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The Mary Sue

BoJack Horseman Delivers the Asexual Representation We Need

"I think I might be nothing."

todd-yay

It’s the middle of the night, and I’ve just finished binge-watching the entire third season of BoJack Horseman. I’m perched on my sofa, hugging my knees, as tears stream down my face. I’m slightly ashamed to admit it, but it’s not an unfamiliar scenario. In fact, I was doing the exact same thing approximately twelve months earlier, and again (for the first time) around two years prior.

I guess what I’m trying to say is:

  1. Clearly, I get way too emotionally invested in cartoons about anthropomorphic animals.
  2. BoJack Horseman makes me consistently cry like no other show.

But the tears that stained my cheeks this time were different than the others. They weren’t just the result of the show’s perfectly orchestrated emotional crescendo (which always hits in the final act of the penultimate episode before dissipating into a peculiar sense of hopeful melancholy in the season finale). Rather, they were due to a mixture of shock, awe, and a bewildered sense of… relief? Acceptance? I struggled to find the words to describe my emotions. All I knew was that a character on one of my all-time favorite shows had just come out as asexual, and as an ace person, myself, it was making me feel a lot of different things.

todd-hooray

And while I’m the first to admit that representation is something that is tremendously important to me (after all, I did write about how a first person shooter helped me discover my asexuality), that was not the reason why I felt so overwhelmed. Instead, I was bewildered by just how realistic the portrayal was. The very words that Todd used to describe his sexuality (or lack thereof) had escaped my own lips, practically verbatim, on more than one occasion. To not only have my obscure orientation depicted on a mainstream show, but also to have it be an entirely accurate representation of my experience, was nothing short of mind-boggling.

I first suspected that Todd was asexual in the second episode of season three, during a flashback to an interaction he had when he was younger. After being asked who he liked and replying, ‘no one,’ his friend, Emily pushed him until he finally, and rather unconvincingly, said a popular girl’s name. Call it asexual intuition (or far more likely some form of confirmation bias due to me grasping at straws), but something about Todd’s reaction really resonated with me. In particular, it put me back in the shoes of my teenage self, where my social survival was almost entirely determined by my ability to find out who everybody else had a crush on and parroting that response. You know, rather than actually experiencing that foreign thing called “attraction” myself.

The episode continued to flash back to Todd’s burgeoning relationship with this friend and seemed to further hint towards his general discomfort surrounding sexual attraction and its affiliated activities. At first, this was just presented as Todd being inexperienced (during a game of seven minutes in heaven he confessed to Emily that he’d never kissed anyone). But when, after several months of dating, Emily finally broached the topic of them having sex his response was seemingly one of deep confusion and abject terror. The sheer awkwardness of the encounter was, unfortunately, something I found to be eerily relatable.

Despite my intrigue, I quickly shrugged off that sense of familiarity. By the next episode, Todd’s storyline had returned to one dominated by kooky hijinks, and the one following (the much-lauded silent episode “Fish Out of Water”) omitted him altogether. Which was why, when modern-day Emily made a surprise reappearance in episode five, I was curious to see if anything else would resonate with me.

And did it ever.

Todd’s complete inability to recognize that Emily was hitting on him by ‘casually’ bringing up whether or not he had a girlfriend brought back so many awkward memories of me missing obvious social cues that I had to pause the episode to get over my second-hand embarrassment. Similarly, I found Todd’s palpable discomfort when Emily made her intentions clear to be excruciating (particularly when coupled with BoJack’s ill-conceived, though ultimately well-intentioned, encouragement). And while I personally can’t drink, even Todd turning to alcohol as a way of combating his discomfort was familiar—I’ve had many friends who, prior to discovering their asexuality, relied on alcohol or drugs to help them ‘loosen up’ in the hopes of feeling less uncomfortable in sexual situations.

But more than anything, the scene that resonated with me the most was when Emily and Todd were finally standing in front of his hotel room, only for him to realize that he couldn’t invite her in. Everything about that scene spoke to my experience; the mounting fear and confusion, the list of absurd excuses, and finally that moment where the person puts their foot down and ends up hurting someone they care about. I’ve been there, and I imagine a lot of other asexuals have, too.

And it was precisely that scene where, when combined with the knowledge accrued in the final episode, the tact and nuance of BoJack creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, and his team’s depiction of the situation became evident. Someone coming to terms with being on the asexual spectrum is not a finite experience limited only to the individual; it affects those around them, too. And so, by showing both sides of the story, it lent the portrayal more weight, ultimately making it more realistic.

