Few direct spoilers.
Also everyone gets this as a freebie to go with the Patron-exclusive live reaction because I really want people to talk about this film more when we talk about ace rep in general.
Carry On Expectations:
Experiencing Asexual Representation in Carrie Pilby
Carrie Pilby is a story that’s been on my radar for… some time. The book, written by Caren Lissner originally came out in 2003, published by Red Dress Ink, and was later republished in 2010 by Harlequin Teen. It first came to my attention, as books in this series are wont to do, because it was included on a list of asexual characters and that, of course, piqued my interest. And yet the book languished on my wishlist, always put aside for other and shinier stories with representation.
And then, in 2017, the film adaptation came out. After a while, I noticed that the film was available to me on Netflix. I decided to watch it, prioritising the film over the book to see whether the book would hold my interest. Carrie Pilby’s Young/New Adult coming-of-age story is one that appeals to me far more in films than in books.
I have yet to read the book, but after watching the film and doing a little more recent research, it has moved back higher up the narrative than I thought. I found a review of the book from 2017 which mentions that the book explicitly has Carrie questioning whether she’s asexual by using the term.
One of the things I would love to know is whether this was present in the original Red Dress Ink edition or whether it was a later addition to the 2010 rerelease. Regardless, either date puts Carrie Pilby as one of the earliest novels I know of that explicitly features a potentially asexual character.
Not having read the book, however, I only have the film to go on and it is the film that I want to discuss. The film adaptation was directed by Susan Johnson and, sadly, takes out any and all references to asexuality that may have been in the book. It’s a choice that, given the rest of the film, seems odd in a 2017 release, especially when it is one of the most unique aspects of the story and one of the most underrepresented sexualities in film and tv and especially when the film keeps various strongly asexual-coded scenes. Perhaps the scene was originally included and left on the cutting floor. If so, it is a shame that a minute or two of such important representation got cut.
That said, watching Carrie Pilby left me with mixed feelings and I am glad that I decided to watch the film first. If I had known beforehand that the book explicitly acknowledged that Carrie was exploring the possibility that she might be asexual, I would have been sorely disappointed and upset at the crew members who took out such a vital piece of representation and identity. As it is, I watched it with hope and a longing that the screenwriters and director had dared include the label when the depiction was so obvious and strongly ace-coded.
Did I enjoy Carrie Pilby? Yes. I enjoyed it a lot. Patrons can read my livereaction with all of the spoilers. I could have done without the abusive teacher seducing his then-16-year-old student subplot, but I loved Carrie. I lived for Bel Powley’s facial expressions in this film, especially whenever sex and romance came up (because, of course, they go hand in hand in the film). I loved Carrie’s outbursts about the ubiquity of sex and the recognisability of the reaction of allosexual characters, that disbelief whenever Carrie pointed out how prevalent sex is in Western societies and that insistence that it must be Carrie who is sex-obsessed instead of the whole of society. (So to answer any allosexuals with similar question: Yes, sex really is that prevalent in society. Advertising, ah, guidelines don’t say “Sex sells” for no reason.)
I loved her struggles to adapt to life and I related strongly to her aimlessness in life and her depression. I enjoyed seeing her explore new activities and the way she chose to prioritise her therapist’s list of things to try out. I loved that when she tries to go on a date, it doesn’t work out at all and she doesn’t much enjoy the experience.
That said, the way the film handles the subplot of Carrie’s attempt to go on a date is likely its major weakness when it comes to asexual representation as it neither looks nor feels different from any allosexual scene in a romantic film. It is in this plot where Carrie Pilby’s exploration of asexuality, alluded to in the book, could really have shone with only a few more additional lines or even scenes.
When I watched Carrie Pilby originally, that scene left me, as an asexual viewer, uncomfortable. There are, undoubtedly many reasons for this. One is that, prior to this point, Carrie had read, unquestioningly, as asexual to me, but the scene where she makes out with Matt was one which felt like it utterly erased Carrie’s potential asexuality and pretended that everything that had gone before about Carrie’s experiences with sex did not exist.
And yet, never having seen a make-out scene featuring a character on the asexual spectrum, I wasn’t sure what to expect or how to imagine it. All I knew, all I know, is that the way the film handled it felt off, erasive. I put off writing this so I could let my thoughts percolate and perhaps sort out what bothered me so much and why.
The truth is that what bothered me so much was the lack of lead-up to that scene. Asexuality is a spectrum and, given what the film shows us of Carrie’s sexuality, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was demisexual or graysexual rather than asexual. The film as a whole would have been much stronger if it had included a brief exploration of asexuality as just a brief discussion of the possibilities would have made the Suddenly Allosexual make-out session less sudden and brought it more in line with the exploration that Carrie is doing of herself and her place in life.
As it stands, the film uncomfortably replicates patterns I’ve seen in romance novels with characters on the asexual spectrum, namely the patterns that fail to account for the ways people on the asexual spectrum actually experience their sexuality and that assume that asexuality, graysexuality and demisexuality all look identical from allosexuality once sex is involved.
Even with these issues, which again given this is a 2017 release I feel I could reasonably expect the film not to perpetuate, Carrie Pilby is the first time I’ve seen a depiction of an asexual(-coded) character in film or on tv whose experience was not ridiculed, used as the butt of a joke, or otherwise denigrated. Yes, Carrie’s therapist encourages her to go on a date and suggests that there is something wrong with her for not wanting sex at 19, but the film does a credible job at capturing how badly this upsets Carrie as well as how ridiculous this insistence that Carrie needs either of those things to live a happy and fulfilling life. The scenes with her therapist that covered her sexuality were, sadly, reminiscent of my own experiences and I appreciated that the film tried to call them out.
Also Carrie’s interactions with the pet store cashier were gold. That’s entirely unrelated to this, but they were.
Carrie Pilby is not a perfect film. It could have benefited immensely from leaning more strongly into its asexual-coded perspective or to lose that perspective entirely. But I am immensely glad that I watched it because, for the first time I felt seen in a film or a tv show, without waiting for said show to punch me in the face. (Disclaimer: YMMV. I do recommend aces and aros tread with caution because it is filled with microaggressions.)