I somehow failed – FAILED – to cross-post this essay here. WHAT. Here you are, though, about 8,500 words (not counting longer quotations, end notes, references or the abstract). This essay was made possible and available thanks to my absolutely lovely Patrons over at Patreon!
One addendum: I since learned that Jahir is canonically allosexual, but have not yet had a chance to revise the essay to address this.
This essay explores the most common tropes affecting the depiction of asexual and aromantic characters in fiction by analysing the similarities and differences in narratives featuring explicit asexual and/or aromantic characters and narratives featuring strongly asexual and/or aromantic coded characters.
The essay also looks briefly at the state of asexual and aromantic representation in mainstream media by studying the way media outlets covered the straightwashing of Jughead Jones in Riverdale and the way aromanticism and asexuality is conflated both in fiction and by queer publishers, as most current confirmed and deliberate asexual representation is found in printed media.
By looking at the representation in almost 30 narratives, common patterns and trends can be established regarding the state of asexual and aromantic representation in fiction and specific tropes – and their impact and origin – can be identified.
Asexual and Aromantic Tropes in Fiction
Through mirrors one may know themself, and mirrors come in many forms. Through mirrors, too, one can cut oneself badly, and still mirrors come in many forms. They come, for example, in the shape of tropes or stereotypes in narratives. They come in jokes and unexamined ideas presented uncritically.
A trope is, strictly speaking, any literary device that conveys a meaning beyond the literal. Outside of academic circles, however, its meaning is darker and negative. In these circles, a trope is a narrative concept used as a shorthand to convey meaning and ideas that may, at times, have harmful implications.
An example of such a trope is that of the Tragic Queer. The tragic queer trope is a plot device in which a narrative has one or two token queer characters (usually gay or lesbian) whose fate in the narrative is not a happy, and which is commonly in some way serving the arc of the (allocishet) protagonist.
The trope does little for an already vulnerable group of marginalised people. Still often bullied or worse, the tragic queer trope denies queer people a chance to escape into a narrative which shows them a better world, the idea that there is something to live towards, that their life will get better, that they are worthwhile and deserve to be happy. For, as narratives mirror the world, they can also help shape the world by showing us visions and ideas of a better way, a better future.
Yet tropes and stereotypes are as old as narratives themselves and whenever a new group, especially one with less power than others, is formed within society, tropes and stereotypes are not far behind. Thus it is that we find that asexuality and aromanticism have already seen the formation of tropes and stereotypes in the way that narratives depict them.
In this essay, I will explore the main tropes depicted in books featuring explicit asexual characters as these tropes pertain to the spectrums of asexuality and aromanticism to discuss the patterns and similarities between these depictions. While I have done my best to acknowledge the differences between depictions of asexuality and aromanticism, the two orientations are often conflated in contemporary fiction and some of the tropes pertaining to alloromantic asexuals actively harm aromantic asexuals. These discussions do not lend themselves well to a lack of nuance.
The Ostracised Aro and Ace
The trope of the Ostracised Aro and Ace is one of the most common tropes regarding asexuality and aromanticism. I have previously referred to the trope as the Death-adjacent ace due to the visibility of its fantasy variant. In its broadest sense, the Ostracised Aro and Ace trope shows an aromantic and/or asexual character who is cut of from society in some description. Due its common occurrence as the ending of a novel in science fiction and fantasy, such as the resolution to Clariel (Garth Nix) and You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay (Alyssa Wong), this trope has also been connected to exile. In contemporary romance, it is more likely to occur at the beginning due to romance’s likelihood of featuring the Allo Saviour trope ending the character’s ‘exile’ from society.
However, exile does not, in my opinion, sufficiently cover the extent to which this trope is depicted in fiction. ‘Exile’, at best, implies the possibility that the separation will be lifted, which does not match to the trope’s tendency to present aro and ace characters are literally unable to partake in or return to ‘normal’ amatonormative and allonormative society. The term ‘ostracised’ has no such implications and, as such, is a stronger reflection of the narratives found within and it allows for a greater range of narratives to fall under its banner as different genres have their own specific form of this trope.
These variants are
- Death-adjacent (fantasy)
- Robotic (science fiction)
- Alien (fantasy and science fiction)
- Socially Isolated (realistic)
In all cases there are two ways in which these variants show themselves: they occur either at the very start of the story and the narrative is about addressing this issue or they occur at the very end of the story and the conclusion of their narrative arc is about creating this trope.
Structurally, these variants are almost identical, with only the Alien Aro or Ace being noticeably different, but they manifest in different ways.
The Death-adjacent Aro or Ace
The Death-adjacent Aro or Ace trope allows writers to make this separation from society literal. After all, what is more removed from life than death? This particular variant of the trope is by far the most well-known and popular, occurring in pretty much every single major publication with a character confirmed to be asexual, aromantic or both.
This variant of the trope is nearly always accompanied with a sense of social exile as the character removes themself, voluntarily or not, from amato- and all-normative society. The origins and the purpose of this trope are to posit asexuality and aromanticism as something that makes it impossible for someone to participate in society or to contribute in a meaningful way. Most damning of all, this trope is found with academic discussions in asexual studies without any examination of the consequences, equating asexuality with narrative stagnation and, well, death.
One of the most well-known examples of this trope is found in Garth Nix’s Clariel, though largely to those who are aware of who Clariel will become. Clariel has been confirmed as aromantic asexual by the author, though the terms are not used within the book itself. Clariel’s romantic and sexual orientations are strongly ace and aro-coded within the narrative itself.
