The following is part 2 and the conclusion 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.
As I said in part 1, 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.
Part 1 was about what to avoid.
The good news: there are other options for how to use humor around asexual characters in fiction. Ways that I believe are less harmful, possibly not harmful at all! Even better yet: Ways that in the long run could be helpful to everyone for expanding our understanding of the world, and all the variation of human experience. A way that lets aces feel represented… without also hurting them at the same time.
The most obvious option:
- Instead of making asexuality part of the joke, just let the asexual character be in jokes that are not at all related to asexuality.
Slapstick humor involving an ace is equally funny as slapstick humor that involves a non-ace character! You can be having ideal asexual representation all while having people laugh at your TV show, or the scenario you wrote in your book. I may not usually be the hugest fan of slapstick, as often it feels too violent to me, but some people love it!
This is also true of almost all types of humor. If a heterosexual character could make us laugh in ways that aren’t directly tied to their dating endeavors, their sex life, or their love life, then so could an asexual person in most cases.
Humor can arise from something being out of place, something being unexpected, or something being taboo.
This article on how to mix humor into your writing discusses:
Writing comedically usually requires establishing a pattern (with the setup) and then misdirecting the reader (with the punch line).
As writers, we’re comfortable with metaphors, so think of comparison jokes as simply metaphors chosen specifically for comedic effect. Here’s an example from the late Robert Schimmel’s memoir Cancer on $5 a Day* (*Chemo Not Included):
… this stupid hospital gown is riding up my ass. I try to pull it down and it snaps right back up like a window shade. I cross my legs and suddenly I’m Sharon Stone.
To craft a comparison joke, simply brainstorm metaphors and then choose the one that is funniest and makes the point well. For example, if you want to convey that quitting smoking is difficult, you might first mentally list things that are tough, such as reading without your glasses, flossing a cat’s teeth, getting a teen to tell you about his day, getting a cat to tell you about its day while flossing its teeth, etc. Then, simply choose the comparison that makes you laugh. In comedy writing, we’re always our first audience.
as another option.
Consider for a moment how a character who is asexual, and that is a big part of who they are, could still be having a humorous plot in your fiction about quitting smoking, or at the very least be silly about what they say in terms of how difficult the process is. You can laugh at the ace character, or laugh with the ace character, without laughing at asexuality. Quitting smoking usually is a side-detail or plot that has nothing to do with someone’s sexual orientation! It’s honestly not as hard as some writers, ace or not, might think it would be to let an asexual character be well rounded and not entirely defined by their asexuality.
There are lots of things to do that can work well in a fiction piece that is humorous and also includes plots about asexuality. You can state the obvious, surprise your audience, and follow other typical humor writing tricks without ever once making jokes that are directly about asexuality.
You could even have a serious plot about someone coming to terms with their asexuality, figuring out their asexuality, coming out to others as asexual, being bullied for being asexual, etc, but then add in some comic timing/comic relief to lighten the mood and also make the ace character feel happier by the end of it!
2. Write amusing/hilarious puns!
As many asexual people on Tumblr know, puns can be hilarious — sexual or otherwise. Making jokes about a person who “isn’t interested in any of the above” or who doesn’t want sex when done so that the joke is only funny because you’ve manipulated the English language and not funny because not wanting sex itself is a riot — it’s a perhaps at times fine line to walk, but puns about asexuality are not usually laughing at asexuality; they’re laughing with it. Laughing with asexuality is cool.
3. Deconstruct the humorous tropes
As I said in part 1, having non-ace characters make fun of the ace character and essentially letting the ace character be the butt of a joke is a thing to avoid.
However, if you deconstructed this trope it could be very effective. It may not be humorous itself but it’s a way to turn humor on its head within your fiction! The non-ace characters could be using humor at the ace character — yet these characters could be shown as being wrong and even a non-ace person in the audience might sympathize with the ace character and realize what not to do to asexual people in their lives.
