Asexuality in Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

tash hearts tolstoy.jpg

I had meant to have this this piece up waaaaay earlier. Like, sometime in 2017.

I first read Tash Hearts Tolstoy last August. The book is, to my knowledge, the first YA novel published by Big Five imprint to feature an explicitly asexual protagonist. As an ace-spectrum/gray-ace person, I was curious to see how Tash’s asexuality would be portrayed, especially since the last book I read with an ace protagonist, Every Heart a Doorway, had people praising it ad infinitum for its representation of asexuality when, in reality, it sucked.

(Side note: I have no clue whether Tash Hearts Tolstoy is #ownvoices. I also don’t care that much whether it is or not, because Every Heart a Doorway was #ownvoices, and, well, see above. )

A quick summary: Tash is an aspiring film director who, along with her best friend Jack, is producing a web series adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina titled Unhappy Families, which has just gone viral thanks to a famous vlogger giving it a shout-out. Tash has also struck up an online friendship with Thom, a fellow vlogger, and soon they’re emailing and texting and bantering and flirting. Tash has the opportunity to meet him in person, thanks to the upcoming Golden Tuba web series awards, but now she’s facing the prospect of spending time with her crush in meatspace and feeling the pressure of whether to tell Thom she’s asexual.

Tash Hearts Tolstoy is an entertaining read overall. I especially enjoyed all the parts involving Unhappy Families and interfacing with fans and the Internet as content creators. My conclusion regarding the portrayal of Tash’s asexuality is that the book did a lot of things right, a couple things not right, and one thing that really ticked me off. The full breakdown of my thoughts is as follows:

PROS

  • The way Tash’s asexuality was introduced to the story naturally

It all starts innocently enough with Tash first bringing up her her crush Thom to her other best friend Paul (who is also Jack’s brother) , who then asks if Thom is hot or not. Paul then gets embarrassed and flustered that he’s asking that question, to which Tash responds that it’s ok and that she can find people aesthetically pleasing without thinking of them in a sexual way.

I love that up to that point Tash’s story up to this point had revolved around Unhappy Families, the show’s ascendence to internet fame, and various Big Life Changes involving other characters. Here we see for the first time mention of Tash’s asexuality in the wild, and it’s naturally relevant. Paul isn’t sure whether or not it was appropriate for him to make that comment, and Tash clarifies, and it’s clear that there’s a history behind Tash telling Paul that she’s ace that may or may not have been awkward and uncomfortable for the both of them. We, the reader, will find out more as Tash’s asexuality becomes even more relevant as her and Thom’s textual flirtations escalate and Jack and Paul continue to work on understanding what Tash’s identity is in light of that.

  • The feeling of being ace—and different

The easiest way to explain why a character is ace in a piece of fiction is to characterize them with a laundry list of the usual reasons people suspect/know/come to identify themselves as ace—they’ve never thought of other people as “hot” or wanted to jump someone’s bones, they’ve never understood the fuss about sex, they’re bored by sex in media, etc. They’re all here in this book, but because the story is told from Tash’s point of view, these “signs” are incorporated naturally and effortlessly into the narrative. In this case, Tash explains how in an exercise to convince herself that she was not “confused”, every night she used to fill up a Word doc with all the proof she has for why she’s ace. It’s a very Tash thing for the Type-A, plan-loving, detail-obsessive person she is to do, and I loved it.

  • Fumbling explanations that don’t throw Tash under the bus

Tash’s first attempt to explain she’s ace to Jack and Paul is, to put it mildly, lacking in clarity.

“I guess I’ve never really wanted to do…stuff. That dating people. Want to do.”

Even with that not-at-all-clear-as-mud explanation, Tash herself is fully certain about what she wants and doesn’t want, and the narrative never suggests that Tash could be wrong, or has Tash question whether she is wrong.

(Unfortunately, Tash’s friends aren’t nearly as understanding, which I’ll talk about later.)

  • The intersection of asexuality and gender

This is a throwaway line, but it’s one of my favorites in the book.