To some, using Clariel as an example of this trope may seem counterintuitive as it would initially seem to fit more neatly within the subtrope of the Socially Isolated Aro or Ace. After all, not only is Clariel herself alive throughout the book, her driving motivation is to leave the society her parents have thrust her into behind and return to a quiet, solitary life as a Borderer in the Great Forest she grew up in. Readers unfamiliar with the series as a whole may not realise that Clariel’s story is the origin story of the undead antagonist Chlorr of the Mask found in the previous three books in the series, as this is not mentioned within the book until Nix confirms it in an author’s note:
Clariel is of course Chlorr of the Mask, who appears at the beginning of Lirael, having been drawn south by the reawakened powers of Orannis. (Nix Author’s Note)
Throughout the book, in addition to Clariel’s general misanthropy, it is made clear to the reader that Clariel is a necromancer. The series also makes it clear that the concept of necromancy itself is not associated solely with aromanticism or asexuality as the story includes several other characters assumed to be alloromantic and/or allosexual other characters who use similar magic to necromancers.
Of them, however, only Clariel ends up becoming an evil undead necromantic antagonist, and that is the key difference that sets Clariel apart. Her depiction falls squarely into the queercoding of villains. As Chlorr of the Mask, she is not simply aromantic and asexual, but she is antagonistic to the good of society and her position within the narrative is put directly opposite that of the heroes. Within Clariel, she is presented as an anti-hero, and one who is lured by the call of the wild. In the epilogue of the book, the reader learns that Clariel’s innate connection to the Charter – a way to order magic and to use it comfortably – has been severed. Likewise, the epilogue ends with Clariel exiled from society, unable to return on pain of death. The spells binding Clariel are said to fade, though not within her human lifetime, and she is told where to find Free Magic, the magic of necromancers and evil. The epilogue strongly implies that this shift towards undeath and evil is the only path open to Clariel.
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire features a less strict exile from society. Like Clariel, Nancy spends the entire story wanting to return to a life almost devoid of other people. Like Clariel, Nancy does not feel like she fits in with society as a whole. Unlike Clariel, Nancy chooses exile from her friends and family voluntarily in the end, as she finds the means to return to the Halls of the Dead and resume her life as a statue. In my analysis, In Stillness: The Perception of Asexuality in Seanan McGuire’s “Every Heart a Doorway”, I have discussed this in more depth. Relevant to this essay are the notion that Nancy, the only asexual character in the cast, has gone to a world associated with death. While she is not the only character to have done so – Christopher also having gone to a death world – the descriptions of these worlds are vastly different. Nancy’s world is all about stillness, as her ideal (and current ‘superpower’) is to be utterly motionless, black-and-white (as her disdain for her parents’ choice of clothing demonstrates), and she is rarely shown to have had any friends there (she is only shown to interact with the Lord and Lady of the Dead who treat her more as an object or a pet than a person). Christopher’s world is the opposite
“I went to a country of happy, dancing skeletons who said that one day I’d come back to them and marry their Skeleton Girl,” said Christopher. “So pretty sunshiny, but sort of sunshine by way of Día de los Muertos.” (McGuire Chapter 6)
Though this difference can be attributed to cultural differences, as Nancy is white and Christopher is Latinx and the underworlds they experiences reflect the ideas dominant in their respective cultures, it does not change the fact that there are no other asexual characters in the narrative who dispel the connection that McGuire has made and which is strengthened by the ending in which Nancy dreams of what her life will be like in our world, a life filled with friendship and motion, and deliberately turns her back on it. Nancy’s desire to return to a world of stillness is so strong that she exiles herself from her friends, her family and the world she was born in.
When readers get a brief glimpse of Nancy in Beneath the Sugar Sky, McGuire confirms that Nancy lives a solitary life as a statue, only ‘coming to life’ long enough to aid her friends and because she has the permission of the Lady of the Dead to do so.
Meanwhile, in Alyssa Wong’s You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay Ellis, a heteroromantic-coded asexual, pushes his love interest away and into society for her own good whilst he walks away into the desert. Ellis is introduced to the reader as something other-than-human, associated with death from the very start. Partway through the story he becomes an undead necromancer and, in the end, he walks away from the town he grew up in. The final line, further, strongly implies that it is Ellis’s choice to leave that allows the rain to return to the desert town he once called home.
An association with death is clearly not the only connection these three stories share: all three these narratives end with the protagonist walking away from the society they have lived in their entire lives. All three these narratives see the protagonist choose the realm of death over that of life. All three these narratives focus on how ill-fitting the protagonist is to living in the society as it is sketched out. When it comes to depicting the Death-adjacent Aro or Ace, these are the key features one should look for as they are present in some form. They may look, like in Every Heart a Doorway, as a positive choice, celebrating individuality and staying true to oneself. They may look, like in You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay, as a deliberate choice to celebrate one’s powers. They may look, like in Clariel, as a (potentially) sympathetic anti-heroine who repeatedly makes all the wrong choices for all the right reasons.
But, at their heart, these stories put forth the idea that the aromantic and/or asexual protagonist is something that is not alive.
The Robotic Aro or Ace
The Robotic Aro or Ace is the science fiction variant of this trope. Unlike the Death-adjacent variant of the trope, though, this one has a tendency to focus on finding a way back to or into society than out of it. Its trappings are otherwise similar, however. The aromantic or asexual character in this trope may be either an AI (or a robot or an android, etc) or they may fall in love with the same. The implication in the former is, again, that aromanticism and asexuality are not part of ‘normal’ human experiences and that the aromantic or asexual is not able to engage with some of society’s most basic needs. The latter implies that aromantics and asexuals cannot form close bonds with alloromantic and/or allosexual people and, as such, cannot participate wholly in society. To do so they must discover a substitute.
It must be pointed out that, when it comes to speculative fiction, characters explicitly acknowledged as aromantic and/or asexual are most frequently found in fantasy rather than science fiction. Much of the depiction of asexual and aromantic characters in this genre is done through coding that the creators may not have been aware of or intended.
