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.
Suaveness subroutine engaged. (Screengrab from Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG))
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.
Lal: “I am gender neuter. Inadequate.”
Data: “That is why you must choose a gender, Lal, to complete your appearance.”
Oh, Star Trek, you are one of those shows that consistently disappoints me. This conversation from Star Trek: The Next Generation perfectly illustrates how our society tends to view gender in a strict gender binary. In the episode “The Offspring”, the robot Data creates his own android progeny named Lal. He decides to create Lal gender neutral, so that Lal can choose what gender to be. It seemed like a great idea, but it quickly turned problematic when Lal declared gender neutrality “inadequate” before promptly choosing a female gender. For people who don’t fit the gender binary, this statement is wildly offensive. The message seems to be if you aren’t male or female then you are… inadequate. How fucked up is that?!
I smoke tobacco pipes. I’ve enjoyed them since I turned 18 and even make them. So, I am pleased when I see television or movies including characters smoking their pipes. You’ll never know where pipe smokers are going to turn up in these things, from Colonel Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds to Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean. Even the First and Fourth Doctors in Doctor Who were seen smoking pipes. However, I’m almost always infuriated when I see how they smoke them. This is because many times the characters smoke their pipes wrong. Typically, these characters seem to be most interested in making as much smoke as possible. This isn’t wrong because of arbitrary etiquette, but rather is wrong because it ruins the taste of the tobacco, burns the mouth, and can ruin a pipe over time.
Yeah, you read that right. I don’t believe Data is a “boy robot”. Or rather, not in the traditional sense.
Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot to lead into this. My fault. You see, Data is the lovable android from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The character, played by Brent Spiner, replaced Spock as the character looking for what is humanity. He’s also my personal favorite of all the main characters in TNG. I think the Data-centric episode “The Measure of a Man”, where Data is officially found to be a sentient being under Starfleet law, is one of the best non-Borg TNG episodes out there. I credit this in large part to Spiner’s in-character evolution of Data.