Identity Exploration in 'How to Be Ace': Otherness and Self in a Sex-Normative World

26 minutes to read
Semmy Claassen

Why research an artist and their life writing with minimal public presence? Despite the challenge posed by studying an artist with limited exposure, the value of their voice remains undeniable. Their infrequent public presence doesn't equate to a lack of meaningful expression. In fact, delving into their work becomes a way to listen attentively and amplify their voice. This paper explores the graphic memoir How to Be Ace: A Memoir of Growing Up Asexual (2021) by the artist Rebecca Burgess, who falls into the category of those with minimal public presence. Burgess's body of work, including titles like Speak Up! (Burgess, 2022) on autism and the graphic memoir on asexuality, addresses taboo subjects and brings them to public awareness. Rebecca Burgess, an illustrator and author, shares their journey of discovering and embracing their asexual identity during their formative years in the graphic memoir How to Be Ace: A Memoir of Growing Up Asexual (2021). The memoir spans their college years and beyond, tracing their evolution from anticipating a change in sexual interest over time to realizing their asexuality. Relationships also play a significant role in their narrative. This study delves into the portrayal of asexuality in the graphic memoir and its implications.

Asexuality, defined by the Asexual Visibility & Educational Network, is characterized by the absence of sexual attraction and the absence of desire for sexual engagement with others. In a society where sexuality is often considered the norm, asexuality is unfortunately marginalized and perceived as "abnormal" (Chen, 2020, p. 34). The concept of othering, rooted in imagology, is central to the discussion. Imagology explores how we perceive both ourselves and others, often based on contrast and difference (Leerssen, 2007, p. 27). Asexuality, deviating from the normative sexual self, is subjected to othering in our culture (Chen, 2020, p. 35).

The relevance of How to Be Ace as a case study becomes evident on several fronts. Asexuality's status as an Other in a sexualized society positions the memoir as a potential platform for an alternative narrative and a space to challenge prevailing norms. Furthermore, the emergence of asexuality discourse in the humanities and literary studies underscores the significance of this work in contributing to the field. The multimedia nature of the graphic memoir, combining text and images, also demands attention to their joint role in shaping the representation of asexuality (Van Meerbergen, 2010, p. 50-51). This study sets out to explore the construction of Burgess's asexual identity within the text and images of How to Be Ace. By applying the concept of othering to the memoir's portrayal of asexuality, we gain insights into asexual experiences and their portrayal in the public sphere.

Asexuality as the Other on a spectrum

In the introduction of this paper, I have defined asexuality and I have mentioned the marginal position it takes up in our sex-normative society. For the context of this paper, it is useful to elaborate on this position. First, it should be remarked once more that asexuality is a spectrum (Asexual Visibility & Educational Network & Chen, 2020, p. 15). Even though asexuality is defined by means of an absence of sexual attraction, “aces [people who identify as asexual] can still find people beautiful, have a libido, masturbate and seek out porn. Aces can enjoy sex and like kink and be in relationships of all kinds” (Chen, 2020, p. 20). This may sound a little confusing at first glance. In order to take this confusion away, it might help to specify sexual attraction. Sexual attraction is closely related to sexual desire and its main characteristic, according to Chen, is “the desire to have sex with a specific person for physical reasons” (Chen, 2020, p. 20). And it is this, sometimes spontaneous, physical sexual attraction that most asexual persons on the spectrum do not experience (Chen, 2020, p. 20). So yes, sometimes being asexual means being disgusted by the concept of sex, but that can and should not be seen as the one definition of asexuality – because it is exactly that one definition of asexuality that does not exist (Chen, 2020, p. 14-15).

It is exactly that one definition of asexuality that does not exist

The concept of asexuality poses a problem to “the most fundamental assumption about human sexuality: that all people experience, or should experience, sexual desire” (Cerankowski & Milks, 2010, p. 650, cursive in source text). In reality, however, it is not the case that our normative understanding of sexual desire is called into question by asexuality. Rather, asexuality is put in the margins of the sex-normative society since the dominant narrative is constituted by the idea of the sexual human being (Przybylo, 2011, p. 454).

