What follows is a best effort reproduction of the off-the-cuff talk I gave at Lost Levels this past March. I had a draft of some sort prepared in advance, then threw it out at the last minute. This will necessarily be different from both the prepared text and the delivered version, but the gist of it remains intact.
I think Phoenix Wright is an ace attorney.
This is a double-entendre, and admittedly, not an especially clever one. “Ace” is short for asexual, you see, so it follows that in addition to being known as the primary protagonist of Ace Attorney, mainly for being a good lawyer, we can argue for Phoenix Wright as being ace in the other sense — a cutesy bit of wordplay without much substance behind it. Or is there?
Here is the thing: I’m asexual. It took me the majority of my life to arrive at this conclusion, largely because I had no idea what being asexual actually meant, or how I could be one. Please name me an openly asexual character in film or television who is not a) a non-human character, b) aimed at children, or c) evil. I’m sure there are a few that exist somewhere, but they’re a rare bird, especially next to the surfeit of examples we have for hetero, bi and gay characters.
Part of the problem is that asexuality is defined by not doing a thing. And not just not doing the thing, but having no desire to do the thing, which makes it different than having a character who is, say, celibate, or in possession of a low libido. In fact, if there’s anything that irritates me more than not having good examples of asexual characters to refer to, it’s for people to conflate “asexual” with “chaste” and point to examples of relationships where the issue of physical intimacy is shot down, but not for lack of desire. (See: Shepard and Samara in Mass Effect.) And if there’s anything that irritates me more than that, it’s the assumption that sexuality is inextricably tied with romantic attraction, so asexual people can’t possibly have emotional relationships which play out as romances.
Enter: Phoenix Wright. Phoenix cares deeply about several people in his life, but the games never pair him off with everyone, except in a single flashback case where he’s in a relationship with a woman (and it’s strongly implied to be chaste). The series even goes so far as to give him a daughter, but it goes yet further by making her adopted, and when asked when he’s going to find his daughter “a new mommy” he repeatedly laughs off the idea.
So here we have a character that the franchise is going well out of its way to have him fulfill this particular social role of parenthood, without any of the other heteronormative trappings that tend to accompany it. He wouldn’t be alone, but let’s go further: he’s made uncomfortable by kissing (AA5 DLC case), he denies up and down any sort of adult relationship with Maya (AA2) while risking his life for her (AA3), and of the two people he gets closest to professing something like love to (his mentor Mia; his friend Edgeworth), one gets retroactively paired off (Mia with Diego Armando), and the other is… apparently going on dates with Phoenix to his daughter’s magic shows (AA5 case 5), despite the two of them clearly living very separate lives on opposite sides of the city.
So what do we make of this? For me, when I look at all of this together, I see a guy who is a lot like myself: someone with strong emotional bonds with people which might even be interpreted as romantic, but for whom physical acts of affection either don’t occur to him (see: Dahlia/Iris, and if you want to stretch things, Maya) or upset him (see: Orla, and yes I know she’s an orca).
Is it compelling, incontrovertible proof? No. And I don’t expect this to either have crossed the series writers’ minds or be something Capcom will ever weigh in on one way or another. It doesn’t really matter to me how a character like Phoenix Wright is ‘intended’ — his portrayal is at least ambiguous enough that I was able to read into him something that I could recognize, and for me that is a rare, precious thing.
I’ve written before how it was only through fandom that I finally managed to articulate how it felt to be asexual. I still think fanworks are a great resource for exploring all these things that published media don’t or won’t address, but I’m glad that for the Ace Attorney games, at least, I don’t need to resort to fanfiction to find a character whose actions make sense to me.
This all makes me wonder what we can do to better explore asexuality in games — through characters, sure, but perhaps through gameplay as well. I asked the Lost Levels crowd for a few ideas (a passing hippie suggested “become a higher being” as one solution), but I wonder what all you out there think, as well. Are there asexual characters (who aren’t anthropomorphic animals or cartoonish villains) we can point to in games? How would we handle asexual romance? Or just being asexual, when there are no quick routes to its representation? I think all the work that has been done by queer devs in the last few years points the way, but I can’t say for certain where I, at least, should be going from here.
(Except to write cute fanfic of Phoenix and Edgeworth holding hands, but that was always going to be forthcoming…)