Caveat: This post contains minor spoilers for BoJack Horseman season four, proceed with caution.
Something I didn’t mention in my brief introduction to this blog is my interest in animated television. And while my tastes usually veer toward the science fiction (Rick and Morty) or fantasy (Avatar; The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra) for this post I would like to focus on an animated show that is – despite the sentient, talking animals – incredibly realistic and set in a satirized version of Hollywood that goes by (following the theft of the ‘D’) ‘Hollywoo.’
Since I finished binging the show just about a week ago a particular aspect, or should I say character, has been on my mind near constantly. I am referring, of course, to Todd Chavez. If you’re unfamiliar with BoJack Horseman, it’s a an adult dark comedy series with four seasons on Netflix that has been largely lauded for its realistic portrayal of mental illness. It also breaks ground for the Queer Frontier at the conclusion of its third series when Todd is revealed to be asexual.
Before that groundbreaking moment, however, the third series of the show kicked off with an episode set nine years in the past (according to the in-show narrative) in the year 2007. The episode is the second of the third series, called ‘The BoJack Horseman Show,’ and it introduces Emily – an old friend of Todd’s who has a clear romantic and sexual interest in him. From her arrival on the show, there was something about Emily that irked me. On the whole she was incredibly likable, a female character who was self-assured enough to chase after what she wanted. The problem was that what she wanted was Todd.
I quickly realized that my issue with Emily was not actually with Emily, but instead with the relationship she was shown to have with Todd as the two eventually end up lip-locked during a bout of ‘seven minutes in heaven.’ It wasn’t that I had spent the first two seasons of the show thinking of Todd as a gay character, I hadn’t. In fact, up until this point in the show Todd had not been shown either sexually or romantically with any other character of any gender, nor did he ever seem particularly interested in finding a partner.
Near the end of the episode set in 2007, Emily asks Todd if he wants to have sex, and Todd becomes visibly anxious before escaping the situation with evident relief when Emily’s father comes home early. It was at this moment in the show that I began to understand why this relationship had irked me, it was obviously, really: Todd was asexual.
The thing about being queer is that I feel like I’m always screaming in frustration for representation, but I don’t think I ever actually expect to see said representation actualized on-screen. So, despite my surety that Todd was an asexual character, I never expected BoJack Horseman the Netflix series to actually confirm my suspicions. You can imagine my unadulterated joy when it did.
Before BoJack Horseman I could count the number of asexual characters depicted in television or cinema on one hand, and – despite Raphael Santiago from Freefrom’s Shadowhunters – none of the characters who come to mind as asexual are ever confirmed to identify as such, and without clarification there can be no representation. But BoJack Horseman’s creators not only allowed this character to come out as asexual, but they did not once shy away from Todd’s queer identity.
It is far too typical, especially in the film industry, to find studios lauding themselves as queer ground breakers – far too eager to claim the “First Gay Character™” of whatever franchise or genre their films belong to. In 2016 alone, Beauty and the Beast, Power Rangers, Star Trek Beyond, and Alien: Covenant were all guilty of this to some extent, though by no means are they the complete list of titles that boasted queer representation where queer characters and moments were sorely lacking. Not to mention that all of these titles were meant to deal with a queer identity (homosexuality) that is more or less understood within the cultural mindset.
This is not the case with asexuality, there is very little dialogue surrounding the existence and acceptance of people who have no sexual desire. Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat (the Internet’s favourite punching bag) once went so far as to clarify that his iteration of Sherlock was not asexual, but simply too distracted/pre-occupied for sex. (https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2012/jan/20/steven-moffat-sherlock-doctor-who) Why? Because, in his words, asexuality is ‘boring.’ An unimaginative sentiment from an unimaginative man that is not only massively insulting to asexual people, but furthers the falsehood that asexual people are sexless, loveless robots.
Yet, BoJack Horseman completely disregards this stereotype and instead seeks to present an honest and real take on asexual identity, going so far as to include scenes of asexual meet-ups wherein one character notably says, ‘some asexuals are also aromantic, but others have relationships like anyone else.’ (S4:E6). If asexual representation is rare (and it is) then acknowledgement of the separation between sexual and romantic desire within television and cinema is practically unheard of.
Sure, BoJack Horseman’s portrayal of asexuality may not be perfect (let’s face it, what isn’t even a little bit problematic?) but the dialogue it opens to advance the understanding of both sexual and romantic queer identities cannot be understated in its importance. What is more still is that the show presents a self-aware front that not only represents asexual identity, but allows Todd to grow into himself while simultaneously exploring the damage that lack of proper queer representation inflicts.
For me, the most heartbreaking moment of BoJack Horseman is when – after Todd has come out as asexual to BoJack – he says, ‘I don’t think I’m allowed to be in love.’ (S4:E3). Not only is that sentiment total bullshit (romantic love and sexual desire are unquestionably separate entities) but it further reflects the mainstream notion of asexuality that embraces the harmful (and false) image of a cold, robotic individual who lacks all emotion. As if sexual desire dictates empathy.
I sincerely hope that season five of BoJack Horseman will continue to explore queer identities with a nuanced hand, and I would challenge anyone (*cough* Moffatt *cough*) to come up with a convincing argument that Todd Chavez is “boring.” (There are some Dentist Clowns in the Hollywoo forests who have already proved you wrong).