Understanding the Need for Representation

It’s my birthday today, and every year since this blog began I’ve used my birthday an excuse to write something personal. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s not. This year, it’s not.

Whenever people talk about the need for representation in media, I get it. I understand it. I see where they’re coming from. But I never really felt, personally, what it means to go unrepresented.

I’m white. I’m male. I’m American. I’m straight. I was born into a Christian household. So were the vast majority of characters I’d encounter in film and on television.

As I’ve gotten older, the balance has shifted somewhat. Groups of friends get to have a black one, and even a girl one. Maybe there’s a Jewish one if the writers can think of enough jokes to justify it. Of course there are also shows and movies with predominantly female, black, or homosexual casts, but those are always easy to identify by sight and so anybody who doesn’t want to find themselves exposed to such things can keep away easily. Everybody wins.

This past year, I’ve been through a lot. (I won’t even begin to pretend I’m alone in that.) Good things. Bad things. Exciting things. But also something that, as I turn thirty-eight, I wish I went through a long time ago.

In 2018 I came out as asexual. I know that everybody has their own journey. I know that everybody comes out in their own way, in their own time. I know that there isn’t a right or wrong way to come to your own awakening.

And yet, if I can have the privilege of sharing the ugly side of a good thing, I was angry. Angry that I didn’t understand myself sooner. Angry that this is what I’ve always been without the vocabulary to express, understand, or process it. Angry that I wasn’t me.

Let me step back.

I remember one day in high school. My friend Nate had lost his virginity at some recent point. He was the first one in our circle of friends to do so, and he was telling us about it. We were kids. We were curious. We asked questions. I’m sure he was happy to be the center of attention on this topic.

He said, “The bad thing is that once you have sex, you start always wanting it.”

For whatever reason, that stuck with me. Around a year or so later, I lost my virginity as well, to a girl named Amy. Before and as it was happening, I didn’t feel like I really wanted it. I felt curious about it, for sure, and I was turned on, but I wasn’t…desiring it.

I remembered what Nate said. I figured maybe the first time you just sort of fumble your way through it anxiously, and you figure out what you’re doing and what you like, and curiosity gets replaced, gradually, by actual sexual desire.

It didn’t. Not for me. Not then, or at any point since.

But I didn’t know why. I became the next center of attention. Friends asked me questions and I answered them. I doubt I lied about anything but I’m sure I embellished. They wanted a story. I told them a story.

Maybe I just didn’t feel that way toward Amy. I liked her and I was attracted to her, but maybe there needed to be something deeper. Maybe when I was in a more serious relationship, with someone I cared about on a deeper level, everything would click.

I found that person in my next relationship. She was great, and I look back on the time we spend together fondly. We dated through the end of high school right into the beginning of college. I cared about her. I had fun with her. We had similar sensibilities and morals and senses of humor.

We had sex, a good number of times. And I still didn’t want it.

The more I reflect on these early experiences, the more I realize that it’s always been this way for me. I remember having the house to myself frequently with one girlfriend, but I never thought about or looked forward to having sex. I thought about watching movies and playing video games and laughing with each other. I remember another girlfriend saying to me — in a jokey way — “You don’t even like sex.” I’m sure she thought there was truth to that statement well before I did. I remember sitting in my car outside of a college party, listening to the Live at Leads version of “Magic Bus” with a girl who hadn’t heard it before. It was a nice moment. I enjoyed spending the time with her. We went back into the party, and then into a bedroom, and she wanted to have sex. I wasn’t interested. I tried to get interested, but I couldn’t. I felt terrible. I felt as though I’d led her on. I was embarrassed.

Through the years, I’ve tried to figure out what the problem was. It wasn’t impotence, because I could have sex…I just didn’t want to. It wasn’t that I was gay, because I find women very attractive and have yet to be physically attracted to a man. It wasn’t low testosterone, because I paid for a test out of pocket knowing for sure that that would be the reason, but my doctor called a week or so later with the results to tell me that my testosterone was actually pretty high.

I talked to a few people about it. Not many, and probably not the right ones. One thing a girl I was seeing told me is, “You just haven’t had good sex.” I kind of doubted that. Without making any qualitative assessment, I was in the same boat by the time our relationship ended.

So I just kept trying. Dating. Pursuing. Sleeping with girlfriends. Sometimes once, sometimes many times. I kept having sex because I kept expecting something to click. Sometimes I felt obligated to do it. Sometimes I’d do it just so I wouldn’t disappoint someone. It was fine. It felt good. But it wasn’t anything I wanted.

I grew up watching television. Too much of it. I saw the characters there. I identified with some of them. I learned about myself from watching them. I was able to see how people like me failed or succeeded in what they set out to do.

But sexuality was binary. The vast majority of these characters were straight, a rare few were gay. I didn’t desire sex at all. I didn’t see that anywhere. Something was wrong.

A few years ago, Bojack Horseman had an episode in which Todd, played by Aaron Paul, realizes he’s asexual.

I’d heard the term before, but never looked into it or gave any thought to it. If someone identified as asexual, well…good for them. It’s not my business to go rooting around to figure out what it means. They’d arrived at their own truth, and that’s what was important.

