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Headshot of me with long hair, pink lip stick, light makeup Kara Babcock

The value of looking beyond romance

I still experience a visceral shiver—yes, a shiver in my viscera—when Spock presses his hand up against the transparent barrier separating him from Kirk as he intones, “I have been and always shall be … your friend.”

(Oops, spoiler alert there for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Spock dies at the end.)

There’s a reason that Wrath of Khan is often cited as one of the best, if not the best, of the Star Trek movies. It is a grand space opera adventure with action and drama. It is a revenge plot with an amazing villain who can mug against the camera just as much as Kirk can. And it is a story, ultimately it turns out, about the triumph of love over hatred—except in this case, “love” means friendship, not romance.

Kirk and Spock are not gay for each other (unless you read/write the slashfics, in which case, you do you)—but Spock literally dies to save Kirk and the Enterprise, and in the sequel, Kirk and the rest of the crew risk their careers and their lives and sacrifice the ship for the possibility that they might save Spock’s soul.

If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Look, I’m taking to describing myself as “an aromantic romantic”. I loves me a good love story, even though I personally am not romantically attracted to people. (Other arospec people will enjoy or not enjoy love stories differently from me!) Science fiction and fantasy unquestionably include numerous legendary love stories that make me alternately cheer or weep—I’m super fond of Farscape and the oft-tragic love story between John and Aeryn.

But for every romance in SFF, there are plenty of platonic love relationships out there that are just as valid and emotionally rewarding for the audience.

I’ve already mentioned the epic friendship that is Kirk/Spock.

There are numerous romantic couples in Firefly. When it comes time for River Tam to come out of her fugue state and save everyone in Serenity, it isn’t romance that motivates her but love for and a desire to protect her brother, who up until this point has been protecting her. Again, shivering viscera when I hear her utter, “My turn” and dive through those closing blast doors.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a layered and nuanced series, including plenty of romance—but those romances often turn really, really sour. But at the end of Season 5, Buffy sacrifices herself to save her sister, who technically hadn’t existed before this season. Now that’s love. And at the end of Season 6, romance doesn’t save us from dark!Willow. No, it’s poor, benighted Xander telling Willow that he loves her—as a friend. It’s their enduring friendship that allows him to literally talk her down from ending everything.

I recently finished watching Charmed, which is on Canadian Netflix. Now there’s a show that is almost hyper-saturated with romance. On the one hand, I very much enjoy the show’s sex-positive portrayal of adult women. On the other hand, there are a lot of problematic aspects to the show’s portrayal of romance (namely its stultifying heteronormativity and adherence to marriage as one of two logical binary endpoints to dating someone). But what stuck with me most about this show is how the relationship between the Halliwell sisters trumped all of that. Whenever a guy threatened to come between them, their bonds as sisters were always stronger. And it’s that bond that is in fact the Power of Three that makes them such strong witches. Again, romantic love, while present, is not actually the real star of this show.

In Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, Locke’s love interest is absent for the entire book (we finally get to meet her in book 3). For those of you who have read the book, I don’t have to explain how shivery my viscera got when Locke kept repeating, “I just have to keep you here … until Jean shows up.” The love between Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen is a bond between adoptive brothers who have sworn to protect each other. Locke puts his life on the line because he knows that Jean will show up for him.

One of my favourite science fiction shows on TV right now is Orphan Black. I can’t say too much, because I know it has a lower profile and I really don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t watched it. Suffice it to say, again, there are romances. But for me, the relationships that shine are the platonic ones. This includes the bonds between the “sisters” of course, particularly the way Helena gloms onto Sarah after they stop trying to kill one another, but also the people who get involved. Mrs. S will literally kill to save Sarah and Kira. Felix and Sarah are adoptive siblings, but like Locke and Jean, they are as thick as thieves (literally). This is a show that recognizes, in so many ways, how the notions of family, friendship, and love are so fluid and complex and impressively mutable.

I’m pointing out all these examples because I want you to see these shows, books, and movies how I see them. I want you to imagine, for a moment, what it’s like to watch or read something and see romance in it not as a separate and special category of relationship but as on an even level with platonic relationships—or, sometimes, even as background noise for the more interesting platonic stuff.

I was planning to write something for AroSpec Awareness Week next week (because that week is next week), but then published “What’s the Value of Romance in Sci-Fi & Fantasy?” (I guess because this week holds some kind of significance for alloromantic people?). So I’m starting AroSpec Awareness Week early!

The original title of the article was “Romance Brings Humanity to Science Fiction and Fantasy”, which is pretty messed up. Even if I weren’t aromantic (or an ally thereof) that title just has so many negative connotations about SFF, seemingly implying that SFF is somehow inscrutable or ineffable or removed from human experience. On the contrary: science fiction and fantasy are two of the most human genres. And it isn’t romance that makes them that way. changed the title of the article, but that doesn’t really address the problem. Firstly, the new title is kind of silly, because one might as well ask the question, “Whats the Value of Romance in anything?” Because the answer is the same, regardless of whether we’re talking about romance in SFF or romance elsewhere: romance, like any relationship, is a source of potential conflict in a story and a way to explore human experiences. It is far from the only way to achieve either of those ends, however, which is why stories that lack romance don’t suddenly suck, and a story with a romantic plot is not suddenly better than a story with one.

I think if had chosen to simply talk about “examples of great love stories in SFF” that would have been fine. It is possible to celebrate romance without erasing arospec people—but to do so, we as a society need to stop privileging romance like we can’t believe it’s not butter. (Spoiler alert: it is always butter.)

Romance itself is not bad or harmful. But holding romance up as the pinnacle of love relationships, below which friendship and family sit, is harmful. Saying that romance elevates works of fiction is harmful. It sends a message that lives without romance mean less, or are emptier, or are less fulfilling. This is untrue. And when we send such messages, no matter how inadvertently, we put pressure on people—both alloromantic and aromantic—to enter into romantic relationships. This creates a recipe for abuse, compounded all the more so by the fact that romantic relationships on screen and page all too often contain abusive or creepy elements, which we then romanticize and hold up as desirable or normal. (This is essentially the function of romantic comedies, which are not so much romantic as they are reinforcements of weird and usually gendered norms around relationships.) So championing romance as a transcendent experience erases aromantic people and creates the potential for the exploitation of vulnerable people who want romance.

So as we head into the next week, it’s time we start talking more about love not as a hierarchy or even a spectrum but simply as wonderful, multi-faceted experience. It’s time we start thinking of romance as one example of that facet rather than the crown jewel of the lot. And it’s time we start acknowledging that not experiencing romantic attraction, or experiencing it to differing degrees from other people, is human and valuable, in science fiction/fantasy and in real life.