Such as, for example, Lieutenant Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, though the series was produced well before it was understood that aromanticism and asexuality are specific orientations and identities. The only exception to this is the film Star Trek: Nemesis which was released about a year after David Jay coined the term ‘asexuality’ as a distinct sexual orientation.
Data, however, is a prime example of an aromantic and asexual character, and an aromantic character especially. In the episode In Theory (season 4, episode 25) Data attempts to pursue a romantic relationship with fellow crew member Jenna D’Sora and frequently expresses his confusion regarding romance and romantic love. He has, in fact, had to write a specific program to understand romantic love and tells Jenna that “[with] regard to romantic relationships, there is no real me. I am drawing upon various cultural and literary sources to help define my role”.
In this exchange, Data states, without emotions, that he does not experience romantic feelings. It is a perfect example of one of the main staples of the Robotic Aro or Ace as these depictions rely strongly on the concept of denying asexuals and aromantics the idea of having feelings at all. Throughout the series and the films, Data struggles to understand emotions and longs to experience them, but when he finally does through the means of an emotion chip he also eventually gains the ability to turn his emotions on and off as the situation warrants.
Data’s quest to become more human is also characteristic of the Robotic Aro or Ace as their narratives are often imbued with attempts to make them more human, frequently through their own actions and desires.
In Meredith Katz’s The Cybernetic Tea Shop one of the first comments directed towards Sal, the robotic owner of the tea shop, is “You sure sound human” and it is not long before the reader learns that there is violence against robots precisely because they are not human. Katz’s novella actually features another asexual character, Clara, which helps to counter some of the associations between asexuality, aromanticism and robotics. Further when the novella is in Sal’s perspective her life is described in terms very similar to ones used to describe human lives, but this does not extend to the descriptions found in Clara’s perspective. Clara, an AI technician, has to learn to see past Sal’s existence as a robot to see her, ah, humanity and the most intimate moment in the book deals with Clara reworking Sal’s AI to work better and literally taking Sal apart and rewriting the coding that made Sal the person that she is.
Lovey, from Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a ship’s AI in a relationship with the mechanic, Jenks. While Lovey is not explicitly written as an asexual character, she is explicitly described as being unable to engage in sexual intercourse and, as such, is likely to resonate with asexual readers looking for representation. Chambers’ description of Lovey fits squarely into the idea of a Robotic Aro or Ace and showcases some of the more insidious ways in which this trope manifests itself in fiction.
Early on in the novel, Lovey and Jenks discuss the possibility of getting Lovey an illegal body, so Lovey’s AI isn’t constrained to the ship. Lovey is described as unsure of whether or not she wants a body and when Jenks asks her what kind of body she’d like, she explicitly states that she’s basing her answers on his desires because she isn’t sure what she’d like. Moreover, a little later in the conversation, the reader learns that one of Lovey’s main drives behind getting a body is “Having the ability to be a real companion for [Jenks]. You know, with all the trimmings” (Long Way, p61), implying that their inability to have sex means Lovey isn’t capable of being a real companion to the allosexual Jenks. Further, it ties Lovey’s desires even more strongly to those of the allosexual Jenks. Lovey’s desires when it comes to sex all revolve around pleasing Jenks.
It is, of course, possibly to read the relationship between Jenks and Lovey as a commentary on the commodification of women and the way men in modern society expect women’s beauty standards to conform to what they like. For asexual and aromantic readers, however, it is also a subtle way to reinforce the idea that allosexual desires are more important than their own. While Jenks tries to ensure that Lovey makes choices that will make her happy with herself and that he’s happy with her in any form, the scene’s main point is still that Lovey’s idea of comfort is to model her ideal body onto what Jenks finds attractive and it does not alter that Lovey thinks sex is necessary for her to be a real companion.
Unlike Data, however, both Sal and Lovey have the capacity to feel from the beginning as emotions are part of their AI. Similar to Data, Sal’s body is entirely artificial and requires mechanical knowledge to keep it running smoothly; Lovey’s body is a ship. Also similar to Data, both Sal and Lovey attempt to live her life as close to human as possible, though in Lovey’s case this does not extend to having or actively seeking a human-shaped body. Data, Sal and Lovey form deep, platonic bonds throughout the narrative, though one can usually find some aromisic phrasing in the discussions of romantic love. Lovey also finds herself in a romantic relationship with Jenks, though the narrative posits their inability to have sex as an obstacle to having a ‘real’ relationship.
It is the tendency to emulate emotions that are deemed as universal to humanity that truly characterises the Robotic Aro or Ace. Further, these narratives of exploring human emotions are often aromisic in their nature, casting the romantic relationships as the ideal that finally proves these characters are just as alive and real as the characters of flesh and blood. Romantic attraction is, in these stories, frequently the end goal of the robotic character’s narrative, as is especially strongly evident in The Cybernetic Tea Shop and in The Long Way to Small, Angry Planet.
The Alien Aro Or Ace
Another common variant on this trope is the Alien Aro or Ace. This trope, found in both fantasy and science fiction settings posits the asexual character as some inhuman species with their aromanticism and/or asexuality intrinsically tied, in some way, to this alien species.
It is imperative to bear in mind that the Alien Aro or Ace trope does not go hand in hand with the concept that aromantics and asexuals are incapable of emotions or feelings. They are portrayed as inhuman in the sense that they are, literally, not human. However, it is entirely possible for the Alien Aro or Ace to be portrayed incredibly sympathetically as characters.
The issue with the Alien Aro or Ace trope is down to worldbuilding where aromantic and/or asexual characters only get to exist within a certain, non-human class of beings or where their aromanticism and/or asexuality is somehow biologically determined, tying this variant of the trope tightly to the concept of illness, discussed in more detail during the “It’s Just (Mental) Illness” trope later on in this essay.
