The Trouble with Ace (and Aro) Representation

This is my submission to the February 2023 Carnival of Aces hosted by Mia on the topic “Representation in Fiction”. I have not read too many novels with asexual representation, so my examples will draw mostly from film and TV.

Can’t Show; Must Tell

Asexuality has been sometimes referred to as “the invisible orientation” and therein lies the problem: you don’t know a character is asexual unless they explicitly state that they are.

In any form of media, it is very difficult to show the “lack of” something. You have to explicitly state it.

Gay characters don’t explicitly need to state “I’m attracted to the same gender” to explain their orientation. They don’t even need to explain “I’m gay” to the readers/the audience. You can simply show two people of the same gender together in a romantic context and audiences/readers can infer that they are gay (or perhaps bi or pan). With bi and pan people though, it is a little trickier to show rather than tell. You would have to show their pattern of attraction to others to establish their sexual orientation, which could detract from the actual plot of the story. This would be difficult in a standalone novel or film, but if you had several seasons of a TV show or a several installments of a book series to explore the character, it is definitely possible to explore their sexuality without having to explicitly state it.

But with an asexual (or aromantic) character, you can never show their asexuality (or aromanticism). Even if you have 10-book series or 10 seasons of a TV show with an aroace character during which time they have zero romantic entanglements, you still can’t establish that they are aroace without explicitly stating it. Some readers/audiences will suspect, sure; they may get aroace resonances from this character; but unless explicitly confirmed, readers can never know what may be happening off the page or in the future.

There is also the problem that asexuality is not particularly well known. So even if a character declares that they are ace, readers may not fully understand what that means. So it becomes necessary to press pause on the plot and offer an explanation of what asexuality is (unless the character’s asexuality figures into the plot in some way). That can result in clunky storytelling that feels didactic and can certainly detract from the plot. (The same applies for aromanticism.)

I haven’t read many novels with explicitly ace or aro or aroace characters, but my understanding is that most of these novels have involved the main character exploring their orientation and hence the novels also offer a primer to the readers about asexuality and/or aromanticism. From the realm of TV, a well-known ace character is Todd Chavez from BoJack Horseman and discovering his asexuality was an explicit plot point in the show.

Contrast that with Jughead Jones, who was (as far as I know) written to be asexual in the Archie comics, but it was never explicitly stated; and in the adaptation of the comics in the Riverdale show, his asexuality was not carried forward. It may not have been intentional. The show creators may have simply not picked up on Jughead’s aceness. Because it was never explicitly stated.

Can’t Represent Everyone

I also recently found out that Yelena Belova (the MCU’s new Black Widow) was written as aroace in the comics (or at least in one run of the comics). I would not have known that based on her current appearances in the MCU to date. In fact, she had great chemistry with Kate Bishop in the show Hawkeye, so much so, they are now a popular ship. After all that great chemistry, if “nothing happens” between the two, it might, to some fans, feel like queerbaiting. If “nothing happens”, fans may feel let down in being denied this gay representation.

People have kind of felt that way when it comes to Queen Elsa of Frozen. She is a a queer icon, and many have interpreted her to be gay. But her story has involved no romantic plot. Is this queerbaiting? What if she were ace? After all, many have felt strong asexual resonances in her characterization.

Going back to Yelena Belova and Kate Bishop, what is the future of these characters? Will Yelena be revealed to be ace, aro, or both? If Yelena is revealed to be just ace, and she and Kate remain “just friends”, wouldn’t that be sending a sexnormative message that there can’t be romantic relationships without sex? But if they do go on to have a romantic relationship, wouldn’t that be pushing an amatonormative message that just “just friendship” isn’t sufficient representation?

If Marvel erases Yelena’s asexuality, aromanticism, or both, they will be denying representation to groups that don’t have much representation. But they could be giving representation to another marginalized group that also has little representation. But in giving Yelena a sexual relationship, they would push a sexnormative message that romantic relationships must involve sex. If they make her ace (but not aro) and fail to give her a romance, they will also be pushing a sexnormative message. If they give her a romantic relationship without sex, then they might be representing a rare asexual romance on screen, but they will also be pushing the amatonormative message that “friendships” aren’t “enough”. What is the right decision for Marvel to make here?

It’s a similar situation with Queen Elsa. Disney would either have to explicitly announce that Elsa is ace or aroace; or they would have to give Elsa a love interest if they are to continue with the Frozen franchise. But if they give Elsa a female love interest, we lose the aroace representation; and if they make her aroace, then we lose Elsa as a gay icon. I don’t know what the right move is.

There’s also the case of Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory, whose eventual sexual relationship with Amy Fowler was a let down to many in the asexual community. But just because Sheldon engaged in a sexual relationship, did he stop being asexual? Was Sheldon meant to represent only those in the asexual community who are sex averse and will never want to have sex? Or maybe he offers representation to those in the asexual community who, in general, aren’t interested in sex; but under the right circumstances, might be willing to explore it?

And that’s why I’m not particularly bothered about ace representation. I prefer my characters living their ace lives peacefully without having to declare and explain their sexuality to the audience. The downside of that is that this will not count as proper ace representation, and others might read them as a different kind of queer. Then it will become necessary to declare their orientation, at which point one or the other group will felt let down.


I had some more thoughts after reading some of the other carnival submissions (including from previous carnivals). I saw some similar ideas as my post from Frawley and from Para (and the opposite idea from Polly All Sorts … goes to show that not everyone will agree).

Frawley’s post lays out some other issues with explicit representation that I hadn’t considered (it becomes political). Para’s post gave me new insight into why explicit asexual representation can have problems – it’s the Ambassadors from Aceland problem. It suddenly falls on this character to represent an entire group of very diverse people who are actually quite different from each other. It’s similar to why an East Asian friend of mine described why she didn’t like media representing the “Asian American experience” – “Well, it’s not MY Asian American experience.”

See, I use the label asexual. When I encounter a character who also uses the label asexual and claims to represent asexuality … I’m promised representation of my experiences … but no two aces have the same experience … I will inevitably find a lot I can’t relate to in this character and that can be a let-down. It’s much more exciting when I encounter asexual resonances in media where I wasn’t expecting to find it.


2 thoughts on “The Trouble with Ace (and Aro) Representation

  1. This reminds me of a thread Cody Daigle-Orians wrote on Twitter recently about some negative feedback on ace nonfiction books, and how the problem is that the lack of books is leading people to want the existing ones to do *everything* even though they have a specific audience in mind that can’t include everyone and everything, leaving some people disappointed. Same goes for fiction – this wouldn’t be as much of a problem if we had more literature/media already representing a variety of ace experiences, so that one work or character isn’t as often seen as an ambassador for the whole community.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s