Know Your Zombie: Understanding the Living Dead

[7 minute read]

Last week I discussed the use of contagion and metaphor, and mentioned how zombies can serve as “vehicles” for the metaphor of contagious disease. This week I continue my discussion of zombies, but before diving in, I want to draw a distinction between the two major representations of zombies in popular culture: what I somewhat reductively will refer to as the “Voodoo Zombie” and the “Plague Zombie.”

Although zombies have become somewhat synonymous with the spiritual practice of Voodoo in popular culture, the spiritual practices many of us refer to indiscriminately as “voodoo” have a rich and complex historical, spiritual, and cultural background far exceeding their limited representation in much of U.S. culture. In many instances, Voodoo involves casting spells of protection rather than curses, although it would be equally inaccurate to say that curses and other violent intent do not play some part of voodoo. Voodoo has also played an important role in historical movements of political resistance and cultural revolution, which has led to its vilification by many colonizing populations. The zombie figure is intertwined with both of these components—magical and cultural—and, like other aspects of this complex spirituality, has been largely distorted by popular culture’s appropriation of it.

week2img1

The cover of Wade Davis’s book.

The Voodoo zombie is, in many ways, the “original” zombie. This incarnation of the zombie emerges out of the traditions and spiritual practices of Haitian voodoo. It represents a person who has died, or was near death, and has been resurrected by a “bokor” or sorcerer. One of the most famous (or infamous) modern Voodoo practitioners was the late Max Beauvoir, known as the “Voodoo Pope,” who claimed to know Voodoo priests who had resurrected the dead. Before his death in 2015, Beauvoir introduced anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and Harvard professor Wade Davis to a man who claimed to have been dead in 1962, but was resurrected to work as a slave on a sugar plantation. Davis’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) chronicles his search to understand the botanical recipe of the “zombie powder” used to intoxicate and control alleged victims of zombification. In 1988, this book was adapted into a Wes Craven horror film of the same name.

week2img2

The poster for its 1988 film adaptation by famed horror director Wes Craven.

The Voodoo zombie is tied to specific cultural practices and geographies (for example, Haitian Voodoo), and so the contextual “meaning” of the zombie is specific and discrete. Unlike their contagious cousins, which began to appear in popular culture late into the twentieth century, Voodoo zombies are not aimless, shambling corpses; they are people transformed into purposeful creatures. Voodoo practitioners like those described by Beauvoir and Davis resurrect the dead for specific reasons, including but not limited to slave labor, control, or revenge. Voodoo zombies are personal, medicinal, and spiritual; they do not appear in hordes, their state is not contagious, and their place between life in death is mediated and maintained by the sorcerer who controls them. They can even recover from their state of zombification, and may return to their justifiably surprised and horrified friends and family.

Anthropological works such as Davis’s and popular films such as George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead are in part responsible for introducing the zombie figure to popular culture. However, the zombie as we know it now has undergone radical mutation from its origins in the Voodoo zombie figure, becoming what I’ll refer to as the “plague zombie.”

This type of zombie emerged from, but radically alters the trajectory of the original zombie myth, and became an increasingly powerful feature of contemporary horror texts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. While the Voodoo zombie’s cultural specificity and its conjuror’s intentions for it make for a rather rigid metaphorical reading, the metaphorical and interpretative pliability of the plague zombie has made it an adaptive and increasingly popular trope of the new millennium. Recalling last week’s discussion of I.A. Richard’s “tenor-vehicle” model as a way of understanding metaphor, a zombie operates as a “vehicle” allowing us to form connections between what the living dead are (the reanimated corpses of strangers, friends, and neighbors) and what they represent (hunger, contagion, mindless consumption, loss of control, and a disruption of the natural process of life and death).

week2img3

The cover of Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996)

The popularity of the plague zombie began to rise in the 1980s and ‘90s in the wake of the devastating HIV pandemic, and the emergence of deadly new viruses such as Ebola, Marburg, SARS, and MERS; it reached a fever pitch in the late ‘90s and first decade of the 2000s. One of the most popular and enduring depictions of the “plague zombie” was the third-person horror videogame Resident Evil (1996), a franchise that has spawned twenty-nine video games across multiple platforms, six feature films, four animated films, seven novels, and a comic book series. In the Resident Evil franchise, the central narrative conflict is the Umbrella Corporation’s creation and not-so-accidental release of the “T-Virus.” Players, viewers, and readers must unpack the bureaucratic and capitalistic functions of Umbrella Corp to understand why they released the virus, who helped them, and how to cure or mitigate the impending viral apocalypse. As with many plague zombie narratives, the central conflict of Resident Evil isn’t that the dead are rising from their graves to stalk the living, but that there are arcane political, medical, and economic forces that would permit (or encourage) the advent of a zombie epidemic.

week2img4

An in-game promotional advertisement for the fictional Umbrella Corporation. The tag line “Quality Medical Care You Can Trust Since 1968” is not only a sarcastic jab at the advertising style of pharmaceutical corporations, but also an allusion to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which was released in 1968.

The threat to social stability that zombies nearly always embody is the “tenor” of their metaphor. The contagion or plague zombies carry and transmit connects the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor together, connecting the abject horror of living dead to issues of social cohesion, security, and medical ethics among the living. In plague zombie narratives, how the ever-present survivors of the zombie epidemic respond to their situation is always as important, if not more so, than the existence of the zombies themselves. Next week I will be discussing one particular trope of the plague zombie narrative: the wall. Walls separate survivors of zombie epidemics from the living dead that stalk them, but they also separate survivors from each other and create material and metaphorical divisions in post-apocalyptic society. Tune in next week for a discussion of how the walls we build to protect us can become the cages that entrap us.

Advertisements

Messages of Power: Epidemic Disease and Metaphor

[10 minute read]

Culture has been infected. From the largest spheres of government and media to the mundane exchanges of everyday living, a small but resilient particle of an idea has perforated the social fabric of our lives and buried deep in our collective imagination. This noxious notion exists unnoticed in many parts of society, a festering lump of our most disturbed and paranoid fears metastasizing just beneath the surface of culture, emerging now and again in full force when the right environment and atmosphere for an outbreak presents itself. This idea is the metaphor of contagious disease and epidemic. In my posts this month, I will ask why the tendency to assign meaning to disease is such a powerful and sustained facet of culture and examine how this viral tendency has mutated and evolved in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Disease is a common human experience vivifying nearly universal fears of that which we cannot see, and thus cannot fully understand. For much of human history, the microbes that cause the majority of contagious diseases remained invisible to us. Only in the last two centuries or so have we developed a scientific understanding of microbes. So, to make sense and meaning out of the epidemics that ravaged our civilizations, we invented stories.

For the religious, an outbreak appears as a punishment for transgressing against God. For the xenophobic, a sudden appearance of disease in a previously healthy community can confirm fears that racial and ethnic outsiders are contaminating and degenerating society. For the rich and privileged, disease becomes associated with the poor. For the poor, disease becomes symptomatic of their social alienation and economic exploitation by the rich. For the healthy, disease in others can become a confirmation of one’s own righteous living and a reason to invest in the factors of division between one’s self and the other. Tragically, victims of disease can internalize these negative associations and may place the blame for their illness on some perceived moral or ethical failing of their own, or on society at large.

