There’s a scene in the new Shadow and Bone adaptation where Kaz Brekker (played by Freddy Carter), a ruthless mastermind generally considered one of the cold-blooded men in the criminal underworld, realizes that his friend and co-conspirator, Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), is hurt. She’s holding her side, her hand is bloody, and she’s staring at Kaz desperately. He’s just as conflicted, his jaw clenches, and he pulls away from her.
That jaw clench, dear reader, is my Hand Flex.
You know, the infamous close-up on Mr. Darcy’s hand in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice after he holds Elizabeth’s hand for .5 seconds? Thee Hand Flex.
But in that moment Kaz Brekker sees the woman he loves in pain and needing his help, he instead of offering his hand, he retreats from her. He wants to help but he doesn’t know how to touch her; he doesn’t know how to staunch the blood, to use his hands to show her he cares about her pain, that he can use his hands to physically care for someone. Sure, this is rooted in some deep-seated personal trauma, per the novels, but another, very valid, reading of this aversion to intimacy is that Kaz Brekker is asexual.
When we define intimacy expansively, we make room for Kaz’s asexual identity, one that can exist within his desire for intimacy with Inej Ghafa.
But, people will say, he does care for Inej! He wants to be with her, he just doesn’t know how. Therefore, he cannot be asexual. And I say to those people that there are many ace folks out there who feel that same kind of attraction. A desire to be with someone without knowing exactly how to express that desire. Without knowing if touching is allowed, or right, or wanted, who don’t really even know when they’re being flirted with because that sort of sexual overture just doesn’t click in their head. Misinformation and conflicting standards about what “make up” an asexual identity is an unfortunate side effect of asexuality appearing as a spectrum and our cultural desire to equate celibacy with asexuality.
However, there is this really beautiful thing about fiction; the ability to transpose your own readings onto characters. Kaz Brekker is asexual because I say he is. Because I watch him and see my own experiences reflected in his relationships. Because I want him to be ace, because asexuals have so little representation out there that even the messiest, meanest, most conflicting kind of representation is good enough for me.
When we think about asexuality, we think about desire and what desire says about a person, about ourselves, about our world. Removing desire from interactions and relationships challenges what intimacy means. Can you be intimate with someone if you never touch them? Or if you don’t want to touch them? Or even if you only want to hold their hand, but never move past that? While desire is a mainstay of many narratives, driving characters’ goals and wants, intimacy tends to be the implied end goal of desire. For asexual characters, we have to redefine what intimacy looks like on screen, and what intimacy means in fiction.
Kaz Brekker is intimate with Inej Ghafa. He lets her into his private quarters, he takes on her struggles as his own, he indulges her whims, and he looks after her, protecting her when he can. If we say that intimacy must be inherently sexual we dismiss the intimacy of deep care. When we define intimacy expansively, we make room for Kaz’s asexual identity, one that can exist within his desire for intimacy with Inej Ghafa.
To watch explicitly ace characters on screen is a rarity, because most characters in narrative television are defined (at least in part) by intimate relationships. Even a character like Kaz, where asexual identity is assigned mostly in critique and fandom spaces, are hard to find. Often ace characters are described as totally disinterested in sex, which is true for some ace folks, but not all. Asexuality, like all sexual identities, lies on a spectrum. With Kaz, we get a character who has conflicting desires but still experiences a desire on the spectrum that still could be defined as asexual, in a way that, frankly, mirrors my own experiences with asexuality. Watching Kaz on screen is incredibly euphoric, a confirmation of what I knew while reading Six of Crows five years ago.
Kaz Brekker is a character who allows for many, multifaceted and sometimes conflicting interpretations of asexuality. He gets to have desires and wants, but he is also allowed to be confused, angry, upset, and traumatized by those desires. To think of Kaz as ace character who wants, even desires intimacy, gives the audience a look into the more accurate, more expansive, definition of queer asexuality. His relationships are still valid, his desires still drive him, and most of all, he is not any better or worse off. He’s just ace, and he’s too busy planning heists to think too much about sex anyway.
So here’s to subtle jaw clenches performed while not touching your intimate partner. I hope I get to see more of them in the future.
Shadow and Bone is streaming on Netflix.