Here’s the thing, though. Prior to that episode, I did see something of myself in Todd. I’d rather not get too specific here, as I think I’m putting enough of myself out there as it is, but there was a moment — and then further moments — in his relationship with Emily that felt very, very close to home. To the point that it hurt.

Bojack Horseman primed me for identifying with it, I’ll admit. As someone who struggles with depression, anxiety, self-loathing, chronic unhappiness and as someone who used to have self-destructive tendencies, I see myself a lot in that show. Intermittently. Here and there. In a line or in a decision or in an inability to get one’s shit together.

And that’s okay. In a show covering a topic you’re familiar with, that’s almost bound to happen. As long as it’s written and acted well, I suppose, which Bojack Horseman is.

But I definitely didn’t see myself in Bojack’s hyperactive sex drive. The meaninglessness, sure, but not feeling compelled to have more and more and more of it.

And then Emily confronted Todd, with an openness that hopefully a lot of us can learn from. And, ultimately, Todd’s answer put things into perspective for me.

EMILY: What’s…your deal? I feel like you like me but you don’t like me, but you like me. And I don’t know what that is. Are you gay? […]
TODD: I’m not gay. 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.

I turned the television off after that episode and I just…thought. As silly as it may seem, I hadn’t even considered that as a possibility.

Obviously there are many characters we don’t actively see having or pursuing sex, but the understanding was always that there were parts of their life we don’t see. If we were to follow them beyond the boundaries of a thirty-minute episode, we’d see them pursuing guys or girls and that would be that. There were characters who were horny and characters who were reserved enough that we didn’t get a glimpse into their sex lives. Everybody had a sex life, and the few that didn’t actively wanted one.

There were no characters that openly had no interest in sex.

Emily asks Todd that question because she’s hurt. She feels like she’s been led on to some degree, even if it’s clear she doesn’t think he did it on purpose. I had an Emily. I had a lot of Emilys. I didn’t intend to lead anybody on, but we’d go on dates. We’d hang out. We’d have fun. We’d flirt.

And then I didn’t want sex. And if we had it, I wasn’t pursuing more of it, even if I were keeping them in my life.

And I’ve hurt them. In large part I’m making an assumption there, but in one specific case someone reached out to me after I came out to explain how she felt. How I had confused her. How I’d upset her. She wasn’t blaming me. I had just been open about something that finally made sense to me, and she replied with her own openness about how it felt on her end.

I didn’t want to hurt or mislead or confuse anybody. I just…didn’t know. I didn’t know that was an option. I didn’t know that there were people like me. I thought there was something…wrong with me, and I spent too many years and too much effort with too many people trying to “fix” myself, get myself on the right track, feel sexual desire the way every single other person on the planet obviously felt it.

I later connected with a friend who was also asexual, though I hadn’t known that before. I found a community online that helped me better understand what I am, and that it’s okay to feel the way I do. I started letting people know ahead of time where I stood sexually. These are good things. But I wish I could have done them sooner. I wish I’d had the knowledge that this wasn’t a problem…this was just something I was, and I wasn’t alone. I could have saved a lot of people a lot of pain.

I said above that I’m straight, and I am. I love women. I love romance. Dating is fun and getting to know a partner on a deep, personal level is fun.

But for all of my life I thought it was supposed to build to sex. Again and again and again to sex. And it didn’t for me. That wasn’t what I wanted. I did it because I felt as though I needed to, that I should have wanted to, that this was the way things worked and I didn’t really have a place to disagree.

And I realize now why representation is important. For the first time, I experienced that firsthand. When we see people like us in the media, we know we aren’t alone. When we don’t see them, we suspect we might be. When there isn’t some kind of representative of who we are and what we want and how we feel, it’s easy to believe we’re missing something. We’re broken in some way. We aren’t who we should be.

I’m not saying I necessarily needed to see a character like Todd when I was a child, but I am saying that seeing him when I finally did helped me a lot, gave me a reason to research asexuality, and gave me a push I needed to understand who, the fuck, I was.

I didn’t even know that the thing I was was an option. And that’s terrifying to me. It’s sad that there are children and adults who don’t realize it’s okay to be who they are, so they try to be someone they aren’t, hurting others and themselves in the process, and never being truly happy with who they already are.

I guess it’s about right that here, in this monumentally shitty world that seems determined to get worse every day, that a cartoon about a talking horse would be the one place I’d find some honesty. I just hope it’s honesty that’s easier to come by in the next generation, for people who might need it even more than me.

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2 thoughts on “Understanding the Need for Representation”

  1. That brutal honesty in Bojack is one of the reasons I cannot watch it. I understand that it’s good, I can definitely see it’s well made, but it’s just waaay too close to home for me to sit and enjoy.

    That said, I’m glad you found Todd. I feel like anything I type here is going to sound trite and meaningless, because like you mentioned above, being straight, white, a guy etc means I’ve generally seen myself represented in media fairly comprehensively.

    I hope this is the kind of thing that will give you impetus to be representational in your own works, too, now that you’ve experienced first-hand the benefits of representation. It’s all too easy to “default” and the best way to thank the folks over at Bojack Horseman is to keep their work going, I guess.

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