NowVenerealDiseasesWorld War I poster created by H. Dewitt Welsh meant to create awareness and prevent venereal diseases in soldiers abroad, note the explicit racialized and sexualized depictions of “Yellow Fever” and “Venereal Disease”. 

Although we now have a growing scientific understanding of microbes at the genetic level, we still tell stories that imbue epidemic diseases with meaning. The habit of assigning religious, racial, economic, and cultural meaning to outbreaks and their victims—developed over hundreds and thousands of years of human experience—has proven hard to quit, and many of these confused and misshapen ideas about disease and epidemic persist. As adaptable and resilient as the common cold, the metaphor of epidemic disease has become a mainstay of human discourse.

But why?

The experience of disease and contagion, the fear of infection, the abjection of the ill, the triumph of recovery, and the tragedy of death are nearly universal human experiences. Epidemic disease is therefore an accessible metaphor; a comparison with disease is widely understood as negative. The commonality of disease makes its metaphorical import apparent, and the mortality of epidemic make its metaphors gripping and affective.

But metaphors of disease and the stories that contain them continue to have a wide influence on our culture because they also tell us who we are, suggest who we ought not to be, and allow us to imagine who we might become. Often metaphors of disease tell us more about ourselves—our fears, guilt, and prejudices implicit and explicit—than they do about the biological, environmental, and social reality of epidemics. Examining how and why epidemic disease is used as a metaphor for social issues can allow us to understand the power of, and problems with epidemic metaphors, and provides a method to trace the dynamics and divisions of societal power and privilege.

Epidemic diseases are powerful messages, but they are also messages of power. How we depict and understand epidemics can tell us much about the cultural atmosphere from which the epidemic emerges.

In these posts, I will be considering metaphors of disease. But I also explore how, ironically, disease can work metaphorically to help us understand metaphors.

Etymologically, the modern English term “metaphor” comes from the Latin “metaphora” and from the Greek combination of “μεταϕορά”: μετα- (“meta”) denoting change or transformation and ϕορά, the present participle of “ϕέρειν,” meaning to bear or carry. If we preserve the grammatical tense of the Greek, then, a metaphor can be understood as that way of speaking which is bearing change, or as that speech which transforms as it is carrying. The Oxford English Dictionary defines our modern concept of metaphor as a “figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable” (OED, Third Edition, 2001).

In practice, we tend to follow the OED’s understanding, looking for similarities between unlike things. For example, in the famous Robert Burns metaphor “your love is a red, red rose,” love is not literally a flower, but it shares with the rose a certain intangible quality which makes the comparison apt. Perhaps, figuratively speaking, this love is soft, or sweet, or pleasant to smell, or covered with painful thorns, or a combination of these. In any case, the reader is meant to make the connection organically.

To break down how metaphors work in more detail, communications scholar I.A. Richards devised what he called the “Tenor-Vehicle” model (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936). In it, the “tenor” is the idea being communicated and the “vehicle” is how the idea is transmitted. That intangible quality of “different from, but analogous to” is the synthesis created by the metaphor’s juxtaposition of the two unlike things. In the Burns example from above the tenor of the metaphor is “your love” and the vehicle “a red, red rose.” By carrying the former into the later, the metaphor creates emotional meaning. That is, although tenor and vehicle make up the two parts of the metaphor, neither alone compose the emotional heft of the comparison—it is i the interpretive act of comparing that we construct meaning. Richards believed that all thinking and language are based in this type of comparison and contrast, and therefore he believed that all thought and language were essentially and fundamentally metaphorical. Although one need not go to the extent that Richards does to grasp the pervasive function of metaphor in society, the tenor-vehicle model is helpful for understanding why disease and metaphor are so closely intertwined.

Richards’ model shows that metaphors function much in the same way as microbes. At the very least, microbes offer us a material example of how a system of transmission like the tenor-vehicle model of metaphor operates in the physical world. Take, for example, a virus. Like Richards’ tenor-vehicle model, a virus is composed of two parts: the RnA or DnA which constitutes the genetic information of the virus and a protein shell which encases and protects the virus during transmission.

disease2Diagram of a basic virus

Like metaphors, diseases also transform us as we carry them, turning our healthy bodies into symbols and carriers of illness. Also like the tenor-vehicle model of metaphor, it is the process of transmission and the reaction (biological and social) to the virus that creates meaning for us in our everyday lives, not its discrete biological components. Often it is not the virus itself, but the symptoms of its reproduction and our body’s immune response that we recognize. In truly explosive epidemics, such as the continuing HIV/AIDS epidemic, the social response to an outbreak, or lack thereof, can be as devastating as the illness itself.

Like any effective metaphor, the metaphor of disease transmits an emotive idea—the idea that disease is a vehicle for deeper meaning. Take, for example, a popular depiction of epidemic disease with a number of readily available metaphorical interpretations: that of the zombie outbreak. (For recent interpretations of this trope see AMC’s The Walking Dead series, Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, and many others.) In this context, zombies are humans who have been infected by a contagious disease, the primary symptom of which is rising from the dead with a hunger for human flesh or brains. Each zombie victim becomes a zombie, who then creates more zombies in a pyramid-scheme of death. The disease is obviously part of the horror of zombies, but they also serve as a clear metaphor for social issues within and outside their respective sci-fi universes. For example, in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), survivors of a zombie outbreak take refuge in a shopping mall, a setting which places the zombies’ need for excessive consumption of human flesh in juxtaposition with the excesses of late capitalism.

disease3The living dead ravage the Monroeville Mall in George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Here the metaphorical tenor is the system of consumerism typified by the U.S. shopping mall and the vehicle is the glowering zombie horde entrapping the survivors. The metaphorical interpretation I propose here asks us to consider how zombies relate to capitalism, and in doing so arranges several possible connections: are consumers like zombies in their mindless need for excessive goods? Does the capitalist model reward a type of economic cannibalism that, like the zombies, lacks emotional connection or sympathy? In the act of configuring the zombies in relation to their capitalist setting, different possible meanings are constructed in our minds. The metaphor of the zombie epidemic can also be understood in other registers, so tune in next week for a longer look at zombies!

The metaphor of epidemic transforms any person or group designated by society as outsiders into threatening vessels of contagion and constructs an internal logic that reinforces prejudicial and superstitious thinking. But contagion and disease have also been used as templates for resistance and reframed as opportunities to reimagine a more compassionate, empathetic, and healthy society. I hope you will join me in the coming weeks as I take a close look at how epidemic diseases and their metaphors have shaped our culture and our shared imagination.


