Ace-Rep #2: The Significance and Problems of Headcanons

Imagine whenever you watch a show or read a book, you cannot really identify with the characters. They may be sympathetic but you just might not be able to relate to them on a deeper level. Imagine that you realise this over the years and that things just start to feel off because barely any story or medium reflects your experiences. How would that make you feel? Possibly non-existant or irrelevant? If you are part of a minority, that may well be part of your life.

For that reason, in today’s post, I would like to discuss the concept of headcanons especially for a-spec folks (people identifying under the asexual spectrum), since the great amount of asexual (ace) headcanons illustrates a big problem of that sexual identity: the lack of representation. In order to do so, I will explain this concept in the first chapter. In the following chapter, I am going to show you three examples of headcanons. I am going to discuss the third example in-depth to show you the problems and relevance of headcanons.

Headcanons are not only a phenomenon in that spectrum but everyone, regardless of sexual orientation may have their own headcanons for certain shows or other media. However, today I am going to focus on ace headcanons since the great focus on them illustrates the dire need of representation of that sexual orientation.

If you are new to this blog, feel free to check out an older post in which I explain asexuality. It will help you to understand some of the topics that I am going to address in today’s post.

https://sovlpvnk.com/2020/05/17/ace-rep0-an-ace-101-what-is-asexuality/

With that out of the way, what exactly are headcanons?

Headcanons

According to the Urban Dictionary, a headcanon is the following: ‘a particular belief which has not been used in the universe of whatever program or story they follow, but seems to make sense to that particular individual and as such is adopted as a sort of “personal canon” (Urban Dictionary). In other words, a headcanon is not official to the canon of a story but merely an individual interpretation that may help people to make sense of events or concepts present in a story in a way that they deem logical or appropriate.

These headcanons are not canon, i.e. not confirmed in the story but they may later be included into the work and thus turned into canon by the author if they realise that a particular headcanon is really popular (Urban Dictionary). Either this happens, or the author destroys all hopes of their fans to find some representation in their work, as J.K. Rowling successfully did with her tirades against trans people.

Since I have explained the concept, I will now show you some examples to give you a clearer understanding of the topic. I will also use them to illustrate some of the problems of headcanons.

Some (Questionable) Headcanons

Sheldon Cooper – The Big Bang Theory

Some well-known characters who are often the object of ace headcanons are Sherlock Holmes from Sherlock and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Both of which are quite stereotypically ace in a way, since they are really focused on their work and not interested in human interaction. That already hints at one of the problems that I have with these characters: they are quite stereotypical representations of what the mainstream would consider ‘asexual’. For instance, in The Big Bang Theory, there are often jokes based on Sheldon’s ‘asexuality’ in the ill-informed sense of it being a child-like or non-human quality, which you will see in the following snippet.

These are some of the worst tropes about asexuality

Penny asks Sheldon’s friends about his sexual orientation and ridicules him by asking them if he is into puppets. Leonard replies to this by explaining that they thought Sheldon had no deal, which would hint at him being asexual.

Penny then responds with the heteronormative assumption that ‘everyone has a deal’, which is followed by even more heteronormativity when bowlcut boy says: ‘Not Sheldon’. This is problematic for several reasons. A, he implicitly confirms Penny’s assumption that everyone is sexually interested in someone, which is not the case, and B, he highlights Sheldon’s ‘otherness’ as someone who does not seem to be interested in sexuality: ‘Over the years, we formulated many theories about how he might reproduce’. Not only does this affirm Penny’s heteronormativity, but it also degrades Sheldon to something that is not human and that reproduces by means other than sex, implying that ‘asexuality is not a human quality’.

From this point onward, things only get worse as Sheldon’s supposed ‘friends’ share their theories about his means of reproduction, dehumanising him even further in the process. Howard with the bowlcut assumes, he reproduces via mitosis, which is another non-human quality, as eukaryotes reproduce this way. Leonard jokingly says that he thinks Sheldon will metamorphose and leave his cocoon with moth wings and an exoskeleton, which also dehumanises and ridicules him. (Probably uninentionally), this illustrates how asexuals are at times dehumanised by others who assume that not experiencing sexual attraction equals an incapability of love and that this is a non-human trait.

This is just one small scene but it already illustrates several issues of the alleged ace representation in this series. In The Big Bang Theory, stereotypes are used for the sake of comedy and the series does not really deconstruct these stereotypes but embraces and enhances them. This renders the assumption that Sheldon is asexual questionable, since the writers of this series obviously do not care too much about tackling this topic in an appropriate way that provides a good representation to asexuals and educates people who are unaware of this topic. All they want to do is to create laughs and a good audience rating and obviously, they do not bother to be politically correct, since that would not help them to achieve this.

