In contemplating possible articles related to ace week, I tried to think of classic geek characters who are asexual. That led me to wonder, “How would I even know? It’s not like we get 24/7 access to these fictional people’s’ lives.” But then, very quickly, I realized that we do know that a lot of our favorite characters are not ace/aro because so many of them have had on-screen relationships and sexual encounters that are presented as a product of the characters’ own sex drive (rather than as ace people who are accommodating their partner). But why? Is there something about our sexual lives that is so essential to our identities that it requires exposition in our fictional characters, or is this just an example of ace erasure? After some additional geeky contemplation, it occurred to me that there is one beloved character who is, in fact, perfectly suited to explore this exact question: Lt. Commander Data.
In addition to the issues surrounding Data’s own sexuality, the character is one seeking to achieve “greater humanity” and is therefore extensively used to represent what exactly we think that actually means, sexuality included. While the question of whether or not Data represents an asexual character is one that is widely open to debate (including in this post), the question of why and how we ascribe sexual identities to fictional characters as a way to “humanize” them and what that says about asexual representation in our media is perhaps the more interesting question.
Data is, in an almost excessively literal way, asexual. He has no sex drive, no hormones, and no ability to reproduce sexually. Literally any aspect of human biology that is related to sexuality is absent in Data. That said, TNG’s second episode, “Naked Now”, sees external influences that cause Data, as well as almost everyone else, to have not only a sex drive, but an overactive one, and he ends up having sex with Tasha Yar. At this point it is revealed that Data is anatomically correct and “fully functional”, a revelation played with an almost Pythonesque self-awareness. Data did not retain a sex drive after the external influence dissipated, and later episodes, particularly “Legacy”, address the fact that while Data no longer had any sexual attraction to Tasha Yar, he did retain a strong memory of the emotional connection and considered it a positive memory. While his gender identity can be referred to as AMAB, Data’s sexuality and orientation are not hard-coded. His identity is a result of his cumulative experiences that are stored and analyzed in hardware that is modeled after the human brain. Real deep-learning AI actually uses an early form of the technology that runs Data’s brain; neural networks. Just like some real-life AI, Data’s exposure to a heteronormative culture arguably predisposes him to favor that identity himself. In “Naked Now”, while he develops heterosexual attraction when he is given a sex drive, Data has no sexual desire or attraction to anyone of any gender without external influences. In other episodes and films we see individuals like Commander Sela or the Borg queen elicit some sort of sexual or romantic reaction, but these too are a product of external influence. While Data has no sexual attraction, however, he is not entirely devoid of a romantic life.
Which leads to the first crucial point in any further examination of Data’s sexuality: asexual and aromantic are not the same thing. While there is certainly some overlap in many cases, there are people who do not experience sexual arousal or attraction but do experience romantic attraction and connection (or a myriad of other variations of the two). Data is squarely in that category. He seeks to be capable of engaging in a mutually fulfilling romantic relationship, as he considers that to be a particularly close human bond. Data has famously referred to friendship thusly:
“As I experience certain sensory input patterns, my mental pathways become accustomed to them. The inputs eventually are anticipated and even missed when absent.”
He sees relationships as a form of literal and metaphorical closeness and sees romantic ones as among the closest. That point is further examined in the episode “In Theory”.
In that episode, Data enters into a romantic relationship while not under the influence of any alien forces. After Data is shown to be supportive and attentive in helping his friend and coworker Jenna D’Sora, she begins to form a romantic attachment to him. This eventually culminates in her giving him what he describes as a “passionate kiss”. The realization (after a period of adorably awkward obliviousness) that he is in a romantic relationship causes Data to question the ethics of his entering into a relationship with someone towards whom he cannot feel any emotions. In order to figure this out, he asks his closest friends for help. Starting with Guinan (always a good idea) and eventually leading to Riker (often a bad idea), he elicits advice on relationships. The sequence ends with Picard telling him “I would be delighted to offer any advice I can on understanding women. When I have some, I’ll let you know.” After processing all this, Data makes the statement “I cannot be hurt, she can” when referring to the potential for emotional disaster. After he is satisfied that Jenna knows what she’s getting into, however, he decides to pursue a romance.
The impetus for Jenna’s interest in Data is that he continually demonstrates that he cares about her. He is nothing but honest, supportive, and attentive in his efforts to make her feel better about herself; all with no agenda or ulterior motives of any kind. In the wake of a bad break up, she has been consulting Data for impartial advice and he has made a point of studying romance in order to better advise her. When Data enters into the relationship, he does so under the impression that he can write a program for himself to have a romantic relationship based on what he has learned.
