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Asexuality and Cole’s Humanity in the ‘Dragon Age’ Trespasser DLC

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Asexual and aromantic gamers don’t have much to choose from in terms of representation—in this or any other form of media—so we tend to take what we can get. That usually means being thrilled when we get anything at all that’s more specific than “Well, this character doesn’t have a romantic interest, so maybe …” or “Their romance doesn’t include any mention of sex, so I headcanon them as ace.” It means latching onto characters like Mordin in Mass Effect or Cole in Dragon Age: Inquisition even though they’re not human—and often, as in Cole’s case, it means inevitably being disappointed.

I actually haven’t played Inquisition yet because I am the Slowest Gamer Ever; I’m still only partway through Origins. My friend erlkonigstochter has put hundreds of hours into the game since it was released, though, so I’ve heard a lot from her about various characters, including Cole and his lack of interest in sex or romance. At one point, she posted on Tumblr, “I love Cole; he is very important to me in addition to being adorable. There’s a conversation where Cole tells Solas that he isn’t attracted to anyone and I’m pretty sure that’s as close as I’m going to get for [aro/ace] representation for a long time so I’ll take it.” I’d only met Cole secondhand, but I felt the same way.

Then the Trespasser DLC came out, which (spoilers!) included the result of guiding Cole toward becoming truly human or remaining a spirit. And if you chose humanity, the following exchange takes place:

Dorian: You have a lady friend?

Cole: Well, I am human now.

“Welp never mind,” erlkonigstochter posted, “forget I said anything. I’ll just be over here being a robot or something because I’m clearly not human. I want to be happy for Cole but I kinda feel like Bioware is taking a shot at me. I know I shouldn’t expect representation but the fact that it’s Cole saying it and not someone else makes it particularly cruel, like they wanted to make it absolutely clear what they think of anyone who is aro/ace.”

It bothered me a lot, too—that Cole’s line explicitly connected sexuality (or at least romantic attachment) with being human, as if we ace people aren’t. I commented to that effect on the earlier FemHype article, and in the Tumblr discussion that followed, user scribbleymark said this:

I learned about the Cole Gets A Girlfriend plot point in retrospect, because in my playthrough, Cole became more spirit. But apparently if you make Cole “more human,” proof of how human he has become is shown by … giving him a girlfriend. Maryden, to be exact. A More Spirit Cole becomes Maryden’s muse and helps hook her up with Krem. When I heard that the More Human Cole hooks up with Maryden instead and it’s played off as proof of how human he’s become, I was understandably irritated.

You see, asexual people are constantly hearing about how broken, weird, or messed up we are because we don’t do that MOST HUMAN THING: feel sexual attraction. I’m not even going to get into the myriad of reasons why defining sexual attraction as “the most human thing” is ridiculous. But basically, when Cole’s relationship status is played off as proof of humanity, what the hell is that saying about asexual people? Why are we making this assumption that a romantic relationship makes someone more human?

My reaction to finding out this bit of information was exactly the same as the OP above: “Wow. Cool. Guess I don’t count as human unless I’m sexually or romantically attached to someone.” Thanks for bringing that up, Bioware. It’s not like it’s something that’s continuously foisted upon ace and aro people on a daily basis.

As another Tumblr user pointed out, it’s also bizarrely heteronormative for a studio that seems to pride itself on diverse representation; even earlier, when Cole expresses his total lack of interest in sex or romance, other characters repeatedly try to encourage in him an attraction to women, which is ultimately what he develops. This seems especially strange considering that the Iron Bull, who goes so far as to purchase Cole some time with a female sex worker, is pansexual himself. It’s possible Bioware made this choice in response to discussions about the problems with evil and/or inhuman bisexual characters in previous games, which is understandable, but the structure of Cole’s awakening of romantic/sexual attraction does strongly indicate that this attraction is an inextricable part of being human.

This whole thing with Cole would bother me no matter what, but I’m especially disappointed in light of a brief Twitter conversation I had with a Bioware writer shortly after Trespasser was released. At that point, I’d heard from my friend that Cole was no longer aro/ace, but I didn’t know the full context of his statement connecting romantic/sexual attachment with humanity.

In talking about Trespasser, Patrick Weekes tweeted:

Getting a lot of “Please explain exactly what was meant by this line with perfect clarity,” questions. Politely: no. We said what we said.

