Saturday, August 13

Convenience Store Woman Review: The Perils of Sexpectation

Asexuality – what is it? Simply put, someone who is asexual experiences little to no sexual attraction.

In Sayaka Murata’s book, she captures the minds of her readers through the unapologetic and quirky character of Keiko, a convenience store worker in Japan. Keiko, thirty-six and unmarried, is asexual. Few novels approach asexuality from such a unique perspective, and they are rarely this successful in doing so.

When Keiko got her first job at a local store at age eighteen, her family were happy to see her find a job; now, nearly two decades later, her family – as well as her friends and co-workers – all have something to say about the ‘dead-end job’ she has not moved on from. But for Keiko, change just isn’t on the menu in any aspect of her life, including romantically. She has never had a partner and holds no intentions of getting one. In fact, sex is just something that she ‘had never really given […] any thought.’

Because of this, Keiko faces immense pressure from others. Some look down on her as though she ‘were some type of alien’ and others don’t hold back: “your womb is probably too old to be of any use.” This cultural attitude reinforces sex as the ‘norm,’ and by extension, you cannot be considered normal unless you engage in it. Sex – in the novel and in life – becomes a kind of currency for women, as it dictates their social value and position in society. Whilst Convenience Store Woman is set in Japan, this attitude is embedded in every culture to different degrees, and is felt during many stages of life, from puberty and through adulthood.

Keiko recognises that as she gets older, her lack of a partner is beginning to form unspoken barriers between herself and her friends. To fix this, she strikes a deal with jobless, misogynistic Shiraha, who pretends to be her partner in exchange for shelter. But this is hardly the Bridgerton-esque fake-dating trope that is becoming more and more commonly considered entertainment. Once Keiko announces this new change in her life to others, she becomes ‘painfully aware that until now they’d evidently viewed me as an outsider.’ The bittersweet moment of acceptance among her peers is further tainted when focus shifts away from her obtaining a partner, to her having children. Because what is a relationship without the validation of its authenticity in the form of a child?

Realising that by not fulfilling these expectations she will never fit in, Keiko worries that she is broken, and needs the sanctuary of her beloved convenience store more than ever. But Shiraha insists she quit. Without the structure the store provided, Keiko becomes aimless and dejected, while Shiraha drills patriarchal expectations into her head: ‘You’re like a stone age woman past childbearing age who can’t get married […] No use to anyone, just a burden.’

Asexuality is slowly beginning to see more representation in mainstream media, from the (albeit minor) character of Florence in Sex Education, to Todd in Bojack Horseman, a main character who is given several seasons to explore his asexuality, and even has multiple relationships with other asexual characters. A 2018 study conducted by Tori Bianchi found that at least one percent of the population is asexual – that’s over 680,000 people in the U.K. alone – and yet it is rarely, if ever, the main story being told. There are also many harmful misconceptions about asexuality: it isn’t a trauma response, nor does having sex invalidate the ace experience. So what continually sidelines these conversations and prevents ace narratives from receiving recognition?

In Convenience Store Woman, Keiko will eventually get rid of the parasitic Shiraha and return to working in a convenience store. She continues her life, single, working the same minimum wage job, and she is content – because as the iconic Jean Milburn from Sex Education said, “Sex doesn’t make us whole. And so, how could you ever be broken?”