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"Dumbledore is ace/aro. Discuss."

Yeah, this is all Jessee's fault. The conversation turned to Dumbledore as a source of gay/queer representation on Crone Island last week, and they pinged me when they moved the conversation to a new channel with that particular summary. They were pretty accurate when they said I would have some thoughts on the topic.

With respect to Dumbledore's sexuality, I often think look, good for you, JKR, for your fucking headcanons, but no cookie for being like "oh yeah this elderly asecetic character with no partner was definitely gay/queer of any stripe". He's old, Harry's a kid and doesn't really have any reason to think about his love life, and like.... it's so small a part of his character and life and the role he plays in the story that I genuinely do not know how the fuck you were supposed to tell before the big headcanon reveal. Assuming you were supposed to tell at all.

I can read Dumbledore as ace or aro or gay or something else that didn't used to have a name on the great seething spectrum of queerness, and I can do it happily. I can read fanfiction that deals with that with a great deal of pleasure, and that I'll often roll around in with great delight and praise for representation. But that's not JKR's praise, because it's not her work illustrating the perspective and experience of a marginalized character, it's a fan-author's.

The way Dumbledore is presented in the canon, the reader's expectations and history brings way more to the story than the author does re his sexuality--everything is about what the reader is willing to project in, how much work the reader is willing to do to bring that reading to life. How much, essentially, is the reader willing to write between the lines and in their own head in order to see themselves or at least another marginalized person?

I have fanfiction for that, is my honest feeling, and where I can get them I have paid authors who will bring those marginalized experiences to life in characters whose experiences are central enough to who they are and the way they think (or act) in the story that you can't project an unmarked, privileged reading over it without having to stop and think. Maybe that's encoded in the story, or maybe it's encoded in the medium, kind of like you can't just leave Hermione's race unmarked and neutral in a movie but you can in a book.

But for me, in order for me to go "ah! yes! representation!", I have to see my experiences reflected. And elderly mentors being presented as celibate without active love lives is so common as to be, frankly, a rather boring cliche. That's not my story. You can tell a story that actually delves into what those things meant for Albus, and why and how they influenced his life and his choices, but in order to be my story--or a story that is a mirror just for me, like straight people have as a default--you have to make it explicit. You have to actually talk about it, and more wilfully privileged or clueless readers might well miss it anyway (as with the example of racist Hunger Games fans being angry at Rue's canon-compliant film casting with a dark-skinned actress).

There's a line there, of course, with how much you talk about it--does it become a stereotype then? Is it too much of the character's identity or not enough or somewhere in the middle? No matter how you answer, that's never going to ring true to everyone in the group you're illustrating. Some of us give more of a shit about certain parts of ourselves than others, and that's part of diversity among any group of people. So maybe it's less a line you have to be aware of and more of a spectrum--how central is this experience to the character? does that centrality feel realistic? how does the context of the story highlight and change in response to that centrality?

You're never going to be perfect with it, you just kind of have to pick a Visibility Levelweird amples of whatever type of marginalized experience you're talking there are, the more strongly people are going to feel no matter what you do about the tack you take--but hey, they'll often have lower standards for getting it right if they see fewer characters like themselves in media, so you probably do have that going for you.

For me, aro/ace characters who are explicit in some way about it--who have e.g. someone else get a weird crush on them and have to react, or who fall in love and then have sex and decide shit is weird, or who act like they have a secret that has them holding people at arms' length, or who have certain insecurities--those are much more meaningful to me than "character who happens not to have love interest where we can see."

[Note: for me, explicitness does not need to include "identifies as asexual as we understand it", in part because I think that it's a newly crafted identity that's been reified partly in response to the reification of sexual orientation as a concept more generally over the past hundred years. I have seen many people who say "yes, I can ID as asexual" who have previously conceptualized their identity in a number of different ways, including assuming that everyone else is inexplicably lying about their experiences or something.]

Beyond that, it's a case of.... certain intersections of representation are much more meaningful to me than others. For example, female ace characters are a much bigger deal to me than ace men, up to and including homoromantic ace men. Part of that is that ace communities are heavily biased towards women and genderqueer folk, such that it's not an uncommon question at the group I run "do you ever see men here?" from new folks. So it's a more common intersection in reality, and so I know many more people in it and they are easier to recognize.

