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A Quiet Revolution on ‘BoJack Horseman’

Everyone’s favorite cartoon about depression turns its sights toward asexuality

Netflix
Netflix

The most outlandish plotlines on BoJack Horseman don’t even belong to BoJack — they belong to his buddy Todd Chavez (voiced by Aaron Paul). In three seasons, the title character’s unemployed 25-year-old roommate has joined two jail gangs, penned a space-themed rock opera, and stumbled upon a Scientology-esque improv comedy troupe. He’s even facilitated a romance between two smartphones — but he’s never once had an even remotely romantic or sexual story arc for himself.

That’s by design. In a wide-ranging Season 3 finale jam-packed with spaghetti strainers and wild horses, a quiet scene between Todd and his sort-of high school sweetheart, Emily (Abbi Jacobson), stands out. Over massive ice cream sundaes, she confronts Todd, unable to tell after years of awkward moments and a couple of almost-sexual encounters if he’s interested in her as more than a friend. Emily asks if he’s gay.

“I’m not gay. I mean, I don’t think I am. But I don’t think I’m straight, either,” he says slowly, playing with his spoon. “I don’t know what I am. I think I might be nothing.”

The word “asexual” doesn’t come up in Todd’s answer, but it’s certainly implied. And that matters: Characters, especially prominent ones, coming out as asexual — or even thinking about coming out as asexual — isn’t something that happens all that often on TV or elsewhere in pop culture, even though aces (the umbrella term that covers people spanning the asexual spectrum) aren’t thought to be all that uncommon. That spectrum includes straight and queer identities ranging from demisexual (people who are interested in sex, but only with people they have emotional connections to) to aromantic asexual (people who are not interested in pursuing sex or romance).

“Just the fact that they’re introducing him in such a natural, organic way, him not actually knowing what he is but he’s not sure he’s hetero or gay, it’s really refreshing,” Jahdai Soberanis Lara, a 22-year-old Mexican college student who identifies as asexual, tells The Ringer.

A realistic, understated depiction of a potentially asexual character isn’t something Soberanis Lara and others in the asexual community are accustomed to seeing. The characters that do exist typically aren’t labeled as asexual by the show’s writers, and even when they are, with few exceptions, they tend to play into misinformed stereotypes.

Most notably, a 2012 House episode features its title character refusing to acknowledge a couple’s asexuality. The doctor ultimately finds a pituitary tumor inhibiting the man’s sex drive. Then, it’s revealed that the woman isn’t truly asexual; she was just pretending to be for her husband. In reality, asexuality, just like any other orientation, can be fluid, but it isn’t a fake or temporary status.

Other popular shows — think Doctor Who, Dexter, and Sherlock — feature protagonists that send a different, but still harmful, message. “These characters all fit this narrow stereotype,” says David Jay, an activist who founded the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. “They are in some ways literally and figuratively inhuman.” Those in the crew of “lanky, smart, white, male characters,” as he puts it, rounded out by The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, often seem incapable of forming intimate, emotional relationships with others, even platonically.

“If I had had more positive examples and more accurate depictions of asexuality, I don’t think I would’ve felt as broken,” says Lauren Jankowski, a 31-year-old writer who identifies as an aromantic asexual. “I wouldn’t have been as lonely. I wouldn’t have felt like an outsider for as long as I did.”

The portrayal of asexual characters on TV falls into a broader, ongoing conversation about how writers depict marginalized groups. Many shows — Orange Is the New Black, Master of None, and Black-ish, to name a few — are crafting smart story lines centered on race, with some even addressing Black Lives Matter in sensitive, productive ways. BoJack, in its nuanced take on depression and substance abuse, is part of a growing contingent of shows that offer viewers creative and nonstigmatizing representations of people with mental illness.

In 2015, Slate declared asexuality “television’s new frontier.” June Thomas highlighted Sirens, a short-lived USA comedy about Chicago paramedics, for featuring the recurring character Voodoo, an asexual, female EMT. While some aces echo Slate’s praise, Jankowski calls the character “cringeworthy,” arguing that she was portrayed as an obstacle for a smitten male coworker.

