This is my second submission for the Carnival of Aces October 2017, themed around Asexuality in Fandom. I’m a day late finishing this one up… The call for submissions is here.
Imagine you really needed glasses (or contact lenses – you needed vision correction of some kind!) in order to see the world clearly, but you didn’t have them. You never knew you needed them. Zero people around you have glasses and every single person you encounter assumes level of eyesight is pretty consistent across humans. So you just assume it too. They look at you and just assume of course you can see with clear vision! (Everyone does.) You don’t realize they’re seeing more than you.
You manage your life for a while, maybe a long while, only very gradually realizing you’re… not fully seeing all the detail most people around you are. Maybe your vision is getting worse and worse all the while. Eventually you are pretty sure your vision is worse than other people’s but you don’t imagine any solution is possible, so you just try to make the best of the situation.
I wear glasses and I know the metaphor is far from perfect. But one day finding out about the existence of and/or need for select people to get vision correction (in this ridiculous hypothetical world I’ve come up with where average teenagers and adults aren’t already aware that people lose eyesight from genetics, age, illness and/or injury, plus are unaware that some people are completely blind, etc etc…)
Well in this hypothetical universe, the opportunity for vision correction would feel practically like a lifesaver, after all those years of being used to life without them! This is huge. This is what real people in our actual present-day world experience when they get their first pair of glasses, but to a much more intense degree. Once you possess those glasses you needed, you can’t help but notice many details all around you that other people overlook. You can’t help but feel very attached to your glasses. You guard them as the valuable item they are. You hate taking them off ever even when it’s only practical for something like sleep. You get frustrated by the lack of any characters in fiction either wearing glasses or even seeming to know low vision can exist…
The point isn’t that you finally could see exactly the same things as people who don’t need glasses. (That’s not at all how it works for us aces and… “Feeling sexual attraction” and that kind of thing. We don’t want or need a “cure”, and regardless no such thing exists.) The point I was going for is that the glasses themselves (the asexual identity), that item, were a thing you needed, something you find immensely useful, and an item other people around you don’t personally need to wear but you feel you do.
Ok I’ve clearly run this metaphor into the ground. It was never a very good analogy in the first place. But the idea I was trying to set up for this blog post is:
I was in fandom for between 6 and 7 years without knowing I was asexual or that asexuality existed.
And then, and I’ll admit the shift wasn’t instant like putting on glasses would be, but during the course of 2013, as my worldview shifted to accommodate both 1) the fact that asexuality existed and 2) the fact that asexuality included me.
(My worldview also, during this time, shifted to accommodate aromanticism, which in some ways was harder and slower for me to fully accept perhaps, and also took more time before l would understand that I myself was on that spectrum.)
I was freshly seeing fandom through asexual eyes.
It’s not like I was seeing the world through allosexual/”straight” eyes before, but it was eyes of not knowing what I wasn’t seeing/not knowing fully who I was vs being very much aware of it all, and it has made a huge difference.
In many ways, the shift was jarring and surprising to me, not something I realized would become a part of my experience… and also impossible to ignore.
I went from being indifferent to sex scenes or even curious and intrigued by them, perhaps trying to learn about allosexuality through them before I knew that’s what I was doing… to just instantly when a sex scene would come up feeling reminded that in real life I am sex-averse (because after giving sex a shot I knew I wasn’t ever going to enjoy it), instead of hopeful or expecting to one day be in those characters’ shoes.
Beloved characters whom I related to would suddenly, in a single action or statement, become definitively not relatable to me anymore. This started becoming much more probable to happen with characters I was attached to, projecting myself onto, etc.
Sure, it also had happened long before I understood myself, but back then it would take me longer to realize I was experiencing something unpleasant, and even then I couldn’t pinpoint the exact problem. It wasn’t the same harsh experience then. One example was Rory on Gilmore Girls being very much “me” in seasons 1-4 but then once she started seeming motivated by sex and sexual attraction, I related to her less and less.
It wasn’t obvious to me in 2004 through 2007, as I saw all those moments for the first time during my teenage years, what it was that was making Rory not “the character I relate to most on TV anymore”, and on occasion I nebulously blamed “the writers” as changing her characterization. And sure, that might’ve been part of it, as was just her heading in a new direction in her college-aged years that were not relatable to me as someone younger, or as someone who would eventually go in a bit of a different direction with my life. However, I didn’t realize at all a part what they’d really done was simply choose a direction in which her heterosexuality could play out. And that part wasn’t really that unusual, it happened on so many shows with so many characters I loved and identified with.
No longer making her “chaste enough” or making her a character who prioritized other interests/goals enough that my “every character is ace by default, until proven otherwise” sensors would keep pinging her as possibly ace wasn’t really a flaw. I just reacted to it like the ace I am long before I even learned the concept. She didn’t choose romantic partners on the criteria I would but hey, once I realized I was aro-spec ace, I realized how I would choose a partner is not actually typical.
