Why Positive Representations Of Asexuals On TV Are So Important
Many of the few asexual-coded characters in mainstream media have been depicted as outcasts or social deviants — and fans hope that Jughead on Riverdale could change that.
If you turn to page three of Jughead #4, part of the Archie Comics reboot series written by Chip Zdarsky and illustrated by Erica Henderson, you’ll find a striking exchange between the titular character and his friend Kevin Keller.
KEVIN: Look, there are only, like, five gay guys at Riverdale High! My romantic options can’t take that kind of hit! You just don’t get it ‘cause you’re asexual…
JUGHEAD: Yeah, well, it’s why I can think clearly and see this administration for what it is! I’m not hobbled by these hormonal impulses!
The comic was released in July 2015, and it was the first time Jughead was ever written to be canonically asexual; the reveal caused quite a stir. But Mr. Jones’ history with romantic and sexual aversion goes back much further than Zdarsky’s interpretation.
Jughead Jones has existed within the Archie Comics universe for over 75 years as an ardent self-professed “woman hater” — he’s more likely to be found jonesing for a burger at the local diner than trying to lock down a date with Betty Cooper or Veronica Lodge. He has good female friends, but the “woman hater” bit comes from his revulsion toward dating, and especially dating women. He thinks it’s ridiculous how his guy friends fawn over girls, and can’t fathom the idea of ever doing the same.
This is notable within the comics because the other characters in Riverdale, the central Archie Comics town, are so love- and sex-obsessed. The premise of the series was originally that two girls, Betty and Veronica, were fighting over who would end up with the eponymous Archie Andrews; and the vast majority of the secondary cast, from Midge Klump to Reggie Mantle, are in relationships or pursuing them at least some of the time. But not Jughead. Considering how beloved a character he’s been for decades — and how infrequently three-dimensional, non-evil aromantic and asexual characters are portrayed in media — Zdarsky’s comments about interpreting Jughead’s legendary standoffishness to be a (perfectly normal) expression of asexuality were groundbreaking.
To see an aromantic or asexual character who is as fleshed out, complex, and human as Jughead could make a huge difference in asexual representation.
After it was announced in January 2016 that the CW was going to adapt Archie Comics into a television series, a big question on fans’ minds was whether or not the show’s writers would choose to characterize Riverdale’s Jughead as asexual, in accordance with Zdarsky’s recent canon version of the character. Fans’ hopes were bolstered when Cole Sprouse, the actor cast to play Jughead, said in February 2017 interviews that he had “argued creatively” for an aromantic, asexual Jughead and wished the writers would consider the importance of representation in the show. “I hope that huge corporations like the CW recognize that this kind of representation is rare and severely important to people who resonate with it,” he said in an interview with Teen Vogue a few days before the first episode aired.
As viewers now know, Riverdale’s writers chose to write a Jughead–Betty pairing that emerged midway into the first season, a choice defended by Sprouse himself, who says that research into the comics’ history reveals that this narrative has “existed for a long time.” The defense here is that many times throughout the comics, Jughead has mentioned that if — and that’s a key if — he were into dating women, kissing women, the works, he would choose Betty. After the season finale, fans were left wondering if there’s no hope left for an asexual Jughead — or if there’s still a chance for an asexual reveal in the second season, which premieres tonight.
To see an aromantic or asexual character who is as fleshed out, complex, and human as Jughead could make a huge difference in asexual representation in popular culture — multifaceted and complex asexual characters on TV are exceedingly rare. Many of the few asexual-coded characters in mainstream media have historically been depicted as outcasts, social deviants, or outright evil. An asexual Jughead could go a long way in lessening the stigma that asexual and aromantic people face every day. Will the second season of Riverdale deliver?
It looks like there may still be hope. On a surprise Reddit AMA this past April as the first season approached its conclusion, Sprouse popped in to answer, among other things, a fan’s question about whether or not the actor still advocated for an (eventually) asexual Jughead as the show prepared to enter into its second season.
The answer? “Yes, I'm still a big proponent of this representation, and it needs to be done correctly.”