Maxwell Cassity is a PhD candidate studying 20th- and 21st-century American and world literatures with a specific focus on novels, short fiction, and the influence of minority writers on critical conceptions of modernism and postmodernism. Although Mr. Cassity’s scholarship primarily concerns the American novel, his other scholarly interests include fiction, poetry, film, and narrative games. His proposed dissertation will examine how works of fiction have approached epidemic disease and cultural understandings of illness, contagion, and virality. Finding its foundation in the concepts of biopolitics and biopower, this project seeks to investigate how race and class difference have been incorporated into the discourse of disease and how structures of power mobilize the ideology of racialized disease to reinforce social hierarchies, isolate minority populations, and justify power over life and death in 20th-century U.S. society.

“They may pass for excellent men:” Audience and Interpretative Labor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[5-7 minute read]

Last week, I discussed Hamlet’s metatheatrical play within a play, The Murder of Gonzago, in an attempt to discuss what Hamlet’s attitudes towards acting could tell us about the relationship between theater and audience. This week, I would like to shift gears and discuss a different moment of metatheatricality in Shakespeare: the performance of The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with my previous examples, Midsummer has an investment in the relationship between actor and audience, particularly as it pertains to moments of interpretation relative to an imagined, unchanging ‘text.’ Here though, that interrogation would seem to lack the political stakes that characters like Hamlet and individuals like Elizabeth I associated with the theater. Rather, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are presented with the possibility that an audience’s ability to interpret a text against an implied authorial voice does not represent a threat to the theater as an institution. Instead, this moment represents an instance of productive labor that allows audience and playwright to work in unison.

Among the many subplots moving through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a great deal of time is spent with the “Rude Mechanicals,” a band of Athenian lower-class craftsmen preparing a play for the upcoming wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens. The performance is framed as comically inept. From its treatment of the staging to the acting, the text of Midsummer’s invites mockery of the Rude Mechanicals’ stage play. The performance, which dominates the fifth act of the play,[1] becomes a spectacle of failure as the onstage audience of the performance mocks and jeers at the actors in what amounts to a four-century old version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. While the Rude Mechanicals are not Hamlet’s boisterous clowns, they seem aligned with his idea of the overly zealous actor who would threaten to “out-Herods/ Herod,” and thus cause the audience to fail in understanding the gravity of the play’s printed text.[2] The original Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragedy drawn from the pages of Ovid, and invokes the same vaunted high artistic sources in which Hamlet finds his text. Unlike The Murder of Gonzago within Hamlet, Pyramus fails to produce its desired effect and the narrative is transformed into farce.

Rude MechanicalsShakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals

To this end, it is important to consider not only the metatheatrical performance undertaken in A Midsummer’s, but also its metatheatrical audience. Theseus and his cohort are very aware of their role as audience members, and the beginning of Act V serves as a justification for why the Duke allows this performance to go on in the first place. Central to this is Duke’s assertion that he and his fellow audience members are serving as a magnanimous corrective to the failure of the mechanicals; they act as individuals who know the play will be awful but will watch it nonetheless, because their presence will solve the problem of the mechanical’s ineptitude, and thus ‘fix’ the play. The Duke, being informed of how awful the play will likely be, remarks “[t]he kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing. / Our sport shall be to take what they mistake.”[3] Taking what they – the performers – mistake implicitly frames Theseus’s goal as one of interpretative labor, in which he and his fellow audience members will correct the problems arising from the inability of the mechanicals to ‘properly’ perform tragedy.

This is however, made significantly more complex by how the performance of A Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe does not fail in a metatheatrical sense. In other words, although the Rude Mechanicals fail to properly perform tragedy within the logic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the live audience is compelled to join in with Theseus and his royal audience. We laugh with them and the comedy of Midsummer becomes successful, even if it is at the expense of lower-class actors failing to produce real affective tragedy. We take it upon ourselves to participate in Theseus’s reinterpretation of the play and in doing so, we too find pleasure the kind of corrective interpretation that Theseus promises when he claims to “take what they mistake.” The audience is not a passive figure tasked with correctly taking in the meaning of the tragedy, as that is not the real stakes in the final moments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead, the on-stage audience are active participants in the construction of the play and in doing so, provide a bulk of the pleasurable comedy. We, as the audience in the theater, are brought to laugh with the on-stage audience and in doing so, we aren’t failing to properly interpret Pyramus and Thisbe; we are correctly interpreting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is the central metatheatrical tension in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s, and it is this tension between text and performance that creates the comedy of the final act.

Now, the political stakes in the reinterpretation of tragedy into comedy are much lower than the stakes of an early modern audience member reinterpreting a play like Richard II as pro-usurpation. However, the function of this examination, and the function of all my discussions this month has been to interrogate the ways in which early modern drama addresses and complicates the role of the audience as an active and passive portion of the space of the theater. I began this month in the present day, examining the suggestion that audiences failing to properly interpret the ‘meaning of a play’ might in turn serve as a threat to the institution of the public theater. From there, I spoke to two similar discourses present in early modernity, each suggesting how various audiences’ differing interpretation of a play might have dire political consequences. I close then, on a more ‘productive’ moment of misinterpretation, wherein the audiences’ ability to reject the ‘meaning of a text’ is not imagined as an undesirable response. At the conclusion of this series of blogposts, I hope to have made visible the complex relationship early modern theater had with its own interpretative communities, and the ways in which many of those vexed relationships remain present in our own relationship with the artistic productions of the past.


[1] The rest of the key plot points have been wrapped up by the beginning of the fifth act.

[2] Hamlet III.ii.x14-x15. Of note here, Bottom does pride himself in his ability to play a tyrant, an attitude he attempts to comically transfer off the stage during rehearsal.

[3] A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.i.95-96.

“Dumbshows and Noise:” Hamlet and The Problem of Audience

[5-7 minute read]

During Act 3 of Hamlet, while preparing the travelling players for the evening’s performance, Hamlet provides the actor’s company with a lengthy speech concerning the proper methods of acting he would like them to employ. During the speech, he makes a note on clowns, saying “and let those that play/ your clowns speak no more than is set down for them;/for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to/ set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh/too.[1] Here, Hamlet urges caution to the players: their clown should speak only those words written upon the page, lest his frantic ad-libbing set the audience to laughter, and risk missing “some necessary/question of the play be then to be considered.”[2] This moment reminds the audience of how seriously Hamlet takes the theater and how he believes the supremacy of the page should define the worth of theatrical performance. Hamlet’s worry is that that clowns and fools pose a threat to the political power of drama. Given the political implications of Hamlet’s play, the worry here is that a particularly boisterous fool may risk causing the entire theatrical endeavor to come crashing down. Moving too far from the text, or otherwise reducing its importance as a single-authored object of reverence, threatens to rob it of its political weight, and reduce it to airy nothingness.