Above, I have already briefly introduced asexuality as being othered in the sex-normative society. The othering of asexuality takes place through contrasting people identifying as asexual with our normative understanding of sexual selves (Van Coillie, 2011, p. 30). We often see ourselves as complex human beings and by means of identifying others in contrast to ourselves, we often simplify and generalize the other (Van Coillie, 2011, p. 30). Thereby we construct an image of the other as one homogeneous group: the Other (Van Coillie, 2011, p. 30). This becomes problematic since the Other – in this case, people identifying as asexual – are not a homogeneous group. It is quite the opposite: I have demonstrated that there exists a great deal of diversity on the spectrum of asexuality.

When it comes to How to Be Ace, we are dealing with a seeming contradiction. In their graphic memoir, Burgess discusses their experiences with asexuality – which is considered as Other – but they are telling it as their personal experiences – which resembles discourses of what I shall call the Self. I will further engage with this paradox in the second part of my analysis.

Methodology: Reading asexuality through an imagological and multimodal life writing perspective

The focus of my methodology will be a multimodal analysis of How to Be Ace. The multimodal analysis will be supplemented by the imagological concept of the Other and life writing theory on memory. First I will elaborate on the role of multimodal analysis in life writing and then I will discuss the theory of memory. The concept of othering and the Other is explained above.

Text and illustrations can represent the same story, but they can also complement or contradict each other in the story they tell (Sipe, 2007, p. 22; Van der Beek, 2022). Thus not only the text but also the illustrations and the relationship between text and images create meaning. They do not simply provide an objective or neutral representation of – in this case - an event of Burgess’ life, but they interpret this event and it is the interpretation of this event that is depicted in the graphic memoir (Van Meerbergen, 2010, p. 50-51). This refers to what Mikkonen has called “the difference between what is shown and how something is shown” (Mikkonen quoted in Pedri, 2013, p. 142).                   

In her article, Pedri (2013) stresses the artist’s subjectivity that is recognizable in illustrations. It is noticeable that there is an artist behind the illustration who drew it (Woo quoted in Pedri, 2013, p. 137). When it comes to graphic memoirs, the drawing style can express the artist’s subjective or personal interpretation of the life event represented in the graphic memoir (Pedri, 2013, p. 145). This stresses the relevance of studying the multimodal aspect of the graphic memoir, but how do I approach this?

How to Be Ace is a graphic memoir in the form of a comic. Comics theories focus on the fact that comics are structured through sequenced panels (Chute, 2008, p. 454-455). The comic’s panels that are placed in a sequence are essential for creating an understanding of time and space (Chute, 2008, p. 454-455). Especially in the blank space between the panels – the gutter – there is the opportunity for the reader to fill in this blank space by constructing an idea of the space and time that has passed in between the panels (Chute, 2008, p. 455). These are useful concepts for analyzing this graphic memoir, but these concepts do not pay as much attention to what exists within the panels. To study the images within the panels, I will use Moebius’ five visual codes as described in Sipe (2007) – originally deployed for the analysis and understanding of picturebooks (Sipe, 2007, p. 16-18).

The five codes are the following: codes of the frame, the code of color, codes of position, codes of perspective, and codes of line (Sipe, 2007, p. 16-18). Codes of the frame correspond the most to the comics concepts of sequenced panels since the frames surround the panels. Not all panels are framed, however. Unframed panels make the reader feel part of the illustration whereas framed panels create some distance between the reader and the world within the illustration, suggesting more objectivity (Sipe, 2007, p. 17-18). The code of color relates to the fact that, in general, we relate bright and light colors with positive emotions, such as happiness, and darker colors with more negative emotions, such as fear (Sipe, 2007, p. 18). Codes of position concern the relative location of a character in the illustration: a high or low position on the page for example may correspond to the character’s high or low social status and a central position of a character in the illustration indicates power and importance while a position towards the margins of the illustration or the page may indicate a marginalized social position of the character (Sipe, 2007, p. 17). Codes of perspective encompass among others the horizon line. An absent horizon line may indicate danger or difficulties for instance (Sipe, 2007, p. 17). Finally, different types of lines all have their own affordances. For instance, thin lines imply movement whereas thick lines imply stagnation or even paralysis as explained through codes of line (Sipe, 2007, p. 18).

