Ace Tropes: And There Is a Human

Sara K. blogs at The Notes Which Do Not Fit, and has written a number of book reviews of asexual fiction.  She is continuing the ace tropes series.

Another few heart-pounding moments passed, and then Sal [robot] curled closer, rolling from her back to her side to press more tightly to Clara, hold her close. “I can’t—physically,” Sal said. “I mean, I’m not designed to be sexual. That’s to say, I can act on others, but I don’t want—”

“That’s okay. Me neither.”

“Oh, but—”

“It’s not something I need from someone else,” Clara [human] said firmly, willing Sal to understand.

– “The Cybernetic Teashop” by Meredith Katz

Sometimes a story which has a nonhuman ace and/or aro – particularly a type of nonhuman who tends to lack emotion – also has an ace and/or aro character who is human and has a more typical set of emotions. For example, in the story excerpted above, there is Sal, who is a robot, and Clara, who is a human, and they are both ace. The presence of the human ace and/or aro character may signal that, just because the nonhuman ace and/or aro character is there, does not mean that all aces and/or aros are like that.

But before we get into this trope, a little background on the trope it complements – having the ace and/or aro character to be a nonhuman, especially a type of nonhuman (or inhuman) known for lacking emotion, such as a robot, or an extraterrestrial alien, or a demon, or a sociopath (who would be considered inhuman rather than nonhuman), or something along those lines.

(Note: for the rest of the post, when I say ‘alien’ I mean ‘extraterrestrial alien’, because as far as I know, there is no particular tendency for ace and/or aro characters to be people who reside in countries where they are not nationals).

Having ace and/or aro characters be nonhuman/inhuman – particularly unfeeling types – is one of the most discussed ace (and aro) tropes ever. A lot of ace and/or aro people strongly dislike this trope. Why? Because making only nonhuman/inhuman characters asexual and/or aromantic (especially if they are nonliving, like robots, or not even from this planet, like aliens, or are supernatural, like demons) implies that humans cannot be asexual and/or aromantic, and by extension, our ace and/or aro identities (by ‘our’ I mean ‘human aces and aros’) are false. Furthermore, they also tend to emphasize how unfeeling the characters in question are, and that being ace and/or aro is connected to not having feelings. One can find more discussion of this trope here.

However, this post is not actually about ace-and/or-aro-as-nonhuman/inhuman trope in general, but specifically a trope which sometimes appears alongside it, that is, having an additional ace and/or aro character who is human.

What is the point of having a human ace and/or aro character in the same story as the nonhuman ace and/or aro character? First of all, it means that there is more than one ace and/or aro character in the story, which tends to be a good thing. This specific trope, however, makes it clear that there are humans with typical emotions who are ace and/or aro in a story which, in the absence of the human character, might suggest otherwise.

As Penny Stirling puts it:

Q. So… can my robot/magical construct/non-human/inhuman sociopath/eccentric genius/immortal stuck in a pubescent body/other thing where it’d be weird or creepy for it to be in a romantic relationship/alien be aromantic or will you get mad at me?

There’s also human aros in the story, right? Like, you’re not presenting this as a You Can’t Be Human If You’re Aro/You Can’t Be Aro If You’re Human thing, right?
Right?

Some writers may be deliberately writing a human ace and/or aro character into the story so that their nonhuman/inhuman ace and/or aro character is less problematic, or maybe it’s just a coincidence. Intentional or not, having a human ace and/or character changes the effect of having a nonhuman/inhuman ace and/or aro character.

A straightforward example of having both types of characters is The Zhakieve Chronicles. There are two ace characters. One of them is a demon. What kind of demon? The kind that devours humans alive without feeling any remorse. The other ace character is human, specifically the daughter of a man who the demons have devoured, and she has strong feelings about that – oh, and she’s also the protagonist of the second book. The other demon who devoured her father is clearly not ace, thus showing that ace demon is ace independently of being a demon.