Part of it is also that female characters are in general rarer in many media. When they do appear, thanks to the Smurfette principle and compulsory heterosexuality, most of the time they're part of some kind of romantic subplot or main plot. Most mainstream media explicitly ace characters, especially earlier characters, are fairly obviously based on one of two specific activists, either David Jay or Julie Sandra Decker [aka swankivy]. (That interview should give you a rough idea of both of their general personas.)

DJ is a charismatic, handsome, charming and warm cis white dude whose public interviews on asexuality are frequently accompanied by commentary to the effect of "but all the girls AND boys find him attractive! He could totally pull if he wanted to!" Ivy is a very small, very femme woman who.... basically hits the manic pixie dream girl stereotypes a lot if you don't know her super well. (She gets very sharp about this. It's pretty awesome.)

Characters based on DJ kind of run into the issue that a) I love DJ and I have an incredibly deep respect for him, but he is a pretty unusual dude and also b) his experience and identity are not particularly common within the community, and so it starts to feel a bit weird when characters clearly modeled on him keep popping up. (Examples: Kevin from Guardian of the Dead and Gerald from Shortland Street both come to mind.)

Those based on Ivy tend to fall into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype and therefore not really get their own stories where they're the main center of the piece, in my experience. They're more meaningful to me, because I know a lot more people like Ivy than like DJ, but because of their position with respect to fictional tropes they can ring hollow when storycrafters wind up falling into some well-tread stereotypes. I don't think it's coincidental that many of them don't seem to actually know what to do with a personality like Ivy's that is so firmly and bluntly aro, to be honest, and so that trait tends to be one that often gets modified. Here think Poppy from Huge or Erin from Girls with Slingshots.

Of remaining mainstream media ace characters, the remainder tend to be, well, uh, autistic stereotypes or otherwise coded as inhuman. I got a whole other rant on that one, and it's not like that's not a common intersection--hello!--but it tends to suffer from writers not expecting or even necessarily apparently wanting readers to emotionally identify with and empathize with the experiences of the autistic/asexual character. That's doubly true for 'asexual' neurodiverse, robotic, or alien characters.

This is a general issue with autistic characters as well as a broader issue with the whole "lack of romantic love used to denote inhumanity" trope. The dearth of characters who don't fit very distinct pigeonholes--the mainstream categories I mentioned earlier are still quote rare!--leads a lot of people to pick these characters up and clutch inhuman characters to themselves because models that reflect themselves at all are pretty thin on the ground.

Besides, these kinds of asexual-as-inhuman characters are often a little more, uh, less self consciously presenting themselves as Identity First than the other genre of ace character I'm mentioning, and that is much more common in my experience for asexual-identified people once the novelty of a new identity wears off.

The common portrayals from people basing their characters off modified versions of real asexual activists often wind up being presented with their asexual identities very much to the forefront. Part of that is that both of the specific activists who usually go significantly into forming those characters are people who have been placing their asexuality front and center of their life for fifteen years now; of course they're not going to reflect the experiences of many people who are looking for a mirror. So those folks make a mirror out of inhuman-coded characters and read themselves into those not-meant-to-represent-people masks, which is how you get people who are going "oh my god, Dexter* is just like me!" and other people in the same group going "wait, what?! The hell you say?"

People are resilient, is my point, and there's a reason that there's so much controversy and disagreement about how much you should center identity specific experiences in a marginalized character. That reason is that marginalized people are short on potential mirrors because unmarked characters don't see our experiences reflected often, so we naturally want to see experiences that ring true to us from our circle of friends if not ourselves... and, well, that's going to mean that a very identity-forward character might ring like an insulting stereotype to a person who prioritizes other aspects of their self identity more. Likewise, a character like Dumbledore who is very identity-minimized--like a minimized screen window on a desktop computer, the part of himself is there but not at the forefront of his mind--is often going to go completely un-noticed as an attempt to portray the marginalized group, or else be criticized as "basically a $MAJORITY character with a veneer of $MARGINALIZATION." (Think of people criticizing female characters as basically men with tits, etc.)

So the pressure mounts, and as no character can be all things to all people--well, the solution is really more stories, more characters, more diversity. Along the way to that solution, though, characters trying to bridge the gap are going to come in for criticism along that spectrum, probably as soon as there are enough that people stop being desperately delighted by their very existence and start feeling able to develop standards and opinions. There's not really anything any individual author can do in response to that but do their best, I think, and hope that adding their own portrayals to the mix begins to soothe that need for any specific character to meet all needs.

*the serial killer, not the cartoon


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