I have seen at least three posts on tumblr within the past month lamenting the lack of asexual characters in anything ever, and Siggy wrote about the characteristics of an asexual character last month, so I figured it was time to talk about confirmed asexual characters. Yes, you read that right! There are characters that are canonically asexual! And, no, I’m not talking about fanon ace characters like Sherlock from Sherlock or the Doctor from Doctor Who or Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory;* I am talking about characters who explicitly identify as asexual. (Now you can stop writing posts about how there are no asexual characters in anything ever.)
Here’s a small selection of the canonically asexual characters I know about (if I didn’t include one of your favorites, you should drop a note in the comments!):**
- Poppy from Huge (TV show)
- Fiona from Supernormal Step (webcomic)
- Gerald from Shortland Street (TV show, reflections here)
- Orson and Robbie from Ignition Zero (webcomic)
- Erin from Girls with Slingshots (webcomic)
- Tori from Quicksilver (novel, review here)
- Anwar from Shades of A (webcomic)
- Kevin from Guardian of the Dead (novel, review in issue #22)
- Tarma from the Vows and Honor series (novel, review here)
Here are a couple of things you might notice about this list:
1. The gender split is almost 50-50, which is interesting, since surveys of the asexual community have found that there are more female-identified aces than male-identified aces.
2. If you’re familiar with the works on the list, you might realize that the majority of the characters listed wind up outing themselves because of their relationship (or potential relationship) with another character. (I think the only exceptions might be Poppy and Tarma, but since I haven’t read/watched their respective works, I can’t be entirely sure.) I wonder how much of that emphasis is because it’s easier to write stories that way and how much is real life aces discovering/disclosing their own sexuality in similar circumstances.
3. There’s actually a whole lot of diversity in terms of romantic orientations and relationships depicted. (Not much diversity in terms of place on the asexual spectrum, though.) Siggy has written about the dearth of homo/bi/pan representation in mainstream media before, but if you look at the 9 works above, you have aces of basically every major romantic orientation, aces in sexual relationships, aces in romantic relationships, aces in platonic partnerships, and a whole lot of diversity in terms of the gender of their partners. You also have aromantic aces who aren’t depicted as emotionless robots! It is great.
4. You probably noticed that almost half of the works are webcomics. Given that asexuality is still unfamiliar enough in mainstream media to garner a “wow, these people exist, how weird is that?” news story every few months, it’s not exactly surprising that most of the confirmed asexual characters will come from media on the fringes.
However, there’s another trend I’ve noticed in the stories on the list: they tend to be stories featuring asexual characters rather than stories about asexuality. What do I mean by that? Well, the person’s entire character arc tends not to be “wow, look at me, I’m asexual.”
As a teenager who read most of the LGBT books in the YA section of my local library (which admittedly wasn’t many and was mostly G with a smattering of L), I very quickly discovered that the majority of LGBT YA could be categorized as “books about being gay.” If the gay character was a supporting character, his (or, very infrequently, her) entire subplot was about being gay. If the gay character was the main character, the entire plot of the book was about being gay. The blurb on the back cover usually went something like, “[main character] is living in the small town of [wherever], but he has a big secret! Can he stay under the radar and find true love?” or “[main character] is handsome, popular, captain of the football team, and dating the hottest girl in school. But there’s just something about [obligatory openly gay love interest]…” The gayness of the character was always front and center and composed the entire core of the story; you wouldn’t get blurb that went, “It is the future and [main character] is a space wizard fighting evil tentacle aliens with his boyfriend,” because [main character]’s space wizard shenanigans might distract readers from the fact that HE IS INTO GUYS, OMG. Needless to say, it was a major bummer, especially since my genre of choice was fantasy, and so I was forced to choose between reading about magic and dragons and fantastic worlds and reading about LGBT (okay, gay male) characters. The magic won out, for the most part, especially since, once you’ve read seven cis gay white teenage boy books (“[main character] just can’t stop imagining kissing [male love interest], but he’s not gay, okay?”), you’ve basically read them all.***
But when you look at stories with confirmed asexual characters, you not only get stories that don’t boil down to “[main character] is asexual, omg, wow, drama,” there are actually a whole range of genres with ace characters. For example, Vows and Honor, Ignition Zero, and Guardian of the Dead are all pretty solidly fantasy, and Quicksilver is science-fiction. (Supernormal Step also falls under the SF/F umbrella, but I don’t think I’ve read enough of it to be able to classify it more precisely.)
