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How BoJack Horseman Addresses the Silencing of Women

Alison Brie as Diane Nguyen in BoJack Horseman.
Alison Brie as Diane Nguyen in BoJack Horseman. Photo: Netflix

BoJack Horseman has always been about one man’s — fine, technically one horseman’s — journey through depression, fallen stardom, addiction, and half-hearted attempts at redemption. The animated send-up of Hollywood hypocrisy and narcissism has explored the experiences of other characters, too, including Diane Nguyen, BoJack’s closest friend, and Princess Carolyn, BoJack’s ex and agent, among others. But the former Horsin’ Around star is unquestionably the nucleus around which the Netflix series revolves.

During the fifth season of BoJack Horseman, though, that starts to change. Over the course of 12 episodes, the season makes a concerted effort to highlight the ways in which women are silenced, and it ends on a note that fully shifts the focus away from our equine anti-hero to one of the central female characters. A lot of television lately has dealt with the issues raised by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, either in overall themes or installments that specifically address sexual harassment. But BoJack Horseman is the rare series that has devoted an entire season to addressing female marginalization and altering its own storytelling approach to convey how vital it is to give women equal time and attention. It’s an effort that, purely by coincidence, feels extra-relevant while the ongoing conversations about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh remind us how often men and a male-dominated status quo keeps women from speaking out and being heard.

In the latest season, BoJack lands a role on Philbert, an example of perhaps the ultimate contemporary TV symbol of hypermasculinity: a prestige drama that explores the psyche of a disturbed detective and is overseen by a controlling male auteur (voiced by Rami Malek). This is a blatantly meta choice on the show’s part. Not only is Philbert a tortured alcoholic who lives in a home that looks remarkably similar to BoJack’s luxury abode, Philbert is, like BoJack Horseman, named after its male protagonist, fixated on his psychological issues, and overseen by a male showrunner. For the record, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack Horseman, does not seem nearly as self-involved and pretentious as Flip McVickers, the creator of Philbert. But the degree to which BoJack continually challenges Flip to set the right tone seemingly echoes some of the self-reflection Bob-Waksberg has engaged in about BoJack Horseman.

Of course, BoJack’s insistence on making Philbert better is born of self-interest: He’s freaked out by how much of himself he recognizes in this asshole character, and finds it much easier to try to improve his TV show self than his actual one. This attempt at pseudo-self improvement plays a major role in his relationship with Gina (Stephanie Beatriz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine), who plays Philbert’s colleague and lover Sassy Malone, and is, naturally, BoJack’s colleague and lover in real life. Every time BoJack attempts to help Gina, he winds up hurting her. First, he tries to steer Flip away from incorporating so much nudity in the series, calling it “gratuitous and male gaze-y,” the exact words Gina used in a previous conversation with BoJack. That results in a character-motivated nude scene for Gina, which eventually gets scrapped in favor of a full-frontal moment of Philbert screwing in a light bulb, which is supposed to be meaningful for some reason.

When BoJack discovers that Gina loves Broadway musicals because she dreamed of starring in one when she was younger, he arranges for her to sing in a scene on Philbert. The performance goes miserably. Later, BoJack is publicly celebrated for being a feminist after he (accidentally) speaks out against the comeback of star Vance Waggoner, a Mel Gibson-esque, abusive misogynist who keeps getting infinite chances to redeem himself. “How about we don’t choke women?” BoJack says in a common-sense statement that, because he’s a man, earns him wild applause on the talk show The Squawk. A few episodes later, BoJack, so drugged-up that the lines between scripted TV and reality turn swirly, actually becomes a woman-choker himself, nearly strangling Gina while shooting a scene for Philbert.

Over and over again, Gina is not heard. BoJack steals the “gratuitous and male gaze-y” words right out of her mouth and takes credit for them, and then Flip uses those words against her. (Flip does ask Gina if she’s comfortable with doing a nude scene, but he barely takes the time to seriously listen, rushing to a “See? She’s fine with it” as quickly as he can.) BoJack makes an assumption that Gina would want to do a musical number in the show without asking her first, and steals the joy she derives from thinking about her one dream that hadn’t been sullied by Hollywoo disappointment. When he chokes her, he literally robs her of oxygen, but he also creates a situation that potentially robs her of something else: her capacity to be known as something other than a victim.

