Content warning (for review and book): aromisia, acemisia, ableist language
Oh, this book. I was so excited when I first heard about it, but then saw an immediate red flag in the synopsis calling Tash “romantic asexual”, which isn’t terminology the ace community generally uses (it should’ve been “alloromantic”, or “heteromantic” if being more specific). And, as I originally talked about on Twitter, when I actually read it, I found the depiction of asexuality to be inaccurate, the implications of Tash’s arc around her asexuality troubling, and one particular scene downright disturbing. Some of my issues with the book were surely just personal preference, but what I’m mainly going to talk about here are the things I found unequivocally harmful. Spoilers ahead.
While some narratives overdo ace 101, Tash doesn’t give any definition or explanation of asexuality beyond Tash’s personal experience of it. The subject is introduced by Tash telling us that she broke up with her boyfriend because she didn’t want to sleep with him, and after that she spent a lot of time on “forums with purple color schemes” learning “terms like ‘ace’ and ‘graysexual’ and ‘allosexual’” (the word “asexual” itself isn’t used until three pages later). This was jarring to me (I felt like we skipped a step in the ace discovery process—how did she know asexuality was a thing?), but beyond that, it leaves readers who are unfamiliar with asexuality to infer that it means not wanting to have sex.
This implication continues throughout the book. Beyond that one mention of the term “graysexuality”, there’s no indication that asexuality is a spectrum, or that not all aces are sex-averse/repulsed. At one point, talking about how the orientation mismatch is handled in ace-allo romantic relationships, Tash says, “sometimes the ace is cool with having sex every so often, to make their partner happy”—blatantly erasing aces who enjoy sex (and as a separate issue, oversimplified statements like this can make aces feel pressured to have sex they don’t want for their partner’s sake). Also, in this part she calls allos “sexual people”, which is terminology that was used and then discarded by the ace community ages ago. Since the book actually mentioned the word “allosexual” earlier, it wouldn’t have been out of place to use it here; the definition would have been clear from context.
The book also pretty solidly erases ace guys. It’s never made clear that guys can be ace, and in fact, if all you knew about asexuality was from this book, you’d probably get the impression that asexuality is only for girls. At one point, Tash wonders, “What normal guy would crush on me after I said I flat out didn’t want sex?” Another time, her friend says a teacher thinks everything is about sex because he’s a guy, and that statement isn’t called out in any way. And Tash thinks about her crush, “he is a guy, and he is seventeen, and the chances he could be like me are about a million to one.” It’s true that it’s unlikely the guy is also ace (but if it’s true that we’re at least 1% of the population, her odds are a lot better than she thinks), but the idea that all men are interested in sex is harmful to male aces, and I was sad to see it repeatedly perpetuated in this book. While it is somewhat countered when, at the very end, Tash finds that an allo guy wants to date her even with sex off the table, it’s made clear that he does still like and value sex—so the implication that man = sexual remains.
Finally, the book is pretty erasive of aros as well. The existence of aromantic aces (or aromanticism at all) is never mentioned, and while it could be inferred through the use of the term “romantic asexual” (Tash does also use “heteromantic” two or three times, but otherwise it’s just “romantic”, like the flap copy—and that simplification makes sense when she’s explaining it to people who aren’t familiar with ace terminology, but its use on the flap is still frustrating), that’s not really an acknowledgment, especially because it implies that people who don’t put “romantic” before “asexual” when talking about their identity are automatically aro—which also doesn’t leave room for the idea that people can be aro without being ace.
