From 221 B Baker St. to 30 Rockefeller Plaza: Asexual Representations in Pop Culture

Part III: Asexuals and the American Sitcom

Read Part II HERE.

Equally as important as celebrating asexual heroes is having real-life reflections on the screen or page. Time Lords and wizards are all well and good, but they can too easily be dismissed as ‘unrealistic,’ because they don’t actually exist in our world where everyone has sex all of the time. That doesn’t help ordinary human beings who are looking for validation, and reassurance that feeling otherwise is still okay.

There aren’t a lot of modern role models. Two of the more visible asexual characters on American television today are leads of situation comedies, so their lack of libido is played for laughs – but that doesn’t make them any less realistic or identifiable. It just means we tend to groan when legitimate exploration of an overlooked issue is shoved aside in favor of a cheap laugh.

A representative of the equally neglected “geek girl” population, Liz Lemon from 30 Rock probably falls into what we call grey-asexuality – she has been in, and continues to pursue, sexual relationships with men, but intercourse is definitely low on her list of priorities and is, in many cases, a deterrent. She only seems interested in sex under a set of extremely specific conditions, but definitely desires a romantic partner.

Much of the ‘com’ of this sitcom comes from Liz’s dysfunctional relationships with the opposite sex, but though Liz has picked a few losers, she also seems to struggle with the fundamental problem facing many romantic asexuals: an inability to compromise on a very specific checklist of qualities in her ideal mate. Liz’s personal life is a mess, and she might not necessarily be the best role model as she’s a neurotic with a number of hang-ups and a ton of baggage, but she exemplifies a lot of the difficulties facing those who are on the fence about sex.

“I just wish I could start a relationship about twelve years in,” Liz says in the Season 3 episode, “Gavin Volure,” “when you really don’t have to try anymore, and you can just sit around together and goof on TV shows, and then go to bed without anybody trying any funny business.”

Liz is very real – often in unflattering ways, and her sexuality is usually treated with pity or concern, despite the fact that Liz is a professional, head writer of a popular television program, and a generally upbeat person. The real humor of the show is in the fact that the people who want so desperately to “fix” her, are just as dysfunctional as she is, if not more so. Yet somehow, with her low libido, she’s treated like the biggest freak of all. (Which, on that show, is quite an achievement.)

On the opposite end of the asexual spectrum is The Big Bang Theory‘s physicist Sheldon Cooper, an entirely aromantic asexual. He is the extreme of this orientation: he has absolutely no desire for any relationships beyond friendship, and thinks cloning is a viable option for reproduction. While he’s portrayed as difficult to get along with and frequently juvenile, what’s most appealing about the character of Sheldon (aside from having the best one-liners) is that he is unequivocally comfortable in his own skin. As far as Dr. Cooper is concerned, there is absolutely nothing – short of a Nobel Prize – missing from his life.

The last season of The Big Bang Theory introduced Sheldon’s “girlfriend” Amy Farrah Fowler, an equally logical and forthright scientist, though Sheldon repeatedly insists she is merely a friend who is a girl. Most of their ‘relationship’ takes place via video chat, though both parties occasionally use the other’s existence to appease over-bearing mothers.

While Amy Farrah Fowler has developed an awareness of libido (both hers and other people’s), Sheldon remains happily immune. He’s not particularly comfortable with any kind of physical contact, and considers intercourse a last resort in the event of global catastrophe that wipes out most of the human race. Even then, he’d be more concerned with the source of the global catastrophe than repopulation.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, honored daughters,” Sheldon says in an episode titled ‘The Jerusalem Duality,’ “while Mr. Kim by virtue of his youth and naivete has fallen prey to the inexplicable need for human contact, let me assure you that my research will go on uninterrupted, and that social relationships will continue to baffle and repulse me. Thank you!”

Though he not representative of all aromantic asexuals and his neuroses have been dialed up to eleven, Sheldon’s self-confidence is a boon to the asexual community which so often doubts itself. He may not be perfect, but he’s happy and turbo-loaded with self-esteem. It generally takes a long time to build that sort of confidence and contentment with oneself. And even though Sheldon is often the butt of a joke, he gives as good a bazinga as he gets.

There is still a long way to go in terms of asexual representation. Unless a character declares his or her asexuality, there’s always room for interpretation, and the audience that doesn’t know about asexuality will always interpret characters as sexual – it’s just far more common. What the community needs is more examples of the problems faced by asexuals, stories about characters dealing with the absence of sexual attraction, examples that can be used by real people struggling to come to terms with how they feel, or don’t feel. Characters need not be defined by their asexuality, but without a few to demonstrate the challenges of our orientation, all we have is more ambiguity.

 

Do you know of other asexual representations in pop culture? List them in the comments!

This article has 5 Comments

  1. In light of the new Tintin film that’s coming out all over the world, I would say Tintin! The comic deals with a lot of other arguable ‘adult’ issues such as murder and the drug trade, but Tintin remains happily unattached and continues having adventures with his friends.

  2. Great trio of articles! One of my favorite asexual characters is Henry Higgins of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady fame. A confirmed old bachelor and happily content to remain so. Various productions of the play have tried to spin a “happily ever after” love story ending onto it but writer George Bernard Shaw allowed no such bastardizations of his story.

  3. Kurt Hummel from Glee strikes me as a homoromantic asexual. Compared to his classmates, he’s not very physical with Blaine, instead expressing his love through flowers and support. There was an episode about sex ed and being sexy, and Kurt wanted to have nothing to do with it, saying that he likes musicals because it’s all about pure romance (obviously he has not seen Spring Awakening).

    Temperance “Bones” Brennan from Bones seems like a grey-A. She sees sex as a biological function and maintains relatively short relationships. At one point, she dated two men at the same time (and didn’t understand why both were upset when they found out) because one satisfies her physical needs while the other she is attracted to intellectually. Even though she slept with Booth, with whom she shares some sort of attraction, it seemed like she did it more for physical comfort than an actual sexual attraction.

    Lastly, Project Runway’s Tim Gunn has stated that he’s not interested in sexual relationships.

  4. Poppy, on the show Huge came out as asexual in episode 5. It was the one and only time it was every brought up in the show… but hey, once is more than most shows ever get.

  5. Oh yes, there are others! Most notably:
    On the New Zealand soap Shortland Street, the character Gerald Tippett is explicitly asexual–as in, he uses the word and identifies that way. He is shown to be a biromantic asexual, as he attempts to have a romance with a woman which doesn’t work out because he feels guilty for not being able to “satisfy” her without too much sacrifice for himself, and he has also been interested in men. He’s even shown to socialize with other asexuals and discuss asexuality.

    On the short-lived American show Huge, the counselor Poppy is also explicitly asexual–she mentions it offhand in an episode while everyone’s watching a romantic movie at camp, and she remarks to her co-counselor that she just never “got” that whole thing. Then she says, “I identify as asexual.” From her not “getting” romance, one would assume she’s aromantic. And the reaction is very nice, too–her co-counselor kind of says “huh?” and then says “ah, okay,” and no big deal is made of it.

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