I finally started watching BBC’s Sherlock within the past couple of weeks (in fact I just finished season 2 three nights ago and proceeded to then see most of 3×01, an episode I’ll likely finish today), and personally I agree with everything anagnori wrote up here about interpreting him as an asexual character. Part 6 of their 9-part-essay series talks about how other characters treat the main character, Sherlock Holmes, in seasons 1 and 2 of the show. I believe this particular television iteration of Sherlock is, so far in my viewing, doing a pretty good job of deconstructing the “an aromantic asexual character is someone who it’s okay to poke fun at” trope -an aromantic asexual “seeming” character being someone who is celibate, nonamorous, and not seeking to change that. The show does not present nonamory and celibacy as inherently funny!!
In my opinion, Sherlock is immensely sympathetic as a character – I feel bad for him on many occasions, and I believe as he is arguably the main character (he is the eponymous character, after all), the vast majority of the audience is supposed to feel what he’s feeling too. The show is not just about John Watson’s point of view. It is about Sherlock’s perspective on things as well.
Even if I agree that it is not the best representation of asexuality/aromanticism (and I do) — for the main reason that this (pair of) orientation(s) is being equated with not being able to feel anything at all… with being a rude sociopath who “doesn’t understand human nature” and hurts feelings casually and also doesn’t “get” familial love or sentimentality…
at least the humor doesn’t really tell the audience that laughing at someone for being less sexual is the best thing to do. This show can be hilarious at times. This show has a lot of comedic moments throughout, despite not being in the genre of comedy. And yet I never feel like the audience or John Watson or any of the sympathetic and truly kind characters are laughing at every person who is inexperienced sexually/uninterested in sex. So I can relatively comfortably say at least the way the show is written, at least in seasons 1 & 2, when Sherlock’s potential aromantic asexuality is brought to our attention, it is treated as something that a caring, considerate person would not find worthy of laughter.
(Two other problems with this particular iteration of Sherlock as an aromantic asexual character is that A) it’s an elitist portrayal where Sherlock himself as well as the creators of the show too feel being celibate/being able to not care about sex and dating and romantic relationships makes him “Smarter” and more “pure” and “better at his detective job”, which I already mentioned was problematic in part 1 of my posts… and B) his romantic and sexual orientation are both quite “up for debate”. There is perhaps just as much evidence that he could be any other orientation, because the show does a pretty good job of showing that Sherlock can be slow accept things he’s actually feeling, does a pretty good job of showing him slowly but surely letting people get close to him in his life (both male and female), because if “Falling for” or becoming interested in someone in a romantic and/or sexual way is being presented within the narrative as a “character flaw”, well… Sherlock is so likable as a hero of his own show for the same reason many hero-type characters are – he too still manages to have some “flaws” and weaknesses, and that could potentially be interpreted as the truth that he is falling for any number of characters in either a romantic or sexual way. I personally find the fanon/headcanon that he is ace – and not just ace but even aromantic too, perhaps – to be extremely strong and extremely “supported by canon” so far in my viewing, and that makes it hard for me personally to interpret him another way but that doesn’t mean every viewer is going to see it this way, and in fact I know many viewers don’t. This means asexuality isn’t really being positively represented in this series. There is argument and debate over whether asexuality is what is being represented at all – never mind if it is positively done!!)
One related thing that I now wish to bring up is that I, personally, enjoy headcanoning the character of Dr. Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds as asexual. I’m not the only person to have this headcanon, and it is a fun one for people who are ace themselves to play with. See my video “proof” along with an accompanying fandom meta written essay to back up that he could be asexual here: http://luvtheheaven.tumblr.com/post/147863007572/asexualspencer-reid-a-headcanons-explanation .
However, the thing is, while not all of the scenes that deal with Reid being “not-interested” are played for laughs, the majority of those types of scenes seem to be (and for the record, most of the rest played as pathetic or worthy of sympathy/pity, which honestly isn’t much better). Reid having a non-existent love life and limited experiences with romance and/or sex, and Reid seeming uncomfortable about sex – these are all only moments at all because most of the time his co-workers (who are also his dearest friends) are teasing him – generally without intention of causing actual hurt feelings, but still. They find these lived experiences that are more common for asexual people than non-asexual people to be inherently funny!
