Ace Tropes: Unwanted Arranged Marriage

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.

“Hello.”

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.

Examples:

“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

Questions:

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?

About Sara K.

Sara K. is an aromantic asexual from California who has previously lived in Taiwan. She blogs at the notes which do not fit, has previously been a contributor at Manga Bookshelf, and has written guest posts for Hacking Chinese. She enjoys reading, travel, live theatre, learning languages, and gardening.
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17 Responses to Ace Tropes: Unwanted Arranged Marriage

  1. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    I’ve written a M/M-ish arranged marriage (Optimus Prime/Starscream), however, they are Transformers and have no concept of gender. Anyway, it’s Optimus Prime doing what he’s told while one-upping the comittee who made the arrangement, so it doesn’t fit the trope much.
    1) Depending on the setting, it might not only represent it, but its usage might also be a criticism of the benefits married couples enjoy in many places.
    2) For full usage towards internal coming-out: Prince Charming. Also, I prefer if things aren’t too clear, and someone who is easy to dislike as a fiancée (who is also probably in this not entirely of their own free will) is too simple from my writing standpoint. However, I’ve yet to read any non-slashfic that uses the trope.
    3) The effect might be a byproduct of rape culture? Because men obviously can’t be ace and will be happy with any kind of regular access to sex, no matter how much they don’t want to be married?

    • Sara K. says:

      Yes, I agree that Prince Charming is best for a story about realizing for oneself that one is ace. However, I think that the other types of fiancés have different good uses – the gay fiancé is good for stories about not conforming to heteronormativity in general, and Prince Charmless is great for a story about Pushing People into Marriages They Don’t Want Is Bad.

  2. Ettina says:

    I’d definitely like to see more male or AMAB characters dealing with unwanted arranged marriages. The only example I can think of is in Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, with a young heir who is quite effeminate and hinted not to be attracted to women, whose father wants him to marry an heiress so they don’t have to live in a swamp anymore. It was played for laughs mostly, but I did find it an interesting subversion of the arranged marriage trope.

    • Sara K. says:

      Actually, in one of my favorite genres of fiction (wuxia) it is not uncommon for heterosexual male characters to be arranged to marry someone they don’t want to marry, and it tends to create problems when the male character falls in love with a woman but is still obligated to marry his unwanted fiancée.

  3. Nowhere Girl says:

    I have once written a story involving an arranged marriage myself. Even is I still had my manuscript (which I’m not sure about), no way I’m gonna show it: it’s quite poor literature, with lots of my psychedelic temptation of that time thrown in (for me it took 18 years from the time I first heard about psychedelic drugs until I first tried a psychedelic and the first few years of that period, when I was about 13-16 years old, were full of despair and internalized narcophobia). But anyway, the main character was a renegade knightess (because I put all those motifs into a medieval environment) and actually a widow: she was forced to marry against her will and when her husband didn’t want to respect her wish to live in a sexless marriage, she killed him and escaped to spend the rest of her life as a renegade, defying power and helping the powerless. (In company of people she trusted, she openly admitted what she had done.) When I wrote that story (1997 – I was 16 years old then), I didn’t even know the term “asexuality” and I clearly didn’t identify as such, but I already openly said that I don’t want to have sex ever and it seems clear that “knightess Eve” was a sex-repused person who would rather use force than allow being subjected to sex. So in my version this motif was violent, resulting from my strong feelings that in desperate situations violence IS better than letting people do to you whatever they wish.

    • Sara K. says:

      I always find it interesting to learn how so many people writing about ace experiences (even if they are not precisely aware that it is ‘ace’) independently end up using a lot of the same tropes. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Sara K. says:

    Now, I will answer my own questions:

    1) Of course I agree since I wrote the post! I also think it represents amantonormativity, perhaps even more than compulsory heterosexuality.

    2) I think each type of fiancé works better for certain types of stories, so it would really depend on the context (and it also depends on which type of Prince Charmless we’re talking about).

    3) I think this is partially Truth in Television. While I was writing this post, I did a bit of research on forced marriage in the United States, and I learned that far and away the demographic group which is most likely to be forced into marriage are teenage girls (or at least, teenagers who are perceived to be girls). One of the advocates for helping people escape forced marriages said that being female is one of the few common denominators – forced marriages in the United States occur in a broad range of religious groups, in both immigrant families and families which have been in the U.S. for centuries, etc.

