It feels like every conversation with my friends inevitably turns into a discussion about sex. We are all adults after all, and sex is seen as a normal part of everyone's lives. As my friends talk about how their partners please them in bed and their sexcapades, I chuckle along with the others at the funny moments, but mostly remain silent and slightly uncomfortable. These conversations are a stark reminder that I'm different from many of the other people I meet. What's considered a given for everyone (sexual attraction) is lost on me. Everyone assumes everyone else wants to have sex, but that's not me, and the hypersexuality of today's society can make it hard to admit that I am asexual.
Media, in general, also helps to perpetuate this idea that almost everything is motivated by sex. Sometimes characters are written in just to be sexy, or to be all about their sexuality, without any thought as to giving them a personality. A lot of people don't even realize asexuality exists, confusing the A in LGBTQIA+ for ally (lmao). So when I saw a character being explicitly represented as ace — a shortened term for asexual — in mainstream media, my interest was piqued.
The popular animation Netflix series BoJack Horseman focuses on a lot of subjects from which other shows tend to shy away. The titular horse himself (Will Arnett) is a washed-up actor, trying to relive his past glories while hurting everyone that he cares about along the way. Most of the main characters are multi-faceted, yet tragic, dealing with heartbreaking issues that oftentimes destroy them internally. Dealing with unhealthy relationships and coping mechanisms have always been central to the show, so when it's revealed that one of the characters was asexual, it felt like a huge win for ace representation...until I realized who it was.
Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) kicks off the series as a freeloader in BoJack's house; an old friend who's constantly testing BoJack's patience. Once Todd puts some distance between him and BoJack, we see Todd for who he truly is: a spirited entrepreneur with a lot of really strange ideas. Many of his ideas fail, but after reconnecting with his childhood friend Emily (Abbi Jacobson), they build a successful business together. Emily also develops feelings for Todd and attempts to sleep with him, but he backs out of the sexual encounter unexpectedly, causing a rift in their relationship. By the end of Season 3, Todd and Emily reconcile, and Todd reveals to his friend a truth he just found out himself: that he's just not interested in sex. In other words, he's asexual.
For the next two seasons, Todd's screen time revolves around two things — his coming to terms with his asexuality, and the continuation of his wacky entrepreneurial adventures, which eventually leads him falling into success at a time-telling website. The ace parts of his character are often (but not always) seen as serious, as the writers explore how being ace is viewed and misunderstood in a hypersexualized world, and touches on how difficult it can be to find someone to love who understands. While the writers take Todd's struggle to understand himself seriously, they don't usually take Todd seriously. In Seasons 1-3, Todd is most frequently used as comic relief; his stories, while hinting at unexpected depth, eventually come back to comedic beats and are often used to break up another character's plotline. This leads to a strange duality in Todd, and left me feeling uneasy about rooting for the first complex ace character I'd seen on TV.
Todd isn't the only comic relief on the show; while all the characters takes turns at humor, Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), like Todd, is most frequently used to foil a lead character's darker emotional journey. But while Mr. Peanutbutter is always good for a laugh thanks to his clueless personality, that same personality causes major problems with his relationships, destroying multiple marriages over the years. He suffers major moments of implosion due to the exact traits that draw people to him. Todd, on the other hand, doesn't have the same mix of comedy and strife written into his personality. It's almost as if he's two disparate characters: one on an atypical journey of self-discovery with the potential to significantly evolve the character, and one who is so used to being in service of others (comedically and otherwise) that nothing of narrative weight sticks to him.
The moment Todd comes out to Emily is beautiful. Having rekindled their friendship, Emily asks Todd what his deal is. What she thought had been flirtations were clearly not. When Todd replies, "I think I might be nothing", Emily takes it in for a moment and answers with acceptance. "Well, that's okay," she says reassuring Todd, who doesn't quite have the language to describe himself yet. In the very next beat, the audience discovers that Todd signed away his recent windfall from the business he and Emily just sold to the waitress as a tip in a three second gag. Todd is eight million dollars poorer than he was a minute ago and back to being dead broke with no new prospects (and no couches of former stars to sleep on). The moment after Todd says he's nothing — in a moment that makes him everything to viewers like me — the show narratively reduces him back to nothing, exactly where he started the series. That's a painful one-two punch; the gravitas of what acceptance feels like served up with a throwaway gag that reminds us Todd is still the butt of the joke.
