“I Like to Watch”: Asexuality in Cinema

Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla in Michael Almereyda’s Tesla

The inventor Nikola Tesla had a proclivity to give himself electrotherapeutic shocks. According to biographer Richard Munson, Tesla suffered debilitating depression, and it was not unusual at the time to deploy mild shocks to treat such an ailment. Each morning he would disrobe and stand naked upon his “vitality booster,” gradually administering higher doses. Michael Almereyda’s Tesla offers up an alternative take on such vitality boosting, veering into a euphoric karaoke scene as Tesla (played by a surly Ethan Hawke) intently grips the mic with leather gloves, his yearning made lucid through song, namely “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears. Specters of saudade start funneling through the final shots, a melancholy independent of any given object. The karaoke scene exemplifies what Sianne Ngai describes as a “gimmick,” a trickery that works too hard yet not enough, that which is charismatic yet somehow compromised. The viewer is aware of being a spectator, manipulated by this dreamlike ending, yet there might be no other way to wind up a film that began by folding in on a protagonist antagonized by the death instinct, or shall we say “death beam”—as evidenced in the final chapters of the film, since Tesla was pitching the concept of a death ray that could kill pigeons from four miles away. 

As Tesla grumbles lyrics of freedom and pleasure, we get a sense of his burbling tension throughout the film being released. It is not clear as to whether this is Tesla’s unrequited lust for a woman (Sarah Bernhardt, played by Rebecca Dayan) as a cut during this sun-setting music video montage suggests, or lust for a potential male love interest Anital Szigeti (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach), an early contender for Tesla’s enduring love and companionship who also reappears in a matched shot. Bisexual or neither? Here Almereyda seems not so much interested in “outing the man” as he is in conveying the boundaries of knowability, attesting to a psyche impeded by capitalism.

In a mostly incoherent interview with Joe Rogan, Kanye West claimed that Tesla became celibate at 40. Other accounts allege he died a virgin and was a repressed homosexual. As much as can be known, Tesla was ostensibly invention-obsessed and self-sabotaging, committed to channeling the romance of the ether. He was likely homosexual, and also maybe autistic but you know, sometimes it’s just okay to be a bit odd. It would not be accurate to confirm Tesla’s sexual orientation, as much as it would be to construe asexuality in terms of repression, or a return to some primordial state, or a symptom of our present day hypersexualized culture, or misanthropy, or an act of celibacy, or difficulty in finding a suitable partner, or sexual confusion, or anhedonia, or some kind of disorder that needs to be “fixed.”  

It’s also worth pointing out that asexuality is not coterminous with anti-sexual, as per A Dirty Shame by John Waters, in which the puritanical neuters collide with the bear quaking-dildo wielding-bus driver flashing-pubic hair proliferating-canyon yodeling-funch eating-minced meat probing-yeast-infected-runaway vagina-clitoris in crisis-whores (this highly underrated film was steadfastly panned yet so very quotable. A couple of personal favorites include: “Look I am not a prude, I’m married to an Italian, but I am disgusted!” and “I’ve learned so much about eros. I’m a sex addict, too. I’m a cunnilingus bottom, and I’m your mother!”). Asexual positions are less concerned about the cunnilingus bottoms or tops, and more of an underexclamatory, insouciant attitude, à la “Toby: neuter, genderless” interviewed by a baffled Sally Jesse Raphael in the 80s, who would rather leave the sex toys at home with their dog to play with while they go out to see a movie. 

Tracey Ullman as Sylvia Stickles and Selma Blair as Caprice / Ursula Udders in John Waters’ A Dirty Shame, 2004

While not defined by gender, asexuals are generally defined as those with a diminished or nonexistent libido. As per the official definition on the AVEN website, asexual is: “someone who does not experience sexual attraction or an intrinsic desire to have sexual relationships… Asexuality and sexuality are not necessarily black and white… Many people identify in a gray area that feels closer to being asexual than what most sexual people are like. They may identify as simply gray, graysexual, gray-asexual, or gray-a.”