William KempeWilliam Kempe: Shakespeare’s first fool and likely the reason that this speech exists

Particularly key here is the sense that ‘some quantity of barren spectators’ will become wrapped up in the clown’s performance. Clowns were understood to be figures of the theater beloved by the commons; they were the wild antic-makers who, along with the jigs and songs that would accompany a public theatrical performance, successfully brought London’s poorer audiences into the theaters. This moment of directly – and assertively – attacking the figure of the fool is explicitly transformed into a jab at the kinds of audiences who would enjoy the labor of the clown and in turn, would rob the text of its dignity. Here, the assault on the fool is an instrument for critiquing the baser kinds of audiences who enjoyed the fools’ antics above the artistic merit of the tragic monologue. While Hamlet extends this beyond the antics of the clown (also critiquing players whose voices remind him of the town-crier), the thrust of the speech remains in the suggestion that the theater is a site of high art that must not be threatened by actors who would “split the ears of the groundlings, who/ for the most part are capable of nothing but/ inexplicable dumbshows and noise.”[3] A key component of this critique is misdirection; in other words, this critique emphasizes a playwright’s worry that his audience will fail to understand the gravity of the text, and will instead allow themselves to be enamored by disposable and unimportant moments that are not worthy of artistic labor. Within this speech, the antipathy towards the unwashed masses and their inability to properly relate to the artistic production of the theater is palpable, and framed through rhetoric reminiscent of critiques leveled against mass public audiences in virtually any contemporary moment.

This sense of the importance of the play is complicated by the performance Hamlet is discussing. While in the last few weeks we looked at texts that were assumed to have represented political leaders on stage, Hamlet’s intent is explicit, as he notes “the play’s the thing,/ wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”[4] Hamlet is certain of the play’s ability to foreground the reality of Denmark’s corruption, despite the incongruity separating The Murder of Gonzago from the text of Hamlet. Hamlet’s audience, both on the stage and in the theatre, is meant to understand that the goal of the play is to “hold a mirror up to nature[5] — and this in turn will reflect the rank villainy that has seeped into the Danish court. While Hamlet is not hoping that his play will stir a popular revolt,[6] he is assuming the play itself will have the power make the invisible sins lingering within the state visible, and furthermore, force a moment of confession and revelation to justify his act of regicide. His speech to the player kings also suggests a belief that if the play is not treated with the necessary reverence for the art form, it will be prone to fail. The stakes of this performance as so much greater than the enjoyment and applause of Hamlet’s hypothetical barren spectators, and so must be presented with the proper audience in mind.

While there is reason to be hesitant in ventriloquizing the voice of Shakespeare through Hamlet, it is worth considering the ways that this discourse was present during the period, and the ways in which Hamlet’s advice has become part and parcel with the discourse surrounding the theater in our contemporary world. As the theater has become a stable and lauded artistic institution, clowns and dumbshows in Shakespearean tragedies nevertheless remind us of their popular origins. As I noted in my first post this month, there was a sense among defenders of Julius Caesar (2017) that it was a case of audiences simply missing the “question of the play.” Those who then missed the question became like the lowly personages Hamlet critiques here, incapable or unwilling to grapple with the complexity of the dramatic representations put before them, and wasting energy in focusing on the wrong part of the text or performance. Though these complaints are not framed in the same language Hamlet proposes, the premise that underscores them remains worth considering. In our contemporary affirmation of the theater as weighty and serious art capable of enacting the kind of political labor early modern audiences feared, there is a danger that we have also affirmed Hamlet’s suggestion. Perhaps, this assertion also bolsters the belief that groundings, past and present, and their inability to fully understand the weight of artistic representation, act as a threat to the value of the theater as an institution. This becomes a highly contentious notion regarding who can enjoy the theater and what it means to ‘watch a play properly,’ lest we become the clown-loving audiences Hamlet chides. At its heart, these debates all return to the relationship between the theater and the general public, and this is the subject that I will explore in my final post this month.


[1] Hamlet III.ii.39-43.

[2] Ibid, 43-44.

[3] Ibid, 11-13.

[4] Hamlet, II.ii, 633-634.

[5] Hamlet, III.ii. 23.

[6] By contrast, Laertes does lead a popular revolt.

“I am Richard II, Know Ye Not That”: Drama and Political Anxiety in Shakespeare’s London

[5 minute read]

In last week’s post, I talked about the public reaction to a 2017 performance of a 1599 play featuring the execution of a Roman Consul who had been made-over to look like a contemporary politician. This week, I will be looking at the performance of a 1597 play that took place in 1601, similarly featuring the execution of a monarch perceived to look like a contemporary politician. During the late Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, a time now remembered as one of the heights of English dramatic production, there was a common belief that the theater was dangerous because it was a kind of art that could easily reach a broad, popular audience. The theater ripe for criticism: it was seen as a den of vice and disease,[1] and as a threat to public decency, particularly as it involved the interpretative labor of a population that might be spurred to sin or rebellion by the content performed upon the stage. This led to a wide range of so-called ‘anti-theatricalist’ literature, which sought to condemn the worst excess of the theater and its audiences. Writers denounced the theater as tempting audiences in the same way “[t]he deceitful physician gives sweet syrups to make his poison go down the smoother: the juggler casts a mist to work the closer: the siren’s song is the sailor’s wreck.”[2] The central worry was that audiences were being lured in by representations of sin, heresy and disobedience.

frontimage“The schoole of abuse contayning a pleasaunt inuectiue against poets, pipers, players, iesters, and such like caterpillers of a common wealth”

As a result of this fear – and combined with a general culture of political repression – the public theater was heavily scrutinized by the Elizabethan regime. Political authorities engaged in a number of censorship practices designed to limit writing that could be considered seditious, particularly restricting and suppressing any play dealing with “either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the common weal.”[3] Playwrights were arrested on suspicion of treason, and several, including Thomas Kyd, were tortured. Most of these convictions dealt with religious heresy during Elizabeth I’s crackdown on Catholicism. However, locating these efforts within the space of the theater suggested that individuals within positions of power shared a skepticism concerning the theater.[4] The underlying assumption that a play might incite audiences to open treason carries with it a powerful statement about the relationship between dramatic representation, interpretation and political anxieties. As a part of the public bureaucracy, this also constrained playwrights to working around censorship laws to avoid losing their license to perform.

EssexRobert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex

While these fears surrounding the theater certainly seem exaggerated, the persistent belief that the theater might be a site of political subversion did have significant real-world ramifications. The most famous case of the theater intersecting with open political rebellion during Shakespeare’s contemporary moment was likely the Essex Rebellion in 1601. One-time court favorite Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, attempted a coup in London with the intent of shifting power in the English courts towards his own party. A small part of this coup involved paying a substantial amount of money to the Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II (a play written several years earlier) on the days leading up to the rebellion, seemingly hopeful that a play about the deposition and overthrow of a weak monarch by a powerful usurper would win support for the imminent coup. While it seems odd to think that a performance of a play might have had any impact on public opinion, Elizabeth I shared a similar fear, once remarking “I am Richard II, know ye not that,”[5] tying herself to the deposed monarch and commenting on the frequency of the play’s production. Here, the stakes of interpretation and the willingness of a population to read Richard II as a seditious text is not merely a historical curiosity; rather, it was part of the logic justifying state control over the theater, and greatly impacted the way playwrights navigated the politically vexed world of the Elizabethan stage.