The main reason I still happen to enjoy this kind of headcanon, even if it’s a “problematic” portrayal of asexuality-as-inherently-funny, is because A) Reid is a very popular character within the fandom. Fans of this TV series like him, consider him to be a good person, and in the fantasy part of what most of us with this headcanon are thinking is that if he was canonically made to be asexual, it would at least be better representation for us than a robot or a villain. B) Fans of the show know he is capable of empathy, compassion, and typical “human feelings” and desires outside of sex/romance. This is a less problematic type of character to headcanon as ace than many other characters who continue to be headcanonned that way. C) It makes him less “pathetic” or “sad” as a character because he’s not lonely or sex-deprived/”missing out” – he’s content to live his celibate and often nonamorous life. D) if he’s not asexual, then we asexual people have even less characters to potentially relate to.
One other thing I’ll mention is Reid is much like Sherlock in terms of being potentially able to be interpreted as a number of other sexual orientations. Any character who is not established explicitly by the canon to be ace would have this problem, and Reid especially has actually had multiple short term female love interests as well as a few moments where he claims to canonically be attracted to women. Most (but not necessarily all) of these instances could fairly easily be interpreted as romantic and not sexual, or moments of him just claiming a universal experience of straightness for humans even if he personally doesn’t feel it. But the truth is, he’s not canonically as likely to be asexual as even Sherlock, in my opinion. He also has the issue of being ” a genius” and “too smart” and I’d much rather for asexual characters to be of average intelligence when we asexual people start really getting representation in a lot of TV shows. I don’t want “an unnatural/impossible/rare level of human intellect” to start being associated with asexuality thanks to ridiculous media portrayals.
There are also some situations that have to do with sex and directly have to do with a character’s asexuality – but that still manage to not paint all asexuals as thinking they’re better than non asexuals!
4. Carefully crafted jokes about how aces relate to sex, (or how aromantic people relate to dating, etc) and how it is different than a how someone not within that group would.
If there’s a situation that might play out differently if they weren’t (aro) ace, the writer could draw attention to it. If the character being ace led to a specific “common experience” being something they haven’t experienced — for instance if they never had to deal with the nuances of how to ask a girl out — this could lead to a humorous dialogue exchange between friends. The risk here is to not make the asexual character overly naive or overly ignorant about things that realistically they would/should know. If even a child might understand it just from growing up watching Disney Princess films, don’t act like an ace character wouldn’t know. Let the-thing-that-the-ace-character is-less-familiar-with be more subtle and a smaller part of the whole, rather than the ace being unfamiliar with the entire situation.
I would tread carefully whenever an asexual character is presented as ignorant (about something related to sex/dating, or in general) because truthfully most asexuals actually know more about sex, rather than less, in at least some ways. Because having to spend time researching in order to understand even the parts of sexuality that are intuitive to other people means on average, a person who knows that they are asexual is not going to be 100% oblivious to the way sex works. It’s just the truth and it’s not ironic nor completely unexpected once you get to know some asexual people in real life. It could certainly be funny, though, to write a plot where an asexual character never has had sex and never plans to have sex yet happens to have amazing advice for other people struggling with their sex lives, etc.
5. Misunderstandings or making a wrong assumption can, when carefully done, be hilarious
Imagine that a non-ace character has forgotten, for just a moment, that someone is ace – it becomes relevant because of a very small thing, like the non-ace asking if the ace character agrees that a stranger/celebrity is really sexy or hot. It is also possible that this could be a first coming out kind of scene, if the non-ace character was not yet informed of their friend or acquaintance’s asexuality. The asexual character could reply in a witty way and it could be hilarious as long as the not-asexual character apologizes, or replies in a witty way in return – a way that may also be funny yet still respects asexuality as real, and respects the asexual person. As long as the non-ace character embraces asexuality once they are informed that their friend or acquaintance is asexual, or at the very least embraces asexuality once they are reminded of it, that is a pretty good start! The non-ace character needs to make it clear that asexuality is of course valid, real, and one of many potential respectable orientations by the end of the scene, or at least by the end of the story/chapter/work depending on how serious the asexuality story arc is supposed to be. Humorous fiction has the added benefit of more easily/more often allowing the mood to be lightened! Utilize that as much as you want!