Even more recently, this September Sprouse responded again to a fan on a pre–Season 2 Reddit AMA who was curious about continued efforts to have asexual representation on Riverdale, saying, “Of course, I haven't stopped the [asexual representation] dialogue. ... Can't spoil too much unfortunately, but this topic was one of the first I discussed with Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa, the Riverdale showrunner] before this season started. I'm also of the mind that our show's discussion of such content needs to be done with tact, so that the group in question doesn't feel betrayed by some half-hearted attempt to make it feel honest. As I've said in the past, we need shoot these questions towards the creative team too~ every voice counts in this conversation.”
All of this points to one thing: Asexual Jughead might still be on the table, reigniting fans’ hopes that Riverdale could potentially reveal that Jughead finds romantic, sexual relationships aren’t for him after all. Showing a well-developed out asexual character like Jughead could fulfill a vacant space in asexual representation and give audiences unfamiliar with asexuality a better understanding of what the identity can encompass. But what could an asexual Jughead look like?
There’s a difference between characters who actively identify as asexual and those who seem as if they exhibit asexual qualities. Some, like the character Voodoo on the now-canceled USA Network show Sirens, outright says she’s asexual and that any romantic relationships she’s in will be strictly emotional, without any physical elements. (There are some characters on the show who don’t take asexuality seriously, and that’s problematic in itself, but Voodoo is not ashamed of her identity.) Ideally, Jughead would fall into this category. Others, like The Golden Girls’ Rose Nylund, reject sex or are confused by it but do not label themselves as asexual, leaving their actual orientation unknown. Still others, like characters who are shown without any romantic or sexual relationships in their stories, are even harder to pin down when it comes to their sexual identity.
It’s also important to note that within asexuality, there are a lot of gray areas. You can be asexual, for instance, and completely reject all forms of sex; or you might tolerate sex with only certain people or certain situations; or you might have and enjoy sex but rarely experience sexual attraction. All of the above can be considered asexual — and for that reason, there are a lot of different ways that an asexual Jughead could be portrayed. Those gray areas also means that many existing characters in other narratives can impact the mainstream perception of asexuality.
Because there are so many different variations of asexuality, there are also a lot of misconceptions about the identity. Many people think asexuality is made-up, a disease, or a sign of biological dysfunction. And although no one factor can take on the blame, these misconceptions continue to persist in part because of characters who exhibit what can be perceived as asexual features — since confirmed asexual characters are so rare — in mainstream media.
Although there are some recent examples who defy the mold, most asexual characters — that is, characters who have come closest to exhibiting the rejection of sex and love that is characteristic of asexuality — have long been branded as abnormal and “less human.” Consider Lord Voldemort, the central villain of the Harry Potter series. He was infamously incapable of love. JK Rowling has said Voldemort “loved only power, and himself,” and through his deliberate decision not to love (among, you know, committing a ton of horrifying crimes in the pursuit of immortality), “dehumanized himself.” Following that logic, love = humanity, and since one huge expression of love in the series is desire for another person, Voldemort’s apparent aromanticism and asexuality strip him of much of what would have qualified him as human.
Because there are so many different variations of asexuality, there are also a lot of misconceptions about the identity.
Dexter Morgan, the oddly endearing serial-killing antihero of the Showtime series Dexter, is another prime example of a character whose sociopathy and villainous actions are linked to his inability to love (even if Dexter kills “for good,” he’s still killing people). Dexter, with his disinterest in love and sex, could have easily been interpreted as asexual in early seasons, but the character was gradually written into more sexual scenarios as the show progressed. What audiences were left with by the end of the TV series was a character who showed more signs of being sexually repressed than anything else, perhaps in a bid to show the humanity in the serial killer. (Interestingly, the book version of the same character was portrayed as disinterested in sex and only ever engaged enough to convince his wife he was “normal” — sexual activity was much more of a cover for him than something he was genuinely interested in.) In the end, even Dexter, a character who is a literal serial killer, was written to have more sexual relationships to show “improvement” and that he was getting “better.”