A prime example of the Alien Aro or Ace is, of course, Commander Spock from Star Trek: The Original Series, as Vulcans are arguably an aromantic and asexual society as a whole, given how much they repress their emotions and favour logic.
However, for the purposes of this essay a better comparison would be Jahir and Vasiht’h from M.C.A. Hogarth’s Peltedverse and, specifically, the Dreamhealers Saga, which centres on the platonic relationship between these two characters. Jahir is a member of a non-human race known as the Eldritch while Vasiht’h is a Glaseah, a winged centauroid whose race has been genetically engineered to lack hormones and, as a result, are said to lack the capacity for deep emotional feelings, most notably passion of any kind and romantic love.
Throughout the first book, Mindtouch, Vasiht’h spends much of his time worrying about how he can combine his desire to be a therapist with his perceived inability to feel as deeply as his prospective clients. Hogarth makes it clear in the narrative, however, that the stereotype that Glaseah cannot feel deep emotions is exactly that: a stereotype. Vasiht’h is easily the heart of the narrative and is obviously passionate about caring for others even to the detriment of his own health.
Yet the depiction of Vasiht’h as a person is not quite enough to balance the depictions of Glaseah society which is permeated with these ideas. While Glaseah can and do marry, sex does not occur and Glaseah looking to procreate have to apply to the priesthood to do so. While aromanticism and asexuality lies at the core of Glaseahn culture, outside of Jahir, the Glaseah are the only race in the Peltedverse to be presented as aromantic and asexual. In a series that comprises, at the time this is written, 19 novels and one short story collection, only one other non-Glaseahn queerplatonic partnership is alluded at.
Another example would be Aphra Marsh from Ruthanna Emrys’s Winter Tide. Aphra is one of the Deep Ones, described as ‘an amphibious branch of the human race’. While Aphra describes and considers herself and her people as humans, just from a different branch of evolution, the humans in the story by and large do not, an idea that is strengthened when the narrative explores Aphra’s surviving family. The first person narrative is written entirely from Aphra’s perspective, but she comments frequently on the way people respond to her and how they view her.
The Alien Aro or Ace trope differs significantly from the other tropes in this subset because it explicitly acknowledges that asexuals and aromantics are part of a society. It is just, not necessarily, human society as the reader would recognise it which they are a part of. In the example of Winter Tide, the narration walks a fine line between readers’ desire to categorise Aphra as Other the way humans in the book do and the fact that Aphra herself does not do so.
Related to this trope is the idea of using constructed languages (conlang) to refer to the concept of aromanticism or asexuality. This concept is arguably a part of this particular trope, due to the othering nature inherent in using conlang, as opposed to existing real terms, to refer to a specific orientation. Examples of this particular trope include the term ‘ushimo’ from Erica Cameron’s Island of Exiles and ‘elor’ from Sherwood Smith’s Banner of the Damned. Even though in both novels, the characters are explicitly human (and, in the case of Banner of the Damned, also include conlang terms for heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality), the use of a term specific to the made-up society in the story may be perceived by asexual and/or aromantic readers as just as othering as identifying with a character explicitly described as not-human.
Despite this, the Alien Aro or Ace generally avoids the pitfalls of both the Death-adjacent Aro or Ace and the Robotic Aro or Ace by presenting its characters as having the same range of emotions as humans, with the only difference being that they are, physically, not human or that, when they are, their language is clearly not one the reader speaks and the concepts in the novel so alien that they cannot be conveyed using the language the narrative is written in.
The Socially Isolated Aro or Ace
The Socially Isolated Aro or Ace is the variant encountered in more realistic settings, spanning from contemporary to historical and from issue books to romance. Unlike the other two variants, this trope cannot imply that aromantics and asexual people are, inherently, not human because it lacks the shorthand to do so. It cannot rely on the concept of substituting a made-up race for an entire marginalised group.
As such, the Socially Isolated Aro or Ace is more likely to fall into a narrative that explores how they come to integrate with society (often following the broader shape of the Allo Saviour trope) or how these characters can fit into society as a whole. The trope is especially common in romance novels as a romance is all about two characters coming together to form one social unit.
I should note at this point that my own reading preferences leaning heavily towards speculative fiction and when I venture into more realistic novels featuring asexuals and aromantics, I am more likely to pick up something written by an asexual or aromantic authors, such as Claire Kann’s excellent Let’s Talk About Love.
However, even in these stories one can find traces of the Socially Isolated Aro or Ace. In Let’s Talk About Love traces of this trope can be seen in the discussions regarding Alice’s relationship with Feeny and Ryan, both in the way Alice feels like she is losing them to their own romantic relationship and the way they feel like she is abandoning them to follow her romantic relationship with Takumi.
A better example is Aled from Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence. Aled becomes fast friends with Frances as she discovers that he is the star behind a popular podcast that she is a fan of. Aled prefers to remain anonymous, in part because he fears others will think he is weird and in part because his mother is abusive and would make him stop, thinking his passions a waste of time and talent. After Aled’s secret comes out and he starts university, he slowly starts to isolate himself from his friends due to suicidal depression. While Aled does not die, the motif of isolating himself socially from as many people as he can get away with remains. It is only through Frances’ efforts to rebuild a community around Aled that he starts to recover.
While these examples are fewer, it is nonetheless obvious that a key aspect of this trope as a whole is one of social isolation. Each and every one of the examples mentioned to date includes an aromantic or asexual character whose narrative eithers starts with, ends in or, more commonly, revolves around a separation from a community to some degree and the characters’ attempts to address this or to resist addressing it.
