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.
It’s a valid sexual orientation.
In 2012, the popular TV show House, M.D. debuted a trailer for a new episode featuring asexual characters. The trailer included a scene with Dr. Wilson delivering the quote above. This got a lot of people on AVEN excited, and many people who didn’t watch the show said they wanted to tune in. I even found an old post by yours truly expressing excitement.
The House episode, called “Better Half”, went down in history as the absolute worst ace representation to have ever existed. If you can stomach the highlight reel, you’ll find that Dr. Wilson is not stating his own opinion but quoting an article he read, which he may or may not believe. Dr. House then goes on to prove that the two asexual patients are just sick and lying respectively, and has a smoke over his success.
Here, I will not analyze all the things wrong with the episode, I will just talk about the marketing. The trailer promised a positive representation of asexuality. The episode spectacularly failed to deliver. The difference between the promise and the delivery is what I’m terming “acebaiting”.
This trope is derived from “queerbaiting“, most often used to describe homoerotic tension that draws in queer audiences, but which fails to ever resolve. The romantic/sexual subtext is the promise, and there’s no delivery on that promise. This can make queer audiences feel cheated out of real representation, apparently by creators who don’t want to alienate the homophobic segments of their audience. In the worst cases, creators deny clear subtext, say it’s all a joke, or even make fun of audiences who ship the characters (looking at you, Moffat).
Acebaiting does not need to be intentional. The writer of “Better Half” didn’t know she had produced the worst thing ever. In fact, I recall that she was initially more worried about her portrayal of Alzheimers (in a separate story arc of the same episode). Nonetheless, the marketing inspired a lot of us to tune in, and to say we were disappointed would be an understatement.
I started out with the most spectacular example of acebaiting, one that we can all agree on. But to talk about acebaiting as a more general phenomenon, we must see that most examples are more marginal, and more subjective. When a story or creator makes a promise, we might read different things into that promise. When the story finally delivers, some people may find that delivery more disappointing than others.
Acebaiting also changes over time. In the past, many aces would be happy to get the tiniest suggestion of asexuality. Later, we looked forward to any explicit mention. Now that ace fiction is more common, if a story promises ace representation but only has a mere mention, I would be sorely disappointed–but I speak only for myself.
Because of the subjective and critical nature of this trope, I will break from usual Ace Tropes format, and list no examples at the bottom of this post. However, if you look through my reviews of ace webcomics, or Sara’s reviews of ace novels, you will find many works of fiction that have very little ace content, or none at all. In some cases, we still enjoy the works with or without ace content, but the marketing can still feel manipulative.
Since I am the resident ace webcomics expert, I will talk about the current state of acebaiting in webcomics.
I find most ace webcomics through listings, and primarily through the LGBT webcomics list. The “promise” of an ace webcomic arises from its placement in the “asexual/aromantic” tag. I don’t always know how the tags are assigned, but sometimes authors tell the listing curators directly, and sometimes they say so elsewhere. And those are mixed in with webcomics where it’s clear from the story itself. Authors aren’t necessarily trying to make a big promise, but the discreteness of the tag prevents me from seeing any gradations of promises. (There are tags for “major”, “moderate” or “minor” LGBT content, but unfortunately these tags are not ace-specific.)
The “delivery” of ace webcomics can be hard to evaluate because of their serial nature. Maybe there’s a big delivery, but it simply hasn’t happened yet! Maybe it never will happen, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes webcomics just go defunct. Sometimes they deliver but it’s a much smaller mention than I expected. Sometimes the delivery has already happened, but it was so small I missed it. In my most pessimistic imaginings, authors just headcanon their own characters as ace, but don’t actually have plans to put it into the story.
Sara tells me that as far as novels go, LGBT+ publishers are usually good about how they tag ace and/or aromantic fiction. If they tag a work as ace and/or aromantic, it means that at least one character (possibly a minor character) is obviously ace and/or aro. The tags, however, do not promise major or even moderate representation. There have been a few instances when the publishers have messed up and tagged a work incorrectly, and there have been instances where the publisher later corrected their own inappropriate tagging. Publishers which do not specialize in LGBT+ fiction are much more likely to downplay ace content than to engage in acebaiting. The tagging of self-published fiction is less reliable because, whereas the LGBT+ publishers have staff to establish consistent standards, each writer has their own notion of how to market their own work, which sometimes means they promote a book without explicit ace content as being ‘ace’.
One possible solution is to make fewer promises. For example, a creator could just say nothing, and let it be eventually revealed that a character is ace–but that comes with its own problems. How can we support ace fiction if we can’t even find it? Doesn’t that just punish the most honest creators?
It would also help for creators to be moderate in their promises. For instance, years after the publication of Guardian of the Dead, the author publicly downplayed the promise of her own book, which makes sense given our now rising expectations of ace fiction. But it’s still on reviewers and curators to make it clear whether the authors had made big promises or little ones.
The other possible solution is to make a better delivery. To achieve that, I not-so-humbly recommend the Ace Tropes series.
1. At what point does alleged ace fiction have so little ace content that you feel that it’s failed to deliver on a promise?
2. Why do you think a creator might engage in acebaiting? Does it make a difference whether the creator is ace themselves?
3. What can we do, as creators, critics, and consumers, to address the problem of acebaiting?
4. Although the idea of acebaiting is derived from queerbaiting, they may manifest in different ways and raise different issues. What do you think are the similarities and differences?