These codes concentrate on the visual elements of comics, but when it comes to analyzing the graphic memoir it is important to remember that comics are multimodal and that attention should also be paid to the verbal elements and especially the combination of both the visual and verbal modes. In addition to the multimodal analysis, I will draw on the imagological concept of othering to strengthen my analysis of the portrayal of asexuality in How to be ace. Since How to Be Ace is a graphic memoir, I will also support the multimodal analysis by touching upon an essential concept of life writing, namely memory.

When reading a piece of life writing I often assume that what I am reading is the life someone has lived. This is not inherently false, but caution must be made. As we all know, life is filled with major and minor experiences. It is impossible to perfectly (and objectively) remember and recall these experiences and put all of them together in the form of life writing. Therefore, when analyzing life writing, it is important to keep in mind that life writing is based on memories of experiences and that these memories can be incomplete and do not necessarily represent the experience one on one (Eakin, 1999, p. 99-104 & Smith & Watson, 2001, p. 172). As Eakin explains, there exist “familiar but potentially misleading distinctions between experience and expression” (Eakin, 1999, p. 100). Not only do we not perfectly remember everything we have experienced, but we also perceive memories differently than when we were in the moment as we recall them through a more mature perspective (Eakin, 1999, p. 103). It is also important to remark on which memories are recalled in life writing since not all life experiences can be put into one piece of work (Smith & Watson, 2001, p. 172). Methodological implications of this concept of memory include paying attention to which memories are shared in the graphic memoir and to the fact that memories are subjective in how they recall and express a specific experience.

Finally, when possible the multimodal analysis will be accompanied by appearances of Burgess in the public sphere, such as social media. As I have mentioned already, however, Burgess barely has a public presence. In considering How to Be Ace as a graphic memoir breaking the silence surrounding asexuality in society, it is important to recognize the limited public presence of Burgess themself. This is an interesting paradox. I can only speculate nevertheless about the reasons behind Burgess’ limited public presence, so in this paper, I will restrain myself to the few available appearances of Burgess’ public presence, notably their Instagram account and a podcast episode in which Burgess is interviewed.

The presence of asexuality in How to Be Ace 

In this part of the paper, I will elaborate on the omnipresence of the topic of asexuality in Burgess’ graphic memoir. It is not surprising that a graphic memoir titled How to Be Ace is severely focused on asexuality, however, this does become interesting when we look at the graphic memoir as a medium to narrate one’s life – which probably encompasses more than merely their sexual orientation.

The omnipresence of the topic of asexuality is visible at first sight: the cover and the title of the graphic memoir make the focus of the book very explicit. Burgess is depicted in the left corner of the cover - slightly tilted, looking anxious, and holding a purple heart in their hands. The rest of the cover is filled with numerous purple hearts which together form one big heart hunching over Burgess. In the middle of this big purple heart shaped by plentiful small hearts a black heart-shaped hole – formed by the contours of the surrounding hearts – can be found. The title How to Be Ace is placed in the big purple heart. “How” is printed in a bigger font than “to be” and “ace” is printed in an even bigger font. (Burgess, 2021). The purple hearts are noteworthy since purple is the color used to represent asexual communities (Murray, 2020). References on asexuality are spread all over the cover, but how can these references be interpreted?

Besides the code of color, codes of position are especially relevant in interpreting the cover. The position of Burgess in the corner of the cover implies a marginalized position: they profit from little social status and power (Sipe, 2007, p. 17). Their anxious and worried facial expression – trembling lips, big eyes, frowned eyebrows, dark circles, and bags under their eyes – reinforces the lack of power. They are not in control of the situation and are haunted by the daunting cloud of purple hearts. The big heart shaped-cloud of purple hearts comes across as daunting because of the dark purple colors and the black hole in the middle of the heart (Sipe, 2007, p. 18). Burgess is overwhelmed by the big purple heart representing asexuality (e.g. the reference to the color purple as the color of asexual communities). This indicates that they do not know how to deal with their asexuality: it is something they are afraid of and worried about and they lack the control to cope with it. Nonetheless, asexuality is not only presented as frightening on the cover. The heart Burgess is holding in their hands is a lighter purple color. This expresses more light-hearted feelings and connotations (Sipe, 2007, p. 18). Even though their facial expression is worried, Burgess is clinging to the heart. I would argue that this indicates that they are trying to work with their asexuality. Even though it can be a little frightening to find their place in a sex-normative society as an asexual identifying person, they are trying their best to deal with, accept and embrace their asexuality and to find their place in this society. This corresponds to the subtitle Growing Up Asexual which suggests a process of growth, development, and evolution – towards better knowing themself and their place in the world.

