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Asexuality in Pop Culture: The Dangers of Misrepresentation

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As a recently self-identified asexual, I have found myself more aware of asexuality’s presence (or lack thereof) in mainstream pop culture, specifically in fictional books, movies, television shows, and the like. There is a distinct lack of asexual representation in these media, with the few exceptions mostly being just speculation. One of the most visible characters speculated to be asexual (though the show’s creators claim otherwise) is Sheldon Cooper from the television show The Big Bang Theory. I started watching The Big Bang Theory completely unaware of any of the characters, mostly because I had heard good things about it from friends, and I also had a distant family connection to the show. Like with any story, I quickly became attached to the characters and their lives. At first, I found the show to be extremely funny (it is meant to be a comedy, after all), but after a while, I started feeling a little uncomfortable with some of the similarities I saw between myself and some of the characters, specifically the aforementioned Sheldon.

For those who are unfamiliar with the show, it follows a group of presumably 20-something friends living in California. The two main characters, Leonard and Sheldon, are scientists who work at the same university, and also roommates. When a hot girl named Penny moves in across the hall from them, hilarity ensues as they have constant awkward interactions, and eventually Penny becomes a part of their circle of friends. All of the main characters except Penny are extremely socially awkward and all sorts of geeky. They play Dungeons & Dragons, attend conventions, and spend a lot of time at the comic book store, as a few examples. Sheldon, however, is his own special breed of awkward. He prides himself on being extremely logical (think Spock from Star Trek), and even though he eventually kind of accidentally ends up with a girlfriend, he is completely uninterested in any sort of sexual interaction with her (or anyone else, for that matter), despite her continuous attempts to convince and even trick him into so much as kissing her. Sheldon is the brunt of a lot of the show’s jokes, and he makes himself a very obvious target, between his seemingly asexual tendencies, his extreme social ineptitude, and his many obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

Several months ago, I was talking about the show with my brother-in-law, who works in the tech world in California. He commented that he used to enjoy the show, but had grown less fond of it in more recent seasons, because in the earlier seasons, the comedy came from making fun of the situations the characters found themselves in, but more recently, it had shifted to making fun of the characters themselves. As the characters remind him a lot of the people he associates with, he was put off by this change. At the time he said that, I hadn’t noticed the shift, but once he put it on my radar, I began to become aware of it. And in the past few months, there have been several episodes that have actually made me cringe because of the way Sheldon is portrayed, and how much I see myself in it.

As an asexual, you would think I would be pleased to see asexuality recognized and portrayed on such a popular mainstream television show. So why does this portrayal of Sheldon bother me so much, especially when the show’s creators deny that he is meant to be asexual? I think it’s because asexuality is still so under-represented in mainstream pop culture, so the few asexual (or perceived asexual) characters that do exist are the only representation we have in the eyes of society at large. In addition to asexual, Sheldon is also widely thought to have some form of autism, or maybe Asperger’s (which the creators also deny, they claim he is just supposed to be extremely socially awkward). While there is some documented correlation between asexuality and Asperger’s, not all asexuals have Asperger’s, and for Sheldon’s to be so exaggerated is grossly misrepresenting (whether it’s intentional or not) what asexuality looks like to the entire audience of the show. I cringe because I worry that people will assume that I share Sheldon’s other characteristics because I am asexual – that people will generalize the correlation of asexuality, extreme social awkwardness to even Asperger’s, OCD, etc. in Sheldon to ALL people who identify as asexual. This is not the case, obviously, as there is just as much variation among asexuals as among the general population, but society has shown in the past that it is quick to use labels as an excuse to generalize all sorts of things, both positive and negative, often in error. Also, since he is so often the brunt of jokes on the show, Sheldon’s apparent asexuality is sometimes a target of derogatory remarks from his friends (not as much as his social ineptitude, but still enough that I’ve noticed it and it’s made me uncomfortable as a viewer). So in addition to stereotyping, the show is also essentially condoning bullying based on a number of factors including sexual orientation.

Don’t get the wrong idea from all this – I am still a fan of the show, and most of the time, I find it hilarious. And if the creators say that Sheldon is not asexual and does not have Asperger’s, then I believe them. However, even if that is the case, the writers still need to be aware that the character is perceived this way by the audience, and that every joke they write about it is influencing how society views people who do identify as asexual. Hopefully someday, there will be enough asexual characters out there that how one particular character is treated won’t matter so much. But right now, the sample size is so small that each one does matter. A lot. And if I’ve noticed, you can be sure that other people notice too. If we want to be portrayed in a more positive or even more realistic manner, we need to make ourselves more visible, and point out the errors in the current way we are being portrayed.  I hope this post will accomplish that in some small way.
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