For the asexually curious and the curiously asexual

Archive for the ‘Pop culture’ Category

On Barney Stinson

Major exams finished, and I promised myself I would write a happy-go-lucky post with lots of pictures of Neil Patrick Harris, claiming my vague theories about his character’s aromance (this won’t make much sense if you’ve not seen How I Met Your Mother)

Yesterday night, my housemate laughed and laughed as she read out sections of one of the books his character is meant to have published. With each quote, I fell quieter and quieter, trying to ignore it, hoping it would stop.

Today, when I finally got round to checking the blogs, I found that a man very like Barney Stinson, a man who Barney is a parody of, recently shot a woman in the face.

I’m all out of happy-go-lucky.

So Barney is aromantic.

I’ve been trying to supress my queerification of Barney, because I knew that the show is a parable of romantic privilege, held up as moral behaviour. I know that Barney is the freak in a group of decent people, decent people who do decent people things like moan constantly about the one, ditch their friends for the new strangers they’ve decided to pine after.

I know that I’m the freak in a group of decent people. And I always will be.

Barney’s relationship with Robin reminded me stiflingly of my own conceptions of what it would be like to date. At first, they resisted all roles, those of boyfriend and girlfriend, those of man and woman. With each other, they were freer than they were without each other. And he was so, achingly, happy. I’ve never seen him smile like that.

And then convention set in. Relationship convention, gender convention. They became trapped in what had been such a promising relationship. He became the most miserable I have seen him.

Barney’s book is a parody of pick-up artists, a group of people who started with evopsych and made it more mysogynist and less scientific. It is called the Bro Code. And no pick-up artist would ever write this. The first rule is Bros before Hos. The entire system is evident of that delusion Barney labours under- that he can say something and make it true. That he can have the power of words in a world which keeps him ignorant. And the code which he tries to lock everyone into is, dispite its overlay of mysogyny, is very basic. Underneath all the bluster, all the self-assurance, it is a simple cry for help- “don’t leave me”. “Don’t let this mean so much less to everyone around me than it does to me.”

Of the few episodes I can currently remember, one strikes me. The others are content to live in their romantic fabricated worlds, constructed by a constantly renewing act of denial. Barney realises that the group is drifting apart and his desperation, childish tantrums and attempts to communicate what he feels without the language to do so drive the episode. And, at the end, the voice of Ted, arch-romantic and Barney’s main ‘bro’, begins the closing narrative with “Of course, the group did drift apart…” I mean, it’s true to character- Ted is a jerk (not like I’m biased or anything). But that inevitability with which he cruelly dismisses Barney’s fears, marks them with that ‘not wanting what you’re supposed to want- not grown up enough- invalid’, the way he doesn’t consider how every single one of them has something to move onto, something to look forward to, except Barney, who has darkness and loneliness and a hunger with no name.

Somewhere in the world, a woman lies in a critical condition, having been shot in the face. Somewhere in the world, thousands of men consume the poison of the man who shot her. Somewhere in the world, right now, someone who thought they had something special but didn’t have the words, who needed that connection, is getting rejected in favour of that sick dream. They can’t even express their loneliness. Somewhere in the world, presumably, are the millions of people who find it funny. And the world is shit.

A film about corsets

I was watching Rocky Horror Picture Show tonight, for the first time in over a year. It was a shocking realisation of how queer I’ve become. Before, I thought it was just a bad film, made fun by corsets. I was so shocked I actually asked my friends “Is it bad that I actually understand this film now?” I think they assumed I meant the plot, but the plot was simple, it was the film that was giving me problems.

I’m going to need to watch it again, looking out for the meaning beneath the words, but there were moments when it just pierced me. At the end, when the house in which your wildest dreams come true, the house of mirrors, vanishes, Brad, corset torn, looks up at the camera and says that, through all his searching, through all the crapsack of identity and gender and power and pain, he is never any more than he was when he started, bleeding inside, an eternal question mark without hope of answers or solid ground. I almost cried. It begins with answers, solidity, gender stereotypes, certainty, and ends with nothing but the potential of what the individual might one day be, if they weren’t so afraid, so lost, so alone. I’d heard of the interpretation where it’s all about ‘yay, let’s celebrate our sexualities’, but I didn’t give it much credence because, well, Frankenfurter is a rogue. Columbia rips into him about his horrible power games and then he carries them out anyway. He is punished for his transgressions, and dies unmorned except by the primitive and external id that he created. How’s that for non-judgemental?

But now I’m seeing it as part of the cleverness. It isn’t just the anthem of sexual freedom, it’s the story of it. Metaphorically, it’s what is going on inside us all, and inside our societies, when we decide to challenge established ground. There is fear and pleasure and lies and knowledge and ignorance. Nothing is real, and you have to keep comforting yourself that at least you don’t believe the lies. If there wasn’t badness, it couldn’t be sex, because sex can be bad (and there’s a radical asexual notion I’d like to stand behind).