This process of growing up as someone identifying as asexuality is followed up in the graphic memoir. Burgess discusses several topics in their graphic memoir, which I will briefly designate. They share their worries about not desiring sex and not feeling like they belong to a society that transmits always and everywhere that successful adults have sex (Burgess, 2021, p. 17-20). They also share their first experience of romance and physical touch, accompanied by their confusion about not wanting this physical touch. Burgess shares their process of learning about and accepting their asexuality (Burgess, 2021, p. 53-82). They also discuss that their asexuality is not being taken seriously by adults and peers and they demonstrate the blossoming love between them and Sophie (Burgess, 2021, p. 117 & p. 151-167). This focus on asexuality in the graphic memoir is a question of selectivity rather than memory. In an interview for the podcast Sounds Fake But Okay, Burgess confirmed that is indeed “an autobiographical story about [their] experiences of being asexual” (Costello & Kaszyca, 2020, 2:04-2:32). By the explicit omnipresence of asexuality throughout the book as well as by the title and subtitle of the graphic memoir, it is clear that Burgess deliberately decided to select experiences and memories related to their asexuality. By means of this graphic memoir, Burgess breaks the silence around asexuality and transmits asexual discourses to the public. Smith and Watson (2001) remark, however, that also this selectivity is related to memory. They mention that “distinctions can be made about the kinds and meanings of remembering” (Smith & Watson, 2001, p. 172). An example of these distinctions finds itself in specific periods of time that are remembered and retraced in life writing – or, in this case, the specific topic of asexuality (Smith & Watson, 2001, p. 172). What are the implications of Burgess’  selective memory focused on asexuality?

It should be noted that the focus on asexuality is very explicit. Among others, the title of the graphic memoir reveals to the reader that it is a graphic memoir about asexuality thus the reader knows beforehand that How to Be Ace makes use of this selectivity. This does not exclude, however, that the centrality of asexuality in this piece of life writing provides a distorted overview of Burgess’ life. Almost all the reader gets to know about their life are snippets from memories in which the fact that Burgess identifies as asexual plays a significant part. Because of this, the graphic memoir only provides the reader with a very restricted view of Burgess’ life. We do not know how much of their life is shaped by being asexual, but all we get to see is how much being asexual affects their life. When reading this graphic memoir as a piece of life writing, the reader needs to be aware of the fact that How to be ace only represents a limited part of Burgess’ life.

“Othering” or “Selfing” in How to Be Ace

As I have demonstrated, in general people identifying as asexual are othered since we live in a sex-normative society. In the case of How to Be Ace, however, Burgess – who is asexual – writes this graphic memoir about themself. Thus their asexual Self is contradicted by the othered position of asexuality in society.

In order to examine how Burgess’ asexual Self relates to the othered position of asexuality in society, I will take a closer look at the first page of the graphic memoir. Since this is the first page it is also the first encounter with Burgess and their relation to the people around them – which sets the tone for the rest of the memoir. The illustration covers the whole page, without a frame. In the center at the bottom of the page, Burgess is sitting at a desk. They wear a purple sweater and their face is hidden behind a book. Behind them, a bunch of people are illustrated. They are all depicted in a vibrant yellow – just as the yellow wall behind them. These people are smiling and one of them has put her lips together as if she were to kiss someone (Burgess, 2021, p. 9). Two text boxes figure in the illustration. The first text box is placed above the cheerful group of people in yellow and says: “When I was in school, everyone got to a certain age where they became interested in talking about only one thing: boys, girls and sex” (Burgess, 2021, p. 9, bold in source text). The second text box is put at the bottom of the page, underneath Burgess, and states, in larger font size than the first text box: “Me though? I was only interested in talking about comics” (Burgess, 2021, p. 9).