In 2013, 2014, and beyond – those years once I was seeing the world through my newly discovered asexual orientation – that’s when those moments characters were explicitly established in canon as allosexual (typically heterosexual), would take me out of my immersion in the fiction. I’d be reminded of how different I am from average people, even average-people type characters who I have a ton in common with.
I noticed this again recently watching 13 Reasons Why and later listening to the audiobook of the book it’s based on. Yes the show handles a lot of things badly but I couldn’t resist for any longer and keep avoiding watching it after so many vidders I knew were vidding it. And I hadn’t been prepared for, especially in the book, how othered the “normal teenage girl” experience being laid out can make me feel. Even as I’m 27 years old and way past that stage in my life, even if not all straight people could relate to it, to me it felt frustrating to have to hear in the narrative. It felt confusing to constantly be set in contrast to what a majority of people might experience.
I went from not noticing if a TV show or book was extremely heteronormative in its worldbuilding to being extremely aware of it. Growing up, it didn’t even cross my mind warding Gilmore Girls or reading Harry Potter. But with my new asexual eyes, even on shows I fell in love with fresh in 2014 or later such as the not very well known Canadian sci fi show Continuum, every time no characters are even gay or bi, I felt representation for my own orientation, asexuality, was even further out of the realm of possibility. (I had also, through learning about asexuality become a better ally through becoming more knowledgeable on LGBT issues in general.) I would notice a little bit of lip service to same sex couples existing and still feel it didn’t really count, and wasn’t enough for my taste anymore.
I went from actively “shipping” where I, in many cases, rooted for two characters to kiss… to feeling confused about how I felt as I continued to experience shipping feelings, because now I knew I personally was kissing-averse. I’d been ignorant of that personal truth, but once I knew… I both yes, wanted the couple to be happy and finally “together” either in canon or in a fanfic story I was reading (or listening to in podfic form)… and I wanted them to just stay exactly as they were. I couldn’t even wish that they would get together but not be kissing. Even original ace fiction (outside of fannish spaces!) almost always marks romance and “being together” as different or a “step up” from friendship via kissing. And if the characters I’m shipping aren’t ace, and I’m ok with that and happy for them to be straight or any other allosexual orientation… Well it gets complicated.
the act of supporting or wishing for a particular romantic relationship
And that seems accurate to me after 11 years immersed in shipping fandom culture.
The page also adds:
[Shippers] might assert that the relationship does exist or will exist in canon, that they would like it to exist, or simply that they enjoy imagining it.
The discrepancy between “wishing for” the relationship to become “romantic” or even just actually enjoying imagining (perhaps via fanfiction) “what if it was romantic, unlike in canon” versus asserting that it already exists became extra complicated for me the more and more I embraced wanting commitment and deep companionate love in my own life without really needing/craving more touching, and all while being kissing-averse and sex-averse. Did I want celibate romance for myself? Or did I “just” desire queerplatonic level friendship? was hard to determine the answer to for my own real life.
It sometimes was even harder to answer when it came to my favorite characters. If they at already are in close friendships and clearly love each other deeply… While all the shippers are wanting these two characters to get together, and most of the people who “don’t ship” them don’t really enjoy their interactions the way shippers do… I had shipper feelings but for select pairings, but the translation of me shipping them had started to mean something different than what it meant for other people.
A good case study is John and Sherlock (Johnlock) on BBC Sherlock, although they’re far from the only example. (They’re a good case study for a few reasons, including that many people will actually understand what I’m referencing!)
I started watching BBC Sherlock because it had started to feel like a crime to be both asexual and not watching that show. I knew I was missing out on a huge percentage of the ace fanfic in existence. I knew from fanvids I’d seen even before I’d known asexuality existed, back in like 2011 or something I’d seen already, that John and Sherlock had a wonderful friendship that many people in fandom appreciated even if they weren’t slash shippers. I had always enjoyed well done platonic relationships on TV.
So, once I got into Sherlock fandom (which happened pretty much the moment I started watching the show), I found myself in a conundrum. Do I consider myself a Johnlock shipper or not?
On the one hand, yes. Totally. Watching fanvideos set to love songs about this pairing can make my heart sing, can give me overwhelming sadness or joy depending on the tone of the song. Reading fanfics about how much they care for each other is great. I don’t ship either of them with anyone else. I like to imagine headcanons of them being committed in a queerplatonic partner kind of way even if they never use the term. I like the thought of John raising his daughter with Sherlock as another parent. I like so much about them “together”. I even like arguing that what they already are in canon counts as together in the queerplatonic way, which is as “far” as I’d ever want them to go.
On the other hand, the definition of “shipping Johnlock” has kind of been set by the majority, hasn’t it? It means you enjoy fanart and fanfic where they’re in a sexual relationship, perhaps headcanoning that they already are. It means rooting for them to “finally” kiss.