None of this is to suggest that the controversy I discussed last week carries the same stakes as it did in the Elizabethan era. What I hoped to demonstrate in this blog post is that discourses surrounding how politics are represented on the stage (and the associated issues of audience reaction and interpretation) are baked into the very DNA of early modern drama, particularly as writers attempted to navigate an outwardly hostile social landscape. Given the place that certain theatrical works, such as those of Shakespeare, occupy in the contemporary cultural landscape, it is worthwhile to think about the context in which these texts were first produced, and how it shaped their content – especially as we continue to repurpose these texts to service our own anxieties in the contemporary political moment.


[1] This was true both metaphorically, as opponents of the theater saw them as examples of public sickness and distress, but also literally, as fears of epidemics and plagues saw the closure of theaters to prevent viral outbreaks among London’s poorer population.

[2] Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, 1579.

[3] Queen Elizabeth I, proclamation “Prohibiting Unlicensed Interludes and Plays, Especially on Religion or Policy” qtd. http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/literature/publishing/censorship.html

[4] It is also worth remembering that to work against the teachings of the Church of England during the late 16th century was viewed as a state crime, as religion was a matter of state identity.

[5] There is debate over whether this anecdote is apocryphal, though the general distress at the political power of the theater was not invented, even if this quote was.

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him:” Shakespeare and the Politics of Interpretation

[5-7 minute read]

During my last month writing for Metathesis, I talked about the contemporary desire to find political meaning in Shakespeare’s plays. Then in June, Shakespeare in the Park staged a performance of Julius Caesar in which the actor playing Caesar consciously invoked the image of President Trump, mimicking his vocal affectation and his mannerisms. This performance was met with public backlash, as voices responded with anger at the idea of a publicly funded art institution staging the assassination of the sitting President. As someone who studies early modern drama, it was a surreal moment to see the nation spend a few days in the middle of Summer having a conversation focused on how to properly interpret Act 3 of Julius Caesar. For a moment in June 2017, the text of a play from 1599 about the death of a Roman Consul in 44 BC was at the heart of a public debate over the relationship between art and politics.

Image 1Per the performance, this was a Caesar who could stab a man on fifth avenue and not lose a supporter.

Most surprising to me was the outpouring of reactions to the controversy that framed it as one over interpretations of the play. These responses attempted to announce, as clearly as possible, that Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence – and they were built upon textual arguments and close-readings.[1] These responses, from sources like The Guardian and The New York Times to The AV Club and The Atlantic, centered on the idea that a sufficiently skillful reading of the text of Julius Caesar would clear up any confusion over whether or not the production supported the actions of the Roman conspirators. By extension, this assumption meant a skillful reading would also appropriately address – and perhaps deflate – any anger of what the play was perceived to say about President Trump. For these responses, the portion of the public angry about the performance was simply missing the point of the play, or as Atlantic frames it, it was a case of “[m]isplaced [o]utrage.” The Guardian piece brings in Stephen Greenblatt to explain how dissenters are missing “the point of the play.” Even the statement by the theater itself is built partially on this premise, stating “Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.” Invoking the authorial voice of Shakespeare alongside their own production decisions, the statement reads as not only a defense of artistic integrity, but also a pointed claim: at the heart of the controversy is a misreading of Julius Caesar.

Now, these responses also seem intent on producing a singular interpretative lens through which to view the play. These readings gloss over the idea that while one can read Julius Caesar as a play that is deeply skeptical about the conspiratorial action of figures like Cassius and Brutus, it can also be read as a play in which a demagogue exploits a mob of Roman citizens and preys upon their anger and resentment to compel them to destructive violence. This notably includes a scene in which the mob tears a poet to shreds because they dislike his verses, an equally prescient interpretation. However, for me, the fascinating aspect of these responses lies less in the specific interpretations that they provide for Julius Caesar, and more in the underlying assumption that the entire ordeal stemmed from a debate over the textual meaning of Act 3 of Julius Caesar, with the accompanying suggestion that this would be cleared up through the authoritative voices of individuals who were simply better readers. This move signals an important divide in how the various voices in the conversation conceptualize the place of the stage (and other arts) in public discourse. Shakespeare, these responses seem to imply, is more in danger of being misread than anything else. The political undercurrents of the play are not dangerous; rather, the possibility that they will be misunderstood is dangerous and that must be warded against.

Central to this conversation is the implication that the theater is a site of political tension and that the interpretation of this tension can be, and often is, a deeply political act. This is certainly not a new debate. For another examination of the relationship between theater and the present administration, see Ashley O’Mara’s Persuasive Performance: Theater and Conversion. Tensions surrounding the theater and the role of drama in the Anglophonic world date back to the foundation of the first public theaters and in my next post, I’m going to explore how debates over the place of the theater in public political life have evolved since Shakespeare’s work were first performed on the London stage.


[1] Putting my own personal interpretative cards on the table: Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence. Also, it should be noted that the original story that generated anger around the performance neglected to mention that the play in question was Julius Caesar.

Evan Hixon is a third-year Ph.D. student in the English Department. His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations. His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Valuing Difference: An Ace on Food, Friendship, and Fluffy Companionship

[5 minute read]

(CW: pet death)

 

For a year, two of my colleagues shared an office across from mine. They were best friends, and they stocked their space with craft beer and a reclaimed yellow armchair, squishy and velveteen, and spent their office hours in conversation together. Maybe it was because my own best friend lived abroad and my office lunches were pretty lonely, but this scene instantly became my image of hashtag-friendship-goals.

toffee1Except with cookies instead of craft beer.

Friendship is extremely important in ace communities, both on its own and as a comparison point for describing the other kinds of relationships an ace might want to participate in (romantic, queerplatonic, etc.). Meanwhile, food is an important part of my friendships. If I am friends with you, I will bake for you at some point. We will go out for ice cream and lunches, and linger talking over tea. For me, sharing food is a manifestation of how our relationship is mutually sustaining. Maybe it’s a Catholic thing, since Catholics experience communion with the divine through bread and wine. Maybe it’s an ace thing, since so many of our memes describe food as better than sex.

toffee2Exhibit A(ce).

What might be my favorite Sherlock fic describes Sherlock and John’s asexual relationship in a way that draws upon this nourishing sensibility:

Marvellous feeling, this. […]

Beside him in the bed, John is sound asleep.

Companion. Late Latin. Literally; bread-fellow. Same with the Germanic equivalent; meal-mate. Etymological identicality—another joy. Replaced an older word meaning travelling partner. John was both. A companion at the breakfast table and on the train. Gefera. Wayfarer. Gemate. Eating at the same table. Mate. One of a wedded pair. Com-pan-ion. With bread.

— Canon_Is_Relative, “Comfort”

*

My bunny, Toffee Touchstone, died a year ago this week. During his long illness, I spent a lot of time calling the Cornell Companion Animal Hospital, but we also spent a lot of time together watching Doctor Who. We watched the Tenth Doctor struggle with the romantic expectations others placed upon him, and fight (unsuccessfully?) to save the last member of his race in the hope that one day he might be converted from evil. We watched him mourn the loss of his Companion Rose and find new friendship in his Companion Martha.

toffee3Toffee mooning the Daleks.

