This is part of a series on tropes in fiction with ace characters. To link or follow this series, please use the “ace tropes” tag on this blog.
Content Note: this post discusses (lack of) consent to marriage.
Anette felt nothing when she looked at him. She supposed he was handsome, but what more was supposed to happen? Should she want to kiss him? Should she giggle and blush when he smiled at her? She tried to think of what her maids did around boys they fancied, but nothing seemed like something she could force herself to do. There were girls in the chapel pews who were whispering and giggling to each other, smiling and blushing at Prince Everett. Did they think he was handsome? Did they want to kiss his cheek behind a pillar like her mother had kissed the curly haired serving boy?
She didn’t know, and she had no more time to think. She reached the end of the aisle and stood face to face with him. He had very large brown eyes. He smiled at her again, and she gave him a strained half-smile as she was unable to muster a more sincere one.
“Hello,” Prince Everett said.
Should she have swooned at his voice when he spoke to her? What was she supposed to be doing? She had gone to several weddings, and in all of them, the bride was blushing the entire time…
“Do you take Prince Everett of Estar as your husband?” she was asked suddenly.
Did she take Prince Everett as her husband? Did she want to say yes? Did she have to?
– “The Loveless Princess” by Lilian Bodley
The trope this posts discusses contains the following elements 1) the ace character is engaged to marry someone (or enter some other marriage-like relationship, especially if it is socially binding and sex is an expected component) b) the potential spouse was selected by someone other than the ace c) the ace does not want this marriage (or at least feels reluctant reluctant) and d) the ace’s reluctance is somehow connected to their asexuality.
I put in element (d) because I know of one story (Fox’s Bride by A.E. Marling) where the ace character is engaged to marry against her will … but she objects to the marriage for reasons which have nothing to do with her asexuality (her objections are that her fiancé is a fox and, according to tradition, she would have to die on her wedding day, and she does not want to die). Even though the protagonist is ace, the unwanted arranged marriage trope does not have any specifically ace flavor in that story.
A quick look at the TV Tropes “Arranged Marriage” page makes it clear that arranged marriage is a very common trope in fiction. However, it is much more common in some genres than others. Arranged marriage is rare in superhero comics, but very common in Indian masala films. Sometimes the characters are okay with the arranged marriage – and sometimes they are not.
One of the genres where I have found arranged marriage to be relatively common is assigned-female-at-birth queer fiction. That is to say, I have not found it in M/M fiction or other fiction focused on gay/bi/pan cis males, not do I recall finding it in MtF trans fiction or fiction about nonbinary people, but I HAVE found it in lesbian fiction and FtM trans fiction. Perhaps I have not read enough lesbian and FtM trans fiction to make broad generalizations, but a high percentage of what I have read does feature arranged marriage, specifically unwanted arranged marriage (or at least, the queer character isn’t sure if they want it). An example from lesbian fiction is “The Persephone Star” by Jamie Sullivan, and an example from FtM trans fiction is Beloved Pilgrim by Christopher Hawthorne Moss. The arranged (heteronormative) marriage tends to be part of how the character figures out that they are queer.
A significant portion of fiction with female ace characters also features unwanted arranged marriage. Sometimes the engagement gets broken off before the wedding happens, and sometimes the wedding does end up happening.
What is the fiancé like? It depends. If it’s a story using the queer ensemble trope, the fiancé is probably gay (though I have found one exception). If he’s not gay (or even if he is), he could be a Prince Charming, which confuses the ace because she does not understand why she does not want to marry him, or he could be a Prince Charmless, in which case the situation looks pretty bad for the ace.
This trope as it manifests in ace fiction is so similar to how it manifests in lesbian and FtM trans fiction that the examples blur together in my mind. Sometimes, it is part of how the character realizes that she is ace, or if she already knew she was ace, then her aceness is one of the reasons she is opposed to the engagement. And that makes sense, because the arranged marriage clearly represents compulsory cis-heterosexualiy, which impacts lesbians, trans people, and aces.
Also, every single example of this trope I have found for ace characters involves an ace who is a teenager (at the time of the planned wedding; if the story continues long enough, the ace will eventually stop being a teenager). Well, in Fox’s Bride, the ace character is in her 30s, but as already stated, I’m not including that example in this trope. Most of the uses of this trope that I’ve found in non-ace queer fiction also involve teenagers, though I do not remember off hand if all of them are teenagers.
It is worth remembering that forced marriage of teenagers is a literal reality for some people. For example, in California, where I live, it is currently legal to marry people under the age of 18 without their consent if there is parental/guardian consent and judicial consent (one can read more about that in this op-ed from the survivor of a forced marriage in California, content warning: multiple kinds of child/spousal abuse).
That said, most people in the countries where most ace fiction is written (including the United States) do not experience forced marriage directly. Thus, this trope can be a way to present compulsory heterosexuality in a way which has less personal baggage than forms of compulsory heterosexuality which are more common in the writers’ society.
All of the examples I have found in ace fiction are from speculative fiction, mostly stories featuring royalty or nobility. Since these are settings where arranged marriage tends to be common and casual dating may not be so common, the unwanted arranged marriage can be a way to express some of the experiences aces have when they try dating. In one case (“The Goose Girl” by Robin Gallica) it is a retelling of a fairy tale which has an arranged marriage in the original version.
How do these stories end? I have so far only found one example in which the ace stays in the marriage-like relationship long term, and even in that story she gets out of it before the ending. In a ‘happy’ ending she partners up with either a) another ace or b) poly/queer folk or c) someone of unknown sexual orientation who does not seem to be sexually attracted to the ace. In a not-so-happy ending, she does not follow through with the unwanted arranged marriage … because something so catastrophic has happened that there is no longer anybody who is in a position to force her to marry. These two endings can also be combined in the same story.
“The Loveless Princess” by Lilian Bodley
“Cold Ennaline” by R.J. Astruc
Clariel by Garth Nix
Fourth World by Lyssa Chiavari
Winterbourne’s Daughter by Stephanie Rabig
Dragonborn by Maeghan Friday (borderline example since – for political reasons – the ace does want to marry, though her aceness is still relevant)
“The Goose Girl” by Robin Gallica
1) This post claims that this trope represents compulsory (cis-hetero)sexuality. Do you agree? Do you think it represents anything else?
2) Which kind of fiancé (gay, Prince Charming, Prince Charmless, or other) do you think would make the story most engaging for you? Why?
3) Why are there so many examples of this trope for female ace characters, but none (as far as I know) for male ace characters (not even trans male ace characters)? Would there be anything to gain by using this trope with a male ace character, cis or trans, or a trans female ace character?