While the writers take great care to not treat Todd's asexuality as a joke, the fact that Todd's key character trait is absolute wackiness and penchant of getting himself into the wildest scenarios work against some key scenes that center his asexuality.
In the Season 5 episode "Planned Obsolescence," Todd goes to meet his girlfriend Yolanda's (Natalie Morales) parents. The family happens to be hypersexual to an absurd extreme; the family house is adorned with pornographic imagery and her parents talk about sex non-stop. Every female member of the house tries to sleep with Todd, complete with slapstick visual gags. Todd has to trick Yolanda's mom into putting on every piece of clothing she owns, and her twin sister dresses as Yolanda in an attempt to trick him into bed. In a Scooby-Doo-esque sequence where Todd is trying to escape both women, a gigantic barrel of heirloom lube spills everywhere, making the entire house a slip and slide of "sexy" proportions. The only reason this avalanche of human bodies covered in couture KY happens? Because Yolanda isn't out to her parents, and slapstick jokes are propelled by pitting Yolanda and Todd's asexuality against her family's hypersexuality.
But a lot of these jokes are a very real fear for ace people with regards to interacting with their families. Yolanda is concerned about coming out to her family because she doesn't think they'd understand that she isn't like them. Not only will they not understand, they are portrayed as so absurdly hypersexual that they wouldn't even have the framework to begin to understand. I've had similar fears about expressing my asexuality to friends and family because to them it's a completely natural instinct. How do you explain to someone that something they inherently feel and expressly taught by both real life and pop culture to pursue is so completely outside an ace person's desires? That your natural instinct has nothing to do with desiring sex, and everything to do with desiring a connection with someone?
Had Yolanda been the main ace character in the show, I feel as though the episode would have been a bit more serious in nature; perhaps it might have focused more heavily on the actual conversation Yolanda needed to have with her family. However, she is just a secondary character, and Todd is the real representation that BoJack Horseman brings to the table. "Planned Obsolescence" brings Todd's asexuality to the forefront, and then makes it into a running joke.
It's hard to watch a show that's doing so much for ace representation, do so little with its ace character. I don't like to think that I'm someone else's comic relief on their road to recovery or destruction (depending on the character), and Todd rarely feels like he gets to grow and evolve, outside of his asexuality. It's as if accepting a major part of himself and making active strides towards reevaluating his relationships — platonic and romantic — didn't affect any part of his personality or the ways in which he sees himself. Both his successes (whattimeisitrightnow.com) and his failures are punchlines, which would an interesting variation of ace representation if there were literally any others. But as the one leading the charge, I can't help but look at Todd and feel disappointed.
And that's not because Todd and I have nothing in common. Much like Todd does, I've struggled with feelings that there's no one else like me in the world. But we're more different than we are alike and it's hard to reconcile the thoughts and feelings I do share with Todd with his more numbskull moments. It can be something small as signing his fortune away as a tip, or as big as building a grotesque "sex robot" for Emily, which perpetuates a harmful stereotype about ace people not understanding sex. A lack of sexual attraction does not mean the lack of sexual understanding, and it's moments like these that I need people in my own life to know aren't true.
These problems wouldn't really be problems if Todd wasn't the only mainstream representation ace people could point to as an example. Everyone is unique, and obviously not all aces' journeys are the same. But watching one of the only reference points I can use in order help explain my identity (to those who I deem worthy of such knowledge) coast through life as a slightly pathetic but earnest sidekick who doesn't earn his good fortune is painful. Perhaps the show will write another ace character (for more than a guest arc run) who is a freelance writer who busts her ass, the kind of woman who tells the joke rather than is the joke. Perhaps a new show will emerge that's all about ace characters so that none of them have to bear the burden of being everything to everyone in the community. But until then, I'll just have to keep being troubled with Todd.
Elizabeth is a freelance writer that enjoys analyzing all types of media, but especially video games. You can find her work at Kotaku, Eurogamer, and more. You can follow Elizabeth's work on Twitter @gaiages.