Sheldon is pretty anti-social and unaware of basic human interaction as well as sexuality but later in the series, he has a girlfriend with whom he sleeps. This does not mean that he is not asexual but it just confirms bias about aces, such as them just needing to grow up. Overall, I really do not think that he is asexual but rather that he just has different priorities. As the show progresses, he grows attached to others and his priorities shift, hence he becomes more open to relationships. To be honest, I cannot really understand why people would like him to be asexual because that would be terrible representation, confirming the worst tropes about this sexuality.

Asking someone something personal like that is quite invasive and not cool, especially if it is after someone telling you they’re asexual. In a way, this scene shows that nicely.

As you can probably tell, I am really not fond of this kind of ‘representation’, but if people would like Sheldon to be ace, since it offers them a form of representation, fair enough. However, I think this proves that some people are desperately searching for representation, even if said representation is questionable and construes stereotypes about their identity. Thus, I think that to some extent, this ‘desperation’ leads them to project their asexuality on a character in hopes of finding this representation because apparently to them, bad representation is better than no representation at all. This and the following examples from different series will illustrate this more clearly and highlight the need for more diversity in narrative media even further.

It makes sense to assume that Sheldon is asexual, since there are various arguments in favour of this assumpion but there are headcanons that seem much less likely, such as the following.

Sasuke Uchiha – Naruto & Naruto Shippuden

Who is Sasuke? Well, he is another stoic, seemingly apathetic and otherwise brooding character, so he ‘must’ be asexual. On a serious note, this description does not do him justice at all. A small spoiler free summary of his story: his older brother murdered their entire family for reasons unbeknownst to him. Therefore, Sasuke’s goal for the entirety of the show’s first half, Naruto, is to avenge his clan by killing his older brother. As you can probably imagine, he is traumatised by the events and his reason to live for the biggest part of his life is just obtaining his revenge, so obviously he is not too keen on romance but that does not mean that he is aromantic or asexual. At a later point, there is a massive plot twist that essentially robs him of his reasons to live, causing even more trauma and despair and rendering assumptions of his sexuality even less weighty in consideration of the circumstances.

serious sasuke uchiha GIF

In his case, there are several aspects that speak against him being asexual. He is traumatised by the loss of everyone important to him and he was forced to witness the events at a young age. For that reason, he makes it his lifegoal to avenge them and dedicates his entire life to this mission.

Sasuke is just traumatised and dedicated to his personal vendetta, which leave no space for sexual or romantic attachments, or even friendships as they would hinder him. He makes this quite clear on several occasions and one key element of the later half of the series is him severing bonds and cutting off relationships in order to reach his goals while his best friend, Naruto tries to reach out to him. Sasuke explicitly decides not to engage in relationships (romantic and platonic) in order to reach his goals. This is not asexuality. It is merely a choice that he makes to achieve his goals.

Claiming that he is asexual just based on some of his character traits is quite reductive and does not take into consideration what he has gone trough. I think that this is one of the majour problems of headcanons. Based on some statements, you interpret the story in a very specific way.

This example again shows how people long for representation even if a headcanon does not really make sense. Apparently, people project their hopes for representation onto characters and over-interpret their behaviour in hopes of reading it as asexual. This illustrates the need for more representation, since it implies that people strive for characters that are relatable because of their identity. Since they do not find any, they have to hope for characters being ace and providing them a form of representation.

Aloy – Horizon Zero Dawn

To round things off, I will present and debunk a third, personal headcanon by talking about Aloy, the protagonist of Horizon Zero Dawn.

Horizon Zero Dawn is one of my favourite video games and one of my favourite stories regardless of the medium. It is set in a world, in which humanity has fallen and reemerged. In that world, humans are no longer dominant, as they are confronted with animalistic machines and nobody knows where exactly they come from.

Among the themes in this game are religion, science, progress and the ethics of science and it is a really intriguing experience. The story is well-written and the themes are prominent throughout the entirety of the game. Its characters and side characters are really diverse, since there are lots of POC and LGBTQIA+ characters and the game validates and normalises their presence. This becomes clear if you consider the depiction of more diverse side characters in the game.

Aloy, the protagonist of Horizon Zero Dawn gif taken from https://www.reddit.com/r/gaming/comments/6j7f8p/horizon_zero_dawn_aloy_fire/

On several occasions, you can encounter queer characters in the game and their queerness is not highlighted as something different but treated as something that is only normal and natural. – Awesome. For instance, you can encounter a man who wants to grief for his boyfriend and even a trans-man/ non-binary trans-person who corrects the protagonist after being misgendered by her. The game has a diverse cast and tackles various interesting concepts and it was only the last time I played it when I realised this. After this realisiation, I thought: ‘Well, Aloy does not really show any romantic or sexual interest in others, so what if she was ace or queer in some other form?’. Since the publishers obviously care about the topic as illustrated by the examples above, Aloy being queer would not be too much of a stretch, hence I am going to debate the chances of her being asexual.