The Allo Saviour
When it comes to the depiction of asexuality in fiction, the Allo Saviour trope is by far the most prominent and common. To the best of my knowledge, it was coined by El from the review blog Just Love. In this trope, an allosexual characters (who frequently, if not always, identifies as queer in some other way) informs the asexual character that asexuality exists and is a valid orientation.
In this trope the asexual neither receives nor seeks out support from other asexuals. They may, on rare occasions, be mentioned to do some research based on what the allosexual character has told them, but details will be sparse and the character is highly unlikely to recognise or acknowledge that asexuality is a spectrum. The vision of asexuality presented in this trope is always the strictest definition of an asexual and usually includes conflating asexuality with aromanticism. Aromanticism is never separately acknowledged either.
A broader interpretation of the Allo Saviour trope combines these traits with some similar to the idea of the White Saviour narrative where the privileged and more knowledgeable allosexual is set up as ‘saving’ the asexual or the aromantic from the Ostracised Aro or Ace trope, their ignorance, their feelings of brokenness and the unhappiness at being different without understanding why that come with it. In romance novels it also often sets the allosexual character up as making a great sacrifice for the sake of love, as they are assumed to be giving up something essential to life because they love their partner that much.
Alternatively, and especially when the romance is about a demisexual character, it may also fall into the depiction of Gay For You, a harmful trope which assumes that a character is straight, except for one particular exception. The Gay For You trope is especially harmful to bisexuals, pansexuals and asexuals due to the way it erases their sexualities and forces them to fit into a binary sexual orientation system. For many asexuals there is the added issue that the way Gay For You is presented in fiction just isn’t how asexuality works.
The core of the Allo Saviour trope is easily found, especially in romance. It is present in Far From Home by Lorelie Brown, Overexposed by Megan Erickson, All Note Long by Annabeth Albert, Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp and As Autumn Leaves by Kate Sands among others. Even books like We Awaken by Calista Lynne or The Painted Crown by Megan Derr, which subvert it by having the main character be introduced to the term through another character on the asexual or aromantic spectrum, feature elements of this trope. It can even be found outside of romance in books like Chameleon Moon by RoAnna Sylver and Dare Mighty Things by Heather Kaczinski.
However, it is a trope that is often combined with feelings of brokenness of some description and of the way the romantic love interest fixes this. In Far From Home, for example, the main character, Rachel, struggles with an eating disorder and it is through her romantic entanglement with Pari and Pari’s healthier eating habits that Rachel starts to heal.
In All Note Long, Michelin is depicted as being single and deeply in the closet due to his popularity as a country singer. Michelin worries that coming out as gay would ruin his dream career as a country singer. Lucky’s exchange with Michelin epitomises the way this trope is often shown in fiction.
“And he was your only?”
“Ung.” Michelin groaned as Lucky’s thumbs dug into the column of muscles on either side of his spine. “Yeah. Just him. Too . . . risky . . . and . . . I’m weird . . . just not interested a lot of the time.” He had to pause between words as Lucky’s fingers worked their magic to pull the truth out.
“Sweetie, you’re not weird.” Lucky bit lightly at Michelin’s shoulder, the perfect spot where his shoulder met his neck. Electric tingles spread everywhere. “You’re probably demisexual. It’s a legit thing. It means you only get turned on if there are feelings involved.”
“Sounds like a chick thing.” Michelin snorted, even if that was pretty much him in a nutshell. Even his attraction to Lucky had only really blossomed once they’d started talking. Not that he’d ever gone around looking for a label for himself. God, why did everything in his life need a label? (Albert Chapter 14)
In this scene, Lucky is clearly presented as the more knowledgeable person, as Michelin had never even heard of demisexuality before. Further, the trope ignores the existence of asexuality as a spectrum, allowing authors to present the Gay For You trope as demisexuality without further introspection. It always presents what orientation on the asexual spectrum it covers as existing independently of that spectrum as well as giving the reader a bare-bones 101 label followed swiftly by a complaint about labels and their perceived necessity, whilst the use of the label ‘gay’ goes unquestioned and occurs more frequently even within the perspective of the ace-spec character.
Throughout the novel, Michelin’s single life is presented as an obstacle and, indeed, this is part and parcel of this particular trope. All Note Long is one of the more egregious examples since it so strongly links demisexuality to being in the closet and once Michelin has come out of it the label can just be discarded. He now has a romantic love interest who has helped him overcome his social anxiety and he is now an out-and-proud gay country singer.
Michelin never looks up anything about demisexuality. He does not seek out asexual support forums or videos discussing asexuality. His one and only source of information stems from this exchange with Lucky.
It is not common for the Allo Saviour trope to occur without a scene in which an allosexual character tells the ace spectrum character where they fall on the spectrum, but in its broader sense this is a possibility. Despite the name, one can even find the structure of the Allo Saviour trope in narratives that feature two asexual characters, such as in Megan Derr’s The Painted Crown. It still brushes past the concept of the Allo Saviour trope in that, upon hearing Lord Teverem describe his orientation, Istari remarks that his experiences are similar.
Though the trope is inherently broken by the fact that neither Istari nor Teverem are allosexual, the story actually maintains all the hallmarks of the trope. Istari is presented as being more sexually active as Teverem, able to assure Teverem that his feelings are not weird or unusual, more aware of what sexualities exist, and as possessing exactly those skills needed to solve Teverem’s problems. Istari is a trained sharpshooter and covert operations specialist capable of ensuring the safety of Teverem’s adopted children once people learn that Teverem’s son is the heir to a vast estate in a country currently in turmoil because it has no clear line of succession. Except for the fact that Istari is also on the asexual spectrum, it is a perfect example of the Allo Saviour trope in all its steps.
