Hollywood Straight from the Horse’s Mouth: Bojack Horseman as a Look Into Our Own Reality
The number of video analyses of Bojack Horseman characters would suggest that each person who watched the show suddenly became a psychologist, sociologist, film editor, or cinema critic. But, to be fair, the writers are to blame – developing a series with so much depth, humor, nuance, darkness, and reflection through the non-cringy use of animal characters are incredibly impressive. With that amount of praise, I would like to join the league of professional analysts, this time focusing on the representation of culture, feminism, politics, gun violence, media, and economy through the different characters, highlighting the series’ accuracy in showcasing the state of the western “developed” world.
A better question to ask ourselves would be what social issues are NOT represented through the star of the 1990s hit sitcom about a horse raising 3 children “Horsin Around”, Bojack Horseman (sitcom laughter).
One could talk about the social causes of substance abuse induced by daily overstimulation and negligence of honest conversations due to the toxic individualist culture that values only perfection, or toxic gender roles that disturb healthy families.
However, what I want to focus on is the relationship that the character has with his past, which informs us a great deal about the cultural changes (or maybe lack thereof) that have taken place since the 1990s.
“Horsin Around” scene fragments are one of the vessels through which the past is introduced throughout the show (we also get the feel of the 90s thanks to the specific style of camera “shots”). In the outtakes of the show, lightheartedness, family values, and other very positive qualities are very much present. This is contrasted with the obvious corruption, vagueness, and fall of ideals of the 21st century. We must keep in mind that Bojack’s fall from fame after the 1990s and his life taking an overall downturn makes it easy for him to idealize the past. It was the events of that time that led him, and other stars of the show as well (we’ll take a look at Sarah Lynn later), to spiral into destruction. A considerable difference between the celebrity scene in the 1990s and now is that modern-day celebrities seem to be more vulnerable, “just like the regular people”, making mistakes and having imperfections. Bojack’s (or rather Diane’s) honest biography is proof that he gets praised for being open. This notion marks the change in marketing techniques. Obviously, the idealized version of reality was not very relatable and had a shallow wholesomeness to it. This has been reversed and now the industry is creating a feeling of proximity to those so far away from us. Look at the TikTok algorithm – the people (and products) one sees on the “for you” page speak to us directly (for you), making them feel cared for. The in-show audience applauds Bojack on his honesty, yet the moment his struggle becomes real and he makes mistakes (not to excuse his bad deeds), people are no longer as approving. His struggle, for instance with substance abuse, seems to be too real for recipients to digest.
Diane Nguyen’s character is one of the most human-like ones (maybe she is not an animal for a reason). Her character is remarkably dynamic, in that her outlook on life and different issues evolve over time. Bojack seems to always be sad, Mr. Peanut butter is always happy, but Diane changes. Despite the obvious reason being personal growth – she is one of the youngest characters on the show – there is also a societal role present. Societal expectations and norms make it hard for individuals, and especially non-white women, to find themselves and to be in charge of their lives. This constant struggle causes them to change jobs, professions, appearances, and cities and seems to be due to the natural inability to fit into a narrow scheme of behavior and as a way to escape constant dissatisfaction. Unfulfillment is talked about by Nguyen very frequently: her depression, which she later medicates, was present all throughout the series. She is very dedicated to doing what she thinks is right, even when that comes at a cost, which is undoubtedly very admirable. She goes against Mr. Peanut Butter in a debate on fracking and gun ownership, which shows that dedication, however, raises the question of why she would be married to him. Obviously, this is up for debate, yet one might argue that because the marriage is a secure place for her – she doesn’t need to worry about being single her whole life – she feels she cannot or should not let go.
In relation to Diane’s character I also wanted to discuss another one introduced through her, Stefani Stilton. Stilton, a petite gray mouse, runs an online women’s magazine called “Girl Croosh” that materializes the intersection of capitalism and “feminism”. The topics of the blog’s articles are disguised as empowering women, yet the show masterfully captures how that supposed empowerment does not induce any systematic change – needed to fight male oppression. The concept of pink-washing feminism comes into play, which is especially visible in the language used in the “Girl Croosh” environment. Stefani, addressing how Diane’s articles seem not to fit into the themes of the magazine (they are not about sex, apparently the main way in which women feel empowered), tells her that “this is not a conversation between an employee and her superior, this is a conversation between a friend and her superior”. How new language is used to mask old power dynamics is evident. There is a lot to say about how class systems are used to oppress women and that this oppression can come also from female hands.