As the relationship develops, Data continues to refine his new romance program. When they have a “lovers’ quarrel”, he explains that his research shows they can bring couples closer together. It ends sweetly as he makes clear he is trying to build a real relationship, but the encounter is awkward and is described by Jenna as feeling “forced”. When Jenna first confronts Data with the question “am I just part of a program to you?” his response is, “I have created a subroutine specifically for you. A considerable amount of my resources were dedicated to its creation.” Her reaction is, “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
But, as Data initiates the seduction phase of his program, we begin to see Jenna realize she may be taking advantage of Data. This is prompted by her recognizing that any sexual encounter between them would be him executing a program to please her. In some ways this mirrors the experience of some asexual relationships; not all ace people are sex-repulsed and some either enjoy it themselves or enjoy watching their partners take pleasure in sex. But in Data’s case, he’s incapable of feeling any pleasure himself. Even though he is consensually engaging in romantic behavior, Data “cannot feel love”. In fact, Data cannot “feel” anything. Ultimately, Jenna breaks up with Data, realizing that she “got out of a relationship with an unemotional man, and [she] got right back into another one with… with a man who’s absolutely incapable of emotion.” When she explicitly tells him they are no longer “a couple”, he informs her he will delete the unnecessary program.
While this episode does examine the connection between romantic and sexual identity and does seem to explore the reality of a relationship where one person is ace/aro and the other is not, there is a crucial difference with Data. Data has, again, no emotion whatsoever. That is not the case with most real people; ace or otherwise. While there are mental illnesses that can cause a person to have virtually no emotions, that is not a trait of asexuality in any way. Most ace/aro people, for example, love their friends and family; even if they experience absolutely zero sexual or romantic attraction to anyone. Unlike Data, many ace/aro people can and do also have mutually fulfilling relationships that fall roughly in the “intimate partner” category in at least some capacity. Very much like Data, however, an upfront understanding of each other’s boundaries and a background of trust and respect is usually essential for their success.
I would argue that these episodes firmly establish Data as asexual and, essentially, aromantic. And at the same time, I would also argue that he does not really represent an accurate portrayal of someone with an asexual identity. The issue of romantic relationships between humans and AI powered robots is not beyond the realm of possibility, and the potential that the first actual sentient androids will have some form of an asexual identity is a fascinating one, to be sure. But while the potential future inclusion of real androids in the queer community is interesting, the question remains, why do we so often know the romantic and sexual lives of our favorite characters and why is that aspect of their identity so rarely ace?
The portion of the population that is estimated to be asexual is just over half the projected number of gay and lesbian individuals and is slightly higher than the projected portion of the population that is bisexual; but while our media has begun to include gay characters, ace/aro (and bi/pan) characters often take a back seat to that progress, seeing disproportionately lower rates of representation. Lt. Commander Data is not exactly an example of asexual representation and the emotionless nature of his identity can play into stereotypes about asexual people. Data cannot feel an emotional connection to anyone, he is entirely aware that his gender is a constructed identity and often struggles with interpreting it, he often comes off as cold or distant in interpersonal situations, and any situation in which he is involved in sexual or romantic episodes come off as awkward and a case of him being inexperienced. These are all stereotypes people have about asexuals that Data plays into when viewed from this critical angle. Furthermore, when compared to an average human, Data could be said to be neuroatypical. His brain does not work the same way as ours and while he has a very high level of intelligence, he misses obvious social cues and is literally incapable of empathy (though not sympathy or compassion). A common and damaging stereotype about ace people is that they’re all autistic people and that description fits a stereotypical portrayal of an autistic individual, playing into that conflation; these stereotypes are obviously harmful to autistic people as well, but that’s an entirely different article.
While Data plays into these stereotypes, I think he does also send a positive message about ace representation, if indirectly. In his quest for greater humanity, Data feels a desire to be close to people and have intimate relationships, but neither sexual nor romantic desire are essential to that goal. We don’t need Data to have a sex life to care about him, and the fact that he has no sexual or romantic desire is just another part of what makes him unique. Even at the conclusion of “In Theory”, Data does not seem to care that he has no libido, he merely seeks to understand what role it plays in human relationships and how he can use that information to become more human himself. Data doesn’t care if he ever has sex again, but he is eager to do so if it will allow him to better understand a partner. In that sense, his sexuality is one that many ace folks would find relateable. Data’s acceptance of his own asexuality in pursuit of human closeness is therefore, ironically, among his more human traits, and one we need to see more of in our media.
I would say that if we attempt to view Lt. Commander Data as a direct example of ace representation, he falls prey to those negative stereotypes common to ace portrayal. He is an emotionless android who can only simulate human sexual and romantic attraction. But when Data is used to explore the intersection of humanity and human relationships with sexuality, he provides an example of someone who is literally conditioned by society to think he “should be” a straight, sexual, male and one who is shown to suffer some harm from that perception. Data doesn’t care about sex at all, but he cares about people and he wants to be closer to them; he wants to make people he cares about happy and better understand his own humanity in the process. While we clearly need more explicitly asexual, human, characters that we really care about, I think that those portrayals can therefore learn a lot from Data’s, both on what to embrace and what to avoid.