The characters who feel no sexual attraction

While allosexuality (experiencing sexual attraction) is still an assumed norm, both in cinema and real life, one new film stands out as a pioneering study of intimacy not relying on sexual desire. Slow, the second feature by Lithuanian director Marija Kavtaradzė, premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and took home the best director award. In their statement, the jury praised Kavtaradzė for her “expert direction guiding her audiences to discover their own answer to the question: ‘What is desire?'” The film focuses on a romantic encounter between two people figuring out how to be together without the glue of sexual attraction. Sex is important for Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė), a professional dancer who experiences the world through her body and Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas) who is a sign language interpreter, identifies as asexual.

The ‘guessing game’ of representation

The term itself entered public discourse in the late 1970s, and while the so-called sexual revolution has certainly made LGBTQ+ characters more visible, the legacy of on-screen asexual representation remains rather obscure. Indeed, every attempt to systematise it involves a guessing game. For example, protagonists like Sherlock Holmes or Barbie from Greta Gerwig’s 2023 blockbuster, who ostensibly distance themselves from erotic matters, could be read as asexual.

“If you’re looking for asexuality on screen, you’re often going to have to search in screen history for asexual resonances,” explains Dr Kari Barclay, director, playwright and researcher. According to them, “there’s really no definition of an asexual film (yet!), just work that asexuals feel connected to, like Bonnie and Clyde (1967)”. In Arthur Penn’s romantic crime film, Warren Beatty’s Clyde rejects Bonnie’s sexual advances stating that he is not “a lover boy”, but in the end agrees to consummate their relationship without much talking. Some have deduced from this that Clyde is asexual, though the ambiguous portrayal of his sexuality invites various interpretations, including that he is impotent or gay.

Similarly, the character of Marnie in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 thriller has been read equally as asexual, a closeted lesbian or repressed heterosexual. Jessica Rabbit of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) can either be seen as a femme fatale or an asexual icon, as argued in The Ace Couple podcast, which often discusses media representations through an ace lens. The episode theorises that she is someone burdened by the sexuality projected on them, with her infamous line “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” acquiring an ace-positive meaning in that context.

As these examples show, unnamed depictions of asexuality are never clear-cut. And when there has been overt asexual representation in the past, it has often been poorly handled – see the 2012 episode of US medical drama House MD, Better Half, where the orientation was framed as an illness, which a character had to “recover from”.

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