“It means a lot to see your own experiences reflected in a TV show that you love,” was the subtitle of a BuzzFeed listicle published last week entitled, “19 TV And Film Characters Asexual People Relate To On A Deep Level.” When I read it, I couldn’t help but suspect there was something more driving the piece than the joy of relating to beloved characters. The listicle smacks of ideological colonization, of projecting one’s beliefs and experiences onto others to make them more relatable. Worse, the exercise in list-making implies that our culture’s favorite thing about TV and movies are characters who look and act like we do. Unfortunately, this is all too typical of BuzzFeed, and of the twenty-somethings (including myself) who are the majority of the site’s readers.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-BuzzFeed per se. The ‘Try Guys’ videos are hilarious, and every high school and college kid in America should watch their video on blood alcohol content. Nor do I have any desire to wag a finger at people who identify as asexual or aromantic. There’s nothing wrong with people of any sexual orientation (or in the case of asexual and aromantic people, a noted lack of any clear orientation) expressing love for television characters they relate to. But what BuzzFeed is doing is something entirely different.
Among the diverse lineup of sci-fi and fantasy favorites nominated for the list by self-professed asexual BuzzFeed readers on Facebook: Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data, Scully and Mulder of the X-Files (with Mulder chummily addressed by his first name, Fox; Mulder himself would disapprove), Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit; and an unsurprising abundance of Harry Potter heroes and heroines. In some cases, as with BoJack Horseman‘s Todd—depicted in a GIF saying, “I’m not gay. I mean, I don’t think I am, but don’t think I’m straight either”—I get it. The Facebook user credited with the nomination of Todd writes, “His vulnerable admission resonates with my (and other aces’) experiences, and the reaction of his friend with, ‘Well, that’s okay!’ is something a lot of us need to hear.” Point taken. But in the case of Mulder and Scully, the imposition of an asexual, aromantic identity on either of them is blatantly absurd. To remind the author that Mulder and Scully do eventually hook up, and even have a child together on the X-Files, might seem like vindictive pedantry from an X-Files junkie, but in fact points to a larger problem. Is it possible that we are creating a popular culture where audiences have trouble relating to fictional characters who don’t look like us and mirror back our own experiences?
Sure, birds of a feather have always flocked together, as the cliché suggests, but what happens when we no longer try to appreciate people whose experiences and identities are foreign to us? Is it possible that we are at risk of losing our ability to be genuinely sympathetic to folks from diverse backgrounds because we are too enamored of characters who act like ourselves?
And what might an exercise in flattery such as BuzzFeed’s cherry picking of supposedly asexual characters reveal about our inability to appreciate good storytelling? I can only hope we would not mar a beautiful sculpture, photograph, or painting by cutting out or circling in red pen all the figures and faces that look like us. Sure, the relative impermanence of TV, film, and especially online writing means that what BuzzFeed is doing in these listicles is different, but the impulse behind it is potentially damaging to our ability to understand others. Mulder and Scully and Bilbo are not asexual any more than Andrew Garfield is a gay man or a devout Christian.
You don’t have to forswear BuzzFeed (who can resist those funny tweet lists?), but amid the genuine hilarity, we should all ask ourselves a serious question: Do we only sympathize with others if they remind us of ourselves?