First, I am going to summarise some aspects in favour of this assumption. Afterwards, I will explain why they are questionable and present some arguments against Aloy’s possible ace identity. That way, you will see how exactly headcanons are problematic. I will also try to avoid spoilers because this game is great and I cannot recommend it enough.

Why might Aloy be Ace?

One aspect that suggests this, is the fact that she does not really appear to be interested in anyone. Throughout the entirety of the game, she blocks and friendzones characters who are blatantly interested in her on a romantic or even sexual level. Most of the times, Aloy just seems to be uninterested and a bit annoyed but sometimes, she also seems a bit awkward and weirded out by other characters who bring up the topic.

At one point, there is a quest line based on Romeo and Juliet, in which Aloy meets a couple from two tribes that are at war with one another. In this quest line, Elida who represents Juliet asks her if she knows the feeling of being in love with someone. Aloy seems to feel a bit awkward about this and explains that she does not know this feeling, which implies that she might be aromantic, especially considering her behaviour when others try to flirt with her.

The relevant part comes at around 7:13 min until around 7:25. With some hesitation, Aloy answers: ‘I … can’t say that I do’, implying that she does not know the feeling of romantic love.

There are various other occasions where Aloy is not interested in flirting or seems awkward about it and it seems like she might be asexual or interested in other women.

Aloy friendzones Petra for a last time before the final battle.

Petra is one of many accquaintances and friends that Aloy makes on her journey. It is quite obvious that she is romantically interested in Aloy and she often makes innuendos signalling that to her. However, this does not seem to be reciprocal. Aloy does not cut her off completely but she reacts on a friendly, platonic basis and reminds Petra of her duties. This is the final time that she does so before the last, deciding battle, hence Petra says: ‘I know, I know’. Aloy’s refusal to respond to flirts hints at her being aromantic or asexual but at the same time, it may be due to her priorities, which I will discuss later.

More like: ‘Aloy’s had enough of sexual innuendos’

This scene takes place before a raid by bandits, in which Aloy is planning to use a grenade launcher to fight them off. Petra tells her to be careful about her hips if she plans to use them again, which Aloy cuts off. It seems a bit like Aloy does not feel too keen about innuendos and the topic sexuality.

SPOILER: One big aspect that hints at Aloy’s potential asexuality, is the theme of religion that is present throughout the entirety of the game. To cut things really short, Aloy is basically a scientific Jesus who is supposed to save the world and help those around her. She was actually created for this purpose of saving the world. However, deducing her sexuality from one of the story’s leitmotivs would be a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, this in a way reflects that asexuality and sexual orientations in general are not a choice but that you are born that way. On the other hand, this is somewhat reminiscent of celebacy, which does not equal asexuality. Accordingly, this assumption is questionable.

In general, the possibility of her being asexual is mostly based on single statements, hence it is questionable. Additionally, there are some strong arguments that suggest that she is not asexual, which I am going to consider in the next sub chapter.

Why Aloy is (probably) not Ace

The first aspect I’d like to address here, is that Aloy grew up as an outcast who was not allowed to get into contact with her fellow clans-persons. People who do not adhere to this rule can be expelled from the clan themselves, hence most people do not risk to get in touch with her. As a result, Aloy grew up without the possibility to gain romantic or sexual experience, let alone develop such feelings, as her only contact person was her adoptive father. Therefore, she factually was not able to make any experiences and she is possibly just inexperienced and unaware of her sexual orientation because she never had the chance to experience attraction and discover her sexual orientation.

Another couple of points that strongly suggest she is not asexual, are her role in the world of the game and her priorities. At the beginning of the game, Aloy participates in a ritual that would enable her to become a part of her clan but there is a raid in which most participants of this ritual are killed. As one of the only survivors, Aloy is accepted into the tribe and given the task of pursuing the murderers, which she gladly does, since her adoptive father was murdered by them as well. Accordingly, Aloy’s motivation for a big section of the game are her search for answers and revenge for her father. As with Sasuke and possibly Sheldon, Aloy’s priorities do not really leave any space for romance and it is questionable to assume that she is asexual based on her behaviour considering her more pressing issues.

On top of that, a new world opens up to her when she is accepted into the tribe, literally because the world of the game opens up to the player at that point. Aloy leaves the valley that she has lived in until that point and for the first time in her life, she sees the world beyond that small valley. Consequently, she takes in various impressions and meets lots of people on her mission and has to handle this all at once. This again makes it harder for her to grow romantically or sexually attached to someone else, which is another possible explanation for her lack of romantic interest throughout the game. Her life has changed abruptly and she has to handle this while she is on an important mission, so there is not much space for love and relationships.

