ALTERNATE TAKE: On Chesil Beach (2018) by Dominic Cooke
Alternate Take by Lydia Creech
“I don't seem to need it like other people, like you do. It just isn't something that's part of me.”
There is the in-text evidence that Florence could identify as an asexual (ace for short). If only she could have had the sex education of the modern day. Unfortunately for her and her new husband Edward, the year is 1962, “the year before sex was invented” (or some such nonsense), and this movie isn’t about her anyway. On the first night of their honeymoon, Edward is very eager to consummate their marriage, but Florence is anxious and nervous. In the bedroom they talk past each other’s purposes and (barely) fumble through foreplay, before (surprise?) failing to have sex. Florence runs away (in shame? Fear? I don’t think the movie cares enough to be specific!), Edward chases, and they argue on the titular beach, where Florence makes the above declaration. However, folks hoping for positive ace representation can see the door.
Asexual audiences probably already know not to expect better, but I worry the general public will walk away thinking this scenario was a balanced argument and portrayal of an asexual character attempting to navigate (or not) a sexual relationship. Unfortunately, the whole thing feels like the author and screenwriter Ian McEwan looked up the definition yesterday and then crafted a narrative about how this affects Me, The Straight Male Partner/Authorial Stand In. It traffics in unfortunate stereotypes and erasure of ace people, including implying that the “reason” Florence is asexual stems from childhood sexual trauma. Conflating sex-repulsion due to trauma (a valid and understandable PTSD response) with an explanation for someone’s sexual identity (invalidating and reductionist) is an insulting and “sinister case of implied causation.” There are sex-positive, sex-neutral, and sex-repulsed aces (it’s a spectrum!), but On Chesil Beach lets this hang over the relationship like something is defective with her, like her “brokenness” is equivalent to Edward’s temper tantrums.
The film never comes back to Florence in a way that portrays a lack of sexual desire/attraction/activity as valid (“Who doesn’t like sex?” scoffs one of Ed’s hypocritical bougie hippy friends in the first (!) coda). If the central question of the movie revolves around whether or not a romantic relationship can be fulfilling if you’re not fucking, then that’s a boring question. The flashback structure in the first act of the movie seems devoted to portraying Florence’s and Edward’s pre-married relationship as loving and whole, but one bad night where he doesn’t get off the way he wants to and he devolves into screaming at her about how she’s “frigid” (which he definitely knows is not a neutral word choice) and a liar (for leading him on by having a body he feels entitled to?).
Michael Paramo writes in The Asexual Journal of “The Multi-Layered Model of Attraction,” in which sexual attraction is just one of many that draws people together. Others include emotional, aesthetic, sensual, intellectual, or romantic. Unfortunately for ace people:
“sex is first to be understood – positioned as necessary in the conception of attraction and in interpreting desire between humans...For those of us (mostly ace and aro[mantic] people) who find ourselves outside of this ‘sex equals attraction’ worldview, our expressions of desire, love, and passion tend to be confronted with disbelief at best and perceived as outright lies at worst.”
Asexual women in particular are often at risk of violence from their male non-asexual partners when revealing their identiy. This is presented without attendant critique through the framing of Edward’s grievances as just as (possibly more) weighty as Florence’s. Aside from not accepting the fact of Florence’s asexuality, Edward is just straight up abusive and the embodiment of toxic masculinity all the way down (he won’t cry in front of the women, ffs). The moment he totally lost me was when he picks up a rock and screams at her about how she’s a bitch--I’ve been on the end of a screaming fit by partner and, even if he’s not “actually” going to be violent, that shit is a terrorizing tactic to shut down any conversation not going the abuser’s way, and it’s way out of proportion to anything she actually did.
I don’t know why the onus seems to fall on HER for being bad at communicating, when all I see are her attempts to soothe perceived slights and guide the conversation and draw him out and gently defer (are we really going to rehash what a “soft no” is?) and even propose a solution that still privileges his sexual desires (which wouldn’t have worked anyway; non-monogamy takes talking about, and Ed has already demonstrated zero willingness). In the bedroom leading up to the the flight and fight, she reads as nervous and afraid of him (turns out for good reason), not just the impending consummation. “Don’t tear it,” she begs--talking about the zipper to her dress--but because this is literature cooked up by a hack, we know the (male, obviously) author means her hymen. She’s working through some sort of repressed trauma, and still doing all the emotional heavy lifting (think Edward would have ever thought to look up a sex manual?).
Walking away was a GOOD ending for Florence. The movie skews the the balance of empathy by following the WRONG CHARACTER into the epilogue(s) (people have complained about the old-age makeup and corniness, but also whoooooo caresssss about this dude’s sadfeels). Later, we find out (through Ed’s POV) that she did indeed go on to have her dream of a successful musical career AND she’s gotten remarried and had kids. Unfortunately, because this is presented as being a blow to Edward, it’s also another form of asexual erasure and invalidation. Did she just “get over” it (one does not get over an identity)? McEwan has tipped his hand and exposed his only cursory research again. There is the possibility of her being demisexual (that is, experiencing sexual attraction but ONLY after establishing a deep emotional connection first), which is not something I suspect McEwan is implying (or knew about) based on the flashbacks seeming to establish such a connection; Alternatively, it is possible that she has worked through her sexual trauma and sex-repulsion, which is a far more compelling story that this movie just doesn’t care to tell (not that I trust it to be capable, either). Asexuals can and do have sex, for lots of reasons, including to have children, satisfy their own libidos (which, yes, can be decoupled from attraction), or to please their partners, which doesn’t strike me as that much different than engaging in kinks that may not necessarily be your thing because you love the person you’re engaging in them with. With Florence, we’ll never know.
By privileging Edward’s reactions to the fallout over Florence’s, McEwan centers the narrative on the by-far least necessary perspective. It’s not cool that McEwan seems to be trying his hand at minority identities just to Other them, and it’s also not cool that yet another piece of media is trying to sell me fucked-up dynamics as romantic (they’re starcrossed!). Positive asexual representation is such a rarity, and I’d rather there be none than a botched job. This movie is a tragedy, alright, just not the one the author would have you believe.