Representation is a vital aspect of media. Unfortunately we are currently in an age where white washing is rampant and representations of sexualities are still restricted. We’ve come a long way in terms of openly gay characters, but there’s still a long way to go in terms of representations of other sexualities (bisexuality, asexuality etc).
Asexuality in particularly is very rarely depicted. Asexuality is a lack of sexual attraction or lack of interest in sexual activities. It is estimated that about 1% of the population is asexual (approximately 70 million people worldwide).
Asexual characters in popular media may be more common than they first seem to be at first glance. After all, most children’s cartoon characters avoid any mention of sex and, in a lot of cases, reproduction is done by metaphors such as the stork. So does that make characters like SpongeBob Square pants inherently asexual?
Arguably, a key characteristic of representation is the character being openly in the category (not just alluded to). Unfortunately, this is incredibly rare for asexual characters.
There are four main examples of (debatably) asexual characters in popular mainstream media; BBC’s Dr Who, Sherlock Holmes, Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Lee Cooper and Dexter Morgan. There are other (minor) characters but these are the only examples from well-known series. However, in each instance asexuality is merely implied, and the characterisation is often changed in order to make the characters more interesting later in the series.
There’s an interesting trend with the asexual characters being men who are in some way abnormal. Whether it be alien (Dr Who), on the Asperger scale (Sherlock and Sheldon) or homicidal (Dexter. The characters who are uninterested in sex are never shown to be normal people. They are instead deviant and abnormal which, in turn, makes asexuality appear to be just as abnormal.
In early depictions of his character, the Doctor starts off asexual. The Doctors relationships with his travelling companions are strictly platonic, with the exception of his relationship with Rose which had very romantic overtone. David Tennant (the Doctor at the time) has described it as “a love story without the shagging” (in an interview with BBC Four, December 2005).
It can be argued that since the Doctor had a family in the past and the companion Susan is his granddaughter, then he must have had sex at some point. However, he also had a daughter by accidently using a ‘progenation machine’ (in the sixth episode of the fourth season; “The Doctors Daughter”), so anything is possible. Plus nothing is known about Time Lord reproduction, so it may not involve sex as far as the audience knows.
Matt Smith has been reported as saying that he deliberately plays the doctor as asexual. In Matt Smith’s iteration of the Doctor, he often kisses his companions. This act in itself does not exclude him as Ace, as many asexuals do feel comfortable with that level of contact. However, it’s clear that the show writers have started to give him more of an interest in physical shows of affection for the sake of comedy. In one episode (Crimson Horror) he even kisses Jenny (a gay, married woman) who shows obvious discomfort and slaps the Doctor in response.
The Doctors interest in sexual acts has also been hinted at by show writer Moffat, who announced in an interview that the Doctor engaged in premarital sex with Queen Elizabeth. Moffat reportedly said “‘I said the marriage was unconsummated – and so it was. You saw for yourself in The Day of the Doctor – he ran straight off after the ceremony. Would we have put that on television if it wasn’t true? But I never said – not once, not ever – that the relationship was unconsummated!”
Dr Who has gone through a number of writers, all who have different ideas of how the Doctor should be represented and how he should interact with his companions. There has also been different actors portraying the character with their own opinions about his relationships. This makes for a very conflicted narrative with clear differences in personality as different writers and actors take over.
In the original source material, Sherlock Holmes is a clear example of an asexual/aromantic character. Unfortunately, a lot of adaptions misinterpret his relationship with ‘The Woman’ Irene Adler. In the original story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Irene intrigued Sherlock purely because she was the only person to ever outsmart him. Here’s an extract from the beginning of Scandal in Bohemia;
“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.”
And equally, Irene has no interest in Sherlock and at the end of the story, she escapes with her husband Norton.
The BBC series (Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock) tries to keep in most aspects of Sherlock’s original characterisation, but they were way off base with Irene and fell into the common misconception that the pair were romantically involved.
However, that’s not nearly as bad as the portrayal in the American series ‘Elementary’. In Elementary, they make it incredibly obvious that Sherlock has an incredibly active sex life (with interest in BDSM) and he even refers to Watson as a “prude” after she questions him exchanging erotic letters with a woman he’s never met. There’s a fine line between developing a character and going overboard. The writers of Elementary appear to have missed this line completely.
Meanwhile, the Sherlock film series starring Robert Downey Jr still plays on the idea that Sherlock and Irene had a past relationship, but in general it feels more romantic than sexual.
The most in character adaptation of Sherlock is the BBC series starring Jeremy Brett. Unlike the modern adaptions, this series follows the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle directly and thus, is the only adaptation to correctly depict Sherlock and Irene’s relationship.
There’s a direct correlation between time and how out of character Sherlock becomes, starting with Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock and moving towards Elementary. It seems like each adaptation has to one-up the last and the only way that they can think to accomplish that is to up the sex appeal. Which, given the source material, is bizarre.
Big Bang Theory
At the start of this post I mentioned that there are no female asexuals in popular media, which is a shame, because there used to be a great one.
When Amy Farrah Fowler was first introduced to the Big Bang Theory, she and Sheldon made the perfect couple because they were equally uninterested in physical contact and equally uninterested in social interactions.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t interested enough for the show writers and in the space of one episode Amy suddenly developed a sex drive.
As the show progressed it was littered with ‘Amy is frustrated’ or ‘Sheldon doesn’t understand sex’ jokes every episode. This got so bad that I haven’t actually seen the latest few series (in which the couple do have sex).
Asexuality isn’t being represented as a liveable life choice. It’s being represented as a joke and something which needs to be overcome for the benefit of your partner.
In the TV show, Dexter begins as a clear asexual character. He engages in sex but through his narration, he describes how he has no interest in it and only does so in order to maintain his ‘disguise’ of normalcy. Dexter is the only character on this list who verbally acknowledges his lack of a sex drive.
This is an interesting depiction of sexuality, as there are sex –positive and sex-neutral asexual who, although uninterested themselves, are willing to have sex for the benefit of their partners.
However, as the show advances, Dexter is shown having sex with various other partners. After the death of his wife, Rita, many of his partners are fully aware of his murderous nature and therefore he no longer needs to keep up his disguise to them. It appears like he is engaging in sexual activity out of his own accord and desire.
It’s never mentioned again in his monologues, so it’s hard to tell if this was intentional or not. Either way, it’s clear that the development from asexual to sexually active was made in order to make the show more interesting for viewers.
Deviant and diverse
The running theme here is that characters begin as asexual in order to mark them as deviant or diverse. It’s just one of many aspects that make them different from people in general. Then, as the show progresses, this characterisation is changed into order to facilitate new story lines and character relationships. Which is disappointing, as showing a functional asexual relationship is arguably a lot more interesting as it differs from what audiences are used to.
There is, however, one solidly asexual character that defies the common depictions of asexuals. In the lesser known USA TV show “sirens” 2014-2015, the character Valentina “Voodoo” Dunacci is openly asexual. When the character Brian discovers that she is asexual (and yes, they actually use the word) he researches what this means. He goes from assuming that she simply hasn’t met the right person yet (a common critique of asexuals) to fully understanding what it means to be asexual. When the pair do have a relationship, Sirens shows the potential struggles when only one partner is interested in sex. Unlike popular media depictions, this is a female character who openly identifies as asexual and remains so throughout the series despite getting into a relationship. Unfortunately the show was cancelled after two seasons, but hopefully other writers will see how much wider the spectrum of relationships can be.
Kelly Jenkins graduated from Durham University in 2014.
Photograph by Paul Hudson