Changing the Grey: How The Lobster helped me come out as asexual

by Adam Bumas
Emily VanDerWerff
Apr 07 2021
9 min read
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(Welcome to the Wednesday newsletter! Each week, I’m publishing a new pop culture essay from a freelancer. Remember: Your subscription fee helps me pay these freelancers for their efforts! This week: Adam Bumas on finding resonance in Yorgos Lanthimos's The Lobster as an asexual person.)


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It would be reductive — not to mention far too melodramatic — to say I didn’t want to identify as asexual because of the flag. 


From the top, the asexual pride flag goes black, grey, white, purple. From my glass-half-empty perspective, the purple felt like mockery, a bit of embellishment to make the fading monochrome feel even more faint, less lively, less something I could be proud of. Every bit of fear I had about being unwanted, solitary and incapable of connection wrought itself on those first three colorless stripes, with the purple stripe being the narrow band of unhappy cishet normalcy where I wanted to stay. It wasn’t a happy color, but it was better than the grey.


When I first realized the label “asexual” might apply to me, I was the worst possible mix of insecure, judgmental, and self-involved. It was far too difficult for me to be open to anything new about myself. I needed an excuse to avoid the risk of coming out, one that would satisfy my senses of superior judgement and impeccable taste, without opening either up to scrutiny from anyone else. The flag was the perfect excuse to stay where I was, away from those bands of grey.


Then, the grey came for me. I found it in the 2016 film The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language debut, which has grey to spare: grey skies, grey sets, grey faces. Nothing in the film is vibrant or exciting, and everything about the filmmaking is carefully crafted to minimize any joy or beauty or charm in a story about finding love. All that grey reached something deep in my heart in a way sentiment couldn’t. Nothing about the story or themes of The Lobster directly deals with the idea of being asexual, but the film nevertheless speaks to the asexual experience, and helped me come to terms with my own asexuality.


The Lobster takes place in and around an upscale European hotel, where anyone not in a relationship is required to go immediately upon becoming single. If someone doesn’t manage to find the love of their life among their fellow singles within a month and a half, they’ll be hunted for sport. Once they’re caught, they will undergo surgery to turn them into an animal. Colin Farrell, the film’s lead, wants to become the titular crustacean. Olivia Colman, the hotel’s manager, is impressed: “The first thing most people think of is a dog,” she says to Farrell, “and so the world is full of dogs.”


She delivers the line with the same clipped, impersonal tone used by everyone in the film. Every character stares listlessly into the middle distance, delivering lines with a matter-of-fact torpor. It’s an achievement to rob entertaining, charismatic actors like Farrell, Ben Whishaw, and Rachel Weisz of their magnetism and charisma, and that robbery is performed in service of making the whole film a pitch-black comedy. A premise that sounds melodramatic on paper — people searching for a lifelong companion, under a sword of Damocles if they fail — becomes a venue for absurdist comedy when it’s presented to the audience under a veil of humdrum, matter-of-fact bureaucracy: Farrell is told that “since about last summer, several operational problems” mean he’s not allowed to identify as bisexual.


I saw The Lobster in the spring of 2016, after about a year of knowing I was ace. But I still wasn’t ready to accept that label, nor was I ready to come out. At the time, I was dealing with a bureaucratic nightmare of my own. College applications were winding down, and my prospects were slim. I couldn’t help but see my meager options as an indictment of everything I was. All that work to condense my whole life into an enticing package had failed. Coming out felt like sour grapes; like self-justification, instead of self-actualization. My closest relatives all knew and were accepting, if not completely understanding, so who was I trying to impress?


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Single people in The Lobster don’t have it much better than I did. They’re introduced to the group at the hotel in a grim parody of a bachelor auction, where each person shares their “defining characteristic,” the single most important thing about them, which any potential partner is required to share. People lie and cheat, and they do terrible things to try to match other people. But no one is ever in any doubt about their own defining characteristic or that said characteristic truly is defining. This gives an allegorical air to the story. Its characters seem less than human but more than stereotype.