I can’t think of a term more dull than “graysexual”—at least with asexual, you get to sound like an amoeba—but for all intents and purposes here, I will refer to it in want of something inspired. As a paper by Elizabeth Hanna Hanson points out, asexuality “is subject to overwriting, as in the case of the celibate bachelor who became understandable only as a closeted homosexual.” Asexuals also can’t perform identity politics because they are not oppressed. Erasure or lack of acknowledgment is closer to Judith Butler’s configuration of Derrida’s supplement: “every explicit distinction takes place in an inscriptional space that the distinction itself cannot accommodate.” Asexual – graysexual communities exist predominantly online in a zone of what Andrew Hinderliter calls “definitional inertia.” It’s not a position that is more or less nuanced than a sex-oriented position, every modifier or qualification attempts to conquer an unconquerable negation.

Sublimation is also useful here, in the sense of consolation, compensation, and productive forms of desire. It is also important to acknowledge the idea of disavowal, of registration and repudiation. This is murky territory, as some readers will want to throw Freudian vocabulary out entirely, but each of these concepts presents frameworks for inclusion and exclusion, counter-subjectivities that do not pander to traditional instincts nor teleological thought. Most of us have probably felt a temporary loss of sexual drive, but for asexuals this is a more stable, default mode that cannot be universalized, which is why it is so problematic to identify a bonafide asexual in cinema. IRL asexual relationships resemble Karen Horney’s idea of forming relationships based on a need for allyship in life, in which the primary source of connectedness is not sexual. 

Tesla and Warhol are occasionally touted as asexual (otherwise known as “ace”) icons, but are ultimately only rough approximations and speculations of such. They were both workaholics and kept themselves at a distance from others. Tesla crudely fits a rigid profile of the “intellectual asexual,” just as Warhol can be roughly associated with “aesthetic asexual.” Yet to cast them in a narrow asexual light infers homophobia. Warhol was enabled by a different era, plugged into camp and into explicitly gay culture. He indeed had sexual partners, but his intense passion for observation held more sway. In his (hmm shall we say utterly unflattering) review of Blake Gopnik’s Warhol biography, Gary Indiana writes: 

“Warhol retained the imprint of not-having and not-belonging into adulthood, acquiring vivid people he didn’t much care about and pricey objects he never looked at… He needed buffers and screens between himself and the world, and in that regard his life was eerily prophetic of a time when screens would feel more real than reality… Warhol’s loneliness seeps through accounts of his life. Although he treated longing and disappointment as diminishing flaws, to be met with a stoic “so what,” he was alone, needy, insecure.”

The most erotically charged scene I ever saw of Warhol was his affectless eating of a hamburger in 1981. The objet a qualities of the paper bag and the box, the visceral sound of the wrapper, the nonchalant chewing, the explicit oral fixation, the matter of factness of everyday digestion, the minor struggle with a bottle of ketchup as he smirks and mutters to himself: “It doesn’t come out.” 

Andy Warhol’s Andy Warhol eating a hamburger, 1981

Asexual or graysexual cinema can only be addressed broadly as that which absconds explicit sex scenes or characters without a sex-oriented motive, but doesn’t throw out romance altogether, as in the aromantic. We can make a sweeping point that sex scenes in most mainstream Western film are seldom ever that sexy anyway and there’s more to bear on the erotic by going without. And while John Waters and Michael Haneke might at first seem strange bedfellows, they both go to lengths to counter one extreme tyranny with another. When discussing his film The Piano Teacher, Haneke described the ways in which sexuality is the most difficult thing to represent in film; his characters across his oeuvre are more likely to express sexual urges through sadism or masochism, or both. Isabelle Huppert’s Erika Kuhn, while certainly emblematic of classic repression, is asexual insofar as she prefers to watch penetration instead of performing it herself, frequenting porn houses and huffing on used, cum saturated tissues. Yes, asexuals get to be horny voyeurs too—nobody shall be denied the pleasures of perversity. What’s striking in Haneke especially is the way brutality so often usurps and mocks the possibility of the sexual. Those who have seen either version of Funny Games know what I mean here, in which the limit of burgeoning teenage desire ravages and destroys the nuclear family. 