Beyond that, Tash being ace is so wrapped up in her also liking guys and trying to accept that those two things don’t have to conflict that aro-ace readers will likely feel alienated. There is also some outright aromisic language: Tash’s friend says it’s “inconceivable” that Tash and Paul would be involved, and Tash gets defensive, throwing out things like, “Paul’s a guy, and … and I’m a girl. I still like guys”, “[Y]ou don’t have to talk like I’m some sort of … robot”, and “[Y]ou automatically look at me like I can’t feel stuff for anyone.” (This part bothered me when I read it, but I didn’t specifically flag it as aromisia, so thanks to Fadwa for calling it out in her review!) Later, the same friend says, “Of course he’s in love with you. What did you expect? You grew up together, and bonus, you’re not related. It was kind of inevitable.” This kind of thinking is never called out or portrayed as wrong.
Even after accepting the label, Tash struggles to be okay with being ace, thinking things like, “Am I missing something essential?” and “I wonder if I’m only ever going to be a disappointment. A not-quite-right human. A girl in need of fixing.” At one point, she calls herself a freak. Another time, she recalls how her teacher once said the motivation behind all literature is either sex or death (or both), and even though her friend calls that out as BS, Tash still wonders, “does that mean the only driving force left to me is death?”, which once again implies that she lacks something vital (and the book checks off the harmful trope of tying asexuality to death).
I don’t object to internalized acemisia/heteronormativity being present in fiction—although, reading all of the above examples together, I do think it was hit unnecessarily hard in this book—but by the end of the story, I want to see my ace character have come to accept and love themself as they are, and realize that their previous thoughts were wrong. However, in Tash, the only resolution of this arc is Tash starting a romantic relationship with an allo guy who’s willing to forego sex for her. And while I could accept that as part of the arc, I really wanted to see her start feeling okay about her aceness separately from a romantic relationship, too. (One way this could have been done is through her online friendships with fellow aces, which she tells us she has a few of. Sadly, though, those people are never mentioned as individuals, and never come into the story at all.)
Tash’s lack of growth in this area is evident when, in the second-to-last chapter, she tells her guy friend she wants to date him, but it would be selfish of her: “Even if you don’t think so now, you’ll end up resenting me […] [W]hy the hell you would want to date me is beyond the realms of logic.” Even at the very end of the book, she’s still convinced that being ace makes her an undesirable romantic partner. It’s up to Paul to call out her inaccurate idea of guys/allos:
“So you’re saying I am an unhinged animal controlled by my libido.”
“No, I’m being realistic.”
“Actually, I think you’re being kind of sexist, and also, you never asked my opinion on this subject.”
(Not asexuality-related, but stereotyping men, while not great, is not the same thing as sexism.) After this, Paul says he likes Tash more than he likes sex, and he’s done research and has “thought of how to deal”, and thinks them dating is worth at least trying. His winning line is “I would rather hug you than be with anyone else. Do you want to hug me back?” And it’s sweet, but I hate that an accepting allo is the answer to all Tash’s issues. Beyond the fact that, as far as I can tell, Tash would have continued to hate on herself for being ace if Paul hadn’t swooped in to save her, it’s also just too neat. Surely Tash would want to know how Paul intends to “deal”, but they don’t discuss anything like that. After Tash was so skeptical about ace-allo romantic relationships before, saying once, “the details sound so clinical and ugly”, it’s hard to buy her jumping into one on the basis of “might as well give it a try.” It felt unrealistically rosy, which was a letdown after Tash’s (in some ways realistic) angst. I wanted more nuance and complexity, and I think the lack of those things does a disservice to ace readers, especially those who might have similar worries and fears to Tash’s.
On the final page of the book, Tash has decided to make a vlog where she talks about her life, including as someone who “identifies as romantic asexual. Not a robot, not a freak, not confused.” So we do finally see her owning her asexuality and disavowing the internalized acemisia she demonstrated throughout the book, which is great… but the only thing we saw helping her get there was Paul.