If you heard a line one way and someone else heard it another, embrace diversity. (Or wait for answer in future.) But we aren’t the ref.

So I responded, figuring (incorrectly, I think, after rereading his tweet) that the reference to diversity was along the same lines as Cassandra’s creators being very okay with the mod making Cassandra bi. I asked, “Any chance we might get a canonically asexual character in the future?”  He responded (compiled from two tweets): "Hm. Good question. Possibly, but I’ve heard many conflicting versions of what ace folks want. Not opposed, but, as always, worries about trying and doing wrong. Definitely possibly, though."

I wasn’t overly satisfied with that answer at the time and became less so the more I thought about it. Yes, obviously there isn’t going to be a single consensus from the asexual hive mind or something, and of course it’s good to approach such things carefully, but this exact same issue will always crop up when attempts are made to represent any marginalized group. As we’ve pretty clearly seen, Bioware is normally willing to try anyway, even though no single character is going to please everyone.

Not everyone is happy with LGBTQIA+ representation in terms of Dorian, Sera, and Krem (or with racial representation in terms of light-skinned-but-oppressed elves or characters like Vivienne), for instance, because it’s impossible to have all people of any one group agree on exactly what they want for representation, but the powers that be still decided it was worth it to make those characters. Which is great! It is worth it, plenty of people do love them, and I know I appreciate the fact that Bioware tries, unlike most other major studios. I’m sure other people do, too.

The fact that these characters exist at all is importanteven if they’re portrayed imperfectly and various missteps are made (seriously, Cassandra doesn’t need to be straight, there are no queer butch women in games to make that a stereotype). So I don’t really know where “ace folks want different things” is coming from, since obviously that wasn’t seen as an insurmountable barrier in creating and (awesomely) standing by all these other characters.

At its most basic level, “What ace folks want” is not that complicated. We want what everyone else wants: recognition that we’re human and that we exist. Everything else is details. Figuring out how to navigate this is done in the same way that any other marginalized group is portrayed: hire or at least talk to members of that group and ask them to check your work. It doesn’t have to be perfect and it doesn’t have to be some huge plot-altering thing, just a (human or human-equivalent) character who explicitly isn’t interested in sex and/or romance, but doesn’t make a big deal of it. Dorian and Sera aren’t just gay, Krem isn’t just trans, Leliana isn’t just bi, and the Iron Bull isn’t just pansexual; there’s no reason why we can’t also have an asexual character who isn’t defined by their asexuality. Again, there’s no hive mind, so maybe there won’t be any consensus, but since when are people going to unanimously agree on everything?

But then erlkonigstochter told me about Cole’s line about being human, and that additional context makes this seem like kind of a disingenuous excuse in general: whether or not ace people can agree on what perfect ace representation would look like, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of ace people would feel very alienated (somewhat literally) by this development in Cole’s storyline. He used to be explicitly uninterested in sex and romance. Now, with one line, he’s explicitly portraying sexual/romantic connections as an essential part of his humanity.

As “Coming Up Aces” pointed out, it’s not super awesome that our only real examples of ace characters aren’t human to begin with, but this one line from Cole emphasizes even more strongly the idea that asexuality itself is inhuman, that ace people are abnormal or broken or less human, and frankly … that hurts. Especially coming from a studio that usually does try harder than this, whose games I absolutely love for a whole lot of reasons (among them, stances on diversity/representation and willingness to piss off people who think “SJW” is a slur). Yes, unanimous agreement on asexual representation probably isn’t going to happen, but I think we ace folks can probably all agree that we didn’t want something like this.

At this point, I would love an explicitly, canonically ace character. If it were revealed at some point in Josephine’s romance that she’s not interested in sex but she really likes you and also likes to cuddle—rather than her romance just lacking a sex scene so players can headcanon her as asexual—I would be thrilled to bits (and hey, I suppose the topic could still come up in a future game). She’s human, she’s wonderful, and it would be a small part of her character, not some defining trait. At the very least, I would like Bioware to consider the implications of what they’re writing and make sure they’re not using arguably aro/ace characters in a way that could easily be viewed as dismissing the entire concept of humans being asexual. Because, you know … we exist, and we’re just as human as anyone else.