Sirens Going off in My Head: Why I Won’t Be Watching BoJack Horseman (Yet)
My first experience with asexual representation on television was the show Sirens. When I heard that there was an asexual character on BoJack Horseman, memories of the emotional roller coaster I underwent watching Sirens came racing back. I love a good laugh, but I do not generally enjoy mainstream television comedies. They often “punch down” at marginalized identities and reduce people to unrealistic caricatures. Unfortunately, Sirens was no exception.
Sirens was a crass comedy about a group of immature and dysfunctional paramedics: Johnny, Hank, and, new recruit, Brian. The show aired in spring 2014 and ran for two seasons. I started watching and stuck with it for the entire first season for one reason: Brian’s love interest, an asexual paramedic who worked on a different ambulance, Valentina “Voodoo” Dunacci. Valentina earned her problematic nickname “Voodoo” by having an interest in all things strange and creepy.
In the episode “The Finger,” Hank and Johnny tell Brian that Valentina’s asexuality meant he “dodged a bullet,” implying that if he dated Valentina he would probably end up locked in a dungeon or dismembered. Despite these unfortunate comments, Valentina is a friendly and charismatic character, and Brian initially seems to accept both her asexuality and her dark interests in stride. At the end of “The Finger,” he tells Valentina he doesn’t care if they never have sex, he just wants to be around her. He then presents her with the gift of a severed finger he acquired on a job, which she accepts with delight. Morbidity aside, this moment gave me a lot of hope.
I lived for scenes about Valentina, even as I had to acknowledge that many of them centered around how unfortunate and/or funny it was that Brian couldn’t have sex with her. To his credit, Brian was consistently positive about the relationship and Valentina’s asexuality — though his positivity was often portrayed as naivete. I found the rest of the show difficult to stomach, however, and stopped watching after the first season.
I read summaries of Valentina’s storyline for season two, confirming that my decision to stop watching had been right. In the episode “Transcendual,” Brian notices that he hasn’t been thinking about sex the way he used to and believes his relationship with Valentina has allowed him to transcend sexual desire. He begins identifying as “transcendual.” This felt suspiciously like a jab at how the ace community, as well as the queer community at large, uses and experiments with new language to describe our identities and experiences. Valentina spends the entire episode doing things like taking Brian to a strip club to prove that he will never be satisfied in a relationship without sex long term. Brian eventually agrees, and they end their nontraditional relationship. Even though I was no longer watching the show, knowing that the creators had made this decision felt like a slap in the face.
Later in the season Valentina gets an asexual boyfriend, which may have provided some positive ace representation if this relationship had ever actually been shown on screen. However, the boyfriend is never seen and is only mentioned briefly. He seems to exist purely to reinforce the idea that Brian and Valentina will never be together and that aces can only date each other. All in all, despite the show's potential, more was wrong with the asexual representation in Sirens than was right.
Yet, even after Sirens was discontinued, it managed to hurt me. There is a moment in “The Finger” when Brian first researches asexuality and starts telling Valentina what he learned about the online community and symbols. Valentina shuts him down because she just is asexual and does not feel a need to “march in a parade or anything.” While individual aces can certainly feel this way, the show implied that the very idea of an ace community — of people coming together online, and especially coming together offline and joining Pride marches — was ridiculous. The only time aces needed to be visible was as a warning for non-ace people who would otherwise want to date them.
When I came out to a friend who had watched Sirens, he immediately brought up Valentina’s character and how much he enjoyed the parade line. While trying to be supportive, he implied that I should just “be” asexual without making a big deal about it, like Valentina. He had absorbed that attitude of erasure, and thought it was acceptance.
My disappointment in Sirens is why I am unlikely to watch a show just for the ace representation again, unless I am certain I will not regret it. While BoJack Horseman seems to be a much better quality show than Sirens, it is still not my style of television. The series is an animated dark comedy about fame, addiction, and mental illness. I have not watched most of the show and probably never will, but at this point I have seen all of the scenes with ace representation via YouTube clips and the endless screenshots and gifs that have spread through social media. It is definitely the best representation of asexuality on mainstream television, but that is a low bar.
There is one thing I think BoJack is doing really well that I have not seen discussed much. I am thinking of the boat scene in Season 4 in particular, which features Todd, a self-identified ace character at a gathering with other ace people:
Todd: “I know it’s pretty wild for an asexual to get married, but…”
Ace 1: “Not really, John and I are aces and we’re married.”
Ace 2: “Our wedding was nautical-themed.”
Todd: “Why nautical? Is that, like, an asexual thing?”
Ace 2: “No man, we just really like boats.”
Ace 1: “Asexual just means you’re not interested in sex. Some asexuals are also aromantic, but others have relationships like anyone else.”
Todd: “But involving boats?”
Ace 2: “I feel like you’re getting really hung up on the boats thing.”
Todd: “So, it’s not weird for an ace to get married?”
Ace 1: “No, if you found someone who really accepts you for who you are, go for it.”
