The following is part 1 of my two part submission for the July 2016 Carnival of Aces which was titled “Make ’em Laugh” (and which is more broadly themed around humor). Check out the Carnival of Aces Masterpost here for more information on what The Carnival of Aces is.
There are many ways, both positive and negative, that humor can be utilized in ways that directly affect your asexual characters and how your readers/audience members are likely to perceive them.
Here in part 1, I will list examples of things to avoid when using humor in relation to an ace-spectrum character.
- There is a character who is asexual and the other characters make fun of him (or her, or them).
This is not ideal representation because it implies that “someone being asexual” is, in and of itself, a funny thing. It shows no respect for asexuality, nor respect for all of the people in real life who happen to actually be asexual. Perhaps to many people reading this blog post of mine right now it is fairly obvious that this can be one of the worst types of asexual representation, but unfortunately I think it does need to be spelled out because it’s clearly not obvious to some creators.
As someone who is speaking from a United States perspective and who has consumed mainly American fiction, with a side of some stuff from the UK and some television from Canada too… and then has engaged with the social justice communities online… I’ve noticed that most minorities (specifically meaning minorities-in-the-USA) have to face a particular issue when it comes to representation.
Even when a creator thinks “hey, I’m (finally) representing your group; you should be grateful”, the audience members/readers/content consumers who belong to that-particular-marginalized group realize that the character who represents them is being laughed at for being in a minority or marginalized group. It is a common issue for characters who belong to minority religions and/or characters who are ethnically Jewish, for characters who are members of certain (most non-white) races, sometimes for disabled characters, and yes, for all types of Queer characters. See the TV Tropes article on the “Queer People Are Funny” trope. (That site includes instances of the tropes in multiple fictional mediums by the way – not just television.) There is also a whole “Queer as Tropes” page for more options, such as overly exaggerated flamboyance in gay male characters.
When asexuality becomes another type of queerness that is deemed inherently funny, this can be harmful to asexual people in real life. Asexual people who have not yet heard of asexuality might never even think to consider that they might be ace, because it’s not being presented as a valid orientation for a person to be. It can make a viewer who does realize they are asexual feel attacked. It makes the asexual character the one you’re not supposed to relate to, and encourages the general (non-ace) audience to not even sympathize with their pain at being bullied or treated unfairly. The asexual character’s asexuality is exaggerated or stereotyped too because the writer didn’t respect the need for careful/realistic portrayals and spent no time on research.
Sometimes the creator of the show, or the author of the book, or the person behind whichever piece of media where you’re seeing a-character-who-seems-to-act-asexual will claim/establish via “Word of God” that they’re not really asexual, and they will then say or imply that it therefore doesn’t hurt to laugh at this character.
I have never seen more than maybe three random episodes of The Big Bang Theory, but I feel like I know enough about that show to know one of the main characters, Sheldon Cooper, is one of these examples of a “no he’s not canonically ace” kind of character still causing harm to real asexual people in the world. This matters because TBBT is one of the most popular TV series in the USA and has been for many years.
Stefanie Gallon explains it well here…
Here is the crux of the issue with the Big Bang Theory: Sheldon’s sexuality is up in the air. He is depicted as the text-book [sic] example of an asexual person, but we are never given confirmation. Like I’ve said in other blog posts, without the word of the writers to back up what we believe, we are forever subjected to fighting for the representation we desperately want. Unfortunately for asexuals watching The Big Bang Theory, asexuality is a joke. The most common punchline these days seems to be “Sheldon won’t have sex”.
And this blog post was prompted by Kelly Jenkins first writing this:
One of the main problems here is that asexuality is largely constructed as being something absurdly different. According to TV, normal people can’t be asexual.
One of the things she elaborated on in that piece was that some of the only asexual-seeming characters we see written about us, are literally aliens from outer space! This includes characters on television like The Doctor on Doctor Who (see this link too…)
I’m not so sure that the character of Sheldon Cooper is an unequivocally positive asexuality representative. For one thing, he’s pretty heavily othered and marked as “inhuman” and “strange” by the way the other characters react to him; he’s essentially treated as one slight step up from an actual alien. I’m also not so sure that we’re often meant to be laughing with him, either; a lot of the humor of the show comes from holding up Sheldon’s responses to various things and essentially playing them for laughs; for instance, Sheldon’s very analytical approach to relationships is treated as being funny because it’s so strange, no normal human would ever conceptualize relationships that way–except some people do. I would argue that the main time I see jokes aimed at laughing with Sheldon as opposed to laughing at some quirk of his would be the running Bazinga! joke. Most of the jokes surrounding him aren’t really things I think the character would find funny, and in fact much of the time they’re dependent on embarrassment humor.
