Writing From Factor X

March 13, 2011

On Romance in the Media

This week, I’m going on a road trip. I actually finished it yesterday and am on vacation now, but preparing for the road trip reminded me of an incident that happened on a similar trip I made some years ago. I was driving down south at the time with a couple of friends and one of them joked “If this was a spring break summer flick, who would be the hero?” And I thought immediately, “Not me. There couldn’t be a romantic subplot.”

There’s something wrong with storytelling when you can’t tell a story without your main character falling in love. Movies are hands down the worst genre about this, but it’s pervasive in all media: it seems like a story isn’t deemed complete if there’s no Designated Love Interest for the main character.

Especially if you’re not male. Women are often tokenized and thrown into these stories specifically so that the (invariably male) main character has someone to fall in love with. So if you’re ace and male, you might be able to find a hero who isn’t displaying interest within the story–but women in fiction? Almost always the love interest for somebody, even when they’re meant to be the hero in their own right, and often as not there will be only one. (If you’re nonbinary, you’re shit out of luck; generally media is pretty sure you don’t exist.)

This state of affairs actually sucks for a whole lot of people. It sucks for queer people because this focus on romance is usually intensely heteronormative, meaning that same-gender relationships are generally conspicuously absent while romance is lionized. It sucks for women because it reinforces the message that dating and theoretically marrying someone is the highest possible goal for a woman, one that every woman must aspire to. It sucks for romantic asexuals because romantic relationships are usually constructed in these narratives as specifically sexual. It sucks for anyone who is currently single because it constructs anyone who is single for any reason as essentially incomplete. The whole thing sucks for polyamorous people, it sucks for kinky people, and frankly there are a whole lot of reasons why the mass media focus on one specific type of opposite-gender relationship leaves a whole lot of different people out in the cold.

But it really sucks to be sitting here and thinking “awesome. No story without a romance is important, and I don’t do romances.” What does that say about my stories? About how important I am as a person? Can someone like me ever be a hero in my own right?

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that every confirmed asexual main character so far is romantic. Romantic relationships are constructed as a way to humanize characters–or rather, their absence is constructed as dehumanizing, because romantic is the default. Characters who don’t experience romantic relationships in fiction are almost uniformly portrayed as sociopaths, and in some cases even have their sociopathy mitigated by falling in love with the right person. There are some nasty tropes here, guys.

The desexualizing and arguably deromanticizing influence applied to several minority groups in fiction–other types of queer people, people of color, disabled people–reinforces this tendency to equate lack of romantic relationships with dehumanization, because in the shorthand conventions of fiction you can’t be a fully realized center of a story without a significant other. Unfortunately, while going “fully realize characters like us by giving us more screen time of them dating!” is a pretty natural response to that, it’s also pretty upsetting when you don’t fit into that paradigm of discussing who matters. If I never run across another person talking about poor media representation of minority characters by decrying the “asexual” nature of these characters, it will be too soon.

Even characters we can initially read as aromantic get significant others as they get a bit more authorial limelight. As soon as the narrative cares about you, the burgeoning love interest lurks in the background. The Big Bang Theory in particular has been a shining example of this: as the Sheldon character gets more and more focus within the narrative, the show introduced a “girlfriend” for him. It’s not enough to exist on your own; you have to have a “significant” other to complete you properly.

So what do we do about it? Frankly, I have no idea. I’m not a writer of fiction. I try to support works that don’t do this by buying them, but I’m a college kid and my wallet is generally pretty lean.

I just want to talk about it, because remembering that knee-jerk reaction hurt. And I’d like a world in which other aces’ response to that question–“we’re in a movie? Who’s the hero?” wasn’t immediately “Not me.”

13 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this post. I am a fiction writer, so this subject hits me both personally and professionally. My asexual character Emily is hovering between romantic and aromantic mainly because I am as well due to my confusion over the difference between friendship and romance. For me, writing about an ace is very therapeutic because as I discover who I am as an asexual, she discovers who she is.