This was the worst part of the book for me: the scene where Paul first tells Tash he likes her. It’s bad from the start, with Paul demanding to know how Tash “really feels” about guys, because she told him before that she “hates men” (a horrible paraphrase of her saying she doesn’t want to have sex), but now she has a crush on another dude. (She later gets accused by his sister of “twisting him up” and being self-absorbed because she didn’t realize he’s liked her for years, and because she happened to tell them she doesn’t want sex right before he was finally going to ask her out. And she actually agrees with this assessment. *headdesk*) He then reveals that he likes her, but she insists that he couldn’t possibly want to be with her, because he’s allo. This is in-character for Tash (see above; she’s very convinced that all guys are obsessed with sex), but it leads to this lovely line: “[Y]ou’re a red-blooded guy, Paul. You want sex. And you can’t have it with me. So if you want to be with me, you’re an idiot.” And again, we’re hitting that internalized allonormativity painfully hard, in a way that uses ableist language to boot (there’s lots of other ableist language throughout the book as well).
Anyway, then we get to the really bad part. After some more yelling at Paul, Tash… pulls off her shirt and skirt. Her reasoning: “I’m proving you’re a liar […] [I]f you want to be my boyfriend, you have to know all the time what you can’t have.” So apparently, she thinks that seeing her semi-nude body will prove to him that it would be too hard to date her but not have sex with her. Our sex-averse ace character is inviting a guy to sexualize her because she doesn’t want to have sex with him. Does this make as little sense to you as it does to me? (Tash even says later that she doesn’t know what she was thinking.) At one point before, Tash became uncomfortable when a guy indicated that he was thinking of her sexually, so seeing her invite sexualization on herself seemed out of character. Also, this incident was completely unnecessary; it didn’t add anything to Tash’s arc, but seemed thrown in only to create drama and make things awkward between Tash and Paul in order to delay their inevitable couple-dom. As an ace reader, this scene felt unfriendly to me; I was immediately alienated and disturbed and found it hard to read.
Tash’s asexuality comes up quite often in this book, so there’s a lot more I could say, but this is long already and I’ve covered the stuff I think is most important. I just also wanted to touch on Tash’s arc with Thom, her crush throughout most of the book (yup, there’s a love triangle). Ben Babcock’s review covers this aspect well (and is also a good review of the book in general, including the asexuality stuff), but I wanted to mention it in light of what I said about her arc above, because it feels like such missed potential.
As Tash’s (online/texting) relationship with Thom progresses, she becomes more and more worried about telling him she’s ace, and how that might affect their possible future. When they finally meet, they have dinner together, and then he asks if they can hang out in her hotel room. And she’s worried about what he might be expecting, and decides it’s time to tell him. When she does, he’s contemptuous of the idea of asexuality as an orientation, saying she’s too young to know, and maybe she’s just not ready for sex yet, or just scared of it. (Unfortunately, one of the ways Tash defends herself is by saying she’s never wanted sex, and she’s not scared—which throws aces who do want sex or are scared of it under the bus.) He goes on to say she can’t both like guys and be asexual, and that no guy is ever going to be okay with that (hitting that note again, which I guess is so that Paul wanting to date her can feel more significant?).
After Tash’s internalized acemisia was cropping up throughout, having another character throw this stuff at Tash was a bit much (and it felt somewhat contrived, because we got no sense of why Thom reacted like that—he’d even just told her he was okay with not messing around if she didn’t want to). But what makes this part okay to me is how firmly Tash stands up for herself; in a way, it felt like being invalidated by another person made her more secure, like having someone else say some of the things she’s thought to herself made her realize they’re BS. She responds, “I don’t need any guy out there to tell me what I’m feeling is real. The only reason I told you is because I was trying to be honest with you. Not because I want your opinion on whether I have legitimate emotions or not.” While she’s definitely upset about the incident, it doesn’t trigger more doubts or self-loathing in her.
The problem, though, is that it doesn’t seem to actually help her, either. We never see her think back to Thom’s invalidation or her reaction to it, and the incident obviously doesn’t impact her sense of self-worth when it comes to her and Paul, as this happens between the stripping scene and the “do you want to hug me” conversation. I would have loved to see this make Tash realize that she likes her ace self despite what anyone else may think, and thus have more confidence about the idea of dating Paul, but sadly, that’s not what happened.