And these are just a couple characters for whom aromantic or asexual qualities — or both — have been used as evidence of their abnormality or social deviance. Sherlock Holmes is another example of how sociopathy and a lack of sexual connections play into the perception of “asexuality = pathology.” Holmes, a brilliant logician and detective who is “married to [his] work” in the BBC adaption, is a self-professed “high-functioning sociopath” with little regard for tact and an underdeveloped sarcasm radar.
Throughout the BBC show, Holmes is frequently referred to as strange and unusual in a distinctly negative way — and though this isn’t solely because of his indifference to sexuality, that indifference is one thing that makes him seem more alien. The fact that he has no regard for sexual fulfillment is another thing that, along with his inhuman skills, inability to understand common jokes, sometimes-sociopathic qualities, and odd idiosyncrasies, sets him apart from “regular” humans. Along a similar vein, Data, an officer aboard the Star Trek Starfleet in Star Trek: The Next Generation and four of the franchise’s feature films (Star Trek Generations, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection, and Star Trek: Nemesis), goes a step farther in this asexuality-inhumanity spectrum. Instead of being figuratively inhuman, Data is literally inhuman — a robot — and has no sexual desire of his own in contrast to his fellow crewmates.
Asexual people in real life are also often told that their problem is likely medical rather than an acceptable identity, and there’s an episode of the medical-mystery drama House that demonstrates this perfectly. In “Better Half,” Dr. Gregory House sees a female patient who identifies as asexual and who is married to an asexual man. It’s the first time we see an asexual patient on the show, but by the end — shocker! — the husband isn’t actually asexual. He has a tumor in his pituitary gland that’s inhibiting his libido! And — double shocker! — his wife isn’t asexual, either. Instead, she’s been pretending to be asexual this whole time to make her husband feel less uncomfortable. More often than not, fans of potentially asexual characters are given the old bait and switch, like with Jughead in Season 1 of Riverdale. Surprise! the show reveals. They were romantic and/or sexual all along!
The show’s message is clear: Asexuality isn’t real, and if you think you’re asexual, you probably just have a tumor in the base of your brain from which you could potentially be cured. And while medical issues can affect sex drive, they’re not representative of all people who don’t have an interest in sex.
The House episode specifically reinforces the mentality that asexuality is not to be taken seriously — and worse, that it is, as David Jay, founder of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, put it, “problematic and pathological.” Onscreen asexuality isn’t generally shown, and even when it is, narratives like “Better Half” imply that it’s a curable, temporary condition rather than a legitimate, valid identity.
Certain kinds of entertainment are particularly bad when it comes to asexual representation. Particularly in the case of sitcoms, which rely on relating to the audience for laughs and reactions, it can be difficult to deviate from the familiar “will they/won’t they” of romantic plotlines. The vast majority of the world can’t connect as deeply with post-puberty characters who aren’t interested in romantic love and sex, and media responds to that reaction in kind, writing in the tangled romantic relationships that support season after season of many shows. Sheldon Cooper, the loveable, cynical, antisocial theoretical physicist of The Big Bang Theory, was shown without romantic or sexual inclinations for the first couple seasons of the series, but ultimately — perhaps because it made him more relatable — the show’s writers wrote in a relationship that eventually involved sex.
You could argue that Sheldon’s transition from aro-ace nerd into a romantic lead was an example of character development — he started off selfish and without much awareness of social norms and gradually became more accepting of what the people around him (like his girlfriend) want and need. But at the same time, it’s curious why the show didn’t feel Sheldon could have had a character development arc that stayed consistent with his potential aro-ace identity. His stronger connections with people around him could have been shown through deepening respect and relationships with his friends and acquaintances without including sexual encounters, and it would have arguably made more logical sense for the character considering his past behavior.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from sitcoms’ tendency to push romantic plotlines on their characters, there are many characters who are disabled and frequently automatically assumed to be asexual even when that might not be the case. Take, for instance, Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter or Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Neither have the status of their sexual desires explicitly explored, and that’s almost to be expected: It’s generally uncommon for characters with disabilities to be shown pursuing or engaging in sex. This can mire the relationship between disability and asexuality in murky waters. Asexuality, as media has generally portrayed the identity, is often used as a marker of abnormality. Since people with disabilities are so often considered to be outside the norm, their sex lives are frequently considered taboo. Since asexuality itself is sometimes considered a disorder, and it’s widely assumed that all people with disabilities must have no sexual desire, it’s easy to see how insufficient representation on all sides can negatively impact both identities.