The Painted Crown (and We Awaken) is, however, an outlier when it comes to the inclusion of the Allo Saviour trope when applied to a pairing of two asexual characters. This dynamic does not mean one ace character is more allosexual than the other, of course. The beats are similar enough that they warrant mentioning and a more in-depth discussion of the differences between allo-ace and ace-ace dynamics; the structural similarities within the narrative are simply too strong to ignore entirely.
The Allo Saviour trope is likely to occur when the ace-spec character is considered to be a love interest rather than a lead character, though as can be seen in both Far From Home and All Note Long, it also occurs when the ace-spec character is a definite lead character. Its core is a scene in which the allosexual (or allosexually coded as authors do not always describe a character as explicitly allosexual) character tells the ace-spec character about their sexuality and can expand from that into the allosexual character fixing whatever the narrative deems needs fixing within the ace-spec character’s life. In romance especially the ace term disappears after this scene and the ace-spec character prefers to use allosexual terms to refer to themself.
It’s Just (Mental) Illness
This is, in my experience, the most infrequent trope, though it is also one of the most harmful due to the way this trope directly links a character’s asexuality to either a physical or a mental illness. While the full DSM-5 acknowledges the existence of asexuality, it does only if the person self-identifies as asexual and the note is, as of yet, not present within the desk references used by most mental health experts. This is also the trope most likely to be seen in mainstream entertainment.
Pushback against this trope is complicated, however, because some people’s orientation does stem from illness or trauma and this does not make their orientations any less valid or worthy of depiction. This trope, at its most insidious, pits people from various points on the spectrum against one another, using the orientations’ obscurity and dismissal in mainstream understanding to make people denounce others just for a scrap of recognition for their own orientation(s), as was amply demonstrated by the way alloromantic asexuals tossed aromantics under the bus when they spoke up about the straightwashing and erasure of Jughead Jones in Riverdale, the TV adaptation of the Archie comics.
One of the most well-known, notable and harmful examples is found in Better Half (episode 9, season 8 of House, M.D.). In this episode, House encounters a patient and his wife who both profess to being asexual. Though Wilson explicitly describes asexuality as a valid sexual orientation, House scoffs at this and makes a bet with Wilson that he can find a medical reason why both the patient and his wife identify as asexual. House M.D. being what it is, of course House is proven to be right. The patient’s asexuality is due to a tumor and his wife only claimed to be asexual. The tumor is treated and the couple is now able to enjoy a happy, sex-filled ‘normal’ life.
House M.D.’s treatment of asexuality is a bit of an outlier, however. As a trope, the idea that asexuality and (mental) illness are linked is often not as blatant as it was in that episode. A more common variant of this trope is linking asexuality to (mental) illness or trauma less directly.
For example, Nora Sakavic’s The Foxhole Court heavily implies that Neil is asexual due to physical abuse and trauma in his childhood. Sakavic describes Neil’s developing sexuality as follows
Neil saw it in his peripheral vision but kept his gaze on Allison’s face. His skin stung with the memory of his mother’s heavy blows. Life on the run meant no time for friends or relationships, but that didn’t stop Neil from checking out girls as he grew older. His mother’s watchful eye noticed his lingering looks and increasing distraction. Afraid he’d spill their secrets over a childish crush, she beat him like she could kill his hormones with her bare hands. A few years of this violence and Neil finally got the hint: girls were too dangerous to consort with. Allison was beautiful but off-limits. (Sakavic Chapter 6)
Neil clearly links sexual attraction to the physical pain suffered by the abuse of his mother. While there are people who are asexual due to trauma in their past and their experiences are a valid expression of asexuality, when fiction depicts this link it is very often without the compassion or nuance needed to truly portray these experiences.
In The King’s Peace, Jo Walton manages a tight balancing line depicting Sulien’s asexuality. The hints that Sulien was always asexual are few and subtle but present, but it would be exceptionally easy for readers to assume that Sulien’s asexuality is a result of the trauma of being raped in the first chapter, though that is best left to a discussion about how one portrays the survivors of sexual assault and the intersection with asexuality. It is included here because of the ease with which readers can assume that Sulien’s asexuality is a sign of unhealed trauma rather than the intrinsic part of her identity that Walton portrays it as. This trope is a powerful and insidious one, potentially overruling the actual text within the narrative to supply the reader with their own interpretations.
Less obvious examples include novels such as Becca Lusher’s A Courtship of Dragons, in which Mastekh, who clearly has anxiety as well as low self-esteem, is the only character depicted as explicitly demisexual and mentally ill, and M.C.A. Hogarth’s Dreamhealers Saga, Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence, Lorelie Brown’s Far From Home and Annabeth Albert’s All Note Long, which have all been discussed earlier. In C.M. Spivey’s The Traitor’s Tunnel, Theo is the only character who suffers visibly from mental illness (anxiety) and is the only character who is depicted as asexual. In Amelia Faulkner’s Jack of Thorns, Quentin suffers from several mental illnesses, though in fairness allosexual Laurence has his own fair share of problems as he has to deal with addiction. They are, however, fewer than Quentin’s issues (which range from depersonalisation due to childhood trauma to eating disorders).
While it is absolutely not the case that authors should avoid the intersectionality of (mental) illness and asexuality/aromanticism at all costs, this brief selection of titles indicates that there is an overall tendency of authors to write this specific kind of intersectionality and the result of this repetition of links means that it is easy for readers to connect asexuality and aromanticism to mental illness, especially when combined with an Allo Saviour narrative that is all about the asexual character discovering that sex can be enjoyable.
The Celibate Asexual
The Celibate Asexual is a trope that is based largely on a misconception of what asexuality actually is. In modern fiction that explicitly includes an asexual character, this trope is rare. It is most likely to come up in conversations with other characters as they perpetuate the misconception and are corrected or as a part of a narrative’s attempt to include a 101 explanation on what asexuality is and is not.