Even the more realistic, slice-of-life-type stories tend to feature characters that have a personality beyond their asexuality. Unlike those awkward ~obligatory gay friend~ characters who don’t seem to really have character traits aside from their sexuality (ouch), these aces have hopes and dreams and interests and likes and dislikes and really funky senses of humor. And, yes, occasionally their asexuality will be used as a plot point (I’m looking at you, Guardian of the Dead), but much more often their asexuality is treated as an integrated part of their personality that informs their desires for relationships, emotional intimacy, and physical contact. (If you aren’t already reading Shades of A, lemme tell you, Shades of A is particularly marvelous at this and you should get on it.)
What’s the deal? How come so many of the canonically ace characters are, you know, actually good ace characters? Well, one could argue that being out of the mainstream has actually helped representation–perhaps writing for a more niche audience has allowed the authors to skip over the “wow, there are actually people like this, haha, how weird” factor and get to the good bit. If you’re writing a free webcomic (and you don’t have any burning desire to become internet famous), there’s no need for you to pander to the (heterosexual) masses. On the downside, it means that stories with asexual characters very much stay niche works and thus aren’t particularly good at spreading awareness of asexuality.
Another explanation could be that, since aces are such a small audience, the relative lack of focus on the characters’ asexuality is because the author doesn’t think a story about Asexuality and Nothing Else would be particularly interesting to the (predominantly non-ace) readership/viewership. That might be why the asexuality of so many of these characters is referenced but doesn’t take over the brunt of the plotline. Both main characters in Ignition Zero have had scenes where they outed themselves as ace, but then the storyline continued without sidetracking into dramatic soul-searching. Poppy’s asexuality was referenced once, and never really became a huge deal. It took literally thousands of pages for Fiona to out herself, and, again, it seems as though there are way too many other things going on in the story for her to take a detour to the land of internal monologues. It could be the old “asexuality is boring” trope, but somehow I don’t think so. Maybe the creators of the aforementioned works grew up reading the same sorts of LGBT YA that I did and swore that if they ever included a GSRM character, they wouldn’t make their GSRM-ness the entire plot. Or maybe the creators of the aforementioned works realized that, hey, asexual people are just people who are asexual, and so making their entire storyline about how asexual they are (isn’t that weird?) isn’t as interesting as making a story about how asexual they are…while fighting evil tentacle aliens.
What other trends have you noticed in depictions of asexual spectrum characters?
*Okay, so, technically, Moffat said Sherlock was asexual then changed his mind and then changed his mind AGAIN (maybe; I’m not sure anyone knows what he thinks at this point). Similarly, Moffat has said the Doctor is not asexual while Matt Smith swears he is. Last I heard, Word of God said Sheldon wasn’t asexual (and instead said he was third gender????), but I must admit that I’m not a fan of TBBT, and thus might not be up on the latest news. Jo recently wrote a piece on Sheldon and Amy’s relationship, though.
**There are lots of other comprehensive lists out there! For example, here’s a list of books featuring asexual characters. Everything I included on this list is stuff I’ve read/watched and enjoyed OR stuff that I have mostly heard good things about. I made an executive decision not to include works that have garnered significantly more negative attention, like No Touching (novel, reviews here, here, and here) or, more recently, Sex Brood (novel).
***LGBT YA has fortunately gotten significantly less dire than when I was a teenager. Sometimes there are bisexual and transgender characters! Sometimes the couple actually winds up together at the end! Sometimes the characters have a personality beyond being gay! However, I know of no books about space wizard boyfriends, so clearly there’s still a hole in the market that needs to be filled.