When we weren’t watching Doctor Who, Toffee’s and my relationship — perhaps not surprisingly, given the interests of bunnies — revolved around fluffy cuddles and food. A lot of the food portion of things, especially when he was sick and nauseated, involved keeping him supplied with fresh snacks that he liked: parsley, cilantro, kale, crisp young endive, and dandelions picked from the yard (through the snow, if necessary). It involved racing around the carpet for treats and sorting the weeds from his hay. It involved coaxing him out of the kibble cupboard when he jumped into it and very carefully cooking so as to minimize the unnatural smell of fried onions or warm bread. It involved luring toddler Toffee into my lap with parsley bribery, and coaxing adult Toffee into climbing onto my back – to give me a massage – with a handful of dandelions between my shoulders.

But our relationship also included sharing food. You couldn’t peel a banana for breakfast without a bun showing up at your feet for samples. Eating blueberries meant picking out a few to share. One of my most favorite memories is of sitting on the floor to eat my apple after a long day on campus, and having Toffee join me for a few bites.

Toffee and me, sharing an apple.

In Toffee’s last months, I found a solution to my struggle to name our relationship. My grandmother (who would pass away a couple months after Toffee did) always told him to “go find your mama,” a name which never sat well with me. Gendered attributes in general make me cringe, but a mother–child relationship just didn’t make sense to me for us. “Pet and owner” was even more alienating: these terms relied on capitalist hierarchies, and just didn’t capture our emotional symbiosis. How to describe me and my food-sharing furry friend?

We were the Doctor(al student) and her Companion.

Normalizing Difference: Redefining Asexuality

[5 minute read]

The problem with asexuality, as I’ve discussed before, is that it is hard to talk about on its own terms — even in a grammatical sense.

For example: If you’re homosexual, you can say, “I’m sexually attracted to people of my same gender.” If you’re pansexual, you can say, “I’m sexually attracted to all genders.”

These are positive constructions: I do experience attraction to x. But if you’re asexual, the sentence structure use is a negative construction: “I don’t experience sexual attraction.” Etymologically, it’s a negative identity: it literally means not-sexual. I’m not-something. This is Parmenides’ dilemma: the Greek philosopher’s famous poem describes how the goddess told him not to contemplate “not-being,” for it is categorically impossible to fathom that which is not. No wonder then, that asexuality is always rendered in terms of allosexuality. As we saw in journalism and in fanfic, an asexual person is always compared to an allosexual norm in order to describe the ace’s asexuality.

blogasexual1Parmenides suffering the effects of contemplating “not-being.”

But what if that weren’t the case? Asexuality obviously exists independently of allosexuality, so how might we describe it in its own terms? One scholar who has boldly gone where no Greek philosopher has gone before is Benjamin Kahan, the author of Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. Although contemporary discourse about asexuality is careful to distinguish celibacy (the abstention from sexual behavior) from asexuality (a state of being which exists independently of sexual behavior that a person may or may not practice), Kahan uses celibacy to describe what we might otherwise call asexuality. At first, this seemed an unnecessarily confusing choice, especially since Kahan dedicates his last chapter to aromantic asexuality. But I came to realize: casting celibacy as only a religious or political choice assumes that that person would otherwise behave “normatively” sexually. Such a rhetorical move erases the very real potential that celibates do not, in fact, repress any sexual desires, but instead desire their own celibacy — perhaps in the same way that aces might desire their own asexuality.

blogasex2Desiring celibacy? Say what?

Popular images of celibates — priests and nuns, spinsters and forty-year-old virgins — represent celibacy as anti-sexual frigidity, a cover for sexual “perversity,” or the pitiful pining of total losers, but never something desirable in itself. However, Kahan argues that we’ve been approaching celibacy all wrong when we imagine it as the opposite of sexuality. Asexuality, when its existence is recognized, has at least managed to be classified as one of many sexualities like bisexuality and heterosexuality, even if that classification is complicated by its etymology: not-sexuality. But celibacy, Kahan argues, is not not-sex; it is another mode of doing sex. I would argue the same is true of asexuality. By re-sexualizing nongenital attractions, we get closer to understanding asexuality as a positive construction. We might be able to answer what it is that aces want — what pleasures they’re attracted to in a nongenital sense, if not sex with other beings or objects.

blogasex3Come, let us enter together the door to new a/sexual possibilities.

This is the driving force of Kahan’s argument. His book underscores the importance of “understanding celibacy not as an absence or as a stigmatized identity but in positive terms as an attractive identity with its own desires and pleasures.”[1] If we apply the same principle to asexuality, it becomes imperative to reorient hegemonic ideas about asexuality. We must look beyond the language of lack and assumptions of asexuality’s opposition to erotonormativity, and instead locate what it is in and of itself. What does asexuality look like when it isn’t compared to another sexual orientation? What do aces want?

To answer this, I suggest looking at how Kahan grapples with answering a similar, though distinct, question: what do celibates want? When he says that celibacy is a form of sex, Kahan is careful to distinguish celibacy from kinks; although celibates (like aces) can have kinks, celibacy and asexuality are not coterminous with kinks. For Kahan, bringing nongenital attractions back into the realm of sexuality seems to mean recognizing other, asexual attractions on equal footing with what we’ve historically known to be sexual attractions — not as a substitute for or deferral from sexual attraction, but a sexual attraction because it offers the same kind of fulfillment that normative sexual attractions do. Essentially, Kahan wants us to expand the definition of what qualifies as attractive desire to include the attractions of the celibate. Specifically, Kahan writes, “rather than desiring something lacking and trying to obtain it” — for instance, desiring a sexual relationship and going for it — “the celibate desire is the reiteration of celibacy itself.”[2]

What does the celibate want? To be celibate. To maintain their celibacy, to revel in their identity. What does the ace want? I would tentatively suggest the same. Perhaps aces want to be ace.

Kahan’s argument about celibacy might not fully answer what it means to be asexual. Reiterative desire is only one kind of nongenital attraction, and there’s a possibility that pulling asexuality back into the realm of normative sexuality erodes some of its characteristic queerness. But by insisting that we consider what celibacy is on its own terms — positive terms — Kahan’s argument show us the possibility of self-definition, and positive asexuality.


[1] Benjamin A. Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 3.

[2] Ibid., 69.

Abnormalizing Difference: Sexual Normativity in Asexual Sherlock Fanfic

[7 minute read]

(CW: discussion of sexual violence in fanfic.)

Can I tell you a secret? I knew the titular character of BBC’s Sherlock had become one of the mascots of the ace community before I even watched the show — and I defended his reputation as such before I watched it, too, as evidenced in a text conversation between myself and my best friend:

Best Friend: Omg, you have to watch Sherlock. They’re so gay.

Me: No Sherlock isn’t! He’s supposed to be asexual!