I claim that this is an instance where Burgess 'others' themself by emphasizing that they are asexual while most people – who correspond to the dominant and normative sexual discourse - are not (Przybylo, 2011, p. 454). First, the appearance of the word “sex” in boldface draws attention to the topic of sexuality. The thickness of the font weighs on the image. Codes of line suggest that thick lines – in this case, a thick font – indicate paralysis (Sipe, 2007, p. 18). This weight and paralysis relate to Burgess’ paralyzed reaction to sex, as demonstrated further in the graphic memoir (Burgess, 2021, p. 53-82). The distinction between asexual Burgess and the group of people behind Burgess is clarified by the text: everyone except for Burgess was interested in sex. The thing Burgess was interested in were comics – which often, unlike sex, is seen as something nerdy. The larger font size of the text box below Burgess stresses this difference between Burgess and the rest. It is also interesting to have a closer look at the codes of position. Burgess is physically isolated from the other people in the illustration. Although Burgess is not depicted in the margins of the illustration, they are depicted in the margins of the action of the people gathering. This translates to the idea that they find themself in a marginalized social position, also in life outside of the illustration (Sipe, 2007, p. 17). This is reinforced by the fact that Burgess is illustrated at the bottom of the page, with the other characters above them: their low position in the illustration is related to Burgess’ low position in society (Sipe, 2007, p. 17). This isolated position is reinforced by the use of color. Burgess’ purple sweater – the color of asexuality as mentioned above – is contrasting with the other people who are drawn in a vibrant yellow, indicating joy and pleasure (Sipe, 2007, p. 18). These contrasting colors visualize that Burgess – with their purple asexuality – does not belong to the rest of the people. In addition, because their face is hidden in their book it is not possible to see their face. Burgess is physically there, but we can not see them which distances them even further from the others on the page. Burgess thus not only others themself by highlighting their asexual identity in a sex-normative society, but also by physically isolating themself from the other people in the illustration, thereby creating a clear distinction and separation between them and the others and reflecting their position in society.

Even though How to Be Ace is constructed by Burgess themself, it is hard to find fragments of the graphic memoir in which asexuality is not seen as Other. This may sound like an impossible enigma: at the root of the process of othering lies the very idea that we construct “the Other” based on what we, “the Self”, are not (Van Coillie, 2011, p. 30). So then – if we agree on the position of asexuality as othered as described earlier on in this paper - how can Burgess create an image of themself as Other? In this context, it is important to remark that Burgess too lives in a society in which having and enjoying sex is the norm (Chen, 2020, p. 35).

Burgess is in constant dialogue with the norms of society and their own experiences

They may experience the othered position of asexuality from within, but they are still raised in a society that expects us to be sexual. As Burgess points out in the graphic memoir, they feel othered in their own experiences of asexuality: “There was no hint in my everyday life that anyone else might feel like this” (Burgess, 2021, p. 79). Burgess is in constant dialogue with the norms of society and their own experiences. How to Be Ace covers this internal dialogue of learning to understand their own experiences that society sees as Other. Burgess both experiences asexuality as their Self, but they are also still dealing with the omnipresence of sexual normativity – making it difficult to not see and experience their asexuality as othered. This might explain why it is so hard to find fragments of How to Be Ace in which asexuality is simply a part of the Self without being othered.

Another aspect related to othering is that the Other is often wrongfully considered a homogeneous group (Van Coillie, 2011, p. 30). In portraying their experiences with their own asexuality, Burgess risks transmitting one image – namely theirs – of asexuality. Burgess tries to put forward the heterogeneity of asexual communities, however. The informative page at the end of the first chapter, for instance, mentions different types of identities that are part of the spectrum of asexuality, such as grey ace and demiromantic (Burgess, 2021, p. 21). In the Sounds Fake But Okay podcast, Burgess elaborates on why they incorporated this page: "Yeah I wanted to do that on purpose because I’m a bit stereotypical of what people think of, so I wanted to add the other stuff as well because it is all quite complicated. There’s all different types of people obviously" (Costello & Kaszyca, 2020, 21:59-22:16). Thus Burgess deliberately chose to not only share their experiences and memories of their asexuality in the graphic memoir but to add purely informative fragments as well in order to provide a more comprehensive perspective on asexuality.

