A little over a year ago, in the fourth issue of his rebooted solo title, Archie Comics' Jughead Jones was revealed to be asexual. It was the first time Jughead’s orientation was expressly stated, making him the first major asexual character in a mainstream comic book. However, his new status quo is not part of The CW’s live-action “Riverdale” series despite the lobbying of series co-star Cole Sprouse, who plays the character.
Jughead has a long history of scarfing down burgers and ignoring the advances of the women around him. Many longtime readers coded him as gay, but comic writer Chip Zdarsky had other ideas for him.
“My view of Jughead is, over the 75 years [of his existence] there have been sporadic moments where he has dabbled in the ladies, but historically he has been portrayed as asexual,” he told an audience at New York Comic Con in 2015. “They just didn’t have a label for it, so they called him a misogynist. But he’s not a misogynist. He just watches his cohorts lose their minds on hormones.”
Zdarsky played down the novelty of his interpretation, insisting that Jughead "was asexual before people had a word for it,” and that he’s “continuing to write him that way.” Perhaps this explains this low key introduction of Jughead’s orientation.
There is no drama in the revelation of Jughead’s asexuality. It isn’t triggered by a crisis, or even explained. The subject is broached as part of an ordinary conversation in the halls of Riverdale High. A boy explains that the suspension of one of school’s few gay students has limited his dating potential. “You just don’t get it! You’re asexual,” he says, exasperated by Jughead’s indifference.
Zdarsky’s matter-of-fact approach to Jughead’s sexual identity is refreshing, a far cry from the once prevalent depiction of suffering queers in popular entertainment. When not afflicted with horrific diseases, tortured queers were portrayed as cross-dressing murderers, frustrated lovers, flustered geniuses, manipulative sociopaths, sadistic villains, and bitter creative failures, among others.
Sinister creatures seething with resentment, or sainted martyrs whose pain offered a road to redemption, suffering queers were placeholders in stories about the persecution and societal ills that plagued folks on the LGBT spectrum. When not played for pathos, they were played for laughs, but often in a coded manner.
Actor Cole Sprouse, who plays Jughead on the prime time series, has lobbied for his character to be asexual, but “Riverdale” showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa sees things differently. This hasn’t stopped the young actor from hoping, and urging, that his portrayal will eventually echo the current comic book version of his character.
"Jughead will have romances with women … and burgers,” he told "Hollywood Life" during a recent press tour. The actor also explained, “Asexuality is not one of those things in my research that is so understood at face value,” and, “sexuality especially is one of those fluid things where often times we find who we are through certain things that happen in our lives.”
Despite the present direction of the show, Sprouse isn’t giving up on the idea of eventually playing the character as asexual: “If Season 1 is one of those events, or something like that needs to happen in Season 1, for Jughead to eventually realize that kind of narrative, I’d love to play with that, too.”
But does it matter whether Jughead’s asexuality is represented on television in the same way as it is in the comics?
In terms of sheer numbers, television has a far wider reach. The CW doesn't attract as big a viewership as the big three networks, or even the biggest shows on HBO, Showtime and AMC, but the premiere episode of “Riverdale” attracted nearly 1.7 million viewers. In contrast, “Jughead” #4, sold just under 11,000 copies.
Like it or not, comic books have become a niche market. Comic book movies may rake in millions of dollars at the box office, but the most popular monthly titles (number ones and events excluded) sell roughly 150,000 copies at the high end. Comic books simply don’t have the reach of film and television. Jughead’s asexuality is big news for those of us who do read comics, but it is barely a blip on the bigger pop culture radar.
Brian Langevin, executive director of Asexual Outreach, is critical of the decision to not portray Jughead’s asexuality on “Riverdale.” Brian explains that the “ace” (asexual) community has only been in existence for about fifteen years, and explicit asexual representation has been and remains sparse.
“Growing up, the pop culture I consumed never mentioned asexuality, and most major characters had some romantic interest," Langevin said. "While I didn’t necessarily imagine characters as asexual, I often did feel out of place when every character I identified with inevitably ended up pursuing some love interest.”
Langevin first heard the term “asexuality” by sheer coincidence in late adolescence, laments the lack of asexual representation. An occasional reader of “Archie” comics as a youth, Brian says Jughead’s asexuality never occurred to them. “At that time, asexuality wasn’t something I was aware of, leading me to believe that I was alone in my experience,” Langevin explains. “Had a character I saw in pop culture identified as “asexual,’ that revelation could have prevented me years of feeling broken and alone.”
There are few instances of asexual representation in mainstream, one of the most memorable -- and most troubling -- dates back to the late-'70s sitcom, “Three’s Company.”
The show played homosexuality and asexuality for laughs. John Ritter’s Jack Tripper was a young chef who pretended he was gay so his prudish landlord would allow him to share an apartment with two female friends. The comedy revolved around Jack keeping up his flamboyant appearances and not getting caught while dating women. His landlord, Mr. Roper (played by Norman Fell) suspected Jack was straight, and hurled endless insults at the young man. But as much as he mocked his tenant’s apparent queerness, Roper was equally mocked by his frustrated wife for his complete lack of interest in sex (other than as an item for gossip).
The humor in “Three’s Company” was cruel. It derided those who appeared to deviate from traditional norms of masculinity and sexual expression. But even back then, in the post-Stonewall days of the gay liberation movement, homosexuality was part of the public consciousness.
It would be decades before the general public became aware of asexuality as an orientation. The first serious scientific study of asexuality as an orientation rather than a disorder -- Anthony Bogaert’s groundbreaking “Asexuality: prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample” -- only dates back to 2004.
Despite new research, and the work of activists like Langevin, the portrayal of asexual characters in popular culture can still be problematic. A 2012 episode of the series “House” showed Hugh Laurie’s cantankerous medical sleuth betting $100 that he could cure a married couple’s asexuality. He discovered that a tumor was inhibiting the husband’s libido, and the wife was not in fact asexual. She was only pretending, to spare her spouse’s feelings.
Playwright, director and “Queer as Folk” staff writer, Brad Fraser, feels gay representation isn’t really an issue anymore, and wonders aloud whether the absence of sexuality is a taboo. Now, he’s “more interested... in representations of bisexual people, and of trans people, and of asexual people or differently gendered people, the minorities within the minorities.”
He is also more pragmatic about representation in the rebooted Archie Comics continuity. “Archie…represents a particular demographic where they are multiracial and multi-sexual. If they didn't change it, they would have died because the Archie that was being published prior to that doesn't exist any more.”
In short, representation makes good business sense. “Queer as Folk” broke new ground. It presented the first simulated sex scene between two men on American television. At one point, it was Showtime’s number one show. While the series’ frank portrayal of gay and lesbian life was a hit with queer viewers, it was also popular among straight women, suggesting that viewers will embrace diversity that is presented in a compelling manner.
Chip Zdarsky saw his portrayal of Jughead as a chance to make a difference. “We want to put out a book in which people that aren’t necessarily represented enough in media can see themselves reflected in it in a positive way,” he explained. “If you have an opportunity presented on a silver platter like Jughead, really, I feel like your responsibility is to go with that and serve that underrepresented reader.”
Cole Sprouse sees room for his portrayal of the character to grow. “I think that kind of representation is quite interesting, and I think it’s needed, frankly,” he told CBR and other reporters during an on-set visit last year.
But in the words of Brian Langevin, “It is particularly disappointing that ‘Riverdale’ backs away from this identity. Portraying Jughead as asexual in this production could have provided countless asexual youth with a sense of validation alongside a path to finding community and support. Hopefully, the writers will realize this potential, taking subsequent seasons of 'Riverdale' into that direction.”