Asexuals (and aromantics) aren’t even afforded the privilege of stereotype. It’s enough work convincing people that we exist in the first place and that our feelings are part of who we are. Still, it’s easy for a reductive kind of thinking among people outside the asexual community to set in: Aro and ace people must be robots, devoid of all passion, because they’re not interested in this one form. We must be incapable of any connection because the cultural lexicon has turned the word “love” into something too universal to have any meaning, but too coded to have many uses. Like other pervasive stereotypes, this one is damaging because it comes out of something true. Even among the most gregarious ace people there’s still a sense of being withdrawn, of not only being apart from the norm but observing it clinically from afar. When you don’t feel something, it’s easy to feel detached from those that do, and the feelings that ace people lack are so common you end up feeling alienated from everyone.


The Lobster is certainly an alienating work. The costumes are either utilitarian or anonymously formal. The score features discordant, unnerving strings, and the muted lighting and wide focus filter the life out of what few colors we see. We’re even kept at arm’s length from Farrell’s lead character, a middle-aged man named David whose unseen wife leaves him in the opening scene. Farrell grew a mustache and gained a lot of weight to play the leading role, and rather than giving any endearing quality to his soulful features, these physical changes blunt his appeal. David holds himself stiffly and pathetically, staring into space or trying to soothe his bad back. His actions are narrated, but unlike in most voiceovers, this narration keeps us out of David’s head, rather than letting us in.


On the other end of the film’s moodboard, Olivia Colman’s presence calls to mind the deft cringe comedy of Peep Show (in which Colman co-starred). She and her husband’s defining characteristic, we’re told, is a beautiful singing voice. As the singles awkwardly dance with each other, we hear the couple sing Nick Cave’s “Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart”, describing the profound effect of being in love. “Changing the grey, changing the blue,” Colman sings. “Scarlet for me, scarlet for you.”


Those lyrics are very nearly the most colorful thing in the film. When I watched The Lobster for the first time, their irony stuck with me: This was a story where the grey refused to change. The Lobster is by no means an asexual film, but it does an excellent job at capturing the asexual experience — not an experience without feeling but one divorced from what’s typically associated or even demanded of feeling. Here is a world where no passion or romance or style is there to hide the cruel, arbitrary expectations surrounding relationships.


There is “scarlet for you” in the film. Cruelty is represented onscreen with acts of horrific, bloody violence I won’t describe here. The blood we see is nearly black. It drips down legs and stains bandages. The film’s second-to-last shot had me literally watching through my fingers. The gore in the film was the reminder I needed, like a letter sealed with a kiss, that The Lobster is just a story. Its allegory is not how things really work. I wasn’t a single at the hotel, I was free to not participate. I could embrace the grey, admit that it was what I really wanted.


It wasn’t judgement or taste that was stopping me. It was fear. I had mistakenly become convinced the whole world worked the same way it did in The Lobster. I had become convinced I would suffer for admitting I didn’t want to be part of the system. Dating, romance, sex were all as unappealing and awkward as they were depicted in the film, and the only thing forcing me to act like I wanted to take part in that system was the need to fit in. Whatever I thought of the grey, it was where I belonged. It didn’t mean I lacked any passion at all. It just meant I didn’t have to fake passion that wasn’t there.


I emerged from the movie theater, blinking in the bright spring light as I walked home, realizing that I was just wasting time by not coming out. A month later, I was marching in my local pride parade, dressed all in grey. The next day, I came out to my best friend as ace, and he came out to me as ace just moments later. Not every awkward social interaction lacks joy or meaning.


Hey, everyone! Emily here! This is the first newsletter I've sent out using Letterdrop. We're still tweaking the look of the place, so if you have any thoughts, please let me know! (I already know we need to add alt text for images.) I will be back with an Avatar recap on Friday. Thanks for reading Adam's amazing piece!


Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.