Asexual and graysexual cinema occupies a terrain neither strictly straight nor strictly queer. It is a more open-ended third that tends to locate sensuality more in the abstract, rather than directed at a specific object. Attempts to address the asexual in a more direct way, without subtlety and subtext, have to date failed. I’m thinking here of the neurotic Olivia (Skye Noel) in Sonja Schenk’s The Olivia Experiment—where talking and thinking about attempting sex dominates her life, reading like a corny “virgin gets her groove on” story. The closest asexual scene in romantic comedy that comes to mind that most of you will recall is Sally’s dream in When Harry Met Sally, where a faceless lover rips her clothes off, and that’s the end of the fantasy—just the gesture of unveiling.

Gothic cinema readily inhabits the veiled, graysexual spectrum, engaging in mild flirtations with men and women, with occasionally doomed and presumed consummation. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, self-preservation and vanity take precedence before any potential (even platonic) companion. I just rewatched the Albert Lewin version of 1945. What the film gets right is the portrayal of Dorian as the perpetually youthful pretty boy with foreboding chemistry among those around him, though it would have been more menacing to have watched his portrait gradually mutate before our eyes. Instead, we get a garish alter ego portrait that might have inspired the art department in Velvet Buzzsaw.

Hurd Hatfield in Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945

Similarly sinister graysexual characters include Christina Braithwhite in Lovecraft Country, the archetype of the scorned woman or witch, solely motivated by a desire for immortality, though with no shortage of sex appeal, as well as Fairuza Balk’s Nancy in The Craft, who would prefer the male species not only castrated but obliterated. Michelle Handelman’s ominous Irma Vep, The Last Breath, starring Zackary Drucker and Mother Flawless Sabrina, presents a trans-asexual prototype in the body of a cat woman, traversing urban / unconscious landscapes. Irma Vep talks to her therapist about getting involved with other vampires, feeling unfit to be in a relationship while still seeking validation. Vep describes herself as “miserable, glamorous, withholder, a lover, a hater… A big black void…” She discusses her soul made from imperceptible dark matter: “It’s only a void because your mind is too limited to perceive it.” Vep goes on to say: “How could I possibly consolidate all my existences into one being?” She becomes a vast surplus of force to be reckoned with. 

Michelle Handelman, Irma Vep, The Last Breath, 2013, high definition video installation, dimensions variable (Courtesy the artist)

In the comedy-drama genre, asexuals are portrayed as innocent and childlike sacrificial lambs that fit into some sort of Jesusy mythology, such as Peter Sellers’s maybe autistic Chance in Hal Ashby’s Being There and Woody Allen’s Leonard in Zelig. Both have no willful presence—the world simply happens to them as they passively mirror it without question. Chance unwittingly responds to people who come onto him sexually by saying, “I like to watch” —meaning television. Chance is completely dependent on the interpretations of others. Without his former colleague Louise (Ruth Attaway) to mother him, he is lost. Louise is the only one clued into his dim-wittedness (Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want. Gobbledy-gook!) while others around him become besotted by his cryptic genius. One other awkward scene ensues when a romantic interest Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) writhes across Chance’s bedroom floor while he, paying her minimal interest, remains mesmerized by the TV screen. Chance isn’t resisting desire; he doesn’t even have desire, which is what makes him the perfect vessel for projection (Side note: Sellers in real life was constantly shifting in and out of personas. I recommend the recent documentary The Ghost of Peter Sellers by director Peter Medak for a first-personal account of this). Zelig, perhaps more willful, romantically and sexually malleable, is an odd little man who lives to resemble—a “vacuum” with a chameleon face. Zelig achieves individuation, only to become as scandalous as his real life would eventually become, a most brutal lesson to all psychoanalysts not to transgress boundaries with their analysands.

