The bromance, in one form or another, has a long and rich history, an established culture that runs through creative works from books to television shows. Modern viewers enjoy Seth Rogan movies with a bromance at their core just as readers of Sherlock Holmes liked the relationship between Watson and Holmes at the time Doyle started publishing his wildly popular series. Fans of Sesame Street love Bert and Ernie. The list goes on; relationships between two male characters who may live together, partner closely, and share common interests are very, very common in Western fiction.
What’s interesting about these relationships is that they are, of course, a form of asexual relationship, but this isn’t often discussed. Social attitudes about asexuality conclude that asexual people live alone and loveless, without intimate human connections. That we hate and fear sex, of course. The idea of asexual relationships is alien to many people, as evidenced by the fact that there are no serious mainstream words to describe them, because, of course, people think they don’t happen. Asexual partners are dismissed as ‘friends’ or ‘buddies’ when their relationship may run much deeper, and be much more complicated. Such partnerships are also assumed to be inherently subordinate to sexual relationships; if someone is married, for example, but also has an asexual partner, that partner is considered ‘just a friend’ even though the relationship is not like a friendship.
Yet, asexuals can and do form rich, complex, interconnected relationships and some may have multiple intimate partners. Not intimate in the sense of sexuality, but intimate in the sense of the depth of connection. The values shared. The experiences they have together. Asexuals live together in close partnerships. That partnership between Holmes and Watson? Similar to many asexual partnerships. Not friendships. Partnerships. ‘Friendship,’ for some asexuals, doesn’t describe the close connections they have with certain people in their lives, people who are not just friends. But, of course, the idea that any kind of intimate, deep relationship must involve sex means that such connections are routinely written off by society in general.
Bromance narratives, though, show that people are aware of asexual partnerships, even if they don’t quite know what they are, or what word to use to describe them. These relationships go deeper than simple friendship, as viewers and readers and listeners know and are acutely aware. Sadly, the development of a sexual relationship is often framed as the end of a bromance, which sets up an adversarial and unfortunate situation. It also implies that such relationships are transitory waiting periods, that people only experience rich, full lives in sexual partnerships and that the bromance is only a temporary stopgap instead of a relationship in its own right.
It’s rare to see settings where bromances and sexual relationships exist side by side, although there are certainly examples out there. Those examples hint at the reality of life for some people, who get different types of fulfillment from different relationships; who may have sexual partners and asexual romantic partnerships too. Or who have multiple aromantic asexual partnerships. Or any number of other configurations of connection between human beings.
The asexual community is one where the formation of multiple deep connections with people is not necessarily remarkable or extraordinary, and is in fact recognised as a necessity for some people. It is not always possible to get everything you need from one person, and that’s perfectly reasonable. Individual relationships aren’t greater or lesser, just different. They may fill different social and personal needs and can help people feel more well-rounded, with a deep social network of people who are available at different times and for different things.
Commentary on bromance narratives is complex, because they’re an interesting pop culture narrative. They are also one of the few models of deep intimate relationship that is not sexual that are widely accepted and, to some extent, normalised. It’s unfortunate that asexuality has been left out of so many of these discussions, that people persist in framing these relationships as friendships, and that they are still considered lesser than the sexual relationships the characters almost uniformly yearn for. Again, with exceptions; Sherlock Holmes, for example, doesn’t exhibit much interest in sexual relationships and this is in fact why he’s so beloved by asexual fans.
This is not to devalue friendship—not all asexual people think of their relationships as something deeper and other than friendship, and obviously friendships are meaningful and important, and friends provide tremendously valuable things to each other. But, some asexual people need and want a word other than ‘friendship’ to describe how they feel about some of the people in their lives, which demonstrates that something else is going on here, that the bromance is not just a couple of tight buds, but possibly a romantic asexual partnership. The fact that these relationships are so accepted while asexuality is still so stigmatised is fascinating. Many fans of the bromance appear blissfully unaware that they’re talking about asexuality, that thing they hate and fear and dismiss with a sneer.
How long will it take for pop culture at large to recognise bromances for what they are, and to start seriously talking about them? How would people feel if they realised that the relationship they embrace is actually a model of something they claim to disdain?