So instead they have Varys talk about how he’s just not… he just wasn’t ever attracted to anybody and he’s thankful for it because, like, being romantic in Game of Thrones is bad. It just causes problems.[laughter]
Chris: Yeah. I think Kristen has more to say on Varys, but first I just wanted to talk about this dual perspective when we’re talking about characters that are not explicitly stated to be ace or aro, just because there can be some miscommunication here. So, basically, there’s the fans’ perspective, and then there’s looking at it from a storytelling perspective.
Chris: And specifically, making recommendations to storytellers. So, at Mythcreants, we definitely recommend that you are explicit about your representation that you have. And that doesn’t mean that they have to say “I’m asexual,” or “I’m aromantic,” or ace, or aro. They can just say, “I just don’t feel sexual attraction.” Or something along those lines.
Chris: But there are lots of characters that are not explicitly stated this way, but have characteristics that suggest, at least to some audience members, that they could be ace or aro. And from a fan’s perspective, it is totally reasonable to be like, “That character’s ace. That character’s aro,” right? That the fans… but that is not… that can provide some sense of representation that in many cases is missing. But from a storyteller’s perspective, if we get the sense in particular that it hasn’t been explicitly stated because the storyteller just doesn’t have the guts to stand up for marginalized trait… You know? We definitely, like… Dumbledore supposedly is gay, but this is clearly… Rowling, if she really thought of him this way, she was being a coward about it.
Chris: We don’t want to give the storyteller credit for doing that. We expect more of storytellers. But from the fans’ perspective, that person is… legit. You know, that’s a legit way to interpret that character. And that can provide some level of representation, even though it’s nice when they, you know, it’s outright and it’s very clear. It’s canonical. So yeah, just gonna try to… put that out there because sometimes there’s a little bit of butting heads on this issue. Because different groups have different purposes, but we all basically want the same thing, which is more representation.
Kristin: Yes. And thank you, Chris, for clarifying that, because that is definitely… just because you don’t have a character that comes out and specifically says “I am asexual,” does not mean that they cannot be written as asexual, or have characteristics and tendencies that maybe asexual people have. But you can’t then turn around and say, “But I made an asexual character. Give me credit.”[laughter]
Chris: So did you want to talk about Varys at all, Kristen? Since we mentioned Varys?
Kristin: So with Varys, the only… and this is only through research that I’ve done online, because I actually haven’t watched a lot of Game of Thrones. I’ve not made it past the first half of the first season. But basically from what I’ve researched, Varys actually had his castration done at the age of nine. And that’s something that is, I guess, stated in both the books and on the television show…
Oren: Oh, really? Hmm.
Kristin: …Which then indicates that that’s going to be prior to puberty.
Oren: Yeah… okay.
Kristin: And most likely prior to sexual attraction, or at least knowledge of sexual attraction and things like that. So…
Oren: Yeah… I guess I should’ve thought of that.[laughter]
Chris: I mean, I think this is a situation where, you know, we don’t want to say that somebody who is also a eunuch couldn’t possibly…
Kristin: No. No, definitely.
Chris: But at the same time, we also don’t want to have a situation where we are equating him being a eunuch with being ace or aro, right?
Chris: Or say that being ace or aro is caused by having been castrated or… you know?
Kristin: Yeah. Yeah. No, definitely. And I’m not trying to make that comparison either. It is definitely just that I’m not sure how successful Lord Varys being an asexual holds up, because of how early he was castrated.
Oren: Yeah, it’s like… I watched the scene where they talk about it, and it’s a good scene, and it was good enough that I didn’t stop to really think about it.
Kristin: Yeah. And that’s fair.
Oren: I guess you could say that how successful it is kind of… varies.[laughter; groans.]
Kristin: All right, all right, all right.
Chris: So, Kristin, do you want to bring in another example of an instance of an ace or aro or semi-ace or -aro character that you liked or didn’t like? I mean, another depiction?
Kristin: Yeah. I guess I kind of want to stray more towards the stuff that I do like, because that’s where the representation is kind of like… you know, we want them to have storylines, and things like that.
Chris: Yeah. Go for it.
Kristin: So, obviously I’ve mentioned BoJack Horseman. I think just about everyone probably has at least a base understanding of that show? And so the character of Todd is really important, in the fact that he comes out as asexual. He goes through a whole thing of figuring out who he is on screen. He has conversations with people that are open and honest, and they educate as well as… I guess “entertain” might be the best way to phrase it, because those scenes are not boring by any… you know, and again, they discuss the importance of labels for when someone is ready. And so, having those sort of open and honest scenes is really important.
And another show that ties into that is a New Zealand soap opera called Shortland Street. It’s set in an Auckland hospital, but Gerald Tippett—he is a receptionist—he realizes he’s asexual, thinks that he can cure it. And so…
Kristin: Yeah. Well, so, talks to a doctor about it, and in a very short amount of time—it’s all in the same episode—realizes that this is… not something that is curable. It is something that is him. And he… he grapples with this. He talks to other people about it. And then he comes to realize that being in a relationship is not only about the sex, it can also be about the connection of friendship in a relationship, and things like that. And so eventually does come out on screen as being asexual and then goes through life and dating as an asexual person. And so I just think that, while it may not start in the best place—because it talks about “how do I cure it?” and things like that—it does still have important points in that that’s how a lot of asexual people maybe feel initially, is that “There’s something wrong with me. How can I fix it?” And so having that sort of play out, I think, is just as important in what we see from the characters that we watch on TV, so that we can then experience it ourselves and go, “Oh, okay. You know, this isn’t something that’s wrong with me. This is something that’s wrong with society and how they view me.” [laughs]
Oren: Right, and that was sort of what I was getting at earlier, is that that sort of story is definitely very valuable for all the reasons you just said. It’s not a story that I would try to write.