One is more likely to encounter this particular trope in books that feature ace-coding without any explicit references to asexuality, whether as a comment from the other in an interview or a guest post or an explicit note within the narrative. In my experience, this particular trope is most frequently found in older narratives as creators who may have wanted to write an asexual character simply did not have the terminology necessary to write an explicitly asexual character and used the closest terms they could to portray these characters.
A good example featuring the Celibate Asexual is Jahir from the previously mentioned Dreamhealers Saga by M.C.A. Hogarth and, more specifically, his role within the wider narrative of the Pelted setting. While the Dreamhealers Saga is focused quite strongly on his developing queerplatonic relationship with Vasiht’h, there are strong hints that Jahir’s asexuality is due to repressing his natural allosexual desires in order to fit in better with the society which raised him. In the course of the Princes’ Game series, Jahir meets his cousin Lisinthir, who proceeds to teach him not to repress his own sexual urges. The narrative is altogether darker as Jahir’s repression is tied, in part, to his desire for BDSM in a sexual relationship.
Another example would be Chandra from Tanya Huff’s The Fire’s Stone. Chandra is engaged to Prince Darvish, against her wishes. Darvish, meanwhile, is attracted to the thief Aaron and the three end up in a polyamorous relationship.
Chandra’s depiction predates the understanding of asexuality as a specific sexual orientation and it is easy to read her as an allosexual who spends a lot of time convincing herself that she is not interested in sex.
Another older examples is Tarma from Mercedes Lackey’s Vows and Honor series as Tarma’s asexuality is explicitly said to result from mandates imposed by her goddess rather than a natural expression of human sexual orientations.
The Celibate Asexual trope, then, is a tricky one to explore. Hogarth’s Jahir is one of the few recent contemporary examples in fiction. It is more likely to occur in stories with ace-coded characters, such as Vulcans in Star Trek, and more likely to occur in stories by authors who are not aware of asexuality as a sexual orientation in its own right.
Though aro/ace conflation is arguably not a trope as such, it occurs often enough that it warrants discussion and inclusion when discussing the topic of tropes due to its prevalence. Out of the 29 titles mentioned so far, only about 3 explicitly included the idea that romantic orientation and sexual orientation are separate from one another and do not necessarily match. If one includes books with presumed alloromantic ace-spec characters that number rises to 14, counting generously. However, of the 12 romance novels mentioned in this essay, where one might expect the split attraction model to be employed, only one acknowledges that the romantic orientation spectrum exists separately from the sexual orientation spectrum.
It is these numbers that see this conflation included in this discussion of tropes. It is by far the most common misconception about asexuality and aromanticism in fiction. Characters are either depicted as aromantic asexual because romantic orientation must match up to sexual orientation or they are depicted as alloromantic asexual with no narrative thought for aromantics and a fair amount of aromisia in its depiction of a romantic relationship as the One True Relationship (that will fix everything) and the only kind of relationship worth having.
A good example of aro/ace conflation can be seen in the writing of Jughead Jones, mentioned earlier. Jughead has been coded as asexual and aromantic since the early Archie comics, though it was not until 2015 that Jughead was confirmed as asexual (though not aromantic) by then-writer Chip Zdarsky in the issue Jughead No. 4. On Twitter, though the tweet has since been deleted, Zdarsky further stated that he viewed Jughead as “ace and probably demi-romantic, but for the purposes of his teenage years, aro” as can be seen in screenshots that still remain.
Jughead is a character who has been consistently coded as aromantic asexual throughout the comics’ 70+ years run. However, when The CW decided to adapt the comics to a tv series and to erase Jughead’s asexuality and his aromanticism, there were countless media articles by alloromantic asexuals discussing why it was all right for Riverdale to erase Jughead’s aromanticism as long as the writers kept his asexuality.
While Riverdale is the most visible example of the way this conflation harms both asexuals and aromantics, it is a fairly common occurance. Alloromantic asexuals are quick to assure alloromantic allosexuals that their romantic attractions mean that they are ‘normal’, implying that aromantics are not. In fiction, these ideas are much harder to spot because much of this issue occurs in the discussions about fiction. Fiction is more likely to create an invisible tear between aromantics and asexuals by its refusal to use the split attraction model to discuss characters’ attractions. This refusal is what allows writers to conflate romantic and sexual attraction.
Fiction generally assumes or implies that there are two types of asexual depending on the type of narrative arc the asexual character is being given. When writing a romantic arc, such as in The Cybernetic Tea Shop or even Kathryn Ormsbee’s Tash Hearts Tolstoy, it is assumed that all asexuals are alloromantic due to the lack of representation and the lack of separating of sexual attraction from romantic attraction suggesting otherwise. However, in narratives that lack this romantic element, such as The Fire’s Stone or The King’s Peace, it is likewise implied that all asexuals are aromantic due to this same lack of nuance and the conflation of romantic and sexual orientations that is the norm for allosexual romance.
This conflation can also be seen in the way authors, especially allosexual authors, discuss their aromantic and/or asexual characters, such as the way Mackenzi Lee and Tristina Wright played coy with confirming the orientations of their characters on Twitter. Mackenzi Lee’s initial response to readers asking about Felicity’s orientations was to state that confirming or denying Felicity’s orientations would constitute spoilers for the as-yet unpublished The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. Lee eventually explained that Felicity is “on the aro/ace spectrum” and strongly suggested that Felicity is questioning her romantic orientation in the course of The Lady’s Guide. Wright, meanwhile, originally discussed 27 Hours’s Braeden as aromantic asexual then said he was only asexual and readers could find out more in the book, presenting the question of whether Braeden is aromantic or not as a marketing ploy.