“I’ve always dreamt of having an Oscar, and now I’ve done it, and, Bojack… I don’t like anything about me,” is probably one of the most heartbreaking quotes from the show and, coming from Sarah Lynn, captures even further how unfairly people are treated. Sarah Lynn was introduced to the celebrity industry as a child, and in order to stay relevant she had to, as a woman, transform her body into a good that people consume. For some time she was successful but then was replaced by a newer version of an oversexualized female, Sextina Aquafina (it was in fact very hard for me to type that name out). Women becoming rich and famous is seen as a success of feminism and a win over the patriarchy, but the consumerist culture only allows them to be nothing more than a tool, an object, a bike, piece of clothing, which will get old and unsuitable for further consumption. That “unsuitability” is defined not by the consumers, which cease to have interest in one body type, one face – because that’s what women are to society – but mostly by those who produce the image of women
Mr. Peanut Butter
My first encounters with Mr. Peanut Butter, the yellow labrador movie star, were rather unpleasant (I was literally crying from irritation), however, I have grown enough to be able to laugh at and reflect on his behavior. I have a dislike for overly positive people (or dogs) in general, so an overly overly overly positive person is literally unbearable.
There are a lot of things to unpack about Mr. Peanut Butter, but most of them link to his early life and the later consequences of fame. He was raised in a sheltered environment (no pun intended) atmosphere, unaware of his parent’s death, thinking they went to live on a farm and got into the industry by a combination of mistakes and luck, walking into a random door and such. Most importantly, he became, just like any other celebrity, a victim of commodification. His character is especially good in showing how celebrities have been (and are) used as capital and sold as goods to consumers. He was raised in what can be essentially called toxic positivity, that was used by producers and agents to create a public persona for Mr.Peanut Butter. Because of how little real life he experienced during his childhood, he became very attached to the manufactured image. We can see how he constantly surrounds himself with people, interacting with everyone, but unable to truly connect and feel. This is not only a celebrity problem; due to the constant stimulation by our phones and what’s on them, many of us are unable to be alone and in the quiet. What I am getting on here is that the media we consume, where we essentially consume public performances of individuals, is simply another good being sold to us. We often try to find “real people ” in celebrities, yet they themselves have been detached from what they are, at least in the public eye, all being in the hands of managers, producers, etc.
During the show Mr.Peanut Butter ran for election, though his campaign, unsurprisingly, was lacking depth and meaning, advocating for things the “candidate” has no idea about. Again, we see his alienation from his own image. What is magnified is that politics is a way of money-making, not policy-making, thus celebrities end up joining in, a reference to one too many instances in world history (Trump probably the most recent and famous). The campaign poster for the character is almost identical to Obama’s 2008 “Hope” one. That might also be a criticism of politicians whose campaigns, although full of hope and promises of change, end up altering nothing.
Often hailed as an incredibly inspiring working woman, empowering people to follow their dreams, I would argue that there is another level to her character. Her “from zero to hero” story is obviously very impressive, yet the success takes place in the same system that kept her at “zero” for so long.
That is not to say that the character’s struggles should be ignored. She is obviously heavily discriminated against – her road to becoming a successful celebrity agent was much longer and harder than that of her male colleagues despite her superiority over them. She often plays the role of the caretaker, performing, on top of her regular workload, much emotional labor. We can see how incompetent the men she works with are, and with no repercussions. A work-life balance is something she lacks very obviously for a big part of the story, which in the end she seems to finally achieve. This showcases how challenging it is for women to function in both the domestic and work environment without going crazy.
Now the other part of the story. Princess Carolyn constantly says she loves her work and that she is good at it, thus displaying her prioritization of it. All that sounds great until one is reminded of what her work is – making up stories for her clients, creating artificial public personas, and capitalizing off of ignorance and inequality.
As shown in the debate on gun violence in the episode “Thoughts and Prayers”, together with Lenny Turtletub, a Hollywood producer, Princess Carolyn is doing her job of using a tragic event to make money. Turtletub is producing a movie in which one scene features an actress shooting people at a mall, which is exactly what happened in real life (except it was a man). Since they do not want to ensure the success of the movie, they develop a theory of gun ownership as meant to be a form of female empowerment. Regardless of whether some of that holds or not, this shows that they don’t really care for women, but for money. As Princess Carolyn puts it, “if they already feel unsafe there is no reason not to capitalize on that”. Princess Carolyn is successful at preserving the same system that was constraining her whole life and that continues to do so, yet she finds money and success from it.
Despite its negative outlook on modernity, the show is particularly successful in bringing to the forefront also the less talked about problems and struggles of today. While offering little to no ideas on how those could be overcome, and being entrenched in an aura of hopelessness, it is quite persuasive in encouraging more critical consumption of media, and might completely revolutionize one’s everyday choices, translating into bigger actions.
Or maybe it is nothing more than yet another depressing show everybody will forget in a few years.