Sexualized Saturdays: Representation and Historical Sexuality

Originally I wanted to write this post about asexual characters, as this upcoming week is Asexuality Awareness Week. However, besides Tremor, a character from The Movement, I couldn’t think of a single explicitly, canonically asexual character in, well, anything. I did a little digging—that is to say, a Google search—and turned up this list on AVEN’s Asexuality wiki.

Human_Yuki_NagatoThe list includes characters from works as diverse as The Hobbit, Inception, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, but in the end, reading it just made me sad. It’s a very brief list, you see, and a large percentage of the characters included fall more under ‘supposed asexual’ than ‘confirmed asexual’. Furthermore, characters like the Doctor and Haruhi Suzumiya‘s Yuki Nagato are aliens, which presents a twofold problem: one, it implies that asexual behavior is non-human, and two, without representatives from the rest of their species, it’s unclear whether their asexuality is personal or societal. One particular thing that stuck with me, though, is this: is it fair to apply modern labels to characters set in the past because they display behaviors consistent with those modern labels?

Let me explain what I mean. Sherlock Holmes is often touted as a go-to example of an asexual character. However, the use of the term asexuality in the context of a sexual orientation was not really used until the late 1940s, long after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the character. While Sherlock Holmes is easily interpretable as asexual, it’s not a term Sherlock or ACD would have used.

Aaron-and-George-eR-coloursIt’s not limited to asexuality, either. Take Enjolras, for example, the leader of the revolutionary student group in Les Misérables. Enjolras was pretty strongly coded as gay by Victor Hugo: he is explicitly described as having no romantic or sexual interest in women, and he and Grantaire are constantly likened to Classical homoerotic couples, most notably Orestes and Pylades. But the word homosexual did not appear in print for the first time until almost a decade after Les Mis was published, and therefore was not a term Enjolras would have used for himself. (Going deeper, the ancient Greeks did not have words to distinguish between hetero- and homosexual relations, and therefore scholars still argue whether the famous Greek male/male pairings like Achilles and Patroclus were merely friends or had a romantic/sexual relationship.)

Here, read their tragically romantic death scene.

Here, read their tragically romantic death scene.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s important for queer readers and consumers of any fictional work to be able to find characters they can relate to. And given the continuing lack of realistic queer characters in popular media, it’s up to said readers to find characters that may meet that bill. It’s why, after nine seasons, Supernatural fans are still holding out for a bisexual Dean Winchester. It’s why Bilbo Baggins is included on that list of asexual characters simply by dint of not expressing on-page interest in sexual relations and never canonically marrying (which, in retrospect, doesn’t make a ton of sense to me, seeing as using the same criteria, we could also include Frodo, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir, the wizards, and a ton of dwarves on the same list). And in the cases of historical fiction, where same-sex or otherwise non-heteronormative relationships were not yet named or accepted to the extent they are today, we have to pick up on and make assumptions regarding authorial intent to fill that representation gap.

Queer people didn’t just appear on Earth in the last hundred years or so. Just because we have a new vocabulary of words to describe ourselves now doesn’t mean that we didn’t exist in the past. While it may be historically inaccurate to refer to these characters and historical figures with modern terms, it’s also heterosexist to assume that because, say, Enjolras did not canonically make out with Grantaire on the page, that he’s straight. And until we start getting real, canonical representation in popular media, we are stuck with lists like these, making do with characters whose orientations we don’t and can’t know, and finding solace in the fact that they act a little bit like us.

5 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: Representation and Historical Sexuality

  1. You make some really good points, and I think they can also be applied to historical figures, not just fictional characters. A lot of aces like claiming Newton or Tesla as “historical asexuals” (although I think some people also claim that Newton was gay), which doesn’t make sense, when you consider that the concept of asexuality didn’t exist at that point in time. (Well, that and I feel weird about labeling real folks’ sexualities–it reminds me of when some people go up to aces and say, “No, you’re really just gay.”)

    Also, AVEN’s wiki needs to be updated; I have a partial list of confirmed asexual characters in fiction here: http://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/confirmed-asexual-characters-in-fiction/

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