Asexuality and Intersex Conditions Are Television’s New Frontier

Bailey DeYoung as Lauren Cooper in Faking It
Bailey DeYoung as Lauren Cooper in Faking It.

Courtesy of MTV

A few weeks ago, after an evening feasting on the delights stored on my TiVo, it struck me that every show I’d watched—Benched, Jane the Virgin, Glee, The Mindy Project, and Marry Me—had featured at least one queer character. My attitude to TV representation of the LGBTQ nation is and always will be “more please.” Nevertheless, I started to wonder if gay and lesbian characters were becoming a little too familiar, perhaps even a teensy bit boring.

Luckily, in the last year or so, the range of sexual and gender identities being represented on television has expanded in new and interesting ways: The USA comedy Sirens has an asexual character, and at the beginning of Season 2, MTV’s Faking It revealed that one of the core characters is intersex. When I asked those shows’ creators why they had chosen to explore these identities, both mentioned wanting to do something new and different.

Bob Fisher, who created the U.S. version of Sirens with Denis Leary, told me that when they were inventing new characters who hadn’t existed in the original British show, they thought about friends who identified as asexual. “We did some research, and we thought that it would be an interesting thing to explore.” Originality was a big part of the appeal. When considering potential relationships, having an asexual character “was an interesting flip on the convention of will-they-won’t-they. It’s an entirely new spin on that issue, because you have a character who won’t. If they feel a strong friendship, how do they navigate that?”

That question played out in fascinating ways in Season 2 of Sirens, which concludes Tuesday night. Brian, the eager rookie in the three-man EMT team at the center of the show, is attracted to asexual Voodoo, even though she has told him they’ll never have a physical relationship. After a couple of dates, Brian is convinced he’s become “transcendual” and has overcome his sexual urges. When he repeats this claim to Voodoo, she immediately takes him to a strip club, where it becomes clear that his cheapness is the real reason for his apparent lack of interest in skimpily clad women. The tension between Brian and Voodoo wasn’t limited to one episode, though—she has struggled with feelings of jealousy since he started dating other women, even though she knows they don’t have a future together.

Did having a character who belongs to a little-known and often misunderstood minority limit the writers’ creative freedom? “The one thing we’re limiting ourselves on is respect,” Fisher told me. “The character will not waver in who she is. I don’t feel the need to get any cheap laughs out of it. I really value comedic and creative freedom, but I also don’t think that it is a limit on those things to be respectful.” Ruling out “cheap laughs” didn’t mean it couldn’t be a subject of comedy, though. “In the first episode that we dealt with Voodoo’s asexuality, we allowed the guys to make some jokes about it, but that was actually to knock down a series of tropes that you will hear people say about asexuals. Have they met the right guy? That kind of stuff. Also, I think it’s human nature for people to joke about something they don’t really understand or that makes them uncomfortable.”

Faking It showrunner Carter Covington told me that the intersex element was born because they wanted a storyline worthy of the acting talents of Bailey DeYoung (Ginny on the late, lamented Bunheads), who plays Lauren. “The show is called Faking It, and we said, ‘Well, what is a secret she could have?’ ” Mostly, though, “it felt really fresh. It felt like a way to explore themes I hadn’t seen on TV before.”

Was it tricky that Lauren—a Type A personality who resents the topsy-turvy social structure at her Austin, Texas, high school, where gay students are the coolest kids on campus—was the main adversary of the fake lesbian couple at the center of the show? Not at all, said Covington, because her opposition stems from her condition. “She’s trying to be the perfect girl, the normal girl in the normal high school. She’s threatened by Karma and Amy because they represent a crack that she didn’t want to have happen.” It’s important, too, that Lauren keep her bitchy edge: “People accept her for being intersex, but she hasn’t accepted it about herself. If someone accepts you for something you don’t accept about yourself, it’s frustrating. It makes you even more angry. So we’ve been able to keep her antagonism in a very real way that makes sense for what she’s going through.”

Just as the Sirens’ writing team researched asexuality before they incorporated it into the show, the Faking It folks sought help from GLAAD, which put them in touch with Advocates for Informed Choice, an intersex advocacy group, which worked with them to craft storylines. “They gave us an education about what intersex conditions mean. We talked about what issues they bring up,” Covington said. To a certain extent that advice shaped events in the show.

When I told Covington I’d been frustrated by how little Lauren’s intersex condition had been incorporated into the plot once it became known to the high-school student body, he explained, “We wanted to honor what we heard loud and clear from people who are intersex: that when they reveal this about themselves, it immediately becomes a sort of science class. They feel like everyone wants to know the details of how it works and people forget that they are human. We really wanted to focus Lauren’s journey not on a medical story or on any sort of curiosity about what does that mean about her body but how she has the same insecurities we all have: Do people really like me for me, and if people knew the real me, would they really like me?”

Feedback from intersex and asexual viewers cemented the creators’ commitment to present an accurate depiction of those communities. Covington said he was “really blown away” by the response to Lauren’s arc. Fisher told me, “A lot of asexuals wrote about the show and how much it meant to them to have asexuality represented on mainstream television. Look, I’m straight, white, and male, I’m the most overrepresented person on television. It meant a lot to me that it meant something to them.”