Another recent example of this conflation comes not from authors, but from publishers. In April 2018, it came to readers’ attention that queer publisher Nine Star Press had conflated the asexual and aromantic orientations on their website whilst separating out demisexuality and ignoring the existence of gray-asexuality entirely. The publisher claims that aromantic and asexual books were grouped together because “[Nine Star Press] are working on growing them & have upcoming books in both”, however at the time of this tweet their ‘demisexual’ category had only two books in it and if asexual and aromantic are grouped together into a single category because there are too few books to warrant separate categories it makes no sense to split demisexuality into its own category for two books.
As of April 2018, Harmony Ink Press groups its explicitly asexual romances under ‘lesbian’ and ‘queer-spectrum’ because it has no separate category for either asexual or aromantic protagonists, furthering the idea that only homoromantic asexuals belong in the queer community. This level of conflation of orientations across the entire queer spectrum is rampant within the wider queer communities and requests and pleas for institutions to do better are frequently ignored with placating messages.
For asexuals and aromantics, this erasure helps contribute to the feeling that there is no representation for them out there. When it comes to fiction, the romantic orientation of an asexual character depends entirely on what kind of narrative the writer is telling whereas the romantic orientation of allosexual characters always matches their sexual orientation. What that says about aromanticism and asexuality is beyond the scope of this essay, but when discussing the tropes affecting asexual and aromantic characters in fiction, this cannot be overlooked or overstated, especially since the approach is guaranteed to lose much-needed nuance and representation due to the inherent erasure of romantic attraction being an orientation in its own right.
As this essay demonstrates, there are several core tropes in the depiction of asexual and aromantic characters. These tropes occur regardless of whether the writer/creator knew that asexuality and aromanticism are valid orientations in their own right. Very often, these tropes are based on microaggressions and misconceptions that asexuals and aromantics deal with almost daily.
In general, the depiction of aromantic characters especially leaves much to be desired as these asexual tropes often rely on humanising asexuals at the cost of aromantics, as is most obvious in the aromisic slant of most asexual romances currently available.
These tropes occur in many different narratives. Some may be difficult to avoid, such as the idea of a more knowledgeable character introducing the term to someone else, but others are not necessary, especially given the harm that they can represent to asexual and/or aromantic readers. After all, no one enjoys being told that the character they relate to most is not at all capable of (human) emotions or being told that their equivalent in the story they are reading about is someone who is not even alive.
Yet through recognising and discussing these tropes, asexuality and aromanticism may become better understood and more accepted in society as a whole. If nothing else, looking at the tropes that exist today and what their potential impact is on asexual and aromantic readers will lead to more nuanced and better stories.
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Brown, Lorelie. Far From Home. Riptide Publishing, 2016. ebook.
Cameron, Erica. Island of Exiles. Entangled: Teen, 2017. ebook.
Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to Small, Angry Planet. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015. ebook.
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Emrys, Ruthanna. Winter Tide. New York: Tor.com, 2017. ebook.
Erickson, Megan. Overexposed. Intermix, 2016. ebook.
Faulkner, Amelia. Jack of Thorns. LoveLight Press, 2016. ebook.
Hogarth, M.C.A. Mindtouch. Studio MCAH, 2013. print.
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Lusher, Becca. A Courtship of Dragons. Self-published, 2017. ebook.
Lynne, Calista. We Awaken. Harmony Ink Press, 2016. ebook.
McGuire, Seanan. Every Heart a Doorway. New York: Tor.com, 2016. ebook.
Nijkamp, Marieke. Before I Let Go. Sourcebook Fire, 2018. print.
Nine Star Press on Twitter. 28 April 2018. 03 May 2018. <https://twitter.com/ninestarpress/status/990011051625234432>.
Nix, Garth. Clariel. New York: HarperCollins, 2014. ebook.
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Oseman, Alice. Radio Silence. London: Harper Collins Children’s Books, 2016. ebook.
Sakavic, Nora. The Foxhole Court. Self-published, 2013. ebook.
Sands, Kate. As Autumn Leaves. Harmony Ink Press, 2016. ebook.
Smith, Sherwood. Banner of the Damned. DAW, 2012. ebook.
Spivey, C.M. The Traitor’s Tunnel. Self-published, 2017. ebook.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: In Theory. Dir. Patrick Stewart. Perf. Brent Spiner. 1991. TV show.
Sylver, RoAnna. Chameleon Moon. The Kraken Collective, 2014. print.
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Wright, Tristina. 27 Hours. Entangled: Teen, 2017. ebook.
Zdarsky, Chip. Jughead (2015-) Vol. 1. Archie, 2015. comic.
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 It is entirely possible for someone to prefer one label over another and to focus on one label over another. The issue here is the consistent way in which narratives erase asexual spectrum identities after using the term once and dismissing it with a complaint about labels in favour of allosexual spectrum identities. Readers are, of course, perfectly within their rights to identify however they wish. Though it would be remiss of me to note the double standards with regard to the treatment of ‘gay’ asexuals and heteroromantic asexuals and aromantic heterosexuals.
 asexualityarchive. Asexuality in the DSM-5. n.d. 20 April 2018. <http://www.asexualityarchive.com/asexuality-in-the-dsm-5/>.
 “Tumblr.” n.d. Tumblr. screenshot. 03 May 2018. <https://68.media.tumblr.com/f2f8f55883500a4136869a3f472926e8/tumblr_inline_omttfd8jUU1t6ouu6_540.png>.
 Lee, Mackenzi. Mackenzi Lee on Twitter. 05 October 2017. 4 May 2018. <https://twitter.com/themackenzilee/status/915728314601533440
 Nine Star Press on Twitter. 28 April 2018. 03 May 2018. <https://twitter.com/ninestarpress/status/990011051625234432>.
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