“But how could I be a girl, when apparently all other girls were sexual beings?”

This. This this this. The fact that sexuality and gender/gender identity inform the other to the point you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. The idea that one’s understanding of one’s gender is in part informed by the gender(s) one is attracted to, and the gender(s) one is attracted to then leads to an understanding of one’s own place in a gendered society, and how one perceives their gender in relation. Societal understanding of gender is this cause-and-effect relationship writ large.

Years ago when I was in college, I came to the realization after a bunch of classes about sex and gender that I didn’t know what it meant to be “female” if I wasn’t attracted to anyone. Being straight is tied up in understandings of being a “correct” kind of woman or man, according to society, whereas being gay or bi or pansexual is frequently rooted in interrogating one’s relationship to gender and gender roles in relation to being attracted to a) someone who’s the same gender as you and/or b) more than one gender. If so much of one’s understanding of gender is based off the gender(s) of who you’re attracted to, what does it say about your gender if you’re attracted to no one? How do you be a gendered person like everyone else, or be a gender, or have a gender, when in our society one’s gender is inextricably linked to the gender(s) you’re attracted to?

These are complicated questions with no easy answers, and I wish queer academics would hurry up and tackle this already. For right now, it makes me almost absurdly happy to read about Tash grappling with this dilemma, however briefly.

  • Realistic and relatable fears surrounding dating and “being normal”

When I started hanging out in AVEN in 2010, that question of how to realistically date or maintain a relationship with an allosexual person was one of the most frequent topics of discussion. While Tash is excited to meet Thom, she now has to figure out whether or not their friendship could turn into a romance and, if so, decide whether to tell him she’s ace, and or even date Thom in the first place. Tash has the same deep-seated fears I used to experience back when I was first coming out over whether anyone would be able to “deal with” or “handle” the fact that I’m ace and not be disappointed or resentful that I wouldn’t want to have a sexual relationship.

CONS

  • “Romantic Asexual”

I’m not a fan of the publisher’s decision to characterize Tash as a “romantic asexual” on the jacket copy or Tash’s inclination to identify herself using this term. I’m not aware of any ace person who’s ever used “romantic asexual” as a personal descriptor (I even asked my roommate for a second data point, and they hadn’t either). Typically, that term has been used in the ace community to contrast with “aromantic asexual” and discuss the difference the presence or lack of romantic attraction has on people’s experiences of asexuality.

 

  • Lack of the term “allosexual”

I don’t get why this is even an issue, since Tash uses the term when she’s monologuing about her previous internet explorations about asexuality and that she learned new terms like “ace”, “allosexual”, “graysexual”, etc., so she knows of its existence. But Tash’s lack of use the word is more problematic in this following paragraph:

“I’ve done my research on relationships between aces and sexual people. There are a lot of different perspectives out there, but the general consensus is this: It’s really hard. It requires openness and compromise. Sometimes the sexual person stays committed emotionally but finds sexual satisfaction elsewhere—either on their own or with other people. Or sometimes the ace is cool with having sex every so often, to make their partner happy. Sometimes it all ends in tears. But any way you slice it, the details sound so clinical and ugly, and is it wrong of me to not want to think about them yet?”

From a real-world perspective, Tash’s use of “sexual people,” especially in the context of dating, inadvertently touches upon a particularly sore point about the origin of the word “allosexual” in the ace community. The reason “allosexual” exists, and the reason a group of ace people first came up with it, is because other queer people spent a lot of time being really nasty to the online ace community for using the world “sexual” as a noun to describe non-ace people. You can read more about it here. So the fact that Tash calls non-ace people “sexual people” when aces came up with the term “allosexual” specifically to replace that term others like it feels a bit like a slap in the face and a lot like the author didn’t do enough research.

  • Tash’s friends’ lack of understanding

Jack and Paul mean well. They make appropriately “We accept you and whatever you are” statements when Tash came out to them, and they genuinely want to be supportive. When Tash later clarifies to Jack that she’s a romantic asexual and doesn’t like sex, Jack says she understands and that she did a ton of research on asexuality after Tash first came out.