And I’ve always seen Rocky as asexual. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it started with the first time I watched, when I missed his sex scenes, but even after I re-watched and saw Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me and the song where he’s like “My libedo hasn’t been controlled,” I still think of him as a sex-liking asexual. He never (until he’s hypnotised) initiates sex, he goes along with it when two powerful and domineering people push him into it. And that’s a beautiful little thought- Janet has to pretend that he’s the big, strong man, and can’t admit, even to herself, that the reason she gets with him is because she needs someone to do what she wants, but has to externalise it and pretend it isn’t coming from her. Everyone externalises onto Rocky. In fact, now I think of it, I remember thinking something very similar when I decided he was asexual, and they’re connected. Everyone has their own desires, their own perversions, and they take them out on Rocky. Rocky never has real opinions or ideas or arousal shown, he’s just the playtoy of all the others, and I feel like I can see through the unreliable forcing of the other character’s motives onto him and see through to the simplicity of him. He likes sex because it feels nice, and because he has a libedo, but there doesn’t seem to be genuine sexual attraction there.

He’s an unlikely asexual champion, I’ll admit. But I like him.

"I sometimes think no poetry is read…

…save where some sepultured Caesura bled.”
A letter to a living poet, Rupert Brooke

So I found an ancient (given as a gift in 1944) copy of the complete works of Rupert Brooke in a charity shop for 50 pence. And oh my god.

Because up until now, I’ve only read one poem of Brooke’s. I think it was his last, before he died in his early twenties, in World War 1. “If I should die, think only this of me…” (watch as I completely disobey that instruction). The poem is pompous, patriotist, and famous. In my opinion, it’s one of his worst works. The poetry of Brooke seethes with passion and life, even as the things he agonises about are melodramatic, teen poetry.

Here’s the one I’d like to discuss today:

Thoughts on the shape of the human body:
How can we find? how can we rest? how can
We, being gods, win joy, or peace, being man?
We, the gaunt zanies of a witless Fate,
Who love the unloving and lover hate,
Forget the moment ere the moment slips,
Kiss with blind lips that seek beyond the lips,
Who want, and know not what we want, and cry
With crooked mouths for Heaven, and throw it by.
Love’s for completeness! No perfection grows
‘Twixt leg, and arm, elbow, and ear, and nose,
And joint, and socket; but unsatisfied
Sprawling desires, shapeless, perverse, denied.
Finger with finger wreathes; we love, and gape,
Fantastic shape to mazed fantastic shape,
Straggling, irregular, perplexed, embossed,
Grotesquely twined, extravagantly lost
By crescive paths and strange protuberant ways
From sanity and from wholeness and from grace.
How can love triumph, how can solace be,
Where fever turns toward fever, knee toward knee?
Could we but fill to harmony, and dwell
Simple as our thought and as perfectible,
Rise disentangled from humanity
Strange whole and new into simplicity,
Grow to a radiant round love, and bear
Unfluctuant passion for some perfect sphere,
Love moon to moon unquestioning, and be
Like the star Lunisequa, steadfastly
Following the round clear orb of her delight,
Patiently ever, through the eternal night!

I think it might have been the second poem I read. I loved it from the moment I read “who love the unloving and the lover hate.” Such a simple illustration of the cruelty of human relationships.
To briefly explain where I think Brooke is coming from, he was part of a movement which abandoned chaperones, went on long, mixed-sex walks, slept naked under the stars (he went skinny-dipping with Virginia Woolf), but never had sex before marriage. You can kinda see it in his poetry, it’s all about attraction and kissing and mystery- part of what I like about Brooke is that the beautiful, classical language flows from a guy who is seriously horny quite a lot of the time, and willing to talk about it using a form often reserved for true love.
Brooke was also incredibly pretty. Half his friends, by most reports, were friends with him not because of his amazing wordcraft but because he was devilishly handsome. I want to know what would happen if Brooke took up modern day feminism, because a lot of his poems contain, between the lines, this cry of the objectified male. The objectified male who is so, so scared of growing old because all he has are his looks, because he refuses to validate desire when it doesn’t come from someone classically good-looking.

And so we get back to this poem. “Kiss with blind lips that seek beyond the lips.” We try to know people through sex, through intimacy, the act is never the act but some frustrated attempt to connect, to feel like you really, truly know someone when it is truly impossible to. The body is a clumsy metaphor, its own isolation unit.
“Who want, and know not what we want, and cry,
With crooked mouths for heaven, and throw it by.”
Don’t tell me you’ve seriously never felt like this? Me and Brooke can’t be the only ones.

