Avoiding Problematic Ace Tropes and Stereotypes
So, let’s say you’ve gotten a start on writing your asexual character, and for this character’s personality you have them a bit aloof, prickly, elitist, and emotionally detached. And as you go along writing this story that your asexual character is in, you realize partway through, “Oh, no! Being aloof and emotionally detached are pervasive and harmful stereotypes about asexual people, and I just wrote an asexual character that way! How can I deal with this in a manner that is sensitive to the experiences and diversity of asexual people?”
There are a few ways to go about this. You could rewrite the character, if you cared to—there’s nothing wrong with that option, although many writers will find that once you’ve gone far enough with a character, it’s difficult to adjust major portions of their personality or identity. Of course, if this is the best option for your writing, don’t let the difficulty of it put you off from doing what you need to do to write the highest quality characters you can, but this is not necessarily the only or the best solution to this particular problem.
If you aren’t sure whether a full overhaul of your character is something you can do or something that wouldn’t cause major problems elsewhere in your story, there is another option. One of the things that people never seem to talk about when discussing harmful stereotypes is that the thing that makes them problematic is the “stereo” part, not the “type” part. The truth of the matter is, some asexual people are a bit snooty and distant, as are people of any sexual orientation—the problem is that our social narratives and cultural myths suggest that all asexual people are this way. And while you could rewrite the character, you risk running into the temptation of creating an inverted stereotype with this, which can come with its own implications. So long as your narrative doesn’t suggest an inherent connection between the character’s orientation and their aloofness, and so long as they aren’t the sole representative of asexuality, problematic implications can be avoided without changing your character’s personality at all. The solution is simply to add more asexual characters.
This can be done either by creating new characters or re-evaluating the orientations of already-existing characters to see if any of them could reasonably be rewritten or identified as asexual. Maybe your first asexual character has a friend or significant other who is a bit more personable. Maybe this second asexual character is a hugger or really good at remembering people’s birthdays. They can still have a lot in common with the first asexual character (even aside from their orientation) or they can be night and day from each other, but so long as they don’t both fit neatly into the same tired old stereotypes about asexual people, your story has a chance to display realistic diversity in asexual people’s personalities, lives, and experiences.
You don’t need to add a legion on new aces to your story, either, to off-set potentially problematic portrayals (heh, that’s fun to say). If you’ve got one or two asexual characters in the forefront of your story, and another one or two as secondary or background characters, you can showcase asexuals with a wide variety of characterization without overburdening your story with a cast of thousands. (Shorter stories, of course, might not allow for quite this range of characters.) If you’ve got more than one ace in your story, however, be sure to keep an eye on patterns that form in terms of how you write them. Adding asexual characters should help combat the notion that “all asexual people are” anything, but that doesn’t work if all of the asexual members in a cast share notable characteristics—they’re all white or vegan or nearsighted or their favorite color is blue. Like, what are you saying about asexual people when you write a story with three of them in it and all of them have blue as a favorite color? Keep an eye out for that sort of thing, because that’s where a lot of internalized assumptions about not only asexuality but also how it overlaps with race, gender, class, ability, etc. can creep in and get really gross really quick.
Prevalent Asexual Stereotypes (Things You Want to Avoid Suggesting):
– Asexual people are sick/diseased/mentally disabled/broken for not experiencing sexual attraction
– Asexual people hate/fear/aren’t intelligent enough to understand sex or the idea of other people having sex
– Asexual people are cold-hearted, cruel, and incapable of love (romantic or otherwise) and empathy
– All asexual people are (or the default state of asexuality is) sex-repulsed/apasexual/heteroromantic/aromantic/etc.
– Asexual people don’t exist (in various, equally-problematic forms):
- Asexual people are just gay and in the closet
- Asexual people are straight people trying to feel “special”
- Asexuality was invented by bored white people on Tumblr
– Remember in Part 1 when I said to be careful with the pride buttons, etc. to establish a character’s asexuality? Keep in mind that modern Western asexuality culture (pride colors, cake jokes, terms like “ace” and “aro”, etc.) is pretty damn specific to middle-class, English-speaking people with reliable internet access (and are, if not largely white, at least perceived by outsiders to be so). If your only asexual characters are ones who have the means of participating in this culture, you may be unintentionally propagating the notion that all asexual people are young, white, middle-class, English-speaking Tumblr bloggers, and that (by extension) asexuality itself is probably just a “trend” made up by these people.
Again, it’s not so much that no asexual character should ever have any of the above characteristics (aside from the “don’t exist” category), but it’s important not to directly correlate specific personality characteristics or other axes of identity with asexuality. Because asexual people are just, you know, people, who like different things and act in different ways and have different backgrounds, same as any other person.
Need to brush up on terms and basics to writing asexual characters? Part 1 is here.