You know what I personally remember finding really funny? A fanfiction story about an asexual version of the character Stiles on Teen Wolf where he, as a relatively young teenage character (circa season 1) was trying to figure out what sexual attraction was. This was true to the kind of character Stiles generally is, analytical and curious and determined to understand things — while also being very relatable to many asexual people. I also believe a young teenage Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series has a similar fanfic about an ace version of his character! The truth is that trying to understand the nuances of if you’re asexual or not, and what are the things that you don’t experience – especially if the character is young, or inexperienced for whatever reason, and realistically would be at that questioning stage – can be humorous. (In real life there are many people who come to figure out their orientation at an older age. This can happen in your fiction too. The character does not have to be young in order to be figuring this all out.)
6. Trying to understand the nuances of if you’re asexual or not can be humorous
(The character does not have to turn out to be asexual in the end, but it’d be nice if your fictional universe did confirm that some people do happen to be asexual by letting at least one of your in universe characters yes be ace.)
The way they go about doing research can be humorous. The potentially ace character isn’t simply ignorant/unaware of any of these facts: No, on the contrary! They’re smart and they are aware of just how much they don’t know – they are aware of their ignorance – and they are dedicated to figuring out the answers! This presents asexual people in a realistic and kinder light than many other portrayals (even Sherlock and Reid, examples I mentioned above, and I believe Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory too, are supposed to be smart characters yet somehow are presented as the opposite-of-intelligent too much of the time when it comes to their “ace moments”). Presenting an asexual person asking their friends about the nuance of what their experiences of sexual attraction are like can be pretty amusing, especially when sex itself is a somewhat taboo, and even just talking about sex can in and of itself be perceived as humorous.
7. Stories about asexuality don’t have to be funny!
That is an important note that I didn’t want to forget to mention. Stories about asexuality are not required to be humorous — But they can be. And a funny story about asexuality doesn’t always have to be funny in a way that hurts people in the process. For a Carnival of Aces theme that is all about humor, I thought this would be a fun topic to explore on my blog, but that doesn’t mean humor is the only option for fiction about asexual people – of course not!
Another good setup for humor that involves Asexual characters is:
8. Contrast how different two asexual characters could be by allowing your story to have more than one.
The differences don’t have to be funny and could simply be informative and enlightening. But letting characters be foils for one another can, in general, be a funny thing. Stark differences can amuse people who aren’t expecting it, including in-universe, the ace characters’ differences could amuse each other. You don’t always have to consrast a straight person with the minority sexual orientation person. I think if a reader doesn’t know that much about asexual people yet, then the surprises will themselves be humorous. People tend to find humor in the unexpected. So the existence of asexuality needs to stop being unexpected so that humor no longer arises just by someone actually “asexually” simply existing.
But a reader being surprised by nuances of what makes asexuality an experience is not always going to be problematic! It is okay to surprise – and, therefore, consequently amuse – your readers with some of the smaller details — especially since there is a difference between laughing at a person and laughing at a specific detail/situation.
I think it’s really easy for asexuality to be the butt of jokes, and fiction creators need to be careful, and need to stop allowing “a person who happens to be asexual” be the funny thing in their story. This does not have to mean everything is all serious all the time. And it doesn’t even have to mean that life has to be particularly hard for the asexual character. While there are many ways that life can be hard for asexual characters, just like for people in real life, it’s probably easiest to create humor-that-isn’t-laughing-at-an-asexual-character if their asexuality is treated as not a “problem” for either them or their loved ones to “solve” but rather as a matter-of-fact detail about them.
That’s when we can begin laughing with the asexual characters rather than at them, or at least laughing at other sides of them and not at their asexuality!