But (as just one example) laughing at Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory for not understanding why everyone else around him wants to have sex, or for not seeming to have any desire for sex himself might as well be laughing at every single asexual person in the audience or in an audience member’s life. (Or at least every ace who is celibate-by-choice, or by-default. It is more complicated for the aces who have sex.) I know television shows often make the mistake of overlooking the fact that who they’re actually representing might actually be watching, but that needs to stop. For asexuals, we need fiction creators to realize we are human beings & are worthy of respect.
To some degree the infamous House M.D. episode with the asexual-erasure subplot:
had main character Gregory House laugh at the absurdity of the existence of asexuality — and then by the end of the episode prove that it really was absurd to think such a thing in human beings could possibly be real. Even if you as a writer thought it’d be good for the joke, or for the laugh-value, House is probably the best example of what not to do in your representations of asexuality in your fiction.
In that episode, a happy-to-be-asexual man who thought he was married to an ace woman was established as stupid for not realizing that he was sick and that his illness was the actual explanation for his supposed asexuality, and also established as “worthy of ridicule” for believing that someone with whom he fell in love, a person who said she was asexual, would be telling the truth. “Haha, the gullible idiot.” That’s the impression you get of the ace man in this episode. That is not an ideal way to represent us, and I don’t find this twist fun nor funny.
The humor in the episode just makes it all worse because it encourages the audience to laugh at the asexual people and to therefore laugh at all asexual people in the world.
Chasing Life added in an asexual minor character to the background of 2 scenes who was painted as somewhat ridiculous for wanting to be recognized, for wanting to be noticed, for wanting to talk about his orientation too at his high school’s LGBTQ club. While I was so shocked to unexpectedly hear the word “asexual” on a TV show I was following that at the time it felt like a pleasant surprise, in retrospect I’m not sure it’s doing asexual people that many favors if the only time we’re ever mentioned is as either the butt of the joke, or as, in Chasing Life‘s case, comic relief to be brushed aside. And where the other characters, the ones who have more of a voice, don’t believe we could have any real things to talk about or problems needing addressing.
The first of these scenes is actually on YouTube, so I’ll share it here, and WARNING for extreme bi-erasure/bigoted comments about bisexuality in this entire scene (albeit, they are presented as hurtful to the main character, who is bisexual). The only asexual moment is at 1:09:
And yeah it’s brief, and it’s not like any of the characters actually laugh, and maybe I’m being overly sensitive? But when we have so few moments to latch onto in fiction… nothing is too insignificant to be talked about!
The second scene of the LGBTQ club in that episode – and the only featuring of that club in the entire series, a TV series that is now canceled – isn’t on YouTube. But that second scene includes main-character-Brenna standing up for herself about anti-bi stereotypes and the other members seeming to finally get that they were wrong. As she harshly bites back, ace guy quietly smirks because he is an ally on her side and that makes him likable! Yes. But once she says the words “Isn’t that the point of an LGBTQ club?” the ace guy silently shifts and starts to gesture as if tempted to interrupt. It seems to imply he’s not satisfied with the Q as covering his orientation too and he wished she’d said the letter A as well. He doesn’t say even a single word in this scene. You can watch the scene if you have the USA version of Netflix by going to season 2 episode 7 of Chasing Life and skipping to 38 minutes and 24 seconds. But ultimately, the audience is, in my opinion, encouraged to find the asexual character funny for wanting to be recognized. Encouraged to consider asexual people as overly needy, perhaps. And while it’s valid to want to add something funny in the midst of a serious scene, doing so at the expense of the only asexual representation that ever happened on ABC Family when it was still a TV show network? That is not okay.
Okay that… was more than I expected to write on making fun of asexual characters. Let’s move on.
