All About that Ace: representing asexuality and queer identity in BoJack Horseman

by Sarah E. S. Sinwell

Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and starring the voices of Will Arnett (as BoJack), Amy Sedaris (as Princess Caroline), Alison Brie (as Diane), and Aaron Paul (as Todd), the adult animated series BoJack Horseman (Netflix, 2014-2020) is perhaps most famous for kickstarting a rebirth of the adult animated series on streaming platforms. After BoJack Horseman came series such as Big Mouth (Netflix, 2017-present), Tuca and Bertie (Netflix, 2019), and Undone (Amazon, 2019). Nominated for three Emmys for Outstanding Animated Program and winner of four Critic’s Choice Television Awards for Best Animated Series, BoJack Horseman was named “the best animated series of all time” by IndieWire in 2018 (Miller 2018). [open reference page in new window] However, in 2017, BoJack Horseman also became famous for being the first television show to feature a character to come out as asexual.

The story of the washed-up nineties ABC sitcom star of Horsin’ Around, BoJack Horseman’s central character is BoJack himself. He’s constantly faced with the cancellation of his cheesy sitcom, his brief success and fame, and his subsequent descent into alcoholism and depression. And, like many other animated adult sitcoms such as The Simpsons (Fox, 1989-present), Family Guy (Fox, 1999-present), and Bob’s Burgers (Fox, 2011-present), the show’s secondary characters such as Princess Caroline, Diane, and Todd become just as central to the show’s narrative as BoJack.

The main characters of BoJack Horseman—Diane, Todd, BoJack, Princess Carolyn, Mr. Peanutbutter—complete with their most canonical facial expressions.

This essay focuses on the character of Todd Chavez (voiced by Aaron Paul) who has been recognized as the first television character to come out as asexual. Studying not only his coming out process (particularly throughout season four but through other seasons as well), but also how the show represents asexuality and LGBTQIA+ identities through his character and others, I argue for the construction of asexuality as queer. By incorporating a feminist and queer analysis of asexuality, I will also examine how asexuality can be understood in relation to the construction of animated animals and the idea of the human/non-human. Through an analysis of how BoJack Horseman represents asexuality onscreen, I will also investigate how the show creates asexual community, resists heteronormativity, and promotes asexual and queer visibility on television.

Asexuality and queerness on television

An asexual is defined as “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” (Cerankowski and Milks 2014, AVEN 2020). Stereotypically, asexuality has often been conflated with sexual trauma, desexualization, and the lack of sexual desirability (Bogaert 2004 and 2006; Prause and Graham 2007; Scherrer 2008; Cerankowski and Milks 2014; Corrigan, Gupta, and Morrison 2014; Decker 2014; Gressgard 2014; Gupta 2019; Cuthbert 2019; Mitchell and Honeycutt 2019; Przybylo 2019). [Open included bibliography on asexuality in new window] For example, in shows such as House (Fox, 2004-2012), Law and Order: SVU (NBC, 1999-present), and Huge (ABC Family, 2010), asexuality was associated not only with pathology and mental illness, but also desexualization and the non-normative body (Sinwell 2014).

Since the founding of AVEN (the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) in 2001, an online network for asexual education, wikis, social groups, etc., asexual visibility has been an increasingly studied subject within the LGBTQIA+ community. Since 2001, AVEN has strived to represent asexuality as a sexuality rather than a pathology. In fact, the A was added for asexuality within the LGBTQIA+ as a means of including asexual people within the larger queer community. Over the past two decades, asexuality has also been continually defined and (re)defined to include romantic asexuals and aromantic asexuals (also called aros and aces), as well as demisexuals (“someone who can only experience sexual attraction or desire after an emotional bond has been formed”), and gray-asexuals or gray-sexuals (“someone who identifies with the area between asexuality and sexuality”) (AVEN 2020). Like queerness itself, the definition of asexuality is also what Annemarie Jagose in Queer Theory: An Introduction calls “an identity under construction, a site of permanent becoming” (1996, 131). Thus, just as asexuality as a term and as a part of the LGBTQIA+ community is constantly changing, so, too, does the character of Todd and his relationship to his own (a)sexuality.

Promotional material for Dexter where the (asexual) character of Dexter is represented as a (friendly) serial killer. Promotional material for Mysterious Skin where asexuality is associated with victimization and abuse.

When analyzing the representation of queer characters on television, often the first stage of understanding this form of representation is presence (the existence of queer characters onscreen even if they are minor characters such as the gay best friend, gay neighbor, etc.). Next, one might search for positive representation. These characters are not just criminals, serial killers, or victims, as in many examples such as Dexter (Showtime, 2006-2013), Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004), and Law and Order: SVU (NBC, 1999-present). Codirector of Ace Los Angeles (a social group for people on the asexual spectrum) Samantha Chappell says, “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” (Kliegman 2016).