In practice, Jack and Paul misunderstand Tash’s asexuality to mean she also doesn’t want to date people, or that she also does not experience romantic attraction (i.e. is aromantic). This manifests itself in jealousy on Paul’s part and a lack of empathy on Jack’s for how confusing and difficult it was for Tash to come out and explain herself to them. Part of this arguably has to do with Tash’s less-than-clear coming out explanation. But if Jack did so much research, she should already know that “asexual” does not simultaneously mean “aromantic.” Additionally, it would make sense for Jack to share her research with Paul, as they’re siblings in addition to being Tash’s friends. Instead, the below situation happens.

  • the Tash-Paul storyline

This is going to have ALL of the spoilers and ALL of my rage.

As it turns out, Tash does not end up with her online crush Thom (who turns out to be a huge dick about Tash’s asexuality), but with Paul. I wouldn’t have cared one way or the other about Tash + Paul, but the author threw in a  gross explanation for why Tash’s crush on Thom hurt him.

Explanation: Paul has been acting vaguely jealous about Tash’s relationship with Thom, which Tash calls him out on. It turns out that hey, Paul does like Tash but is really confused that Tash even likes Thom, because he is still confused about what asexuality is and didn’t think Tash could fall in love with a dude (see above). In response, Tash says some understandable yet assumptive statements about how Paul likes sex and wouldn’t be able to handle dating her. (An excruciatingly painful strip tease is involved, as an attempt to make her point.)

The next day Tash gets into a fight with Jack, who is upset at Tash for lashing out at her brother. Jack explains that Paul has been in love with her for a long time and was going to make a move UNTIL Tash came out to the two of them as ace.

“He was beginning to come to grips with it, and then you got into this…whatever you have with Internet Thom. All this new information that sounded different from what you told us in September. I’m not saying it’s your fault for not liking Paul back. But you have to see things from his perspective. You really twisted him up.”

“No, I—I get that now…”

And this is where steam starts coming out of my ears. Because this is bullshit. That Jack forces Tash to bear the blame for Paul’s unhappiness over Tash’s crush, when part of his unhappiness is due to his own lack of understanding about asexuality.

Jack sees Tash’s previous lack of awareness of Paul’s feelings for her as evidence of Jack’s larger argument—that Tash takes Paul and her for granted. Which is arguably true, but this particular form of her accusation is gross. Not everyone realizes every single time (or at all!) when someone else likes them, and for Jack to use that as evidence of Tash’s self-centeredness is misleading and unfair.

Even worse, Jack essentially accuses Tash of being responsible for Paul’s pain, because her liking Thom seemingly conflicts with what she told them about being ace. But! Jack has supposedly done research. At this point, she reasonably should understand better what Tash was trying to say all those months ago and that Tash getting a crush or falling in love with a dude doesn’t negate her asexuality. Instead, Jack forces Tash to take responsibility for “twisting Paul up,” when it’s not Tash’s responsibility to justify to Paul, or anyone else, her asexuality or her crush on Thom.

Paul is no better—near the book’s end, Tash tells him she can’t read people’s minds and she didn’t know he liked her, and he brushes it off. This is also the scene where they get together, by the way.

Oh, and a couple pages later, after she’s done explaining why it’s Tash’s fault Paul’s all twisted up inside, Jack says to her:

“Look, I can’t get mad at you for effing up coming out when I’ve never had to it myself. But I can be mad at you for plenty of other stuff.”

You heard it here, folks. If you “eff up” coming out as ace to your friends because you’re having a hard time explaining what it is you’re trying to say, and then your friend gets jealous of you because of your crush, it’s your fault.

Steam. Out. Of. My. Ears.

In sum, I hate everything about this.

Aaaaaand those are all my feelings about this book. I hope to do this kind of post again with Marieke Nijkamp’s This Is Where It Ends and Claire Kann’s YA novel Let’s Talk About Love as soon as I get them from the library. (Hopefully I’ll have those posts up more quickly than this one!)

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