In contemplating possible articles related to ace week, I tried to think of classic geek characters who are asexual. That led me to wonder, “How would I even know? It’s not like we get 24/7 access to these fictional people’s’ lives.” But then, very quickly, I realized that we do know that a lot of our favorite characters are not ace/aro because so many of them have had on-screen relationships and sexual encounters that are presented as a product of the characters’ own sex drive (rather than as ace people who are accommodating their partner). But why? Is there something about our sexual lives that is so essential to our identities that it requires exposition in our fictional characters, or is this just an example of ace erasure? After some additional geeky contemplation, it occurred to me that there is one beloved character who is, in fact, perfectly suited to explore this exact question: Lt. Commander Data.
Suaveness subroutine engaged. (Screengrab from Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG))
In addition to the issues surrounding Data’s own sexuality, the character is one seeking to achieve “greater humanity” and is therefore extensively used to represent what exactly we think that actually means, sexuality included. While the question of whether or not Data represents an asexual character is one that is widely open to debate (including in this post), the question of why and how we ascribe sexual identities to fictional characters as a way to “humanize” them and what that says about asexual representation in our media is perhaps the more interesting question.
First, a history lesson: angels, biblically speaking, are horny bastards. The entirety of the Book of Enoch is all about angels sleeping with human women. Angels in the Bible even have genders. Most tend to be men but there are various books that also include female angels. However, they are also spiritual beings with no physical body. Angels that slept with human women in the Book of Enoch weren’t supposed to because it was against their nature. Furthermore, the angels’ genders seem to not matter, as they have no need to breed, even with each other. Because it seemed unnecessary for angels to have genders or have sex, eventually a tradition developed that believed angels had no gender and did not have sex.
Supernatural, especially in the fourth and fifth seasons, draws heavily on these Biblical traditions, but seems like it can’t decide which one they want to go with.
The BBC’s Sherlock series is different on a number of levels. For one thing, they’re the first really popular modern reboot of the concept of Sherlock Holmes that has stayed mostly true to Conan Doyle’s canon (as opposed to shows that draw on the stories’ ideas like House). Secondly, as the title of this clip points out, it is the first Holmes series to ever discuss sexuality within the canon of the show.
This clip is a large part of the evidence people use to argue that Sherlock (at least the BBC’s version) is asexual. (Now, many Doyle afficionados have speculated that Sherlock is asexual before based on the original source material. But this is the first time Sherlock’s sexuality has been an explicit part of the discussion.) Other evidence people point to is his complete obliviousness to come-ons from various people from Molly to Irene and his lack of interest in forming relationships with other people (besides John).
He can’t be called a straight-up ascetic, because he indulges in other sins of the flesh—most notably “recreational” substances. The most difficult part of trying to box up Sherlock’s sexuality is that he’s also often described (both within the show and by the writers in interviews) as being “Aspergerish”. I’m no expert on the autism spectrum, and a character can certainly be both Aspergers and asexual, but a lot of fans find it hard to judge whether Sherlock’s disinterest in sex is related to his asexuality, his mental state, or both.
It’s interesting to note that the biggest sexuality-related backlash I’ve seen to the “Sherlock is asexual” line of thought is “No, he’s gay with Watson, and you’re weird”. And that’s not just within Sherlock/John shipping communities. I have friends who have never actually heard the word “shipping” in their lives that point out the pair’s slashy, UST-filled moments every time we watch an episode together.
Here’s the thing, though: I wouldn’t argue that Sherlock is aromantic. Consider, if you will, this actual commercial edited together and aired by a Korean network that was broadcasting the show.
Sherlock has said numerous times that he cares for John in a way that he cares for no one else, and he goes to extreme efforts to help John in the same way that John does drastic, reckless, and sometimes illegal things to help Sherlock. (I do hold that John is in love with Sherlock and hasn’t come to terms with the fact that he’s bi yet, but that’s a story for another Saturday.)
And I’ve already expressed my opinions on how tired I am of the constant recycling of the Irene Adler character and subsequent romantic developments between her and Sherlock in my Game of Shadows review, but given the lengths to which Sherlock goes to help her in “A Scandal in Belgravia”, it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t care for her in some way.
So we arrive at a theory: that Sherlock is a biromantic asexual. But I think that needs one more tweak. Sherlock as I understand him doesn’t really see gender. I’d posit that he’s panromantic rather than biromantic. So there you go. Only Sherlock himself can give the definitive answer, and I’m not sure I trust showwriter Steven Moffat (with whom I have a very complicated relationship) to stay true to the character in the end. But you heard it here: Lady Saika thinks that, given the evidence and if you force her to label his sexuality, the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes is a panromantic asexual.