    As a reader, I hate romances. Hate hate hate. Most of them are sappy and ridiculous. I have read a few good stories that have romance in them, which I mainly like for other reasons. For example, many of Maeve Binchy’s stories deal with growing up poor in Ireland, wanting to get out of the small town one is born in, etc. so I can overlook the romance aspects somewhat because I am carried away by the other feelings in the work. I do the same thing when I watch Torchwood. I love it, which is quite unusual for an ace because o all the sexual content, but I find the characters and themes fascinating so I kind of block out the sex scenes in my mind when watching. And sometimes imagine how the characters would react to an Ace showing up on the premises. Now that’s fun!

    Anyway, I’m kind of rambling here. I agree that the insistence on romantic, opposite gendered, cis gendered pairings is rather annoying. Surely there’s room for other types of relationships, and surely I’m not the only author attempting to write them.

    Comment by Stephanie Silberstein — March 13, 2011 @ 11:49 pm | Reply

    • The thing is, I actually don’t hate romances in and of themselves–I read slashfic, for example, which tends to be heavily focused on romance. It’s something I like to visit when I’m in the mood for it as a topic, in the same way that at other times I’m in the mood for witty comedy and sometimes I want epic heroism and sometimes I want alien cultures.

      What I hate is not being able to escape from romance, even when it’s not an integral part of the story. And the way that romantic love is used as a way to “humanize” characters or the lack of it is used as a shorthand for “alien.” Sometimes, particularly when being not… easily categorizably as romantic has hit me in a rather nasty way, I just want to curl up with a nice piece of escapism and forget the entire construct exists or at least not be expected to focus on the character’s romantic relationship, and that’s so irritatingly difficult to do.

      And god, I hope you’re not the only author attempting to write other types of relationships. Although I don’t think you are–I know other writers below have expressed a desire to write other types of relationships, for example, and I’ve actually managed to find some zucchini fic when trawling through fandom.

      Comment by Sciatrix — March 15, 2011 @ 11:04 am | Reply

  2. I actually had precisely this in mind while thinking about what kind of asexual narrative I wanted to write (after having been contacted by my agent), and because of it my protagonist is aromantic and the story is set up as a kind of anti-romance – in the beginning his friend keeps pressuring him into a romantic/sexual relationship (but she comes out as a sympathetic character – she isn’t trying to goad him into doing something he’s uncomfortable with necessarily, and it’s really primarily because she wants a wingman on her own sexual escapades), and he ends up in one, which kind of forces him to come to grips with why he’s never even considered having one before – so his girlfriend keeps going down the “why aren’t we going faster than this by which I mean at any speed at all” road and in trying to find a response he ends up figuring out that he’s not only asexual but aromantic – thus leading to their breakup. So the primary non-platonic relationship in the story is one that actually ends – so that instead of following that general path of getting to know someone and then ending up together, they end up together in the beginning and then, because he becomes more self-aware, they end up apart.

    I’m not completely aromantic (though I feel kind of simultaneously aromantic and not … anyway), but the almighty glorification of romantic entanglements bewilders and frustrates me. When I was younger I was really into the book Boy Proof because it, alone out of so many others, actually portrayed a protagonist who didn’t WANT to be coupled up, and there should just be more books like that. I mean, hopefully mine will be an example of it (including the female characters – I mean, my protagonist ends up breaking up with his girlfriend, but she doesn’t just get tossed aside because she’s no longer the SO, and the second most important character, the protagonist’s best friend, is a nerdy virginity-obsessed lesbian who ends up with a very grounded, reasonable girlfriend by the end, so.).

    … forgive this comment if it doesn’t make much sense/seems to ramble. I’m half-asleep at this point, but I wanted to comment before I forgot.

    Comment by Charles — March 14, 2011 @ 1:48 am | Reply

    • Yeah, I’ve been taking so long with comments because of being on vacation and then being exhausted from sightseeing every time I get near the laptop SO. I feel you on rambling.

      I’m actually really excited to see that book when it comes out. Because that’s another thing that you just don’t see very often in fiction: amicable breakups. What it often seems like to me is that writers think that over the course of the work, you need to start with a single character who progresses into a romantic relationship and ends there, as if growth and development need to use dating as a metaphor. So works that avoid this progression or invert it are exceedingly rare, because if you buy into that metaphor then you’ve just implied that your character shrank as a person rather than grew and that’s… not, I think, what most authors are aiming for.