Putting aside the problematic language for now, this boat joke breaks up the monotony of the “ace 101” conversation. This humorous format — a rare example of media laughing with us and not at us — allows for more information to be conveyed without becoming tedious. Even those of us who have heard ace/aro 101s dozens of times can laugh at the boat misunderstanding. This is potentially a very effective format for education on ace issues within media.
The show does an excellent job of showing a character who struggles with being ace before they have a name for it, then discovers the label and finds community. I understand why people feel so validated. When the gifs started popping up on my timeline of an ace meet-up being shown on TV, I got emotional too. It is such a powerful image. Asexuality can feel very isolating, and seeing a character on television attend an ace community event is revolutionary.
But, the more I learned about the ace representation on BoJack, the more disappointed I became. To start, the word “asexual” is never correctly defined in the show. In the first scene the term "asexual" appears, it is defined as “not sexual.” The next time, as quoted above, it’s explained as “not interested in sex.” And, of course, at the end of the previous season Todd describes himself as being “nothing.” These descriptions are inaccurate or, at best, incomplete.
Second, attraction is never mentioned. Instead we get the above explanation that “some aces are also aromantic, but others have relationships like anyone else.” This conflates romantic orientations with behavior, and also dehumanizes aromantics because they are not “like anyone else.” The only romantic orientation ever named is aromantic, and it is only mentioned in that one throwaway line. For all of the characters we see, “asexual” is their whole orientation, and the audience can assume that all of them want to date “like anyone else.”
BoJack later implies that aces should only date each other and relationships between aces and allos won’t work. Todd and his fiancée break it off partially because of his asexuality, When another character asks Todd out later, he tells her he’s asexual. She responds that she is too--which is why she is asking him out. Todd’s failed relationships are considered an inevitable result of his orientation, and this new potential relationship is only considered viable because both characters are ace.
People may see ace representation on BoJack and be inspired to do further research on asexuality. However, I am always suspicious of this as a justification for inaccuracies. For one, the writer of that horrific House episode still clings to it. Many in the ace community have called out the horrible representation since “Better Half” aired in 2012. In this episode, House debunks an allegedly ace couple (one has a tumor, the other was pretending) and proves that anyone who doesn’t want sex is “dead, dying, or lying.” The episode’s writer has said that any representation will generate wider awareness of asexuality, and that audiences are smart enough to do their own research and realize not all asexuals are faking it or suffering from hidden deadly ailments. This demonstrates that the argument that “people will do their own research” can be used to excuse even horrendous portrayals. I am also wary of this assumption because of my own experience.
I heard of asexuality years before I realized I could be ace. It just never occurred to me that the label could apply, even though I had a lot of trouble fitting into an allosexual world and could have really used that understanding. This was because I thought my aesthetic and sensual attractions were sexual. After all, asexuals felt “nothing” and I certainly felt something. Sometimes those of us who need this information most don’t know to go looking for it. Society impresses upon us the idea that all attraction is sexual attraction. I did not know it was possible to feel something different, even when I was feeling something different.
Without this essential missing piece of the puzzle, I assumed I was bi and just really bad at it. Had I watched BoJack during that period, I doubt it would have changed anything. I did not need to know that asexuals existed — I already knew that. I needed to know what asexuality actually was (and what sexual attraction wasn’t), before I could understand that it applied to me. BoJack fails to provide this information.
Not all aces resonate with the attraction-based definition of asexuality, or the concept of attraction in general. That is totally valid. However, it strains credulity to have a show with so many ace characters, who discuss their asexuality multiple times, yet somehow never mention attraction or romantic identities. Especially in the above scene where an ace couple at a meet-up is explaining to a new member that some aces are in romantic relationships. The very fact that the show has multiple ace characters is a great opportunity for different experiences of asexuality to be represented — but that never happens. Instead, the creators decided to leave romantic orientations and nonsexual attraction out of their storylines, along with mixed relationships, and aces who are interested in sex. BoJack may not come out and mock these concepts like Sirens, but their absence speaks volumes.
I want to make it clear that there is nothing wrong with being happy about Todd — not to mention the six (or more?) other aces in the show! It seems like the creative team behind BoJack wanted to do a good job — they even reached out to Aces LA during the writing process. This is why it is even more essential that we not just praise how they got it right, but critique how they got it wrong. If they really do care, they may pay attention to the community feedback and do better in later seasons.
For all of Sirens’ flaws, my heart soared during some of the scenes with Valentina. I felt a type of connection to her character I had never experienced before. Seeing an engaging, capable, badass woman claim her asexual identity on screen made me feel less alone. This is why representation matters.
But holding representation to a high standard matters, too. I want media that helps questioning aces find themselves, and does not reinforce harmful attitudes to the general public. Comedies have a lot of potential to “punch up” against allonormativity and educate about asexuality and aromanticism in accessible and entertaining ways. From where I am sitting, BoJack hasn’t gotten there.