Amatonormativity as a Media Trope

The level of amatonormativity in media is exhausting—it feels like a tired trope that the world won't let go of.

This post was written for the February 2023 Carnival of Aces, where the theme is “Representation in Fiction.”

Folks tend to assume that explicit representation—the kind where you have an explicitly queer character and make their queerness a plot point—is how representation should be done.

Honestly? I’m sometimes inclined to disagree.

Like, I’m as tired as anyone of “representation” being two women holding hands in the background of a shot for 0.4 seconds. I’m tired of companies censoring their writers trying to write queer characters. I’m tired of queerbaiting.

But I’m also tired of explicit queer representation that’s just terrible coming out stories written by and for cishet people.

Aces get real excited on the rare occasion we get explicit representation in media, and for good reason. We’re invisible. Light bends around us like a gravitational anomaly such that most people don’t know we exist.

I remember ace Reddit being hyped when that episode of Sex Education came out in 2020 with an explicitly asexual character. And while I haven’t watched the show, it really seems like they did their ace character right.

But you know what I crave more than that kind of explicit representation? Media that casually bucks amatonormative and allonormative social norms.

Y’all remember when Shang-Chi came out in 2021 and a bunch of aros were talking about Shaun and Katy’s relationship? There was nothing queer or even particularly subversive about it—they were just a male and female lead who didn’t have a romance subplot. And that was so incredibly refreshing to see. Just two close friends without any romantic interest or sexual tension.

And that got me thinking about how amatonormativity in media is so pervasive that it feels like a tired trope the world won’t let go of.

So many films and TV shows would be just as good—maybe better—without the corporate-mandated romance subplot. As cool as it would be to see more explicit aro and ace representation, what I think I want even more is more media that eschews common romance tropes in favor of nontraditional relationships. Romantic relationships that are non-sexual. Queerplatonic relationships—even if they’re not called that. People who are sensually intimate without sexual tension. Ambiguous relationships. Weirdly close roommates. Found families. Platonic friends who mean the world to each other.

From the perspective of asexual visibility and education, I feel like more nontraditional relationships in media would be helpful, maybe even more so than just teaching people the label.

Sure, you can teach people what “asexual” means and give them the whole lecture, and then what? They tell you you’re broken, they tell you you have a hormone problem, they tell you it’s “not possible,” etc. These people don’t have a conceptual framework with which to understand asexuality, and sometimes I wonder if what they need is to be deprogrammed of the amatonormativity and allonormativity they were socialized with.

Back in the mid aughts, David Jay went on a media tour for AVEN. He did interviews on ABC’s The View and MSNBC’s Tucker, and to this day I haven’t been able to watch either of them in their entirety on account of the acephobia. The folks interviewing him are brutal to him, while all he’s trying to do is patiently explain asexuality and his organization. Explicit representation relies on people being willing to change their understanding of the world.

Another reasons I like the concept of portraying nontraditional relationships in media outside of an explicitly queer context because I think amatonormativity harms everyone—not just aspec people. I’ve met non-queer folks who have what I would describe as a queerplatonic relationship1, for example. I think a lot of folks could benefit from the assurance that things like intimacy and commitment can exist outside the context of a romantic and sexual relationship.

I guess we’re all looking for the same thing: to normalize asexuality. But lately, I’ve been thinking maybe it’s better to go about it by showing what asexuality is rather than telling.

  1. From its inception, the term “queerplatonic” has never been exclusive to queer folks. ↩︎