Whose Words Matter Anyway? On using identity labels in The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion
A few years ago, I started reading romance novels with demisexual characters in them. Either they’re protagonists or they’re love interests. That sounds great, right? Asexuality, as a spectrum, is gaining visibility and there’s enough visibility now that ‘demisexual romance’ is a term you can actually successfully look for. I’ve got a whole list of them!
Sadly, the ones I’ve read largely stick to presenting demisexuality in the same, erroneous way. They feel more interested in using demisexuality as a shield against criticism than anything else and the way they portray demisexuality generally goes something like this:
The demisexual character has never heard of asexuality or demisexuality and is told this by an allosexual close to them (either their love interest or a close friend). The demisexual character loudly complains about there being too many labels or “why does it need a label anyway?” and demisexuality never comes up again. Meanwhile, the demisexual character is, predominantly, homoromantic and closeted and spend the rest of the story learning to embrace their identity as a queer person.
This is a narrative that explicitly presents demisexuality, and by extension the asexual spectrum as a whole, as dismissable and disposable. It explicitly and deliberately devalues asexual identities because “why does it need a label anyway?” and is, frankly, one of the most hurtful and harmful narratives about asexuality that I’ve encountered in fiction.
But, truthfully, this narrative doesn’t exist only in fiction. It’s a very common tactic among anti-ace rhetoric to cast the asexual spectrum as a ‘degree’ of allosexuality rather than an identity in its own right and to discredit asexuality in general because “it doesn’t exist as a separate thing” or whatever the argument of the month is. This fictitious demisexual narrative feeds directly into the idea that demisexuals are ‘special snowflakes’ who are just making terms up.
You may be wondering why I’m focusing on demisexual romances when I’m here to discuss a book featuring a queerplatonic relationship at its heart, and that’s because the way those romances end up presenting demisexuality and, by extension, the asexual spectrum as a whole had a major impact on how The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion approaches the fact that Marian only learns about asexuality when she’s about seventeen.
When I wrote about Marian discovering asexuality, I wanted to engage with that narrative to at least some extent. Due to the structure of the novel, the discovery is represented at a remove and Marian has since settled into what she’s comfortable with, but it was important to show that a homoromantic asexual character could learn about asexuality and not dismiss it as unimportant. The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion is, I hasten to add, not the first story to ever do that, but it was something that I actively wanted to address.
What I wanted to do in The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion was, firstly, to show that it is possible for someone to use both labels, true, but more than that I wanted to explore that for some people, like Marian, if push comes to shove it’s the label asexual that matters to her most because, in her view, it is being asexual that has shaped her life and experiences the most.
In that way, it offered me the opportunity to explore some of the ways in which anti-ace rhetoric, which I spent the last two years wading through around Pride Month, has affected and hurt me. It was important to me that Marian and Edel use asexual and aromantic terminology to describe their experiences because, so often, we end up getting told that our vocabulary is useless nonsense (or worse), that it is oh so difficult to learn new terms, that the words we’ve created to describe our experiences because the words didn’t exist until we made them aren’t valid, that our experiences aren’t valid.
I don’t think I covered all of the words that I’d wanted to and I expect that some readers will find that I was too heavy on using them. (If that’s you, I hear you! I often feel similar! And I explicitly included a discussion between Marian and Edel covering exactly that!) When I wrote The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion and figured out what kind of characters Marian and Edel were, I knew that I would end up covering aspects of asexual representation and the way asexuality gets dismissed as ‘made up’ by segments of (Western) society today, in the year 2018, and I couldn’t do that without attempting to partially invert ideas and narrative approaches that are being used, right now, to invalidate aces and aros.
So, to answer the question in the title, whose words matter anyway? Our words matter. Language is finicky and dependent, at least in part, on our understanding of the world around us. We create new words for existing things all the time, just as we create new words for new things all the time. Our words matter. The terms we come up with, the way we use them to self-identify, the way we use them to deny or acknowledge our existence matter.
And, honestly, I hope that readers will be able to see that, along with everything else that verse novel is to me, The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion is also a celebration of language, a feast of identity-affirming words, an ode to the complexity and variety of (human) identity…
This is a book that I wrote for asexual and aromantic readers, for people who wanted to see their words, the words that matter to them, honoured and revelled in. Everyone else, I hope you’ll come along for the ride and pick up a thing or two about why these words matter so!
 Another example would be Calista Lynne’s We Awaken which is an asexual f/f romance where the main character also learns about asexuality and how it relates to them through the course of the story. Asexuality is never dismissed in favour of an allosexual identity in that book either.