In fact, when presented with both characters’ reactions to Todd’s rejection, Emily’s hit me harder. Because, while I’ve never been in Emily’s position, I have been the one making the excuses, and ultimately, closing the door. I know what it’s like to unintentionally hurt a person that way, but I can only imagine how confusing and upsetting it must be to experience it first hand. Which is why, despite tears biting my eyes as the camera panned to a dejected Todd alone on his bed, it was Emily’s response that opened the floodgates. Because of this, I begrudgingly predicted Emily’s next move, and while I inaudibly mouthed the word ‘no’ as she approached BoJack at the bar, I knew them sleeping together was inevitable.

emily-bojack

Though obviously lampshaded, we don’t receive confirmation of the duo’s tryst for another two episodes. And while Todd and BoJack’s further interactions remain as jovial and delightfully absurd as ever, as an audience member I couldn’t help but feel a looming sense of dread. It wasn’t the first time I’d felt like a seamy confidante privy to BoJack’s betrayals, but it definitely felt like the worst.

I wracked my mind to try and put my finger on why that was, only to realize that I was massively projecting my own issues. I took a step back and reminded myself that all my assumptions about Todd were nothing more than that. I mean, what were the chances of one of the most critically acclaimed and generally adored shows of the last few years having a canon asexual? I quickly went through Todd’s history in seasons one and two, and while I found instances that supported my headcanon, they could equally be explained by other things. The most obvious explanation was that Todd was actually gay (which, let’s face it, would be a much more typical plot line for a popular dramedy show).

And so, I continued the season, trying to distance myself from my own experiences and emotions, but I couldn’t shake that feeling of familiarity. In particular, it reared its head again when Todd finally found out the truth of what happened and angrily confronted BoJack. His scathing takedown seemed so out of character, and yet, it matched my own heightened emotions. In the same way that I found this to be BoJack’s ultimate betrayal, Todd did too. The difference between this reaction and his response to the (arguably much worse) sabotage of his rock opera was striking. And while it could be explained away by being a cumulative effect—the straw that finally broke the camel’s back—I couldn’t help but tie it back to Todd’s potential asexuality.

First of all, despite knowing that Emily had left their business due to BoJack, the fact that Todd hadn’t even considered that the reason could be because they had slept together (despite Emily making it pretty clear) rang true. I know I can’t speak for all asexuals, but I’ve personally found that when you don’t experience sexual attraction, sometimes it’s easy to underestimate its influence over other people. It’s just not a concept that immediately and freely springs to mind. And I think it was precisely that sudden shock that made it even worse for Todd and caused him to lash out further.

todd-sex

In a season that strived to give Todd a more defined arc, rather than just a series of wacky misadventures, the argument with BoJack was a pivotal moment for the character. And yet, it is exactly that same arc that made his words seem cruel and hypocritical. Could Todd really criticize BoJack for being a shitty person in a season that saw him at his shittiest? Even as someone who could empathize with him, I recognized that Todd’s treatment of Emily was less than ideal. Not to mention him completely destroying his one successful business venture by turning it from a clever solution to a harrowing social issue (women being harassed by ride-share/taxi drivers) to something that perpetuated the very problem it was trying to solve. And while the reason for that change can be chalked up to being part of the setup to one of the most intricately constructed callbacks in television history, it ultimately showed that Todd was every bit as tone-deaf and self-sabotaging as BoJack.

And while in hindsight, a lot of people seemed to think that Todd’s reaction was even more unjustified by the reveal of his asexuality, for me it made all the more sense. I’ve seen a lot of people question why Todd would even care about BoJack sleeping with Emily if he had no intention of having sex with her himself, and while I admit that it’s a complicated scenario, it’s also a familiar one. First of all, while Todd had unceremoniously rejected Emily, BoJack had no idea of his potential asexuality, so it was still a dick move. Secondly, while Todd may have had absolutely no desire to sleep with Emily, that doesn’t mean he didn’t have feelings for her. We’ve yet to know if Todd is also aromantic (does not feel romantic attraction), but if he isn’t, he could have still had strong romantic feelings towards her. And, coming from someone who is both asexual and aromantic, even if he harbored no romantic feelings towards her, he could still feel betrayed by BoJack’s actions.

In fact, it is the latter scenario that resonates with me most (no doubt because it is the most reflective of my own experience). Because Todd is presented as someone who is only just beginning to recognize and come to terms with his asexuality, it would make sense that he would still be greatly confused by his feelings (or lack thereof). And, from personal experience, I know how that confusion can lead to negative and self-loathing thoughts. Todd clearly cared about Emily, but he was aware that he couldn’t give her what she wanted. So after BoJack breezes in and gives her the one thing Todd can’t, it’s understandable why he would feel so betrayed.