“we love, and gape,
Fantastic shape to mazed fantastic shape,
Straggling, irregular, perplexed, embossed,
Grotesquely twined, extravagantly lost
By crescive paths and strange protuberant ways
From sanity and from wholeness and from grace.”
Here, he’s describing the body as imperfect, monstrous, an illusion of what we truly are. And it’s so fucking queer. “Grotesquely twined, extravagantly lost.” Since reading this poem, I’ve genuinely considered replacing my ‘questioning’ label with that phrase. There is something I find so beautiful, so human, in imperfection.
The imagery here is astounding. Last year, I was doing art (as I think I mentioned), and for his final piece, one of the guys took close-ups of people’s faces and then zoomed in so much on the corner of a nose, the fold of a brow, that they became abstract, hauntingly beautiful patterns of sumptuous flesh. Reading this poem, those photographs are what burn themselves into my mind.
“By crescive paths and strange protuberant ways,” the human body, coming to terms with it, loving it, is a journey. You can literally lose yourself.

And then he goes a bit crap and wusses out and says that it would be better if there were no such things as bodies, these perfectly imperfect forms of wonder and delight, because it would be better if we all connected spiritually, throw in a random classical reference, bob’s your uncle, another Romantic poem churned out.

Which is where I get annoyed with Brooke, because he always has such great potential. He definitely wasn’t afraid of breaking the rules of his day, and his poetry seems, when it’s really flowing from him, so transgressive, so full of fire and change, that even a century after he lived, the world still trembles from his vision.

And then something pulls him back. Whether it’s the fact that he’s essentially writing emo poetry about the latest girl to dump him, moping around in his room at the age of 16, or the fact that he’s stuck in the Romantic framework, where there are easy answers and you have to prescribe to them, or because it was Edwardian times, and there simply weren’t the words, or because he was so young that he never got to realise that he could be more than an object, that desire isn’t something you have to justify.

Poetry changed, months after he died. Possibly the most poetry has ever changed. It became about raw power, emotion that could cut through the heart, mockery of those in command, it became a tool for radical critique of society. Brooke died in the old system, and is remembered by it. He is remembered by silly poems about the honour of death and the romance of war, couched in pretentions. Had he lived even three years longer? I think the world could be very different today.

Asexual literary criticism I: “How would a gay person read this?”

Note on the series: This started off as one post, but it’d be fiendishly long if I did that. I’m now considering doing it in three, this introduction and comparison to homosexual criticism, then a post linking to various worthwhile pieces of asexual criticism, then a conclusion on what asexual literary criticism might look like. I could take this series down another aromantic, non-binary route, but I’m going to try my absolute hardest to drag it back to standard, possibly romantic, asexiness. Which basically means screeching the blog to a halt and turning it back the other way again, but these things have to be done.

Note on homosexual literary theory: I don’t actually dislike it. It’s because I respect it that I am especially disappointed when it descends to laughableness. I did a whole essay on the homoerotic themes in Hamlet last year. Along with one about the stagnancy of traditional romantic models in Brideshead Revisited, and another about the heteronormativity of WWI literature. Looking back, I wonder what my teachers made of me.

This is based on the summary of literary criticism in my English textbook, and, more specifically;

What lesbian/gay critics do:
[points summarised in brief]
1. Identify lesbian/gay authors
2. Identify lesbian/gay pairings in mainstream work, and then discuss them as such, as opposed to reading same-sex pairings in non-specific ways
3.Set up an extended, metaphorical sense of ‘lesbian/gay’, so that it connotes a moment of crossing a boundary.
4. Expose the ‘homophobia’ of mainstream literature and criticism.
5. Foreground homosexual aspects in literature which have been glossed over.
6. Foreground literary genres which influenced ideas of masculinity and femininity.

To which a queer friend responded: “Not all of us!” (by which they meant, ‘Some of us just read and criticise literature while also being gay.’)

Maybe you can see my criticisms of this section of criticism. For a start, it’s trying too hard, mugging the book in favour of the critic’s obscure and unobjective approach (so, in #3, for example, practically any sort of conflict could be seen as ‘gay’. And since conflict is at the heart of literature, the kids at school were entirely right when they told you reading was ‘gay’). From a more asexual point of view, #2 is downright disrespectful- why must you read a relationship as being gay when it is actually a close friendship? That just a) denigrates further the already impotent power of friendship, b) allows no possibility of an asexual reading, c) makes it harder for two people of the same gender to be allowed to be friends without someone reading into it.

And it occurred to me that we already have the basis of an asexual literary criticism (PHD material? That would be kinda cool). A lot of what we do is ‘literary’ criticism (see Ily and Shockrave), Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, Sheldon Cooper, Dexter (wow, writing the names of all those aliens/psychopaths/sociopaths all together made me feel kinda sad).
And notice we’re fighting already against homosexual criticism, gay people and asexuals both laying contradictory claim to Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, even Spongebob Squarepants. We are never given heroes. We must find those we like the best, and then fight like hell to make sure no-one stronger takes them.