      Comment by Sciatrix — March 15, 2011 @ 11:30 am | Reply

  3. Last night I watched Agora, a movie about Hypatia of Alexandria, who famously once scared away a suitor by showing him her menstrual rags. (Yep, they have that scene in the movie.) She’s not asexual as much as deliberately single because in her society, if she married, she’d have to stop being a philosopher. But although there are two romantic sub-plots in the movie — two guys who keep trying to get with her — she shows no interest at all in either of them.

    (I heard a story from filming that makes my heart ache a little. Rachel Weisz, who plays Hypatia, went to the director and said she didn’t know how to play Hypatia in a way that people would be sympathetic with, because she didn’t love anyone. And the director told her, You’re in love with science, play it that way. It works, it really does, but the fact that she had that problem…hurts me.)

    And yeah, even though it’s supposedly a biopic of Hypatia the philosopher, there are two male characters who steal a lot of screen time. And both of them are romantically interested in her. (One of them really, really wanted to be the main character, and the movie was a little too much on his side for my tastes.) Even in a movie with no romance, there’s romance. It was a little frustrating.

    …and I’m definitely not recommending this as a “hey, go watch this movie and feel better about romance and lead characters!” because the highlights of this film are the burning of the Library at Alexandria and Hypatia being stoned to death by Christians. Depressing as all hell. But it is indeed a movie that might as well have an asexual lead.

    Comment by Jen Moore — March 14, 2011 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

  4. You articulated very well some of my sentiments throughout the years – every time I was finally enjoying a character, they end up getting into a relationship, and more often than not, a sexual one. As a romantic, but an asexual, I’m quite fed up with this, hence my disappointment at most books/movies.

    And I doubly agree on the part where asexuals are always romantic, and they obtain a romantic partner only to de-sociopath / humanize them. I’ve been watching Dexter, and have my pet theory that he is asexual – although this is yet another shining example of how they “humanize” him by giving him a relationship. Despite his 3 relationships (in 5 seasons, not bad) they actually did spring up after he was emotionally attached to the character, and as a romantic asexual I am calling it him a reasonable, plausible, and even realistic romantic asexual. And even though I’m completely sure the writers did not intend to make him asexual in that way, gosh darn it I’m going to suspend disbelief and cling to the idea that that’s his character.

    Comment by maddox — March 14, 2011 @ 10:30 pm | Reply

    • The whole time I was reading this, I stared at my bookshelf in an attempt to figure out which books had possibly ace characters, possibly aromantic characters, or non-romantic narratives. I cringed a little. I’d say everything but my sociopathic serial killer novels have some kind of romantic narrative (Book!Dexter doesn’t even call himself human, let alone pay any real attention to Rita, their relationship is mostly just “cover”). Hmm. YA novels don’t always, but … mostly, still. Guess it depends on the age range. I remember being massively disappointed when Artemis Fowl started noticing puberty and paying attention to Minerva.

      I think makers of media often assume men cannot relate to a narrative with a strong female protagonist if there is not a strong male character (or a sexy lesbian scene!) connected to her. Like how a lot of publishers think that white readers won’t buy books with black main characters if the black characters are on the cover. I think that lots of people assume everyone can relate to a “default” of human experience. But there is no default. So it leaves a lot of people in the cold.

      As far as what we can do — you could badger ace people to write more ace stories. 😛 I would like to get published some day, as would apparently half the people in this post. I have the vague idea for a novel formulating around an ace aromantic character. I need to start managing my time better so I can actually write some. I admit I’ve written an ace character approximately once. I get all awkward and feel this pressure to do extensive 101 and mention every flavor of asexuality I possibly can.

      I think you are doing your part in your way, raising awareness, and being so thoughtful in all of your posts. I’ve found that as more people become aware of asexuality, non-ace people sometimes want to include ace characters in their stories, too. When people ask for “asexual references” to research asexuality, for writing purposes or otherwise, I usually recommend your blog. I hope you get paid back with more asexual and aromantic narratives in the next few years.

      Comment by ace eccentric — March 15, 2011 @ 1:44 am | Reply

      • Yeah, I shied away from actually examining the content of my own bookshelves in part because I don’t have it on hand (travelling, hooray!) and in part because I didn’t want to depress myself. And also, I suspect I’m more likely to self-select for all of those things. For instance, one of the best ways to get me to try a book or a series is to say “and I think there might be an asexual in it!” So given that, the dearth of stories I have that focus on those themes is, ah, depressing.