Thus, in order to combat these negative representations, one must not only create positive representations, but also representations that consist of complex, multifaceted, layered characters. The scriptwriter should develop characters defined not only by their asexuality but also allowed to be as complicated as sexual and non-queer characters. In BoJack Horseman, not only does Todd develop as a character beyond his sexuality and beyond one episode, but he does so throughout multiple seasons, multiple episodes, and in multiple relationships.

As Mary Beltran and Melanie Kohnen have argued,

“meaningful diversity in television occurs when characters of color move beyond token status and appear as complex people with rich interiority and the agency to drive the narrative forward” (Beltran 2014; Kohnen 2015, 88).

In “The Rabbit in Drag,” Sam Abel (1995) discusses the queer potential of animated characters such as Bugs Bunny and many critics have also discussed the presence of queer characters on animated shows such as The Simpsons (Fox, 1989-present) and South Park (Comedy Central, 1997-present) (Stabile and Harrison 2003; Padva 2008; Wells 2015; Pugh 2018). Though BoJack Horseman is not backed and produced by queer creators like Steven Universe (Cartoon Network, 2013-2020), Adventure Time (Cartoon Network, 2010-2018)and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix, 2018-2020), it is attempting to open up the ideas of queerness and asexuality on television (Dean 2020). Often dubbed the “invisible orientation,” asexuality has been understood as an invisible category of sexuality and only recently imagined as included in both the media and within the LGBTQIA+ community (Bogaert 2004; Bogaert 2006; Scherrer 2008; Chasin 2011; Gressgard 2013; Decker 2014; Gupta 2019; Cuthbert 2019). As Giffney and Hird argue,

“The unremitting emphasis in queer theoretical work on fluidity, über-inclusivity, indeterminacy, indefinability, unknowability, the preposterous, impossibility, unthinkability, unintelligibility, meaninglessness and that which is unrepresentable is an attempt to undo normative entanglements and fashion alternative imaginaries” (Giffney and Hird, 2008, 4).

In the early 2000s, following the founding of AVEN by spokesperson and out asexual David Jay, much of the discussion of asexuality centered around their presence on talk shows such as The View (ABC, 1997-present) and The Montel Williams Show (CBS, 1991-2008) (Cerankowski, 2014). Additionally, asexual identity also featured on crime shows such as Law and Order: SVU (NBC, 1999-present), House (Fox, 2004-2012), and Dexter. However, as I have noted in my own essay on the representation of asexuality in the media entitled “Aliens and Asexuality: Media Representation, Queerness, and Asexual Visibility,” these representations usually only lasted for a single episode and frequently associated sexuality with pathology and even psychosis (Sinwell, 2014).

In this essay, I argue that asexuality is often linked to pathology, normalcy, and non-normative bodies, pointing out that “asexuality has traditionally (and often stereotypically) been represented onscreen in relation to desexualization” (2014, 166). Thus, asexual people were often represented only through such non-normative and desexualized bodily categories as fatness, nerdiness, Asian-ness, and disability. In her discussion of “spectacular asexuality,” Karli Cerankowski argues,

“The spectacular ambiguity and ambivalence of queer bodies within regimes of knowing may continue to shock audiences with the unknown and unthought-of possibilities in regards to what “normal” sexuality looks like” (2014, 156).

In BoJack Horseman, Todd’s character represents his asexuality as almost prototypically normal. Unlike the movie stars, agents, and writers that are primarily present on the show, Todd is instead a guy-next door that is neither identified with fame nor celebrity. As Cerankowski and others point out, this concern and desire for queer and asexual visibility is many layered, for as Lynn Joyrich notes,

“The language of visibility, as a particular discourse of knowledge, a particular mode of meditation, and a particular political programme, thus retains its own blind spots” (2009, 17).

Queer television itself is highly contested, intertwining narratives of not only representation, but also production, reception, form, and the industry. As Glyn Davis and Gary Needham note in Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics (2008), “what might the “queer” of a queer television studies be”? Like Davis and Needham, Becker (2006), Brennan (2019) Doty (1993, 2000), Griffin (2016), Chambers (2009), Himberg (2018), Kohnen (2015), Miller (2019), Parsemain (2019), Pugh (2019), Raun (2016), Steinbock (2018), Villarejo (2014), and others, this essay seeks to explain what makes BoJack Horseman queer.

In Queer TV, Glyn Davis and Gary Needham point out that “queer characters and people on television remain largely white” and “gay men appear more than lesbians, bisexuals, and trans individuals” (2009, 3). In her discussion of queer television studies, Lynne Joyrich argues that “queer television studies then produce a tension between the articulation of the mainstream and the unsettling of the mainstream” (2014, 133). BoJack Horseman engages with this tension, centering around its straight male character of BoJack, while also enabling alternative forms of queer representation through characters such as Todd. If, as Frederik Dhaenens and others have argued, “the medium of television is governed by heteronormativity” (2014, 520), then BoJack Horseman offers up new forms of queer representation through its characterization of Todd and his asexuality.