2. Make fun of a non-ace character who accepts asexuality or even dates an asexual person
House M.D. couldn’t just stick to one frustrating trope about aces in fiction despite only having one episode with a side plot about asexuality. Somehow, in addition to making fun of the asexual guest characters, it made fun of the main character Wilson. Wilson – who believed asexuality did apply to close to 1% of the population after meeting an asexual patient and reading up on the matter in a Psychology journal – is somewhat “proven” by the end of the ep to be wrong. He loses his bet. He believed asexuality was real for nothing. His patient turned out to be sick and his patient’s wife, lying. House was laughing at him the whole time, and as it turns out (within the context of the episode), rightfully so. While normally viewers of this TV series are meant to empathize with Wilson, we also empathize with House, and in the case of introducing asexuality to a world that largely hadn’t heard of it, this show made a big statement about how it’s an incorrect stance to take to be on the asexual characters’ side and to believe what they tell you. And they used humor as a part of that statement.
Also, it is pertinent that the entirety of the asexual arc on the comedy TV series Sirens was about making fun of Brian for choosing to pursue an asexual woman, for choosing to date her, for choosing to sacrifice having sex/for choosing to compromise in order to be with her, and for valuing romance more than sex in his life.
This was an interesting choice on the writer’s part. To play devil’s advocate for a moment, it was probably better than letting asexuality itself be the punchline. The asexual woman was made fun of as being creepy and dark, into things like severed fingers and at home with terrifying deadly snakes, but that was relatively rarely mentioned over the course of the show, and at least her asexuality wasn’t being directly made fun of. Perhaps one could argue that her asexuality was being invalidated indirectly by these other “quirks” she possessed… but ultimately, in my opinion, her status as an average, reasonable, attractive person who happened to be asexual was respected – because instead, the focus was on making fun of a straight guy. The jokes being elsewhere allowed the asexuality to be accepted as rare yet somewhat typical variation in how people can be, treated just like any other sexual orientation.
That being said, where they chose to direct their humor as an alternative was not ideal. Because it promoted the idea that no asexual-and-nonasexual mixed relationships would ever work. It disrespected every person, ace and not , who is in a partnered relationship of seemingly incompatible orientations. It made fun of celibacy, which continues to actually hurt aces. Sirens made this worse by having the asexual person herself break up with Brian for all the reasons he was originally laughed at by his straight friend and his gay friend, “proving” the hurtful jokes-based-in-not-understanding to “actually be right”. Claiming that no straight man could ever be happy in a relationship without sex, despite Brian’s own feelings!
Another thing a writer can do with an asexual character is let him or her , the ace themselves, laugh at the non-asexual characters around them. I don’t know that much about Jughead from the Archie Comics and the Spinoff all about Jughead, but I believe this might be part of what his role in this is. I am under the impression that perhaps he always did this, even before they realized this type of attitude/perspective on life could make more sense for his character if, perhaps, “all along” he was asexual as his sexual orientation. Thinking that everyone around him being so ruled by their hormones was kind of hilarious. While some aces may disagree with me that this is bad, and in fact many aces are applauding ace representation via Jughead already, I suspect that this can actually be damaging in its own way.
Asexual people are not better, not smarter, not more worthy of more respect etc than non-aces. Promoting an elitist view is dangerous. Acting like teenagers who do have sexual impulses are automatically ruled by their hormones is an unfair and damaging message to all the non-ace kids who are trying to understand themselves and their desires. You may say “Well it’s just a joke”, and okay, sure — my only worry is that it’s not clear that it is actually true that everyone won’t see a grain of Truth in it or interpret it the wrong way. I don’t want to be promoting the idea that aces are automatically wiser in fiction, I don’t want aces to be identifying with a character that makes them think less of all the non-ace people in their life, and I don’t want non-aces to be under the impression that all asexual-spectrum people are elitist. To be fair, I’m not sure Jughead does this on a regular basis. But it is a passing thought I’ve had.
I think laughing at straight people in a narrative is better than laughing at anyone with a minority sexual orientation, but I still would just be wary of what kind of message you’re sending overall. That’s all.
Please check out Part 2 where I explore what you as a writer can actually include when it comes to humor alongside asexuality in fiction. https://luvtheheaven.wordpress.com/2016/07/30/how-to-positively-represent-asexuality-within-humorous-fiction-part-2-options-that-can-be-funny-without-being-hurtful