“Oh, you’re like Sheldon!”
Given that it is Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week, this seems like a good time to talk about something that has been on my mind for a while. I’ve taken a stab at writing a blog post about this but it never quite came out right. This week, and a recent Twitter exchange have prompted me to give it another try.
In some superficial ways, I resemble Sheldon Cooper: I am a well-educated and lithe white man with a strong science and technical background, an intense interest in nerd topics, and a dislike of certain social norms. So I get where this comparison comes from, and when I reveal my utter disinterest in romantic or sexual liaisons, the connection seems only to solidify in the minds of friends and acquaintances who, I know, only mean well.
I’ve discussed previously why I don’t think Sheldon is a good nerd icon. Today I’m more interested in talking about why representation matters, and how Sheldon Cooper is a poor representation of an arospec/asexual character.
It’s a shame, too, because terrible personality aside, Sheldon Cooper could have been a good representation. Here’s why.
Arospec people can date!
The show had never explicitly said Sheldon is asexual and aromantic, even if it certainly portrayed him that way for a long time. Sheldon’s constant refusal to even consider a romantic relationship as a prospect for him was a frequent plot point and is, you know, pretty much the definition of aromanticism.
Even so, when the show introduced Amy Farah Fowler, I was intrigued. I should clarify that this is before I was well-versed in vocabulary like aromanticism. But in showing Sheldon and Amy entering into a(n initially) platonic relationship, The Big Bang Theory got one thing right: aromantic people sometimes still find partners.
Arospec people can still date, if they want to. They just don’t feel romantic attraction (or don’t feel it to the same extent) in the way alloromantic people do. They may still find an individual fascinating for other reasons, or love someone strongly enough in a platonic way to want to spend more time exclusively with that person or even live with them. This is not romance; it’s companionship, and it is wonderful.
So I was happy that Sheldon and Amy were together in this way, at least at first. (I would also have been happy if Sheldon hadn’t found Amy—being alone is a valid lifestyle too, and one that I’m embracing at the moment, and you are not broken for not entering into such relationships!) I was happy that Sheldon was forming a different social connection.
Similarly, even the prospect of Sheldon and Amy having sex doesn’t faze me. Asexual people can and do have sex. Not all of us, and not because we experience sexual attraction, unless you’re grey/demi-ace. More importantly for this week’s theme: not all aromantic people are asexual.
Amy is a great example of this last point. I read her as demiromantic and demisexual (and maybe bi, depending on how you interpret her apparent attraction to Penny). Like Sheldon, she starts off with little experience of sex/romance and little desire to enter into a romantic relationship. Yet the show consistently portrays her as sexually interested in Sheldon and also fairly interested in romantic dimensions of the relationship too. That’s why the “demi-” label exists: some people only experience sexual or romantic attraction once they have a strong personal bond.
This is all well and good, but…
So here’s where The Big Bang Theory gets it wrong, in my opinion, and why I don’t feel represented by Sheldon Cooper (aside from the aforementioned terribly misogynistic and unkind personality).
The Big Bang Theory portrays Sheldon’s relationship with Amy as a journey to humanize and “fix” him, and this is a harmful, dangerous, arophobic idea.
This is the problem with writing arospec characters who also have other social or emotionally atypical behaviours. Because arospec people are not well represented in general, the public conflates one with the other. Yes, Sheldon Cooper is a man-child who needs to be more tolerant and learn that he can’t always get his way. But this has nothing to do with his lack of sexual or romantic attraction to other people.
Time and again, through jokes about how Sheldon needs to get laid, or jokes undermining Sheldon’s worth and value as a human being because he doesn’t get laid, etc., the show demonstrates a caustic attitude towards the arospec community. The show constantly implies that if Sheldon and Amy sleep together and move their relationship towards a more heteronormative ideal, then Sheldon will be a better person for it.
Let’s say it loud and clear: arospec people are not broken. Some arospec people are lovely. Some arospec people are jerks. But being arospec does not, itself, make you a jerk, and romance is not a necessary component to make one’s life more valuable or more fulfilling.
And it’s tempting sometimes to just dismiss this as “sitcoms be sitcoms” and stop watching. This is basically the stance I’ve taken for a long time, and when I once enjoyed The Big Bang Theory, I now cringe when people bring it up because I’m afraid they’ll compare me to Sheldon. Unfortunately, sometimes it is difficult for us to ignore an issue like this, because we just have so little representation.
This whole thing reminds me of the Black Widow problem. Basically, we’re never going to be happy with the portrayal of Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as long as she’s the only significant female character onscreen. When you only have one woman in the group, she automatically has to shoulder the burden of representing all women—and no one can do that!
I mean, can you imagine having only one straight character on TV or in movies to point to? Can you imagine, every time you come out to someone as gay, they compare you to that one gay character on TV? (All due respect here, because TV and movies definitely have a long way to go in portraying LGBT characters and relationships, but my point is that we’ve at least reached a state where you’ve got more than one to talk about.)
The same goes for prominent arospec characters. There are so few, especially ones who are mainstream, that when their representation is problematic, it is really problematic. This post’s latest incarnation was inspired by someone (also aro/ace themselves) listing Sherlock and Castiel as potentially aro/ace people. I mentioned how I was wary of categorizing a non-human character like Castiel as aro/ace, because it seems potentially dehumanizing. Similarly, I sometimes celebrate aro/ace portrayals of Sherlock but find the ongoing and continual association of aro/ace people with abnormal super- or meta-human attributes a little worrying.
If we had more arospec characters on screen, more diverse representation, this wouldn’t be a problem. We could have arospec characters who are in every other way just like other protagonists, and also arospec characters who are villains, and also arospec characters who are super-analytical like Sherlock or jerks like Sheldon. It would be fine, because no one arospec character would suddenly be able to stand in for all of us.
In fact, this is why the #AroAceJugheadOrBust hashtag matters. Jughead is a explicitly (as of recently) and has been, throughout the comics, aro/ace. And unlike Sheldon Cooper, he is a relentlessly positive portrayal of an aromantic person. Jughead’s aromantic lifestyle is not portrayed as less satisfying than the lifestyles of his friends. They sometimes express some confusion over his lack of attraction to women—and curiosity is a natural and healthy behaviour from friends—but they don’t tell him he is broken. Most importantly, the comics show Jughead as having rich, complex relationships.
So it’s unfortunate that the CW, in adapting Archie comics for television, decided that Jughead’s aromanticism and asexuality were optional components they could leave behind. And they don’t even care enough about aro/ace people to talk about it openly or respond to the #AroAceJugheadOrBust campaign. They don’t care because they think arospec people aren’t worth listening to, and that allo people won’t speak up on our behalf. And so far, it seems, they are right.
Seriously, do you ever look around at all the terrible stuff happening in this world and feel bad you can’t fix much of it? This is something you can help with right now just by showing up as an ally. You can make arospec people’s lives better by telling us we matter and telling organizations, like the CW, or Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, to stop erasing us. When you think about it, that’s a scary amount of power. Don’t let it go to your head or anything; I’d hate to have to mount a ragtag team of adventurers to take you down afterwards (but I’d do it, because that’s what friends are for—friends don’t let friends get corrupted by power).
So be this change for us. This is Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week. If you want to become more aware of the aromantic spectrum and what that means, you shouldn’t take your cues from TV. Get out there and talk to us—ask us questions on Twitter; plenty of us would be happy to talk about it (but don’t hound someone if they say they’re not!). We need better representation, and going forward, if you want to show your support, you need to move this conversation beyond Sheldon Cooper and towards arospec portrayals that are positive and diverse.