Thanks, Keyleth: Ace Representation in Critical Role
Tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) livestreams are a relatively new invention. A game master (GM), sets up the world and the major events that the players react to. The players write and act a character. Events play out (often in improv) through a combination of acting out interpersonal dialogue and using dice to determine how skillfully challenges are faced (with both failure and success often leading to dramatic outcomes. Episodes usually last 3-5 hours and air weekly. As a medium it lets people tell long-form (usually) adventure stories without media executives telling them what they can and can't do. Critical Role is an online show where a bunch of well-known voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons. It started as a private home-game between friends, and success hasn't changed the dynamic of gifting deeply personal stories to people they love. There are two campaigns (a campaign being a story with the same group of characters). I'm mostly talking about Campaign 1 here, although most of this applies to Campaign 2 (which is maybe even more queer).
Epic as the story is, the characters are very complex, conflicted, and often contradictory. Characters can be kind and also assholes, brave and also scared, confident and insecure. It contains some of the best portrayals of mental illness I've ever seen, especially anxiety, depression, and PTSD. It's also very queer. Of the main group, 2 are confirmed bi, 1 pan, and 1 gay. Many of their friends are confirmed queer. Almost everyone in the main party is at least queer- coded. And then there's Keyleth, who is semi-confirmed to be demisexual. Her player, Marisha Ray, said only that Keyleth, at 21, is very new to relationships and still figuring herself out. Matt Mercer, the GM and Marisha's husband, said that Keyleth's eventual romantic relationship was more asexual than the other major relationship between Vex and Percy. While initially hesitant to call either character ace, when a fan explained demisexuality he agreed that sounded pretty accurate.
Some queer fans repeatedly bristled at how few canon answers were given about the main characters' sexualities, accusing the cast of wanting brownie points for queer rep without actually showing it. They were accused of straight-washing bi characters because so many ended up in other-gender relationships. But I think they've shown something even more important: young people who don't have the answers trying to figure themselves out. These are not characters fully fleshed-out from the beginning being written in a highly structured, well edited story that's striving to make a point. These are stories being told from the inside of stressful, chaotic events where literally no one, including the creators, have any idea what's going to actually happen in the next 5 minutes. Stories where people don't have the answers are as important as stories about queer people who have figured themselves out. It's also important to note that at least one of the cast identifies as queer, and these aren't just stories coming from straight authors.
Keyleth isn't perfect ace representation, but she's the best I've ever come across. So often ace people are depicted as cold, emotionally distant, physically closed off, and prudish. Keyleth is none of that. Her warmth is one of her most prominent traits. She is the moral center of the group, profoundly kind, and always pushing the group to be better. She is very cuddly, full of hugs and other physical affection for her friends. She doesn't dress conservatively; she's often depicted in fairly revealing clothing.
She's about 21 when we meet her. She hadn't been kissed before, and romantic or sexual relationships were just something she hadn't really considered or pursued. Her reaction to Vax, played by Liam O’Brien, confessing his love for her was basically to freeze and say she didn't know how she felt. He backed off, and she took about two months to decide. She was able to talk to all of her friends, including Vax, about where her trepidation was coming from. She got to talk about not knowing herself or what she wanted. No one pressured her or told her she needed to have a sexual or romantic relationship to know herself (a different character was pressured into sex like this later, but he was also pressuring himself when it happened).
When she did decide to be with Vax, all but one of their intimate moments could be read as non-sexual. Their relationship was always based on a lot of emotional support, and not so much physical contact beyond cuddling. The first night they spend together both Marisha and Liam clarified they were just holding each other for comfort. Even subtle things like Keyleth not liking to sleep naked. It’s unknown if Vax is ace, he could be, or he could be an example of an allo person giving an ace person the space and respect they need. He does it without complaint or being cast as “heroic for putting up with it.” It’s completely normalized, which isn’t shown nearly enough.
None of their friends ever really pressured them to have a different type of relationship. Vax's sister, Vex, did give them a lot of shit for their relationship in general, but that was more out of a fear that it threatened their very close sibling relationship. Vex is also very allo and definitely doesn't understand ace relationships, so she does lovingly tease them with a lot of innuendo that makes them uncomfortable, but she never tells them how to be. Their relationship is just one among many different sorts all depicted with equal weight and validity.
Friendships, too, are given a weight and depth in the series that is rarely seen in media. Romantic and/or sexual relationships are never portrayed as better, more important, or closer than friendships. They are physically affectionate as friends (in game and out of game), hugging and holding each other, kissing each other on the cheek or forehead. They are emotionally open with each other. They get into fights out of love and fear for each other. They tell their friends they love them. Gender isn’t a factor in their friendships. The men are just as affectionate and vulnerable as the women (or enbies in Campaign 2).
Although no fandom is perfect, Critical Role has done a better job than most (every other one I've been in) at fostering a kind and supportive space. The prominent queer representation has drawn in a lot of queer fans. It’s still not uncommon to encounter acephobia from fans, it varies a lot by platform, however there’s plenty of influential ace fans to engage with instead of the haters. This was the community where I first encountered asexuality. First through an old friend that the show reconnected me with. Then through her friend, and other fans I met through Twitter. suddenly I was passively connected to ace discourse and ace and/or aromantic people living their lives and talking about their truth. I never had access to those voices before. I got exposed to the full asexual range from people who are and aren't sexual, are and aren't sex-repulsed, are and aren't in relationships.
Within a year I had figured out that I was demisexual. For the first time in my life I had an answer other than "broken" for the way I experienced the world. I have an all-ace chat group now of people that have become some of my closest friends which started out talking about Critical Role and now is sort of about everything. In the last couple of years because of this show and the community around it, I've come to understand myself better, love myself more, and find new purpose in my life. That's the power of good representation.
A couple other TTRPG livestream series to note: Eric's TBD RPG on Geek & Sundry, a Dr. Who RPG, has an ace character named Rokokokoko, a plant lizard who can read minds and yells at people when they think dirty thoughts. They were referred to as asexual on air. Dice Camera Action by Wizards of the Coast (who make D&D) includes an ace character named Styx. Her creator, Holly Conrad, confirmed online that Styx is demisexual (as is Holly). TTRPGs as a medium are giving queer people the opportunity to tell their stories and be their own representation. I look forward to a lot more ace and aro characters in TTRPGs in the future.