At a time of greater inclusivity, asexual people remain invisible in Western culture. How can media and entertainment brands better represent them?
Shows like BoJack Horseman capture the complexities of existing as an asexual in American culture – a society that continues to enforce a narrative of asexual abnormality.
Representation matters. it is a justifiably popular phrase given that who and what we encounter through media can change, define and shape our identities as human beings, even if on a subconscious level. This is especially true for marginalised groups who are excluded from the mainstream or the most accessible forms of media. For asexual people, who are invisible in Western culture, media and entertainment brands play a key role in retaining a focus on the sexual. For them, representation does matter; it can be affirming when done well, but also harmful when not.
Academics Jamie Capuzza and Leland Spencer have explored this with regard to transgender representation, stating 'both the quantity and quality of transgender television depictions' matter due to the power of media to construct, reinforce and challenge existing social definitions of gender. They also argue that media representation can alter how transgender people see themselves. In my view, the same can be said of asexual representations, given how misunderstood the identity is. This makes the community vulnerable to invalidating portrayals that reinforce problematic perceptions of asexuality and threaten to redefine how it is perceived.
That said, asexuality has been present on our screens. One of the most prominent characters interpreted to be asexual was Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, a physicist initially portrayed as disinterested in sex and romance. According to Andrea McClanahan, professor of communication at East Stroudsburg University, Cooper challenged ‘the boundaries of hegemonic masculinity by falling into a more asexual role when it comes to physical relationships’.
As the show progresses, Cooper meets Amy Farrah Fowler, a character equally disinterested in sexual relations, who says from the start: ‘You should know that all forms of physical contact up to and including coitus are off the table.’ While writer Trilby Beresford commented that Cooper and Fowler ‘enjoyed a genuine friendship that felt unique to sitcom television – because it wasn't about sex’, that aspect soon dissolved. In later series the writers changed their mind – the two formed a sexual relationship.
It’s time for the media to employ quality representation that truly validates those who identify as asexual.
Positively, the character of Todd Chavez in BoJack Horseman portrays many affirming asexual experiences. Chavez’s official coming out moment occurs when he openly reveals his asexual identity for the first time to BoJack (a rare occurrence for tv, let alone the media) before stating: ‘I’m sure you think that’s weird’ in reference to wider perceptions of asexuality as abnormal. While BoJack Horseman captures the complexities of existing as an asexual individual today in American culture – a society that continues to enforce a narrative of sexual normalcy and asexual abnormality – the show validates Chavez’s asexuality, with a story that continues in an affirming fashion.
It is promising that asexual representations are changing from the impossible friendship of Cooper and Fowler to empowering representations like Todd Chavez. But there should be greater awareness that quality of representation is always more important than quantity. It’s not constructive to portray a misunderstood or marginalised group in a way that reinforces negative or destructive stereotypes. In my view, the success of Todd Chavez’s asexual representation can be attributed to the show’s validation of asexual identity as normal.
It’s time for the mainstream media – and even other brands – to learn from these examples and employ quality representation that truly validates those who identify as asexual. Consulting asexual people and community resources when writing plot lines or covering asexuality in news articles will improve the quality of asexual representation. Normalising non-sexual relationships, or otherwise incorporating representations of healthy relationships without sexual attraction, will also intrinsically benefit asexual communities.
Michael Paramo is founder of quarterly journal The Asexual, a platform that elevates discourse, primarily on (a)sexuality, gender and attraction, as well as offering a space for people to publish their work.