    As far as what is to be gained by putting non-cis-female aces in this trope, I think more representation of genderqueer aces would generally be a good thing. I think putting cis-male aces in this trope could also help explore how compulsory sexuality hurts them too.

    • Nowhere Girl says:

      Still, young men aren’t forced into unwanted marriage as often as women. And, because of the power imbalance in favor of men, an asexual married man can much more easily simply refrain from performing “marital duties”. For girls forced marriage very often equals rape.

      • Sara K. says:

        *nods*

        I think one of the reasons it is so common for the fiancé to turn out to be gay is so that this trope can be used without pressure to have sex turn into an issue.

  5. Siggy says:

    FWIW, I don’t find the unwanted arranged marriage trope to be relatable. Insofar as compulsory sexuality is a part of my experience, it’s mostly an expectation that I pick partners, and not a matter of other people trying to pick partners for me. I don’t want to say this is *the* male experience but it’s my experience anyways.

  6. Tabitha says:

    Would you recommend Winterbourne’s Daughter or The Goose Girl? I’m interested in those two because I hadn’t heard of them before, but I’ve found some of LT3 press’s books to be poorly edited/not worth the money, so I’m always a bit wary about buying from them. (And if I’m buying books because they have an ace character, I like the asexuality aspect to be fairly prominent in the story, but with this trope I assume it would be?)

    I like this trope, I think because it’s easy to imagine that an arranged marriage *could* have happened to me if I’d been born in another place/time, and because it certainly did happen to aces in the past (and still does). So I like to read stories that show aces confronting this problem and finding ways around it (I definitely wouldn’t enjoy a story that ended with the ace being forced into an unwanted marriage/sexual relationship). I’ve even written a draft of a novella that includes this trope.

    • Sara K. says:

      Based on what you say, I would not recommend Winterbourne’s Daughter to you (that is the one example where the ace DID end up long-term in the relationship – technically, she becomes an official mistress not a wife but since it was arranged by her mother it’s still an arranged relationship). Winterbourne’s Daughter is also, er, since I don’t want to say too much I’ll just say that, being a gritty hard fantasy, it will put off a lot of readers, even though it also appeals to a certain type of reader.

      I do like “The Goose Girl.” It’s not an amazing story, but I enjoyed reading it. It’s based on the Brother Grimm’s fairy tale, and while it has a few twists (such as the protagonist being ace) it does not deviate much from the original in terms of plot (except for the ending).

  7. Tabitha says:

    I remembered that Sinners has a proposed arranged marriage for a male ace! And he’s not a teenager when it happens. (It’s in his backstory though, not the main plot.)

    “There was an engagement in talks. Him and Ranikhel. Niavin had liked her, silly little bird that she was … The Lady Ranikhel with her black eyes and black curls and wide smile had never drawn passion from him, though, and so he did everything he could to oppose the engagement. He had thought it was her fault; he had been wrong. It had always been about him. He realized that much later, years after the engagement that never came to be. He could never desire anyone and yet he simply had to. He was the last of his House, and it depended on him to survive. Children were rare among the sidhe; the union needed to be a formal marriage blessed by the Queen, and even then it would take countless nights, countless decades of copulation. Niavin would have to endure that. His aunts and uncles and nephews had fallen to war and duels and other misfortunes, and the House had to go on.”

    This manifestation of the trope has a happy ending in that the marriage doesn’t end up happening.

    • Tabitha says:

      Oh, and the short story “Tala and Prince Hart” has 21-year-old Prince Hart facing an arranged marriage. http://writingalchemy.net/fairy-tales/tala-and-prince-hart/

    • Tabitha says:

      I found another ace guy facing an unwanted arranged marriage! **Spoilers for Sea Foam and Silence by Lynn O’Connacht**

      In this book, the ace prince doesn’t want to get married because he doesn’t want to have sex. The princess he’s supposed to marry ends up being a lesbian, so in the end, they do get married because then they won’t have to marry someone else who would want them to have heterosexual sex (and polyamorous marriage is normal in this culture, so the main character, who’s also ace, joins them in the marriage).

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