“My career, after so many failed attempts, is finally starting to take off,” she tells BoJack after he says he’ll come clean about what he did in a TV interview. “I am getting offers, and fan mail, and magazine columns about what a good actor I am. People know me because of my acting, and all that goes away if I’m just the girl who got choked by BoJack Horseman.”

Then, she adds, “I don’t want you to be the most notable thing that ever happened to me.”

I’ve read a lot in recent months about the #MeToo movement, but that may be the most precise, perfectly worded explanation I’ve seen about why women don’t always come forward when they’ve been harassed or assaulted. Gina is someone who’s always kept her head down and done her job without ever getting praise or the kinds of opportunities that a Vance Waggoner or a BoJack Horseman does. She’s chosen to keep her mouth shut, in this instance regarding BoJack’s assault but also in general, because she doesn’t believe she can change a system that’s rigged against her. All she can do is hope that one day its bullshit somehow works in her favor. That’s finally happening for her, and she is not going to let a man’s poor decision-making and lack of self-control shape her narrative.

This is an interesting angle on the #MeToo conversation, where honesty and sharing one’s truth is usually valued as an act of courage. But the Vance Waggoner episode has already told us what happens when a man comes forward and fesses up, which is what BoJack intends to do as well: He’ll get shamed for a little while, take some time off, then get the full Vance Waggoner treatment, all while the women he mistreated become footnotes. Gina doesn’t want to be a footnote. By choosing silence, she’s actually getting a say for once in her own future.

Gina’s arc is not the only element in BoJack Horseman’s fifth season that comments on how women’s voices go heard or unheard. Episode six, “Free Churro,” consists entirely of the eulogy that BoJack delivers for his late mother, Beatrice. It’s an extraordinary one-off, and it captures with real astuteness the heartbreak of losing a parent, especially when that relationship was challenging. But because we’ve seen “Time’s Arrow,” the season-four episode that tells Beatrice’s backstory from her own perspective, we know there are things about her experience that BoJack simply doesn’t know or understand. At one point, he jokes about turning her “you-logy” into a “me-logy,” and that’s exactly what he does. It’s what we all do when someone dies: We tell our version of their biography because the person who passed isn’t here to do it for him or herself. In an absolutely brilliant kicker, BoJack realizes the corpse in the coffin isn’t even his mom. It’s some lizard. So he’s really, really paying biased tribute to the deceased.

In what feels like a bit of course correction to BoJack’s funeral hijacking, BoJack Horseman immediately follows “Free Churro” with “INT. SUB,” an episode in which two therapists share notes about their clients but change their names to protect their identities. It’s a funny conceit that allows BoJack to turn into “Bobo the Angsty Zebra” and Diane to become “Diana Princess of Wales,” complete with an evening jacket embellished by Diane’s signature red arrows. But most importantly, the episode gives these psychologists — both of them African-American women, one voiced by Wanda Sykes and the other by Issa Rae — the opportunity to take over storytelling duties, something Hollywoo (and Hollywood) rarely allows.

Princess Carolyn also seizes control of her narrative this season by disappearing from Hollywoo so she can move forward with adopting a baby. She makes the decision to take on motherhood, at least as I see it, because she recognizes she’s been been trying to fill a hole in her life with her career and it’s just not working. As the fifth episode, “The Amelia Earhart Story,” explains, Princess Carolyn was taught at a young age to associate boosting the egos of fragile men — something she did for a wealthy high-school football star named Cooper when she was a teenager — with a path to a better life. After encouraging Cooper to advocate for himself, using the same kind of language she will later use when she’s advising BoJack or other “show folk,” they have sex and she gets pregnant. Cooper’s father, who also employs Princess Carolyn’s mother as a maid, insists that she and Cooper will get married and have the kind of lifelong stability and economic comfort she’s never experienced. But when Princess Carolyn miscarries, that plan falls apart. It’s a pivotal moment in her life that cements the notion that boosting others will eventually result in a reward, as long as she doesn’t screw it up. It’s a slightly altered version of the same lesson Gina has taken away from working as an actor: Do your thing in the background long enough, and eventually that will pay off.