        That’s actually an interesting point on relating to narratives with minority protagonists and using romantic relationships to theoretically give the privileged audience someone to relate to. Which really, a large part of me just gets irritated about that–I have to relate to people not-like-me all the time, they should be able to deal. And of course people treating white/cis/straight/male/etc. as the default drives me up the wall anyway, but. What drives me nuts is, shouldn’t the default state for a person be “on their own?” Like, shouldn’t characters be self-contained so that finding a romantic partner is an awesome bonus!

        Weeelll. I’d rather praise ace people who express interest in writing them, which is much the same thing but doesn’t make me feel guilty for not being a creative writer. Heh. It does make me feel happy to see so many ace authors coming out of the woodwork here, though! And yeah, the pressure to do 101 and mention all the ways in which you can be asexual when writing asexual characters is something I’ve heard about before. I know Kaz actually wrote a piece on beginning to write an asexual character, getting distracted by potentially fulfilling stereotypes, and then talking zerself out of making the character asexual at all a while back that you might find interesting.

        And thank you for the compliment–that actually makes me feel very good to hear! I would so love to see those narratives in a few years.

        Comment by Sciatrix — March 15, 2011 @ 11:31 am | Reply

        • They should be able to deal! I think more people can deal than publishers/producers would give them credit for, though. The attitude also assumes that minority people do not consume media, or at least don’t consume media in numbers high enough to “matter.” I would love if the default state was “a person, as an individual,” because we’re all individuals connected in various ways to other people.

          Thank you for the link. Not quite the same things I run up against, but something I could potentially worry about in the future. The post would be a good thought to return to when I’m writing more in the future.

          Comment by ace eccentric — March 15, 2011 @ 6:22 pm | Reply

    • ._. I am very sorry I replied to you instead of the post. That is what I get for posting when I am so sleepy.

      Comment by ace eccentric — March 15, 2011 @ 1:47 am | Reply

    • Oh god, Dexter. And you know, I totally feel you on clinging to characters as ace even if you’re suspending disbelief and going “well actually this is sort of problematic” in the back of your mind while you do. (Actually, going “I’m fairly sure you didn’t mean to do this but I’m reading it my way” is the source of most of the ‘ace characters’ I can think of, sadly enough. It makes me cling to the Ace Manifestoes project all the harder–eventually I think I might sign up to write one myself when I have fewer projects going.)

      Comment by Sciatrix — March 15, 2011 @ 11:14 am | Reply

  5. I like many RPG games for this: if they even have romance/sex options (many gamers think they’re pointless and detract from the rest of the game: statistically, few of these gamers will actually be aromantic (asexual)), they’re just that: options (I do really appreciate a wide range of options). So you can play a character with a group of close friends having adventures (or all alone), and never even flirt with anyone. I also like if you can be politely dismissive or just plain rude, when someone is flirty with you. What I miss are romantic options that are not sexual (and I don’t mean because the characters are very religious). Maybe eventually. As well as so many other non-mainstream romantic options, really.

    I don’t really watch much TV (or film elsewhere), but I do notice that in books: currently only one series on my shelves has a protagonist that is so far without relationship (but he’s not asexual). Not many other characters seem to be having relationships either, and of many it’s not clear whether or not they are sexual. This series is a notable exception, but I think eventually at least the main character will get into some sort of relationship anyway.

    Comment by Norah — March 15, 2011 @ 6:28 am | Reply

    • And yes! Options! It needs to be all about options, and right now I often feel like there aren’t nearly enough. I’m unfortunately not much of a gamer, but I’m glad RPGs offer more option than the forms of media I’m used to using.

      I actually was going to say I prefer books to TV and film partly because my gut feeling is that they’re somewhat better about it, but actually… yeah, not so much, now that I think about it of the series I can remember on my shelves most of them have romantic subplots somewhere. And what’s particularly annoying is that these subplots always seem to center around someone falling in love–main characters starting in established relationships are very nearly as rare as those who simply ignore the whole question.

      Comment by Sciatrix — March 15, 2011 @ 11:01 am | Reply


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