The combination of all of these factors implies that Aloy merely has different priorities than romance and sex and that she does not even have the time to pursue any of these comparably trivial things. Toward the end of the game, the stakes rise and Aloy has to burden a great responsibility, as she has to save the world. During all of this, she cannot really tell this to anyone, since they do not have her knowledge and would not understand her. This estranges her from the other characters and makes things even more difficult for her. Based on all of the aforementioned aspects, it is a stretch to assume that Aloy is asexual. She is just busy saving the world and handling the responsibility this brings with it as well as the knowledge about the world and about herself, which she obtains in the process.

Before being able to fall in love, she has to figure out herself and deal with the aforementioned problems at the same time, which strongly suggests that this is all just a matter of priorities and that romance is obviously of lower priority when the fate of the world is at stake. As long as her character arc is not concluded, I would not label her as asexual but I am really curious to see how she is going to develop in the sequel Horizon Forbidden West, which was announced last month. If she turned out to be asexual, that could be among the better representations of this sexuality, since Aloy is just a great character that could debunk lots of misconceptions about this topic.

How does this Matter?!

election 2016 representation GIF by WatchUsRun

As hinted on earlier, to me it appears that sometimes people over-interpret the behaviour of characters and put too much emphasis on one-off statements by them. Based on that, they appear to consider a character asexual simply because they want them to be ace. Basing this deduction on one single statement or facet of a character is questionable but this illustrates the dire need for representation.

There is barely any representation of asexuality in the media, which contributes to the insecurities that this identity may bring with it. One might simply feel dysfunctional because heterosexuality is constantly normalised and by being asexual, they inherently do not fulfil this standard. This does not only apply to asexuality but all sorts of other queer identities as well, since all of them are affected by heteronormativity. The absence of representation contributes to this marginalisation.

Apart from sexual orientations, POC are also affected by stereotypes that can be perpetuated by bad representation. Accordingly, it is great to have some good representation that deconstructs stereoytypes. Not only for queer people but also for people of colour, representation matters, since it can help to spread awareness and in the best case provides a voice for them to be heard.

For that reason, it is great to see more diversity in the media in general. More people experience representation of their identity on TV, in cinema and in other media but heteronormativity still prevails. It is all the more frustrating when people claim that non-heterosexual characters are being shoved down their throats, as you can see whenever there is a queer character in a blockbuster, a netflix show or an AAA release in the video game business *coughing The Last of US II. If you are not straight, you are constantly confronted with heteronormativity, so it is nice to see some characters outside of this norm for a change and to not have cishet characters forced down your throat all the time.

As stated earlier, I think that the situation is improving but there is still much work to be done and lots of people (asexuals among others) lack proper representation. If there was more proper representation, people would not have to cling to headcanons in order to feel empowered and seen, hence the strong focus on headcanons may be interpreted as an expression of this lack of representation.

What do we do about this?

The most basic thing that you can do to help LGBT folks is education. We have to educate our friends and families and make them aware that there is more than just one way of life. The media could contribute to this by not only presenting conventional ways of life but also more diverse and unconventional ways of living and educating people about diversity. That would help us prevent discrimination and it could help people to make sense of their identity and feel understood. The same applies to all forms of discrimination. We have to be aware of racism, sexism and hateful mindsets in general and address them among friends and family to prevent the people around us from perpetuating these mindsets.

If queer characters annoy you, try to be empathetic and view things from a queer perspective. Normally, we are constantly confronted with heterosexuality, so it is nice for us to be validated for a change. That does not take away from the ‘legitimacy of heteosexuality’ and noone is trying to ‘brainwash kids and turn them into queer zombies’. It is merely about accepting and embracing diversity, so just be considerate.

I have a final question: Do any of you have headcanons? And how do you feel about them? To clarify things, by no means I want to judge anyone for headcanons, I just think that they often do not really make sense. At the same time, I think I understand why people hope that certain characters are ace, hence I wrote this post, since I felt that there needs to be more ace representation and queer representation in general. Feel free to tell me your opinion in the comments or on Twitter under @sovlpvnkblog.

As always, thank you for reading.

-sovlpvnk

Next on sovlpvnk: For the Future #3: Veganism VS. Vegetarianism

Sources:

Urban Dictionary, ‘headcanon’ In: urbandictionary.com, URL: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=headcanon, Accessed on July 22, 2020.

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Published by sovlpvnk

This is my personal blog about culture and sustainability. It is mainly concerned with topics that I'm interested in, mostly the alternative music scene and its ethics as well as LGBTQIA+ -related topics and veganism. I post my content in English and German.

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