Also in their Instagram bio Burgess seems to stress that there is great variety in different expressions and experiences of asexuality. Their Instagram bio states: “I like cuddling my gf and my cat <3” ([@theorahart]). Before I will elaborate on the relevance of this bio, it is important to have a look at Burgess’ Instagram profile in general. Apart from one selfie with a friend, all their posts show their illustrations and their books. Because of this, I assume that their Instagram followers are familiar with Burgess’ published works, including How to Be Ace. This observation is interesting with regard to Burgess’ Instagram bio. Assuming that their followers know about their graphic memoir How to Be Ace and thereby Burgess’ asexuality, it is remarkable that Burgess mentions that they like cuddling their girlfriend. Through this statement, Burgess shows that people who identify as asexual can, for example, still enjoy physical touch and love. This pleats for the understanding of asexuality as a heterogeneous instead of a homogeneous group or community.

Unveiling Identity and Othering

In this paper, I have attempted to examine the way asexuality is portrayed in Burgess’ graphic memoir How to Be Ace. My research question was the following: How does Burgess construct their asexual Self in texts and images in How to Be Ace? Because of the unique affordances of the multimodal components of the graphic memoir, I have performed a multimodal analysis. I have also employed the imagological concept of othering which proved to be relevant as asexuality is othered in our sex-normative society. The fact that How to Be Ace is a work of life writing, I have also applied life writing theory about memory. Where possible I have included elements of Burgess’ (limited) public presence to support and elaborate the analysis.

In the first part of the analysis, I have focused on the omnipresence of asexuality in this graphic memoir. It is very explicitly noticeable that this graphic memoir is specifically about asexuality. The cover illustrates this well with references to asexuality such as the purple hearts and of course the title and the subtitle of the memoir. The cover seems to represent Burgess’ difficulties and worries about growing up and identifying as asexual, but it also shows their openness and efforts to better understand and embrace their asexuality. This omnipresence of asexuality has been a deliberate choice. As a consequence, the reader only gets to see a specific part of Burgess’ life.

The othering of asexuality was the focus of the second part of the analysis. I have examined the first page of the graphic memoir, which is an example of the representation of asexuality as the Other. Asexuality was othered through the text and the illustration by contrasting Burgess to and by isolating Burgess from other people, who fit within the dominant narrative of sexual normativity. I have found that it is difficult to clearly distinguish between Burgess’ asexual Self and the position of asexuality as the Other in society. This can be explained by the idea that the othering of asexuality is embedded within our sex-normative society which makes it hard to disconnect the conceptions of asexuality as othered from the Self. Finally, the othering of asexuality generally leads to the generalization of the asexual community. By means of an informative page, Burgess emphasizes the diversity within asexual communities to deconstruct the homogeneous perception of asexuality. A similar act is attained through Burgess’ Instagram bio.

To conclude, Burgess’ asexual self is created throughout the whole graphic memoir. It is remarkable that their asexuality is expressed as othered in the memoir – which is due to the marginal position of asexuality in society. How to Be Ace breaks the silence surrounding asexuality and takes it from the margins to the center – at least in this piece of life writing.

Unfortunately, Burgess has limited public presence so there have been few opportunities to connect their public life to this graphic memoir. There is also a methodological limitation to this study. While I did combine multimodal analysis and the concept of othering to analyze a certain page for instance, most of the time I employed only one of the methodological elements at once. Ideally, I would have connected the multimodal analysis, the concept of othering, and the concept of memory altogether in my analyses. Now I did make use of all these elements, but they did not function as a whole. It would have been interesting to see how these methodological elements would have worked together. As I have demonstrated that these three methodological components have been relevant for this study – albeit separately – future research could try to integrate these three components into one all-encompassing method. That would not only be pertinent for this case study but for all multimodal works of life writing that focus on or figure out communities who find themselves at the margins of society.


1 In this paper I refer to Burgess by the pronouns they and their. Certain articles use the pronouns she and her to refer to Burgess (cf. Johnston, 2021), but I use the pronouns they and their since these are used in the blurb of How to Be Ace. It is important to note, however, that the preference for certain pronouns is irrespective of identifying as asexual (Chen, 2020, p. 7).



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