Contrary to popular belief, even as someone who is both aromantic and asexual, I still have the capacity to care deeply for people. And I also know what it’s like to feel like you’ll never be enough for them. Because of this, Todd’s reaction made sense. He struck me as being every bit as angry with himself as he was BoJack. And, intentional or not, that’s a heartbreakingly realistic way of portraying a person coming to terms with their asexuality.

Which is why I wasn’t surprised by how the team chose to depict Todd’s actual coming out. While multiple characters wondering aloud (or outright asking) if he was gay could be seen as a device to heighten the “twist,” it was actually a realistic depiction of a society that struggles to see anything beyond “straight” and “not straight.” And so too, was Todd’s reply (which, as previously mentioned, was almost identical to the kind of thing I said before recognizing my own asexuality):

“I’m not gay. I mean, I don’t think I am, but… I don’t think I’m straight, either. I don’t know what I am. I think I might be nothing.”

toddnothing

But the thing that I found to be the most remarkable was not only Emily’s wonderful reaction to Todd’s admission (if only we could all have an Emily in our life) but the way the show itself treated the reveal like it was no big deal. One minute the character was making this emotionally significant admission, the next we were in the middle of a classic Todd caper. This wasn’t a “very special episode” exploring and exploiting a hot-button topic for ratings; this was just another episode. Similarly, by allowing the audience to get to know Todd for almost three entire seasons before introducing his asexuality, it transformed him from “an asexual character” to “a character that happens to be asexual.” In a world where any semblance of “progressive” narrative arcs tend to be criticized as being pandering or tokenism, the Todd reveal felt like a natural progression of an already established character.

Of course, going forward, there’s still a lot of room to explore Todd’s asexuality, and with that comes the potential for less-than-ideal reactions. I’m particularly interested in BoJack’s response because, as someone who’s known a lot of BoJack types in my life, I know how difficult something like a person not experiencing sexual attraction can be for some people to understand. I imagine that someone like BoJack, who admits that he has sex to fulfill “a deep need to connect to the world at large” when confessing to sleeping with Emily, would find the concept of asexuality unfathomable. And the mere fact that Todd is essentially BoJack’s sexual antithesis is a fascinating addendum to an already complex relationship and one I look forward to seeing explored further.

It will also be interesting to see if the show will ever actually use the term “asexual.” While I possessed the language to correctly identify what the creators were suggesting, many others would not. I do know some members of the asexual community have criticized the show’s choice to omit the term. However, I also feel like its use may have felt unnatural or forced, and have been damaging in its own right. Todd is clearly at an early stage of his understanding of his sexuality, and much like a real-life person, he probably has had little to no exposure to the term. In a recent interview with Decider, Bob-Waksberg addressed the issue by stating, “I guess I’m avoiding putting a label on him at this point because he’s yet to put a label on himself.”

However, the omission did make me wonder whether (had I still remained in the dark about my own asexuality when I watched the episode) if it would have been enough for me to self-identify. I’m optimistic that, much like my actual discovery, I would have related to Todd’s answer, and hopefully, just by being a fan and seeking out articles about the show I would have stumbled across interviews with Bob-Waksberg and Aaron Paul (Todd’s voice actor) that addressed the issue. And hopefully, by reading those articles, it would have exposed me to the term, and everything would have fallen into place.

But while asexual representation is important to help aces to self-identify, it’s also vital to humanize and normalize them to non-aces, something that BoJack Horseman no doubt achieves. It sounds like an odd thing to care about on a show where animals and humans are presented as equals, but I cannot stress how important it was to me that out of all the available characters to be asexual, that Todd was human. This is because, while any type of asexual representation is rare, historically those depictions tend to involve nonhuman entities such as aliens and robots. And even when the characters are human, they are often depicted as having atypical human traits such as being psychopathic serial killers, or reclusive geniuses.

So for Todd—wonderful, weird, flawed Todd—to be depicted as someone who does not experience sexual attraction, yet is still inherently human, is a tremendous achievement for asexual representation. Furthermore, it is one that deserves to be celebrated by the community, regardless if the show used the actual term, or not. And who knows what next season will bring? Maybe Emily will help Todd identify his asexuality. Perhaps Diane will write an article about the topic for GirlCroosh. Or maybe Todd will continue to live his life without labels, just as some real-life people who don’t experience sexual attraction do. But whatever happens, it will not diminish what season three of BoJack Horseman has achieved—a realistic, relatable depiction of asexuality presented in a medium that often ignores or exploits alternative orientations. Todd may not be the first asexual to be depicted in mainstream pop-culture, but he’s certainly the one we deserved.

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Nico is a freelance writer from Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about asexual and aromantic activism and blogs about both the discovery and acceptance of her aro/ace identity at (A)Sex And The City. You can also find her on Twitter @asexandthecity.

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