A Look at Ace-spec Representation in Mainstream Media

17

aka why that one ace character in Sex Education wasn’t enough.

It was in early 2020, and I was taking a shower when my roommate thudded excitedly on the bathroom door. “You have to see this!” she said— we were watching the show Sex Education at the time, as the second season had just come out, and she’d skipped ahead. I had my suspicions about why she was excited and sat down to watch episode four to have them confirmed— it turned out to be one of the first times we see asexuality explicitly represented, and done well, in mainstream media.

From an objective standpoint, as an asexual person, I was glad to see it. Representation meant that this supposedly obscure identity was being taken seriously. It meant that a whole new audience was being introduced to the term, and gave people the vocabulary to express what they felt. It also gave others the opportunity to understand what being ace was like, and in a show that revolves around sex, making it seem all-important, an alternate perspective was refreshing.  I think that in the age of meme culture, we all understand the satisfaction that comes from finding a post that describes an oddly specific thing that you thought no one else did. Needing media representation is like that, but magnified— a need to see something that forms a crucial part of your identity validated by society, to know you aren’t alone.  And the way the show handled the topic checked all the right boxes— it introduced the term in a positive manner, separated romantic and sexual identity, and used analogies to clarify it.

However, on an emotional level, it didn’t hit me— and I spent a long time trying to figure out why. This was something that I’d waited for mainstream media to do for so long, that it should have been a cathartic experience. So what happened?

I guess the simple answer is that it’s because that wasn’t what I needed at the time. I was already familiar with the concept of asexuality, and the representation in the show felt a lot like what most content on the topic seems to be about these days— an asexuality 101, an introduction to the concept— rather than validating asexual experiences beyond that. This makes it feel like content revolving around the topic is geared more towards educating people outside the community, rather than asexual people themselves. The ace character from Sex Education, Florence, was a minor one, with only a few scenes about her feeling out of place, then finding out about her sexuality— and just like that, her story was done. That part of my story was done too, but there was still more that needed to be explored on screen, which just wasn’t.

This is not to say that Florence had to be the one to depict all the facets of the asexual experience — the spectrum is too large and too diverse for each character to satisfy everyone under it. Just under the asexual umbrella, we have greysexuals, demisexuals and asexuals, and we often use different labels to express our romantic orientations— aromantic, homoromantic, heteroromantic, etc. There’s so many ways to be ace that it’s impossible for the meagre representation we have now to satisfy everyone.

Although not only is ace representation meagre right now, there’s also a lot of it that’s rife with invalidation and erasure.  An episode of the TV show House M.D. featured an asexual character that the doctor bet could be ‘cured’. Once he apparently did so at the end of the episode, his wife, who had previously claimed to be asexual, revealed that she was faking it to be with him. There are so many problematic implications to this entire storyline that reveal an utter lack of understanding of what asexuality is, and the blatant aphobia of the writers. The adaptation of the character Jughead Jones from the Archie comics, who’s asexual, is an instance of erasure—  he was made heterosexual for the TV show Riverdale. To come closer to home, while there are thriving online ace communities in India, there is however, no ace representation that we can look to. People often confuse celibacy (which is a choice) with asexuality (no/rare sexual attraction), of which we have many examples in our mythology— like Bhishma from the Mahabharata— but this is not the same.

Bad representation also includes allonormativity, the notion that everyone experiences sexual attraction. This is an attitude prevalent in a lot of mainstream media— scenes where people are made fun of for being virgins,  statements that profess sex to be a desire shared by all, are examples.  By assuming that sexual attraction is a universal thing, it invalidates asexuality, making it seem like there’s something wrong with those who don’t experience it.

To find good asexual representation, apart from what little we see onscreen, one would have to turn to online activists like Yasmin Benoit, or books, like Loveless by Alice Oseman, Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee, or Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman. There are many books that do it well, but again, it’s not often that you’d find them in the most popular, mainstream books. We end up having to resort to headcanons instead, speculating on the orientations of characters we think could be asexual (mine is Elsa from Frozen, fight me on this), or satisfy ourselves with creators retrospectively claiming that their characters are asexual after they’ve put out their work, which feels a bit like… ace-baiting?

Looking back on the scene in Sex Education today, it does move me because I’m not as starved for representation as I was back then—  I’ve since turned to books to find it. This has made it easier for me to understand the significance of the scene, as I’m not expecting a huge emotional release from it anymore. However, if the argument for the lack of asexual representation is that content without the drama of sex is boring, then the variety of ace stories that these books tell clearly disproves that. TV makes asexual stories seem lacklustre right now, because they’re too hesitant to truly explore it.  Florence and her arc with asexuality,  and Todd Chavez  (from Bojack Horseman) walked, so that Sarah (from BIFL) and Drea (from Everything’s Gonna Be Okay) could run— setting a hopeful precedent for asexual representation in the future.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Symbiosis Centre for Media and Communication. SCMC does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

Shruti Menon
(Batch 2022)