Another variation of this trope is that, in cases where a character transitions between being human and nonhuman/inhuman, it is made clear that the character is also ace and/or aro when they are human, before the transition. One could say that the webcomic Heartless is an example of this, since the ace character is clearly ace before she dies and becomes a vampire (note: I did not put Heartless in the list of examples because it lacks an ace character who is never undead). But this variation is harder to execute well, so it’s better to use this alongside the basic version of this trope. That is what “The Fairy Godmother’s Apprentice Wore Green” does – it has a human-to-nonhuman transition character who is aro, but it also has a clearly human character who is aro.

In a way, one could say that this trope is basically about counterbalancing the use of the ace-and/or-aro-as-nonhuman/inhuman trope by increasing the ace-and/or-aro-as-human-and-valid representation at the same time. Or actually, it is simpler than that. By putting in a human ace and/or aro character in the story, they are showing that their story’s universe has space for ace and/or aro people.

Examples:

“The Cybernetic Tea Shop” by Meredith Katz
We Awaken by Calista Lynne
“The Fairy Godmother’s Apprentice Wore Green” by Nicky Kyle
The Zhakieve Chronicles by A.M. Valenza

Discussion Questions:

1) This post suggests that having a human ace and/or aro character, particularly one who does not read as being inhuman, in the same story alters the effect of having a nonhuman/inhuman ace and/or aro character. Do you agree, and if so, how much of a difference do you think it makes?
2) Does using this trope (having both a human and nonhuman ace and/or aro character) risk falling into certain pitfalls? For example, does it risk being tokenism?
3) “The Cybernetic Teashop”, where the excerpt at the beginning of this post comes from, is a human/robot romance. Does knowing that affect how you feel about the human character in the romance being ace?

About Siggy

Siggy is a physics grad student in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and makes amateur attempts at asexual activism. His interests include godlessness, scientific skepticism, and math. While not working or blogging, he plays video and board games with his boyfriend, and folds colored squares.
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8 Responses to Ace Tropes: And There Is a Human

  1. Ettina says:

    I’m interested to hear everyone’s thoughts about this, particularly since I have a story where I sort of did this with gender-nonconforming characters. I have two nonhuman characters who are nonbinary because of their species (two different species – one is agender, the other is genderfluid), and I’ve also thrown in a human FTM and I’m considering adding a nonbinary human as well. I didn’t plan on doing this – I just realized that the two nonhumans would make the most sense if they’re nonbinary given that neither has a fixed biological sex either. (One is a shapeshifter, the other has no physical form but can possess people.)

  2. Rivers says:

    As someone who does enjoy writing (and therefore enjoys this trope series which will help me as I try to go for ace inclusion), I really like the idea of this trope. Of course, having more than one ace character is a plus, but it does bring balance to the ‘nonhuman/inhuman are ace because they are less than REAL PEOPLE’.
    Since the inhuman/nonhuman might at first seem to follow the more typical ace-slamming trope, an extra human ace (who is portrayed properly) has the potential to reveal how dehumanizing the first trope can be to the everyday person who isn’t a psychopath or a robot to a reader/viewer who may not have realized it in the first place.
    I also enjoyed reading the excerpt because I was expecting something also the lines of the other trope where the human is allo (that’s the only one I have seen before), but when she was ace too, I was very happy.

  3. Siggy says:

    1. I haven’t seen many examples of the “and there is a human” trope, but my intuition is that it doesn’t necessarily help.

    Although many of us agree that inhuman ace/aro characters aren’t great, I would have trouble saying exactly why. There have been inhuman ace/aro characters that I disliked, ones that I liked, and ones I didn’t mind, and I couldn’t say what the difference was. Or maybe there wasn’t any difference and I just have biases towards the associated works of fiction.

    In any case, it feels too simplistic to say that the problem is with which characters presented. To me it’s more about the ideas presented–like treating asexuality as an oddity to be explored, just as logic was explored through Vulcans. Or maybe it’s the way that these inhuman ace characters don’t really say anything about human ace experience, except what other people think about us. Maybe it’s the way we cling to these characters even though they give us little in return. Maybe it’s the way that these characters are clearly targetted at allo audiences.

    • Siggy says:

      2. This is sort of a personal taste thing… but I don’t like when people try really hard to humanize ace/aro people, while leaving people with low emotionalism in the dust.