“I’d say since the asexual-visibility movement has picked up steam, that’s probably why we’re seeing a couple more characters,” Jankowski says. “The backlash to the House story line also seemed to be kind of a tipping point, like, ‘Oh, maybe we should be more careful when we write asexual characters. There’s a whole crop of people that will be mad.’”

While BoJack seems to be taking a promising step toward more accurate representation of asexual characters, it’s too early to know for sure. Soberanis Lara wonders if Todd’s exploration into his orientation risks being erased next season if he meets an irresistible man or woman — if, to be blunt, BoJack pulls a House.

“What I’m hoping they do, and what I think will be a lot more interesting, whether or not he uses the word ‘asexuality,’ is having him explore that experience the way people in our community do,” Jay says, adding that what Todd has articulated so far sounds to many aces like a familiar starting point for sorting out how they will identify. Jay hopes that we see Todd ask himself more questions. Is he interested in pursuing romantic relationships, or just platonic ones? Is he averse to having sex, or simply neutral toward it? Does he ultimately want to describe himself as asexual?

If BoJack lets Todd ponder those questions without shaming him or muting his warmhearted and patently absurd personality, the show will have succeeded in treating asexual people like actual human beings — a statement that should by no means feel bold in 2016, but, for Hollywood, would be a huge leap. Still, one TV portrayal can go only so far toward changing public perceptions of asexuality, especially when it’s delivered through a cisgender white (animated) man. As in society at large, the most underrepresented members of the asexual community, both onscreen and off, are those who are nonwhite, disabled, and/or genderqueer.

That said, all of the diverse, fictionalized asexual characters in the world wouldn’t even be enough to adequately represent ace stories. That’s because asexual representation behind the scenes matters even more. “I have a huge issue with more people being concerned about fictional asexuals than they are about actual asexual artists,” Jankowski says. The people most capable of telling creative, honest, and compelling stories about asexuality are those living it themselves.

Allosexual (nonasexual) creators can definitely tackle story lines like Todd’s and write them well, Jankowski says, but they would be wise to consult with people who can provide firsthand experience of what it’s like to be asexual. That’s much like what Transparent creator Jill Soloway has done by making a concerted effort after Season 1 to work with trans women and hire a trans writer, who brings a much-needed perspective to the writers’ room. (It’s not clear whether anyone working on BoJack identifies as asexual, and Netflix declined to comment to The Ringer on the show’s depiction of asexuality.) Todd’s self-identification as “nothing” could be, in hindsight, derogatory — or, handled with care, the opposite: Jay says it’s common for asexuals to use language like that when they’re figuring out their orientation.

Asexual artists aren’t necessarily out to their coworkers, at least to the same degree that prominent LGBTQ creators and stars have been in recent years, but they are working in Hollywood. Many members of Ace Los Angeles, a social group for people on the asexual spectrum, have ties to the entertainment industry, says codirector Samantha Chappell. She and Shari B. Ellis, one of the group’s founders, note that it’s tough to come out with an orientation that often requires a lot of additional explanation and clarification — thanks in part to the misguided representations of asexuality on TV.

“All of these negative portrayals do very much come into the general public’s consciousness, whether they’re aware of it or not,” Chappell says, rattling off a few of the misconceptions she hears. “We just haven’t met the right person yet. There are people who genuinely argue that we haven’t gone through some sort of puberty yet. … I’ve had people ask me if I can sexually reproduce. Multiple people, not just one.”

Every televised example that signal-boosts even the simplest facts — that, say, not being interested in sex doesn’t make someone a psychopath, or vice versa — can make it that much easier for people to feel safe speaking openly about their orientation. By introducing a plotline that, at least so far, values subtlety over shock value, BoJack writers seemingly understand that asexual representations on TV need to start from square one. Viewers, like the character himself, need to bolster their asexual vocabulary before speaking the language. As Todd might say, “Hooray, correcting misinformation!”