Peter Sellers and Ruth Attaway in Hal Ashby’s Being There, 1979

Equally childlike and sacrificial is the loyal retainer Ghost Dog, played by Forest Whitaker, in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, devoted to philosophy and his messenger pigeons, with a couple of friends in tow. This contract killer is a moral warrior, sacrificing himself in declaration of a sacred code of conduct, quoting from the Hagakure, a spiritual guide for samurai soldiers, espousing cosmic wisdom such as “emptiness is form.” His chocolate ice cream-eating and gently world weary demeanor is offset by his lethal precision with firearms that he handles like swords. He is in a process of becoming mythical—as ephemeral as a murmuration in the sky. In each of these cases, existence is always mediated: Ghost Dog living through music and koans, Warhol living like Chance, Dorian, and Zelig—through television, portraiture, and other personas, respectively.

Forest Whitaker in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, 1999

Women in drama who could potentially fit the profile are more likely to occupy the more banal, logistical aspects of graysexuality or asexuality. She is either simply too damn overworked and depleted to muster any sexual energy, such as Kristen Stewart’s Beth Travis in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. Or, she is bereaved and sexually traumatized, as in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, or oversexed, as in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles—so methodical and relentlessly joyless in the repetition compulsion of her life between peeling potatoes and transactional fucking. Both are driven to murderousness. 

Delphine Seyrig in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce,1080 Bruxelles, 1975

Other graysexual characters include Josephine Decker’s Shirley—based on the neurotic writer Shirley Jackson, played by that everywhere actress Elizabeth Moss, who spends her days chain smoking, sleeping, and slaving obsessively over her typewriter, consumed by her own imagination. Like most long hauler marriages, sex is seldom pursued. Her husband’s opinion as a literary critic (Stanley Edgar Hyman, played by a mashed potato-loving Michael Stuhlbarg) matters more to her than his affairs with his students. She finds momentary titillation in her flirtations with the young Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), an imaginary protégée or a manifestation of her youthful self repeating a traumatic psychosexual cycle. While Rose slides into hysteria, Shirley attains bittersweet intellectual validation from her husband as a successful novelist. 

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in Josephine Decker’s Shirley, 2020

The common denominator among asexuals / graysexuals in cinema is that there is something else that becomes all-consuming such as crime or creation. There are also degrees of comfort in solitude and incoherence, rather than a need for resolution. Take Spike Jonze’s Her, with protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) exploring cognitive courtship with a Siri-like apparatus with the voice of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson.) For Theodore and Samantha, climax is just free-floating energy that can be harnessed for masturbatory purposes—going through the anticipatory rhythms without the risks and stakes of the flesh nor the threat of bodily contamination. Samantha is a cyber-allosexual; Theodore is heteronormatively weary of the package deal that comes with messy embodiment. This simulation of a real life pairing rejects a dependency on clear subject / object dyads to derive enjoyment. While attraction is possible, the drives are different. There are more conditions and uncertainties, and other means of gratification involved. 

Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s Her, 2013

Perhaps our current maypole du jour of Karen Barad-style cosmic queerness and the concept of “intra-action” can be instructive on some level here, since it’s about thinking in fields and spectrums, getting away from binaries of sexual and nonsexual, and giving up cause-and-effect narratives that attempt to explain away any given modus operandi. Electrons touch themselves by touching others, just as we are touched by and through cinema. Agency occurs through relations within others, as opposed to without. Whatever the position that emerges from our relations with one another, there’s no escape from the dynamics of lack, which is to say we all have abandonment issues no matter how fulfilled. Asexuality and graysexuality in cinema draws attention to how much we become more abject, in the sense of being excessively sensitized, as witnesses of absence and presence. We are presented with alternative fixations on what is being expressed and omitted, veiled and unveiled, as viewers oscillate between indifference and anticipation—from Warhollian “So what?” to “Now what?” And if we are all gonna wind up having copies of our consciousness uploaded into some hellscape digital universe, asexual romance may be the only thing left to sustain us. 

Leave a Reply