Judging by the events of series four (spoiler alert), we both might have been a little optimistically defensive of our interpretations of Sherlock’s sexuality; but I think I was justified in my devotion to Sherlock-as-ace. Until Archie’s Jughead last year, and Bojack Horseman’s Todd this year, aces had no authentic canonical representations of themselves to turn to in popular fictional media (let alone celebrities).[1] So we appropriated other characters for ourselves. No other fictional character had given voice to the experiences I considered uniquely ace quite like Sherlock did: his quick jump to defend himself from what he perceived as John’s eventual sexual advances by claiming “I’m married to my work” (“A Study in Pink”); his refusal to recognize Irene’s overt sexual advances by protesting “Why would I want to have dinner if I wasn’t hungry?” (“A Scandal in Belgravia”); and his deft evasion of imaginary-John’s insistent questions about his seemingly absent sexual desires by insisting that “Nothing made me” the way that Sherlock is (“The Abominable Bride”). In my eyes, Sherlock actively distances himself from the erotonormative expectations of the people around him, like I do, and I loved him for it (platonically, of course).

fic1Asexuality is A-okay.

However, for all the refusal of normative sexuality that Sherlock performs in the BBC series, there exists a perversely normalizing trend within asexuality-themed Sherlock fanfic. When I ran out of new Sherlock episodes to watch, I found a thread on the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s message board, wherein users recommended ace Sherlock fanfic that they had come across. Although I would later read fics featuring other interpretations of Sherlock’s sexuality (inspiring this earlier Metathesis post), the first few Sherlock fics that I read all featured an ace Sherlock, and, in one case, an ace John. But, with one notable exception, these first few fics also featured its ace character experiencing some form of sexual harassment or violence.

In one graphic fic, Sherlock tolerates tacitly unwanted sex with John out of fear of losing his companionship. In another fic, college-aged Sherlock evades his boyfriend’s sexual contact one too many times and gets called a freak. In a more light-hearted fic, Sherlock recounts narrowly escaping losing his virginity at a brothel after his brother pressures him into visiting one. In other fics, Sherlock feels that he’s a dysfunctional human for being ace and denies himself platonic intimate contact for fear of sending mixed signals. Although these fics and those like them generally end happily or at least peacefully, with John understanding and affirming Sherlock’s asexuality, or John and Sherlock negotiating their sexual boundaries together, this upbeat ending can come only after a moment wherein erotonormativity’s current stranglehold on sexuality is reasserted — indeed, normalized.

Maybe there is something unique about the BBC series that affords the exploration of how dominant ideas about sexuality make aces vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence; for instance, I haven’t yet dug very deeply into Doctor Who’s limited selection of ace fic, but so far, I haven’t experienced the same phenomenon. Perhaps where Doctor Who institutionalizes some nonsexual companionships and allows for alternative — albeit alien, in both senses of the word — normalized ideas about human behavior, Sherlock’s long refusal to directly address Sherlock’s sexuality encourages fic writers to render Sherlock’s cryptic rejection of sexual advances as discomfort with his asexuality. Whatever the cause of this trend in Sherlock fic, it reproduces some of the narratives about asexuality that I described last week. Asexuality is, however briefly, depicted as freakish: subhuman, antisocial, pathological. Furthermore, ace Sherlock must find a way to educate his companion about his asexuality, often in terms that privilege his companion’s sexual needs and desires over his asexual needs and desires. Erotonormativity haunts these fictional narratives as much as it does real life.

fic2The show doesn’t really disabuse people of this norm, either.

Understandably, fic writers looking to positively represent asexual experiences want to show their characters contending with, and eventually overcoming struggles that are common to the ace community. These often include the threat of so-called reparative rape when erotonormativity says that everyone should want sex; the miscommunication that occurs when erotonormativity codes otherwise nonsexual gestures as sexual innuendo; and the internalized doubt and dismissal of one’s asexual desires when erotonormativity insists an allosexual partner’s sexual desires must be catered to, because asexuality is outside the norm. This is, after all, the general state of affairs aces have been told to anticipate from those who are not asexual, and art has been known to imitate life — especially when ace writers are looking for a space to test out reactions to situations and ideologies that they might face in their lives outside fiction writing.

But fanfic is, of course, fiction. Many fics already have an extremely distant relationship to both reality and the canonical source text they’re drawn from. Why not imagine a world wherein asexuality is normalized, aces don’t have to explain themselves, and their desires are privileged? I’m concerned that “asexual experience,” insofar as experiences can be generalized, is becoming characterized only in relationship to erotonormativity, perhaps in a similar way to how queerness is sometimes characterized only in opposition to heteronormativity. What would it look like to accept asexuality on its own terms? This is what I’ll be exploring the rest of this month for Metathesis.


[1] Technically USA’s Sirens featured a canonically out ace, but we’re all still applying brain bleach to erase that representation from our memories.

Misrepresenting Difference: Objectifying Asexuality in Journalism

[10 minute read]

The media we consume shapes our implicit biases. It is one factor among many, but I saw it at work among my Fox News-watching relatives during the 2016 election. I saw it at work among rosary-praying priests putting my femininity on a pedestal. I saw it at work after 9/11, when I started getting spooked by Arab-looking passengers at airports — even though my family is Arab-American. The dominant popular media narratives about categories of difference like race and gender routinely reinforce stereotypes that serve the interests of dominating ideas of racism and patriarchy. But one oft-overlooked dominating idea is what asexuality scholars call allosexism or erotonormativity: the belief that everyone should experience sexual attraction.

Internet news on asexuality is scattered with clickbait articles characterizing asexuality as “controversial” in their description of the sexual orientation. After the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s (AVEN’s) Facebook page reposted this article, I broke my polite internet silence to express my frustration. It wasn’t so much that asexuality was “controversial”; rather, sensationalizing articles like these make asexuality controversial. When several dozen AVEN followers liked my response, I knew I had identified a common sore spot in our community: We’re sick of being a spectacle.

In her 2013 essay “Spectacular Asexuals: Media Visibility and Cultural Fetish” (139–161 here), asexuality scholar Karli June Cerankowski has written at length about how AVEN’s mission of visibility may be contributing to this “journalistic” phenomenon to our own detriment. It’s a useful argument and I recommend reading it, but here I’m more interested in how journalism does that on its own by continuing to represent asexuality from the perspective of allosexuals (that is, not aces) and/or for an allosexual audience.

With few exceptions, the 250 articles (including news, magazines, and major blog hubs indexed by Google News) that featured asexuality in 2017 generally fall into one of three categories:

  1. Asexuality 101
  2. Asexual Freakshow
  3. Asexual Representation

 

  1. “Asexuality 101” articles attempt to be a primer on the definition of asexuality as the absence of sexual attraction (although they often get this point wrong by confusing attraction with desire). Sometimes they discuss the concept of romantic orientation and how asexual relationships can look just like sexual relationships, but without the sex . This is a journalistic process of heteronormative assimilation similar to the “Love Is Love” movement that moved gays and lesbians into larger mainstream acceptance by downplaying their essential queerness.

asexual2A typical infographic supplied by AVEN.

