Here I go again, tackling another subject on which I am wildly unqualified to speak. So there I was,
procrastinating studying watching this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, and as always, thoroughly enjoying Varys’ scenes. I think he’s a great character, well-written and excellently portrayed by Conleth Hill. For those of you who don’t read or watch Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire, Varys is a eunuch and a spymaster for the royal court of Westeros. Some of the great things about Varys as a character are 1) his utter disinterest in all of the sexual shenanigans that happen in King’s Landing, and 2) his ambiguous status as a “good guy” or “bad guy” (insofar as we have strict lines between the two in Game of Thrones). I was thinking about this when I was trying to figure out why Varys is so popular in the fandom and when I struck the two points above, I realized that those two traits do not exist in a vacuum. Imagine me making the “suspicious Fry from Futurama meme” face.
I don’t know why I didn’t see it sooner; god knows I’ve read plenty of work about gay-coded villains, the distrust of effeminate men and masculine women, the erasure of the non-binary, etc. If you look, you’ll see that a common theme in asexual characters in fiction (at least, in fiction that allows that asexual people exist) is that they are neither heroes nor villains, occupying the gray space of moral ambiguity for the viewer.
Let’s start with Varys. Let me begin by saying that I will primarily be speaking of the HBO adaptation here, as it’s been quite some time since I read the original ASOIAF books (…and I only read the first 3). And also spoiler alert if you’re not fully caught up on the show, because obviously. The world of Game of Thrones is full of morally ambiguous characters, but for most of them, it’s easy to parse out whether or not we should be rooting for them. Varys’ spymaster counterpart Littlefinger is quite morally ambiguous, but it’s also pretty clear that we’re not supposed to like him and we’re not supposed to want him to get what he wants. Varys, on the other hand, could go either way. He’s shown doing both “good” things (advising Ned Stark, a firm hero; snarking about Joffrey; showing concern for Sansa’s welfare) and “bad” things (testifying against Tyrion; sucking up to Cersei; apparently keeping that guy in a box as revenge?). He says he only acts for the good of the realm, but we’re not shown yet if that’s true. It’s important to note that although Varys is a eunuch and thus is not expected to show sexual desire (that being the entire point of having eunuchs around, historically; the castrato singers being a later development), he has said in this most recent episode (and I think in the books? maybe?) that he didn’t feel any sexual desire before his castration, either. And I think the fandom is split on whether or not to cheer for Varys, not sure if his motives are really as simple as he says they are or if they’re outright lies even.
Other common asexual characters (and believe me, there are not many) that come to mind include Sherlock Holmes (at least in most iterations), and Dexter, from the eponymous show and book series. Dexter is, I think, a more problematic case because, if I recall correctly, it’s insinuated that his asexuality is a component of his sociopathy. Associating those two things is a deeply damaging stereotype. That’s conflating “a lack of sexual desire” with sociopathic diagnostic criteria like “failure to conform to social norms”, “deception”, “callous unconcern for the feelings of others”, and “incapacity to maintain enduring relationships” (quotes taken from the DSM-IV-TR and ICD-10 via wikipedia). I think we can all agree (assuming we are all not assholes) that correlating asexuality with sociopathy is not only a total dick move, but also factually incorrect to say the least. But Dexter is the hero of his story, isn’t he? Well, in the sense that “protagonist = hero”, yes. But he’s also a literal serial killer, even if he is one that we the audience are supposed to cheer for. I only watched the show for a couple seasons, but I always felt rather squeamish about the fact that I was supposed to relate to an actual murderer, even if he did only kill other killers.
Sherlock Holmes is… interesting. Of course, there’s been so many different portrayals, from the original stories (which aren’t even internally consistent because Arthur Conan Doyle did not care at all) to assorted movies and TV shows. But it’s pretty common for Holmes to be shown to be disinterested in sex entirely. Steven Moffat, of BBC’s Sherlock, has outright said that his Holmes is asexual (alright, I’ll give you this one Moffat, but I still expect an apology for… everything else you’ve ever done). The degree of heroism and moral ambiguity shown vary, of course, but at his absolute best he’s still shown to be kind of an asshole, if a well-meaning one. At worst he’s another sociopath (ugh, Moffat). I think in modern adaptations it’s assumed that we’re supposed to be on Holmes’ side, but when I read Doyle’s original stories, it seemed more to me like we were supposed to be relating to Watson. Watson, the unambiguous good guy who keeps Sherlock from straying too far into bad guy territory, his moral compass. We’re supposed to be in awe of Holmes, but not necessarily admiring him. In this case, our character’s asexuality is not a moral trait, simply a tertiary detail to showcase his sheer devotion to intellect. But the fact remains that Sherlock Holmes is morally questionable much of the time, not shying away from committing small crimes to solve big ones and perpetrating “social sins” of rudeness, superiority, and aloofness.
I think it goes without saying that most of our media is created primarily by straight people. I doubt that any of them meant it intentionally, but in creating this archetype, they’ve equated asexuality with dubious trustworthiness. I’m sure there’s some deeper psychological thread to that. It might even have been in Game of Thrones where some character talked about how you can’t trust eunuchs, because where every other man’s primary desire is sex (another ugh), you never know what a eunuch wants. This creates a tension where “normal” people (read: cis-heterosexuals, probably men) can’t trust asexuals because of this unpredictability and unrelateability, as if all men only bond over their mutual desire to bang. I shouldn’t have to tell you all the ways in which this is wrong, both factually and ethically. Asexuality is a valid sexual identity and people who identify as such have just as much variance as people who don’t. Part of me wants to be like “I can’t believe we still have to explain this shit!” but I mean, considering that we’re still trying to get some people to acknowledge anything other than straightness and a positive portrayal of gay men in media is just barely past groundbreaking, it might be a long time coming before asexuality in fiction enjoys a similar revolution.