Given that the characters frequently perceived to be asexual are pathologized, villainized, or erased, it’s understandable how many aro-ace fans were excited by the prospect of seeing Jughead champion this identity. He’s a well-loved character, a fan favorite, with plenty of friends and a family; he’s not evil and, according to the comics, he’s not at all ashamed of his disinterest in romantic love and sex. It’s not something he ever has to defend, especially in Zdarksy’s universe. To the contrary: His one true love, food, is and has always been a celebrated part of who he is ever since his first appearance. He’s being played by Cole Sprouse, a beloved actor in his own right and one whose presence on Riverdale has been lauded.
All things considered, an openly asexual version of Jughead, even on a network as sex-steeped as the CW, probably would have been perceived fairly warmly, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t an avenue the writers chose to explore in the first season. In the comics, Jughead was always casually blasé about romance since his inception, and since Zdarsky’s reboot he’s been openly asexual, even calling out his buddy Archie when he needs to. Take this scene, for example:
ARCHIE: Oh, come on! Don’t be so dramatic…
JUGHEAD: Me being dramatic?? Your little, classic “love triangle” thing with Betty and [Veronica] is the height of “drama,” pal!
ARCHIE: — Look, I’m not going to apologize for being a normal guy, I —
Jughead’s pointed look directed at Archie after the latter claims to be a “normal” guy — that is, obsessed with chasing girls — says it all, and Archie then apologizes for implying that by not sharing the same interests, Jughead is somehow abnormal.
This is the Jughead many fans were excited to see on Riverdale — the staunchly out and proud, classically Jughead Jughead who was so unwaveringly himself. Instead, Riverdale’s Jughead was looped into a very overtly romantic relationship with his friend Betty that gradually grew in intensity as the pair spearheaded the convoluted investigation into classmate Jason Blossom’s mysterious murder. In the final moments of Season 1’s finale, that relationship came within a hair of becoming sexual: As Betty and Jughead shed their clothes and passionately embraced, a sudden knock at the door from the local Riverdale gang, the Southside Serpents, stopped the scene from progressing further — only just preserving the potential for an asexual Jughead at the same time.
Although there is definitely insufficient understanding and representation of asexuality in contemporary mainstream media, Jughead would not be the first positive representation of asexuality. Lately, some shows have been stepping up in big ways to champion asexual representation — Netflix’s original series BoJack Horseman, for instance, garnered praise from the LGBT community when character Todd Chavez explored his potential asexuality in the Season 3 finale. “I’m not gay,” he says in the episode. “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.”
The character officially came out in Season 4 as asexual, opening up to his supportive friend BoJack about his acceptance of the label and attending an asexual meetup. In the same episode, Todd learns more about the multitude of gray areas in asexuality and the debunking of various myths, like the idea that asexual people can’t be in a married relationship. It’s clear in the depiction of Todd’s coming out that to him and those who care for him, asexuality isn’t weird or scary — on the contrary, it’s enthusiastically accepted. The reveal caused a swell of positive reactions from nonprofit organizations and activists.
But in particular the episode resonated deeply with many fans who identified as asexual, many of whom were seeing asexuality discussed candidly and positively on TV for the first time.
Todd and asexual characters like him who are out, proud, and seen as human represent more than just hope for fans and people who yearn for asexual visibility — they can promote understanding for those who have yet to learn about this identity. If one asexual character could spark this much conversation, the introduction of a second high-profile asexual character like Jughead could have incredible ripple effects. So, Riverdale writers, it’s up to you. But know this: Given the fan excitement and Cole Sprouse’s approval, asexual Jughead could be the much-needed change we need in TV. ●