Please don’t rec this book without caveats
As much as it might be hard to believe at this point, there were some things I liked about Tash’s portrayal of asexuality—for one, it’s the only contemporary YA novel with such a strong asexuality storyline, and some of the details of that were handled well. At one point, Tash relates having been told “we’re all sexual beings” before she identified as ace and thinking “not me”, which is an exact experience I had long before I knew I was ace. And Tash spends months agonizing and contemplating before deciding that yes, she is asexual, which is an experience a lot of actual aces have but that isn’t often represented in ace fiction. I’m also sure that other aspects of Tash’s experience are relatable to a lot of aces who share her specific identity. But just because one subset of ace people is represented here doesn’t mean the others don’t matter. Sex-favorable aces, grays and demis, aces who are scared of sex, aro aces, and male aces are all erased or thrown under the bus by this book, which means it has the potential to hurt as well as help.
(Note: Many of the issues I’ve talked about here don’t personally affect me; for the most part, I’m speaking from my time in ace communities listening to people with the affected identities, rather than from having those identities myself. So if you feel I’ve gotten anything wrong here, please let me know.)
My guest post for Queer Summer Reading about a few of my favorite fictional sex-repulsed aces is up! Here’s the intro:
Growing up, I never saw anyone like me in fiction—a sex-repulsed asexual person. This left me basically thinking I was the only person on the planet who hated the thought of ever having sex. So it’s amazing to now get to read about characters who actually have similar feelings to mine; it means so much to finally see myself reflected in stories. Here are a few sex-repulsed/averse ace characters who have especially resonated with me (all of whose names, coincidentally, start with “N”).
I saw Wonder Woman a few weeks ago, and while it seems like almost every other female viewer loved it, I was actually really disappointed. Diana herself was an awesome character, and I look forward to seeing more of her, but as the first female-led superhero film I’ve ever seen, Wonder Woman let me down in multiple ways:
- BOOB ARMOR. My hate for it was so extreme that it distracted me during the Themyscira scenes. I’ve read enough about how impractical (and even dangerous) such armor would be that I spent those scenes fuming about female characters being costumed in unrealistic armor just to show off the fact that they have breasts.
- Skimpy armor. It’s established early on that the Amazons aren’t invincible; they can get cut, be killed by bullets, etc. So then why don’t they wear armor that covers their arms, chests, and thighs?? This especially grated on me when Diana traveled to a war zone, where at one point she got bombarded with bullets. Full-body armor would have been pretty nice at that point! But again, apparently female characters’ bodies just have to be on display, even if it makes no sense in-world. (I did see that recent Twitter thread about how the armor design is realistic compared to past designs, etc., but it’s still not realistic enough! I don’t want to have to settle for “better than lingerie-inspired costumes”.)
- Wonder Woman, apparently, shaves her legs and armpits. Even while traveling through war-torn Europe. As do all the women who live on an island of only women where no patriarchal beauty standards exist. Because apparently it would be too gross to show women having actual body hair.
- Along those same lines, Diana looks perfect all the time. She looks exactly the same after a fight as she does before one. No dirt, no sweat, no messed-up hair. And it’s so frustrating that women have to be unrealistically perfect, have to look pretty every moment, in order to be the lead character in a film like this. Real women don’t look perfect all the time, and in the situations she goes through in the film, Diana wouldn’t either. When I see female characters portrayed this way, I don’t feel represented; it’s not a fellow woman I’m seeing on-screen, but a skewed, patriarchal fantasy version of one.
- Anyway, moving on from the costuming/appearance issues: so many men. After we leave Themyscira, Diana is surrounded by men for the rest of the film. And I get it, it’s a war movie, historical accuracy, blah blah blah. But after that women-ful start, I felt cheated. It’s so typical for female main characters in movies to have a solely male supporting cast, and I had hoped this would be one movie that didn’t fall into that pattern.