      On reflection, this may be a major reason why I find the “and there is a human” trope to be dissatisfying . If you have an alien ace character who has no emotions, that feels like a caricature not just of ace people, but of people who just aren’t that emotional. Adding a human ace character with low emotions doesn’t help because it just reinforces the emotion/sexuality association. And adding a human ace character with high emotions doesn’t help because it still leaves the caricature of low emotionalism.

      • Sara K. says:

        Obviously, the solution is to have three ace characters – the low-emotional alien, the low-emotional human, and the high emotional human.

        Or one could cut it down to two characters if one has a highly emotional alien ace character and a low emotional human ace character. But if the alien is read as female, then one might get into stereotypes about females being particularly emotional. On the other hand, female aliens in fiction are highly sexualized (put ‘female alien’ into a search engine and most of the results will be ’10 Sexiest Aliens in Movies’ or something), so making the female alien character asexual might counter that…

        This can keep on going on and on forever.

  4. Rachel says:

    1. I agree in a general sense, but as always, it comes down to how it’s portrayed. I think juxtaposing human aro/ace characters with “inhuman” aro/ace characters allows for more exploration into how society conceptualizes sex and romance. It adds a backdoor to critique how sex and romance are used to humanize the human and nonhuman alike, and how this often works to the expense of both the human and nonhuman aro/ace characters.

    2. This trope can create problems, however, when it reinforces the “human aces/aros have feelings” and “inhuman aces/aros don’t have feelings.” I’m not inclined to fret about tokenism so long as the characters in question are well developed. If their sole defining attribute is being ace/aro, then I’d agree with the criticism of tokenism.

    3. Eh? It would depend on how it’s written. If the relationship is compelling and sympathetic, then whatever, let them have it. This type of relationship risks the pitfall of “aces can’t/shouldn’t have real relationships(tm), so let them have relationships with the nonsexual robot instead. That way, allos can continue to dodge the ramifications of being partners to aces.”

    Random thoughts:

    – A lot of our issues with aro/ace tropes regarding aliens, robots, and feelings boil down to problems with anthropomorphism. Sex, romance, and emorion are used to humanize, the lack of it is used to render alien and other. The problem is that these “nonhuman attributes” all occur within the scope of humanity after all.
    – I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that robots and aliens are sometimes shown to be functionally aro/ace/unemotional. It can, with the right context, be more progressive to allow the literally nonhuman room to actually not conform to the “predominant nature of humanity.” Give aliens room to be actually alien. The alternative is anthropomorphism, which is also a bad thing when used inappropriately.
    – In a world where media was more aro/ace savvy, I think there could be plenty of room for human aros/aces to exist as unquestionably human, right alongside the robot/alien aro/ace that is unquestionably not human.
    – As an avid troper myself, I’ve gotten kind of sick of how some tropes are rendered taboo or framed as “inherently bad, do not use.” Tropes are tools, and are rendered good or bad depending on the execution.

    • Sara K. says:

      Yeah, I agree that very few tropes are so inherently bad that they ought to never be used. For example, failing the Bechdel Test can be useful in a feminist story about how socially isolating women is bad. And while I understand why queer people detest the ‘Bury Your Gays’ tropes, there is nothing inherently wrong about having a story where a queer person dies tragically – its the lack of stories in mainstream media where the queer character has a happy ending which is the problem.

      That’s one of the reasons I brought up this trope in the first place. I do not want to tell people to never use the ace/aro as inhuman/nonhuman trope, instead I want a discussion about how to execute the trope well (or badly).

      • Rachel says:

        Yeah, totally. Thanks for bringing this to light. We spend a lot of time dissecting tropes to discuss ways in which they can go wrong if mishandled. I think that’s useful in so far as it encourages reflection and reveals a lot of the double-binds that minorities have to struggle with. But I’m at the point where I’d much rather analyze how tropes are actually being deployed, whether for better or for worse, rather than make sweeping moral judgments against the tropes themselves for containing “questionable elements” (because no trope is perfect), or hand-wringing over ways that a trope might go wrong.

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