Princess Carolyn has been doing that for years, but she still doesn’t feel fulfilled. So she decides to mother a child who needs her, instead of a bunch of artists who haven’t figured out how to grow up. It’s a testament to how much Princess Carolyn’s skills are taken for granted that, in the season finale, Flip stands in her office, going on and on about how they can find a new network home for Philbert, and he doesn’t even realize she’s gone.

But the most silenced and overlooked woman of all in BoJack Horseman is Diane, who is now divorced from Mr. Peanutbutter and living in a depressing, tiny apartment in a less-than-ideal section of Los Angeles. This series constantly reminds us that BoJack is depressed and struggling. But all season long, it shows us imagery that implies Diane is battling similar demons without totally acknowledging them out loud. Diane comes back from her trip to Vietnam feeling like she doesn’t have a real place in the world. Then, she moves into that dinky studio and, in episode after episode, even though she’s lived there for months, her surroundings never change. Boxes of her belongings remain stacked up in the living room. Empty wine bottles are scattered on the floor. Diane is not in a good place. It’s hard to imagine her getting better after BoJack basically steals her therapist, her ex-husband pursues a new relationship, and her work as a writer on Philbert raises the quality of the whole series while also doing something she never wanted to do: normalize a character who treats women like garbage.

Yet she’s still the one telling BoJack that he has the capacity to become a better version of himself, even driving him to rehab and telling him exactly what to say when he walks into the facility. BoJack is confused about why she’s being so nice to him when he’s disappointed her so many times. To explain, she tells him an anecdote about Abby, her best friend from high school, who ditched Diane once she started hanging out with the cool kids. When Abby’s mother got sick one summer and her new friends were away, Diane stepped up to be her support system because, as Diane puts it, she hated Abby, but she also loved her. Basically, she did what women are often conditioned to do: nurture the people they care about even if they resent that responsibility. It’s what Beatrice tried to do for BoJack, even though, admittedly, she wasn’t exceptional at it. It’s what those therapists try to do for their patients. It’s what Princess Carolyn does for her clients, and presumably what she’ll do for her child. And it’s what Diane does, sometimes at the expense of her own happiness.

After BoJack’s conversation with Diane, one would expect the series to follow him into the rehab center for the life-changing moment when he checks himself in, but instead, the picture stays on Diane as she waves good-bye, gets in her car, and drives off along the Pacific coast. This is significant because it’s the first time that a season of BoJack Horseman has ever ended without BoJack’s vaguely phallic face in it. After a dozen episodes that raise questions about how much agency women have in their own stories, BoJack Horseman answers them all by turning its attention fully on Diane.

It’s unclear exactly what Diane’s mental state is at this point. Is she feeling good for finally getting BoJack into rehab? Or is she now feeling even more lonely and aimless? There’s a theory circulating on Reddit that suggests Diane, who is last seen driving into a tunnel, will die just like Princess Diana did in that infamous 1997 accident in Paris. The imagery is inviting us to connect the dots — remember how Diane’s therapist renamed her earlier in the season? — and recognize the finale’s ending as foreshadowing.

I find that both plausible and heartbreaking. I can imagine that being true, but I hope it isn’t. Frankly, it’s not what immediately came to my mind on first viewing of the finale. I was reminded, instead, of the final hopeful moment in BoJack season three, when BoJack pauses during his road trip and sees a bunch of wild horses racing through a field. My initial sense was that, with the sun gleaming on the Pacific, BoJack taken care of, and California air rushing in through her rolled-down Prius window, this was a moment for Diane to start anew as well. The lyrics of the song that play in that final scene — “Under the Pressure” by The War on Drugs — are not exactly optimistic. “I’m just wading in the water / Just trying not to crack under the pressure,” says the third verse. But the track’s upbeat melody certainly is.

My hope is that the next season won’t find Diane dead, but will instead focus on just her for a few episodes. It would be a way for the series to build upon what it does in the final moment of season five, and to skew its point of view even further than it does in “INT. SUB.” More importantly, it would be a way to say to Diane, and all the women of BoJack Horseman, the words BoJack so longed to hear from his mother: “I see you.”

How BoJack Horseman Addresses the Silencing of Women