- That brings me to… STEVE TREVOR. It felt like he was almost as much of a main character as Diana; I’m pretty sure he had about the same amount of dialogue and screen time as her. I want a movie about a female superhero, not a female superhero and some random dude who I don’t care about! (Not that Steve was a bad character; he actually treated Diana well, so it really wasn’t him I had a problem with—it was that the filmmakers chose to make him such a central character, when I would have preferred the focus to be solely on Diana.) I also hated that he had to lead her around the outside world, explaining how things worked, telling her how to dress, act, etc. I just don’t want to see my powerful warrior heroine having to be guided around by a man—“experienced dude teaches naïve woman how the world works” has been done enough, and this really felt like the wrong movie for it.
- And finally: the romance. Did there really have to be one? I was glad at how little it was emphasized, at least, but not every woman needs a male romantic partner! Seriously, the heteronormativity was really bad. Diana falls in love with the first man she ever meets?? Why would she even be attracted to men after growing up with only women? Ugh. (Thinking about this and my last two points, imagine if, instead, Steve’s character had been a woman. It would have been so much better. If that had been the case, I would probably be shouting my love for this movie right now instead of criticizing it.)
So yeah, we got a female superhero in a well-reviewed, financially successful movie. But that wasn’t enough for me. I’ve already been let down by the portrayals of women in the Marvel movies (again, they apparently just have to look sexy all the time, to the point that they don’t get to wear sufficient armor because then their cleavage wouldn’t be on display), and I thought this one would be different—but in the end, it felt like more of the same. As Ray Sonne writes in her review at Women Write About Comics, “[Wonder Woman] anticipates a very white and—based on interviews with Gadot and Jenkins as well as how much screen time men got in this movie in comparison to women—very male audience and not much else.” (Check out that review for more on the movie’s problematic treatment of race, which is another issue with it.)
I know this film was meaningful to many female viewers, and that’s awesome; I don’t want to take away from anyone’s enjoyment. But I feel like it’s important to talk about the negative stuff too. When I left the theater, I didn’t feel excited or empowered; I mostly felt sad. Wonder Woman reminded me of how far we still have to go before women are equally and realistically represented in film.
I wrote a guest post for C.M. Spivey’s “A+ Ships” series!
I was featured on Asexual Artists today! Thank you so much to Lauren for running the site and for interviewing me. 🙂
Today we’re joined by Tabitha O’Connell. Tabitha runs one of my absolute favorite asexual blogs: Asexual Representation. She also happens to be a phenomenal writer and has just sold her first short story (YAY!). Tabitha is a fellow ace feminist, which is always awesome to see. I could not be happier to feature her on Asexual Artists. My thanks to her for taking the time to participate in this interview.
Please, tell us about your art.
I write nonfiction about asexuality and feminism, poetry (once in a while), and fiction of all lengths. My fiction is usually either fantasy or contemporary/realistic, and I like to explore interpersonal conflicts and complex relationships, awkward situations, and characters feeling alone and navigating social spheres where they don’t really fit.
I just recently had my first short story published; it’s a bit different from what I normally write in that it’s a light, happy…
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My first published short story, “The Well”, appears in the April 2016 issue of Vitality. It’s super exciting having some of my fiction published! I wrote this story last year, right around the time that I wrote my first post on this blog, and it was actually Vitality itself that inspired me–discovering a magazine dedicated to non-tragic stories about queer characters made me want to write one of my own. “The Well” features an all-female community and an aro-ace protagonist. In most of my stories with ace protagonists, the character’s asexuality comes into the story in some way (whether they’re discovering it, coming to terms with it, or coming out to someone else), but in this one, it’s just a brief aside and not where the focus lies.
I had fun writing this story, and while, sadly, this is Vitality‘s last issue, I’m glad that I was able to be a part of it!