  1. “Asexual Freakshow” articles play up the peculiarity and even the perceived perversity of asexuality. They usually attempt some of the explanatory work of Asexuality 101 articles, but frame the explanation in a way that exaggerates our alleged prudishness, or makes us the object of subtle ridicule or skepticism. These articles’ authors like to dwell on the incidence of masturbation and sexual fantasy among aces, or ask fellow allosexuals to share their shock that people can walk the planet without feeling lust.

asexual3Oh no…not the finger…

  1. “Asexual Representation” articles typically recognize a newly “out” celebrity, politician, or fictional character, or note the enduring absence of asexual figures in popular media. These articles are less likely to do the defining work of Asexuality 101. They often still explore the experiences exclusive to aces that are thus un/represented in the media (sometimes with nuance), as in the case of The Mary Sue, a pop-culture web magazine that often publishes sophisticated analyses of aces in visual media, often by ace authors. Unfortunately, articles about asexual celebrities might still frame the announcement in Asexual-Freakshow clickbait terms.

urlCheck out that URL.

Articles that don’t feature asexuality but instead mention it in passing (or list it among other subjects) don’t deviate much from the patterns I describe above. Features about Pride Month or LGBTQ resource centers do brief work in Asexuality 101; sex-ed articles addressing asexuality share a wink and a nudge with allosexuals; and pop-culture news often completely misunderstands asexuality as distinct from celibacy or gender-neutrality, or briefly reflects on the absence of ace role models.

To a degree, the abundance of Asexuality 101 articles unfortunately makes some sense. As Asexual Representation articles point out, known aces are frustratingly absent from public sight. Our A appears irregularly in the LGBT(QIAP+) acronym, and even when it does appear, it’s often appropriated to represent “ally” instead: most egregiously by American Apparel to sell bags in 2016 and by Equinox Gym to make a viral video in 2017. If allosexuals don’t know we exist, they can’t look for us, or be good allies to us; therefore, education is necessary. Even shoddy Asexuality 101 articles and the clickbait education of Asexual Freakshow articles can put information in front of people who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.[1]

asexual5That’s…that’s not how it works…

But for those of us who have already discovered we identify as ace, the endless parade of explanatory articles describing us as if we were some curious or kinky novelty dominates the conversation. These articles aren’t written for us but rather about us. Cerankowski has observed that we are made into “objects for consumption” for a voyeuristic audience (141). Perhaps because aces themselves aren’t in charge of how we’re written about or what gets published, we are continually framed as eternally new, strange, and dubious in the service of others’ entertainment; not our own.

Last year was a particularly disappointing year for the objectification of aces in the news. In the articles I surveyed in December, twenty-five of them had headlines that either asked a question (“Is It Normal to Not Want Sex?”) or promised answers (“All Of Your Questions About What It’s Like To Be Asexual Answered”), all addressed at an audience presumed to not be ace. Prominent AVEN user Siggy compiled no less than 16 pseudo-journalistic takes on a study showing that aces have sexual fantasies (though not necessarily in the same way, for the same ends, or to the same extent that allosexuals do, a fact crucially omitted from the articles); one ace Tumblr user kindly compiled these articles’ tendencies to pathologize aces’ “condition” that prevents their “turning sexual fantasy into lived reality” at the same time as they sensationalize those sexual fantasies.

asexual6“Mostly White People Laying Down,” a collage of images accompanying articles about aces’ sexual fantasies (by sound-overlord.tumblr.com)

We’re either exhibited as circus freaks: can you imagine people who don’t have sex? (Even if some aces do have sex and the article conflated attraction with libido.) Or we’re shunted into the shadows of allosexuals: they might be repressed, or really closeted gays, or actually they’re really horny just like us and goodness knows why they don’t do anything about it. (Even if “not doing anything about it” can be its own desirable ends  —  and thus we’re not repressed.) On the one hand, we’re a desirable novelty pushed into a vulnerable spotlight. On the other, our existence discomforts some allosexuals so much that they try to dissolve our existence into their own.[2]

This year’s batch of articles shows some slight improvement. There are the usual Asexuality 101 suspects like “Asexuality: Can a relationship without sex work?”; and Asexual Freakshow headlines like “13 asexual people explain what things can turn them on” and “I’m Asexual And Here’s What Sex Feels Like For Me.” But peppered among the standard objectifying fare are a thoughtful interview with the showrunners of an ace podcast; an interrogation of the absence of aces from Pride festivities; savvy coverage of a sex toy review site by and for aces, and a dating app for aces. Even the alt-right’s favorite “news” site managed to spotlight research on microaggressions toward aces without trashing aces (cached link; don’t read the comments).

By and large, though, the only news articles that didn’t attempt the voyeurism Cerankowski describes or even Asexuality 101 were Asexual Representation articles on pop-culture subjects. And 2017 has been a banner year for ace representation. The new season four of Bojack Horseman finally confirmed the asexuality of Bojack’s sidekick Todd when it featured an episode dedicated to his coming out as ace and finding an ace community. Meanwhile, television series Shadowhunters confirmed the asexuality of one of its major characters, and Emmerdale suggested that it might be headed in the same direction. Teen Vogue and Bustle both called out Riverdale for erasing Jughead’s canonical aromantic asexuality, the comic-book confirmation of which generated much excitement for aces and articles on asexuality last year.

asexual7A scene from Bojack Horseman that I never thought I’d see with my own two ace eyes.

As a scholar of textual studies, this is my glimmer of hope. Where journalism neglects to represent aces as subjects rather than objects, narrative art increasingly tries to represent our diverse subjectivities on our own terms. This kind of storytelling invites aces to be participants in an empathetic audience, rather than experience constant subjection to being involuntarily paraded for others to ogle. Not only can allosexuals learn (hopefully more fully) about aces’ varied experiences, but also, aces can receive all the affirmation and pleasure that allosexuals have in narrative depictions of their straight and queer desires. Importantly, in ace stories, aces can see how other (even fictional) aces navigate the particular social and emotional terrain of asexuality.  This is, and has long been the end goal of representation: to be on the stage instead of inside a circus ring; to be in an audience instead of being an usher who disappears into the shadows of the theater, knowing that this show isn’t for them.

This is why it is so important that media narratives represent minorities on their own terms. What magazines and news sites might call “objectivity” in reporting on minorities is often indistinguishable from “normativity,” no matter whether it appears in its patriarchal, heterosexist, racist, classist, or ableist form. By centering within popular media voices from the margins, we can dismantle the mainstream misconceptions about asexuality and other categories of difference that continually cycle through news coverage.


[1] Even as (Cerankowski argues) bad representation potentially calcifies stereotypes (140).

[2] This is a move troublingly similar to that of some gatekeeping queer people who insist aces are not really queer because we’re somehow really straight  —  but that’s another story.

Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies celibacy and the queer politics of Catholicism in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she is a freelance writer who listens to a lot of Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.