Oren: You know? That’s a little more ambitious than I’m ready for. But it is a valuable story to have, particularly if it’s a story written by an ace storyteller, or at the very least with ace consultants.
Oren: Right? That’s the sort of thing that I think is probably what you’d want to do in that scenario.
Chris: Yeah. I think that’s worth mentioning, just because a lot of times privileged storytellers feel like they need a reason to include somebody with a marginalized trait. And so that’s one of the reasons they’re led to think, like, “Well, I need an ace character. Then I need a storyline about being ace.” You know? And that’s not true. You don’t need a reason.
Chris: Just like you don’t need a reason to include… Like, everybody knows you need a reason to include a white guy, a white straight guy on your show, right?[laughter]
Chris: White, straight, sexual guy, right? By the same token… Don’t put forward a double standard. You don’t need a reason to have an ace character or an aro character on your show. Right?
Kristin: And that totally… I mean, there is definitely a need for shows like… It’s sort of corny. The show is The Tick.
Kristin: You have a character that is purely about crime fighting, and having fun with friends, and things like that. And they don’t need to have that… relationship sort of quality, that is dating and romance and sex. And in the original comic, the Tick is actually married for a few weeks. She divorces him because he won’t take off the Tick costume and he won’t have sex with her. Because he has no want to have sex with her, you know. [laughs] And so, in the Amazon one, which is the only one that I’ve seen—and I remember vaguely watching the older ones when I was much, much younger—but it’s very much about crime fighting and having fun with the people around you. And there is definitely, why do you have to have romance in that sort of setting? You don’t have to. So don’t put it in.
Oren: All right. So here’s actually a question for you, Kristin, while we have you here. So in the comic, the Tick… I would say that that counts as saying the Tick is explicitly asexual.
Kristin: It’s never said that he’s asexual. It is just that he… gets a divorce from his wife because he will not… he has no desire to have sex with her.
Oren: Right. So he never uses… he doesn’t use the word “asexual,” but to me, that at least… my feeling was that that was effectively the same thing.
Kristin: That is effectively the same thing. Yes.
Chris: I would just say there might be some difference on how it’s phrased, right? Because I think he doesn’t want to have sex with her. Is it that he doesn’t want to have to have sex with her specifically, or is that he doesn’t have interest in sex?
Kristin: The reason for the divorce is that he does not want to have sex with her. So that definitely is a phrasing sort of… specificity. And so it does not say that he does not want to have sex, period.
Kristin: And so that’s where my issue in terms of, we need these characters, but at the same time, just being cautious how you phrase things, that it’s not a specific situation rather than…
Kristin: Unless you’re going for demi or gray.
Chris: Right. Right. There’s all sorts of complicated situations here. It just, you know, when you’re depicting a character—and I don’t know how the wife was depicted—but certainly there is at least a stereotype of gay men who get married and then don’t have interest in having sex with their wives and then come out as gay, right?
Chris: And some other, you know… And again, I’m not going to say that being explicit is necessary a hundred percent of the time. Like there certainly could be stories that are written by ace people, for ace people, you know, to a community of people who the coding is obviously clear to them.
Chris: But again, if, you know, storyteller wants credit for promoting diversity within your story… It’s good to have some of that clarity. Especially since people have a tendency to mix up being asexual with being celibate, as Kristin mentioned earlier.[laughter]
Oren: I guess with The Tick… My concern with The Tick was sort of that the Tick is very immature, right? And so I almost feel like his lack of interest in sex reads more of him being kind of childlike than him being ace. But maybe that’s the same thing in this context. I’m not sure? I just… I had some concerns when I thought about… when I saw the Tick on this list that I looked up of ace characters…
Oren: But I don’t know. I’m not saying that for sure. That was just something that bothered me.
Chris: This is one of those things where more representation is better.
Chris: And when you have only one character of any marginalized traits, it just puts on a lot more pressure to, you know, get it right. Because that person then has to, like, represent that marginalized group, which is a lot of pressure…
Chris: And it’s just… you have more than one, and they have different characteristics, and there’s a lot less pressure to think that each character is embodying everything about that group. You know, it’s like real life. Nobody can do that!
Kristin: That is very true. ‘Cause you can look at a straight white man and know that some of the traits that he is exhibiting are not true of all straight white men.
Chris and Oren: Mhm.
Kristin: And so that has to be the same with ace or aro characters, is that you have to be able to look at that character and know that that is not the be all, end all of all ace or aro characters. Or gay, or straight, or lesbian, or pan, or bi, or any of those different things. Like, looking at those characters and knowing that they are not the be all, end all of what that… umbrella represents.
Chris: And so when in doubt, just have more of them!
Kristin: There you go!
Chris: It really helps. Just have more of them.[laughter]
Oren: Well, we are pretty much out of time. Is there anything else we want to cover?
Chris: Kristin, is there anything that you wanted to cover that you have not gotten to in this podcast?
Kristin: No, I think I’ve covered… ‘cause like I said in the beginning I wanted to kind of stick with more, like, what is the good sort of stuff. And while there are definitely some questionable examples out there, I think that this is probably a good spot to end.
Chris: Okay. So celebrate the characters that are good representation, right?
Kristin: Exactly. Yup. Exactly.
Oren: All right, well, thank you so much for that excellent topic, Kristin. It was very fun.
Kristin: Thank you very much for having me. It was great to quote unquote “host” this.[laughter]
Oren: All right, so that’ll be it for this episode. Before we go, I want to thank two of our patrons. First is Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Second is Ayman Jaber, urban fantasy writer and Marvel connoisseur. And if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com, and we will talk to you next week![outro music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?