The Lost Words: Asexuality in ‘Generation’ (Feature)

Picture this frozen moment: three strangers on a couch at a house party. They don’t know how their lives have intersected for them to end up here, or how this meeting will change the course of their school year. They’re stuck in time, captured in perpetuity by the fourth stranger: the photographer. This single photograph is the guiding thread of Generation’s first episode. The show’s point-of-view storytelling takes us through each character’s daily experiences, ultimately leading them to the fateful party. For Greta (Haley Sanchez), her crush on Riley (Chase Sui Wonders), the photographer, is revealed from a distance throughout the day. Their awkward first meeting, at the picnic tables, is filled with shy glances, stumbling words, and an invitation. 

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Haley Sanchez as Greta and Chase Sui Wonders as Riley in Generation. (COURTESY: HBO)

Greta’s excitement about the party — and being invited by Riley — is evident. This is the night everything will change. But reality and family drama dampen the mood until after Riley’s flash goes off. There’s a quiet check-in between the girls, but they can’t find the words quite yet. Right now, this is enough. This innocent moment sets them off on a path that turns into a layered exploration of a queer identity still largely underrepresented in media: asexuality.  

HBO Max canceled Generation in 2021 after just one season, but it deserves to be celebrated for its depiction of queer high schoolers, and especially for what the show does with Greta and Riley during the show’s brief runtime. Surrounded by the sex-obsessed atmosphere of school parties, the supposed liberation that comes with realizing one’s identity during high school specifically can be frustrating, to say the least.

What’s special about Greta and Riley’s story is how it stretches across sixteen episodes. Generation‘s point-of-view storytelling allows for the struggle of understanding who you are, of people not listening to you, and of finding the right words for how you feel. The tragedy is that the cancellation cuts Greta and Riley’s story short right when it’s about to embark on a potentially exciting chapter. For an identity that has so few examples on television or film, the portrayal of Greta’s asexuality didn’t deserve to end so abruptly.  

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Haley Sanchez as Greta and Chase Sui Wonders as Riley in Generation (COURTESY: HBO)

Generation’s thoughtful portrayal of asexuality begins with Riley’s photograph and a quietly innocent flirtation. Greta and Riley continue to grow closer until Generation Episode Seven, “Desert Island,” when they kiss for the first time in a hotel room while on a school trip. As the moment escalates, Riley begins taking her clothes off. Panicked, Greta gets angry at Riley for assuming that sex is where they were headed. Unable to find the words to explain what she wants, Greta inadvertently insults Riley, essentially calling her a slut. This leads to Riley hooking up with Lucia (Marisela Zumbado) moments later. Greta’s inability to express what asexuality means to her couldn’t have failed more spectacularly. From here, Greta and Riley must go on separate paths to figure out who they are and what they want their relationship to be like.

In recent years, the most prominent examples of asexuality come from Sex Education and Bojack Horseman. “Hooray! Todd Episode!,” Todd’s (Aaron Paul) coming-out episode in Bojack Horseman Season 4, is a great example of how to do one. The episode is character-driven and culminates with Todd wondering about his identity. Throughout this episode in particular, Todd is so busy helping other people that he puts off his own wants. He keeps saying he has a meeting to go to later, but the constant side quests on which he finds himself might lead to missing the meeting. Finally, fed up with Bojack’s nonsense, Todd tells Bojack that he’s asexual. He’s unsure and nervous saying the word out loud for the first time. By the episode’s end, though Todd makes it to his meeting – which, it turns out, is a meet-up with other asexuals. “Hooray! Todd Episode!” focuses on Todd long enough for the coming out episode to happen, and the rest of the time Todd is just being Todd and doing Todd things. He’s a great ace representation, an example of how okay it is to just be yourself. 

Sex Education’s moment of ace inclusion is both a ringing endorsement of the identity and a disappointment in any further story execution. In Season 2, Florence (Mirren Mack) seeks advice from Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) when she comes to believe she’s broken because she doesn’t experience any sexual desire. In response, Jean gently says, “Sex doesn’t make us whole, so how could you be broken?” Jean’s words are beautiful affirmation for anyone on the asexuality spectrum. Indeed, after hearing this from a respected adult in her school, Florence finds her fear and anxiety quelled.

However: that’s all we get. Florence is only in three episodes in Sex Education Season 2. Despite telling Jean she still wants to fall in love, once Florence’s asexuality is confirmed, her story concludes. As good as that culminating scene is, keeping Florence around to show how ace people can still fall in love and be in relationships would have been a wonderful follow through. 

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Chase Sui Wonders as Riley and Haley Sanchez in Generation (COURTESY: HBO)

Similarly, so much of Generation is about finding the right words to express who you are. Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) rambles his way into coming out as bisexual very publicly. Chester (Justice Smith) confesses to his guidance counselor his love for the man while on a school trip. Greta calls Riley a slut because she can’t find the words to explain what it is that she wants. Nonetheless, throughout the show, every character stays true to who they are. Even as Lucia tries to tell Greta she isn’t a lesbian because Greta won’t hook up with Lucia either, Greta stays the course. She knows who she is, even if she doesn’t know how to describe it.

And Generation‘s finale does give Riley and Greta their chance for the words to come. At another party in the same house, the two reconcile and exchange mutual I-love-yous. Greta doesn’t use the term “asexual”. Instead, she discovers her own words to describe who she is. She loves Riley, and that’s enough. Their final scene is cut short when Riley is interrupted while confessing about hooking up with Lucia. But they do get their moment. 

It’s unfortunate that Generation didn’t get a Season 2. As with Florence in Sex Education, Greta’s story about her asexuality ends with affirmation. But what then? It would have been nice to see Greta and Riley navigate their new relationship now that they’re practically on the same page. Instead, their story is left open-ended, forever frozen, a snapshot of a confession not fully developed. One of so many things left unsaid, so many stories unfinished. Greta and Riley may be characters on a television show, but they represent an important dynamic in queer representation. After Generation‘s cancellation, it’s difficult not to remember the show as just another fleeting moment of wasted potential, like the memories of every moment we struggled to find the right words.

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