One of the questions in the Call for Submissions to get us thinking was this bullet point:
What is you favorite meta about ace fandom you have read or seen around?
And this following meta isn’t even about asexuality yet was the very first thing I thought of. It was a meta I first found and read thanks to that same shipping page on the fanlore wiki.
The Hth Field Guide to Slash & Other Associated Strange Attractors
It’s become a meta that stuck in my memory for at least the past year and a half (since I first read it) and means the world to me.
What I like about saying two characters are Weird About Each Other is that it can (theoretically) be a point of agreement regardless of what you think might be going on between them off-screen. So for the most part, Weird About Each Other contains and encompasses slashy, but also brings in other characters, including het pairings and sibling acts, and then allows people to believe whatever they want about their sex lives, while still all agreeing that there’s something uniquely charged and interesting about their interactions.
Please read the whole thing if you have some time. Basically this meta gave me words for all my complicated shipping feelings. Because they got more and more complicated the longer I identified as ace, and the more I figured out my romantic orientation and desires there.
John and Sherlock I personally ship in a very specific way, but I do ship them. And it helps make it simple for me that I confidently, 100% of the time, headcanon that Sherlock is aro ace. (I easily also headcanon John as straight with confidence but it’s not important to me the way Sherlock being aromantic & asexual is.)
It’s harder with characters who I don’t exactly headcanon as ace. It’s harder with characters who in canon have compatible sexual orientations. I think if these characters act overtly into sex since basically the start of my introduction their character, I find it much easier to embrace that shipping them will involve rooting for their sex lives, their passionate making out style kissing, etc.
But for the others, I find it confusing and difficult to get there. I stay in a liminal shipping space of wanting them to be happy and intellectually knowing kissing and even sex makes sense as one piece of that for an allosexual character, while emotionally not feeling it, not getting excited when they act on those feelings.
I have a ton of ships. I love various ships for various reasons.
(Those are not even all my ships.)
I love characters who get happily nervous around each other, or act extra comfortable around each other.
When they smile hugely before or after sexy kissing or shirts coming off, I find happiness, excitement, and those emotions translated in the facial expressions to be emotions I can empathize with and so I appreciate that and follow along with rooting for these things that make them feel that way to continue.
When characters are driven by lust, raw sexual passion, intense but not happy desire more akin to hunger than anything and no smile is in sight, that makes me like the ship a lot less, or even stop shipping them.
Quiet, introverted characters I tend to feel drawn to and I often ship them with whoever THEY seem happiest around or who they claim in canon to want.
I like ships that fit a lot of songs’ lyrics well, which is almost every couple if you try, but when I notice it that is a big win. I’m a vidder at heart, vidding was my first entry into fandom, and vidding is about matching aspects of tv shows (or a little more rarely, films) to music lyrics. So many songs are themed around sexual-romantic bonds between people.
It’s always been fun to take a song that probably (or definitely) was meant to be a love song and instead vid it for a platonic bond of some kind. It’s fun to explore the fringes of typical shipping or go outside of shipping occasionally.
But I’m not purely a “gen” (no-ship, ships are irrelevant or avoided) person, even if gen is basically my favorite genre and the place I’m on even footing as both creator and consumer with the allosexual majority in fandom.
I do love the activity of shipping too.
And hopefully this post explained a bit of why and how I go into shipping. I think about what ifs, including what would make these particular characters happy or fulfilled, and that usually leads me to some form of shipping.
But it certainly gets tricky, confusing, or just simply more difficult to navigate shipping now that I see everything through the lens of my own asexuality and aro-spectrum-ness. I am pretty sure I ship with a little bit more pickiness these days, but maybe that’s just a product of age (and wisdom? Lol). When I find myself shipping characters, I generally like them because they’re already in a romantic relationship in canon, or in a friendship where they are Weird About Each Other.
In those friendships, while I’m half wishing they would get together in canon, I often avoid fics where they’re kissing (or exploring anything sexual) and half am hoping they won’t get together in canon, for fear it might “ruin” how much I love shipping them! Generally speaking though, because young adult fiction or teen friendly tv shows are less explicitly sexual than fanfic, if the ship becomes canon, those kisses seen on screen or possibly on a published book’s page I tend to feel more ok with than a lot of the versions in fanfic. Visually, as long as the actors seem to have chemistry and I believe the kiss has made them happy and these characters still feel “in character” to me, that goes a long way to asuage any fears I’d had about the ship being ruined for me.
I don’t know yet how I feel about canon ace characters in ships. I haven’t experienced enough, I don’t think. I look forward to figuring that out as the amount of canonical ace representation increases.
Let me know in the comments how shipping, sex scenes, wishes for friendships, or any other aspect of consuming fiction, as a member of fandom or not, feels for you if you do it through ace eyes. I’m curious and always fascinated to read about that experience and how it varies from my own!