And this is part of where homosexual criticism invisibilises us. It’s not just stealing our characters, it’s actually writing us out of existence. In the frantic desire to analyse what isn’t necessarily there, gay critics, hungry for evidence, revert to the following formula:

Absence of heterosexuality = Homosexuality

Gee, doesn’t that look familiar. Where have I seen that before? How about, oh, everywhere?

On Doctor Who and Liz One

So I try to say what I have to say, here. I confess to things even when I’m worried that some members of the asexual community may not approve. I try to create a voice for the renegade. However, today, I am about to cross the line. I am about to admit to the worst crime an asexual could commit.

I ship Ten. and Liz One.

And here’s why:
(note: if you didn’t understand that sentence, this blog post may not make the most sense)
(note: actually, having now finished this, I advise you that this article (apart from the tiny history bit at the beginning) really is completely irrelevant unless you watch Doctor Who. Which you should.)

Elizabeth the First (henceforth to be known as Liz One) was one of the most powerful and iconic female leaders Britain has ever had. In her day, she was consistently thwarted by society’s perverse gender expectations. She masculinated herself, famously declaring she had the heart and stomach of a king. When she ascended the throne, she also became as contractual a virgin as the Jonas brothers. She could never marry or have sex, because both of those assumed that the man was in charge, and no man could politically be in charge of the queen of England. She wore white and pearls and fetishised her virginity, turning it into her strength.

So, an asexual icon? Well, no. If she was a virgin, it was probably only in a Clinton definition of sex. In her intact hymen rested her intact political power. But there is little doubt that the Virgin queen broke the rules. She was barely past puberty when she was rumored to engage in heavy petting with her patroness’s husband (even better, the man was her half-brother’s uncle, his wife was her father’s widow- how’s that for soap-style drama?), and the rumours kept on flowing.

Doctor Who is a nine hundred year-old Time Lord, much beloved of asexuals. Now, he really is an asexual hero. He travels round the world with lots of pretty girls and still is nothing more than a charming intellectual. He recently reacted to an indecent proposal with the same puzzled horror that I can imagine I would. He doesn’t seem to be attracted to humans. But recently, there have been some suggestions of something more.

We first met Liz One when she recognised Tennant’s Doctor. He had done something she disliked in her past, his future, but it wasn’t revealed.
Then, as Tennant’s time drew to a close, in a possible attempt to solve one of the many small inconsistencies the show creates and then forgets about, Tennant boasted idly “They don’t call her the Virgin Queen any more.” He implied that, in his loneliness and fear of mortality, he had raided history for the trickiest conquest. I was, frankly, a little disgusted. I felt they had taken the character where he never should have gone.
They haven’t dropped the idea. Liz Ten, in a far future, may have mentioned something about Liz One having been very fond of the Doctor (I’m not sure, though. The reference slid past me at the time. It may have actually been the present queen, Liz Two). And, this weekend, it was mentioned again. “Have you heard about Elizabeth the First? Well, she thought she was the first”. So there were more before her? Does our time-travelling nerd-action-hero have regular love affairs?

And that was when I realised, I am actually really happy for him if he does. True, I’m annoyed by the new phallus-wielding Dr of this series (“Yours is bigger than mine”, “Don’t start all that”. “I can’t feel my feet, or other parts”, “I can feel all my parts just fine.”), but the Doctor is meant to connect with people in wide varieties of ways. He is momentary and life-changing, and is the perfect person to challenge the stuffy sexual confinements most people throughout history have been placed in. His relationship with the Madame du Pompador was one of the most touching moments in the new programme. The reason he can’t get close to his companions is because they will age, but what makes the Doctor a person, not just a big, world-saving concept, is the fact that people can change him. A particular person in a particular circumstance can force him to embrace a relationship he’d never have considered, just like humans do. We saw this with Rose, River, du Pompador, the Master, and this is the Doctor’s greatest strength- other people define him as much as he defines them.

So the Doctor finds a woman, trapped and alone. Sexual but with an enforced virginity. So very strong and forceful, like the other people who have the power to wrap the Doctor around their willpowers. They are both all alone, with no one who will understand them. They both want just a temporary feeling of kinship, and of belonging. She can’t forsake her duty, nor he his. They connect in a way which is relevant for both of them. Even if he was asexual, he could still gain a lot from the experience. And the fact that they were probably also in the midst of an alien invasion probably helped.

I’ve not yet heard any asexuals judging their relationship, but I, for one, will stand by the right of the Doctor to enjoy sexuality (or not) in whatever way works. If we apply that right to real people, it’s got to start with fictional.

Maybe we just need to find a new asexual idol. Spongebob Squarepants, anyone?

Tag Cloud