BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has been fielding questions from fans via his Tumblr this week, and his most interesting response yet comes from an anonymous question that referred to a female character (a crocodile voiced by Kulap Vilaysack) as male. Bob-Waksberg used the mix-up to illustrate “the tendency for comedy writers, and audiences, and writers, and audiences (because it’s a cycle) to view comedy characters as inherently male, unless there is something specifically female about them.” While he admits to struggling with this tendency himself, he says his approach to gender on BoJack Horseman has changed largely thanks to working alongside head designer Lisa Hanawalt:
Here’s an example from my own life: In one of the episodes from the first season (I think it’s 109), our storyboard artists drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.”I am embarrassed to admit this conversation has happened between Lisa and me multiple times, about multiple characters.The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that’s an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, “Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?” The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I’m proud to say I mostly don’t think this way anymore. Sometimes I still do, because this kind of stuff is baked into us by years of consuming media, but usually I’m able (with some help) to take a step back and not think this way, and one of the things I love about working with Lisa is she challenges these instincts in me.
The rest of the post – and Bob-Waksberg’s other responses to BoJack fans – is well worth the read over on his Tumblr, especially if you never took the time to wonder whether the toaster in The Brave Little Toaster was a boy or a girl. Bob-Waksberg’s take: “Is there anything inherently gendered about what this character is doing? Or is it a toaster?”