So, I recently read Let’s Talk About Love and ugly cried. If you follow me on Twitter, this will not surprise you: I’m a crier. Being biroace (that’s biromantic asexual) is a pretty specific identity, and to come across someone kinda like me made me do a big ol’ ugly cry. When BoJack Horseman’s good boy Todd Chavez came out as ace, and they kept talking about asexuality, I ugly cried. In fact, I have an 800-word, embarrassing, sobbing blog post on the representation of asexuality in BoJack Horseman that is never seeing the light of day. RoAnna Sylver is more eloquent than I am capable of being on the topic of BoJack Horseman and asexuality so, please, go read their posts on the matter!
Thing is, I don’t want to have to ugly cry. My eyes hurt. It’s a happy crying, though, because I felt seen. It’s a great feeling, would recommend.
I want to live in a world where I don’t happy-cry at every instance of ace rep I see in media, whether the characters’ identities closely align with where I sit on the asexual spectrum or not. I want to be able to shrug it off like “oh, another asexual character handled with respect, interesting” instead of “oh my god, I do exist!” I want to feel as commonplace as I am statistically.
What I’m getting at here: Explicit representation matters. More of it, please!
I want to live in a world where it is the norm for everyone to feel seen in some way in the media they consume. In this here blog post I will largely be speaking about asexuality specifically, only because aceness is something I could do with seeing more of (and good autism rep, too!) and not because this is an ace-specific thing, because it isn’t.
My “Joanne Problem”
The Joanne Problem is when authors* claim to have represented X identity by ‘hinting’ and coding so subtly as not to be noticed by anyone outside of being aware of it after such an interview or claiming “I didn’t explicitly write X character as not being X identity!” so they can receive brownie points for writing diversely when in reality they aren’t doing shit.
The live action Beauty and The Beast remake is guilty of this with Le Fou dancing with another man for half a second and claiming ‘gay representation in Disney!!’ in interviews. This is an issue across marginalized groups, and queer identities are no exception. This is a shitty thing to do. At its best this is queerbaity and bad.
A common subset of the Joanne Problem is when people of underrepresented marginalized groups must read into works themselves to find representation at all. The thing is, that representation doesn’t really exist. As far as ace rep goes, Sherlock Holmes is sometimes claimed as ace (in my experience, it’s usually by folks outside of the community; asexuality does not mean “does not do the sex”!) but, in the canon, this is not the case. I can shit-tweet about Rey and Ignis being my beautiful ace children, but that does not make them actually ace. Relatability does not equal representation.
It’s sort of an Absent Joanne Problem. She’s not at the wheel to bait you. She’s not even in the car to consider your existence as to way-too-subtly hint at it. You don’t matter enough to try and bait. This… does not feel so good.
How do you solve the Absent Joanne Problem? Simple. Use the word ‘asexual’ when writing asexual characters. Do not make me get in angry Twitter fights about how Rey is actually asexual and Reylo is trash.
Use The Word
But you’re writing a fantasy novel and using the word just wouldn’t fit… right? Wrong-o. Use the word. If you can justify pages of explanatory dialogue where the main character discusses the magic system at length with their wise mentor, you can use the word asexual. It’s a fucking fantasy novel! You can do anything you want!
But, you’re writing medieval historical fiction and they wouldn’t know the word, so you don’t have to use it… right? Use the word. You probably have more historical inaccuracies in your text than describing Lord Whoever as asexual in passing. If you have the page space for mooning over Lady Whatsit’s neck hair or Generic Farm Boy learning sword forging, you can spare seven characters of room for us.
I’m writing contemporary but… It’s weird for characters to talk about their sexuality. Wouldn’t they just [not date; not have sex; other insensitive stereotypes proving a lack of understanding of the topic] and not talk about it all the time? Use the word. Have you been on queer Twitter? We never shut up about queer shit.
No matter the ‘what if,’ there is a way to use the word. I guarantee there is food to eat in the kitchen, you’re just being lazy and want an excuse to just order a pizza. I believe in you.
“Realism” and Representation
Here’s the thing. Is it possible that in your entire 1200-page military scifi magnum opus that nobody is on the entire asexual spectrum? Yes.
Is it possible that every single person your main character interacts with, mentions in passing, or thinks about is non-disabled, allo-heterosexual, allo-heteroromantic, cisgender, white (or your made-up sci-fi stand-in for whiteness) and also a clear member of any number of other nonmarginalized groups? I mean, I guess statistically it’s possible. You know, in theory, like my ability to do a handstand. Is it realistic? Not so much.
I’m not saying every work needs to have a prominent asexual character. Nobody wants to be part of some imaginary diversity checklist. But if you want to be realistic, be realistic!
What I am saying is the world is diverse as hell, and not reflecting that is just contributing to marginalized groups not being represented equally in our media due to normalized bigotry against said marginalized groups.
If you are bending over backwards to not include any members of any specific marginalized group in any of your work, seriously ask yourself why that is. Recognizing your own ignorance and, often, internalized bigotry is hard and it does not feel great to be aware that you’re maybe being kinda shitty to other people whether that is your intention or not. It’s normal to fuck up, but continuing to fuck up after being told time and again that you are hurting people is not okay.
Issues of underrepresentation are deeply-rooted, societal and systemic, but that doesn’t mean you need to feed into the problem. Including ace characters in your dinosaur-themed alternate-history novella will not change the status quo, but it might just stop allosexual people telling asexual people some variant of “Sherlock Holmes is coded as asexual which is very prominent asexual representation so shut up”, and I think that’s something we can all get behind.
Do your research. Pay a sensitivity reader. Talk to an actual asexual person. I’m on twitter, ask me shit! My DMs are probably open, and @s are 100% free as long as you are asking questions in good faith.
If you ask in bad faith, godspeed.
Further Reading & Resources
How Not To Do 101 on Asexuality, Sex Repulsion, and Sexual Activity by The Ace Theist
Queer Representation in Videogames by Alayna M Cole
how to show aroace characters on-screen, a Twitter thread by @mikaylamic
The Aromantic and Asexual Characters Database, created and maintained by Claudie Arseneault
The Importance of Seeing Yourself, a Youtube video by author Jen Campbell
Dumbledore vs British Homophobia, a Youtube video by Rowan Ellis that touches on my Joanne Problem
*Just search-replace all instances of ‘author’ and literary media with any form of your choosing. Also, I am not a media critic please keep your tomatoes to yourselves. If there is a term for this that is broader than ‘queerbaiting’ (because it isn’t just about queer IDs this happens to) please do leave a comment.