Opinion Review

Sometime’s Life’s a Bitch and Then You Keep Living: Understanding BoJack Horseman and ‘Bad Men’

Written by Isabella Keith
Graphic by Charlee Gale

Spoilers for BoJack Horseman.

Content warnings for mentions of sexual assault, sexual harassment, Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo movement, alcoholism, overdosing, drowning, addiction.

BoJack Horseman, the adult animated series about a washed-up 90s actor who happens to be a horse, aired its final episodes on Netflix in January. It has been widely celebrated throughout its run for its takes on depression, addiction, trauma, and, perhaps surprisingly, sexism, misogyny, and feminism. It also opens up a discussion about how to manage Hollywood’s love for ‘bad men’, both fictional and real, in a productive, accountable way.

Part of the beauty of BoJack lies in the fact that it works well on two levels. At its surface, it is a satirical take on Hollywood with funny anthropomorphic animals, but pay closer attention and the show offers surprisingly nuanced takes on a wealth of current issues. In this sense, BoJack manages to find a happy medium between being good casual viewing and also rewarding for the more critical eye. 

There are a lot of other adult-oriented, satirical, edgy cartoons centred around ‘ethically compromised’ (read: bad) men that also seem to appeal largely to men, along the lines of Rick and MortyArcher, South Park, Family Guy… At first glance, it might be easy to mistake BoJack as falling into this camp. In fact, it would have been easy for BoJack to be a show like that – creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has said in an interview with NPR that he has some regret about jokes made in Season 1, as attempting to find the balance between holding someone accountable and exploring their perspective was prone to being “slippery”. 

And yet, as BoJack continued on through its six-season run, it quickly found this balance, and it became increasingly clear that the show was not really about the depressed, alcoholic horse and the bad things he does, but instead the people and issues he engages with as he stumbles through life. Many of these people are women, with their own complex, intricate storylines whose stories are interwoven with BoJack’s life, even when he hurts them – sometimes in irreparable ways. Much to BoJack’s dismay, and despite his best efforts to forget his own wrongdoings, he continues to face reminders of his past. 

Unlike most fiction that centres on a ‘bad man’, BoJack continues to follow the lives of the women its main character hurts or takes advantage of. Instead of being brief plot points, serving only to further solidify BoJack’s characterisation and complexities, these women are taken and engaged with seriously, and so is their pain. They also help to answer the question of how both women and society deal with ‘bad men’ in different ways. In part, BoJack is able to continue his lifestyle and make the same mistakes because women continue to forgive and protect him, particularly Princess Carolyn. Other women, like Diane, expend extensive emotional labour attempting to help BoJack understand how he has hurt those around him. Meanwhile Hollyhock, BoJack’s half-sister, who finds it impossible to forgive him for his behaviour, completely cuts him out of her life in a clear manifestation of ‘cancel culture’.

Other ‘bad men’ are dealt with throughout the show – Hank Hippopopalous is a character who faces allegations of sexual harassment, but, due to his beloved reputation, faces no real consequences for his actions. The episode dealing with these accusations, Hank After Dark, aired in 2015, just two years before the allegations against Harvey Weinstein triggered the mainstream #MeToo movement. As BoJack aired its final episodes in late January 2020, Weinstein’s trial was ongoing in New York. One month later, he was convicted of sexual assault and rape. 

The following episodes of BoJack engage more intentionally with the #MeToo movement, satirising Hollywood’s standard approach to ‘forgiving’ the slew of disgraced celebrities who hop in and out of the news cycle. Season 5’s episode, BoJack the Feminist, centres around the ‘We Forgive You Awards’ – an entire ceremony created for people in Hollywood who need to apologise for something, perhaps the most obvious jab at Hollywood’s forgiving treatment of real-life ‘bad men’, and the ease with which they are redeemed.

But the women of BoJack still get the happy endings they arguably deserve. Diane becomes an author, moving to Houston with her husband, and Princess Carolyn marries her assistant, Judah, and lands her dream job of running a film studio for female writers. But perhaps more poignant and important than these achievements is their ability to move beyond BoJack, out of his gravitational pull, and prioritise their own needs above his. 

BoJack’s own finale is far less decisive, drawing on the complications that arise with real-life forgiveness, rather than the orthodox old-Hollywood redemptive arc. The penultimate episode, The View from Halfway Down, where BoJack overdoses, drowns, and is presumed to be dead, could have very easily been the final episode of the series. Instead, it is followed by his recovery and imprisonment in the final episode, which ultimately offers no clear answer for what might lie ahead for BoJack.  In the #MeToo era, while Harvey Weinstein sits in a prison cell, the fact that BoJack’s titular character faces unanswered questions and uncertainty, rather than clemency from a brief apology or an untimely death, is fitting. 

Despite everything, the central tenet of BoJack is still its titular character, and its appeal still lies in ‘bad men’ and understanding their brokenness, even if done satirically. As much as BoJack satirises and criticises Hollywood and the real ‘bad men’ it produces and often celebrates, the world of fictional ‘bad men’ and our interest in them is still one that remains very much intact, as evidenced by recently-premiered Netflix shows that attempt to understand ‘bad men’ such as Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez and Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer. And as much as BoJack provides complex female characters, their names aren’t in the title, and our engagement with them is still largely through BoJack’s eyes. 

Meanwhile, Tuca & Bertie, an adult animated series about two anthropomorphic millennial bird-women, created by BoJack producer Lisa Hanawalt, was cancelled after one season by Netflix, despite garnering critical acclaim. The show’s two main characters were voiced by women of colour, Ali Wong and Tiffany Haddish, who were also executive producers. It explored many similar themes to BoJack including trauma, anxiety, alcoholism and misogyny, albeit with two regular (bird-)women at the centre of the story. While it is certainly a very different show to BoJack, the overlap in themes, humour, and artistic direction begs the question of why its trajectory was so different. The obvious answer lies in the fact that Tuca & Bertie centres around two women with ordinary lives, rather than an infamous ‘bad man’.

While BoJack manages to successfully criticise and satirise ‘bad men’, Hollywood continues to struggle with them both on and off-screen.  They are still the vessel of choice for exploring trauma, mental illness and addiction, often at the expense of more diverse and unique representations of these conditions. ‘Bad men’ are spectacles that we simultaneously want to better understand and try to sympathise with, as well as critique and scoff at. We love to hate them – and so does Hollywood.

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