The Surprising Feminist Undertones of BoJack Horseman

Last year’s Netflix original, the “cartoon for adults” BoJack Horseman, packed a surprising amount of social commentary for a show featuring a talking horse.  The criminally underrated series does a lot of things well: sharp satire of the entertainment industry balanced with absurdist humor made even stranger in a world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, background details and inside jokes on par with some of Arrested Development’s best, and slick opening credits cool enough to make adults forget they are watching a cartoon.

The show, which follows a washed up TV star from the 90s sitcom Horsin’ Around who also happens to be a horse-man, was created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. It stars the voice talents of many of today’s leading comedy actors, including Will Arnett (as the titular anti-hero), Amy Sedaris (BoJack’s underappreciated agent and on-and-off lover Princess Carolyn), and Aaron Paul (as Todd, BoJack’s stoner housemate turned friend). Alison Brie, known for her role in Community, voices Diane Nguyen, the ghost writer charged with writing BoJack’s memoir and bringing him back into the public spotlight.

The second season returns on July 17th with 12 new episodes. Before following BoJack through more (drug) highs and (career) lows, take a look back at how in a show that’s focused on the plight of a drug-addled man child (or horse-man child), Diane turns out to be one of the most interestingly painted characters of the season, as well as one of the better developed female characters in recent TV history.

She’s focused on her career:

It’s obvious from the moment they meet that Diane will be BoJack’s love interest. BoJack, BoJack’s rival, and even a hipster BuzzFeed writer all fall for the quirky girl with the glasses and the Ira Glass ringtone. Throughout all this, though, she has her writing career on the forefront of her mind. Her main struggle has nothing to do with BoJack but with being thirty-four and working as a ghostwriter. Coming from a working class family who thinks she abandoned them to pursue her dream, she thought she would be writing other books, not ghostwriting for unappreciative celebrities.

Plus, when asked if getting married was everything she dreamed of since being a little girl, she answered, “When I was little, I dreamed of getting a MacArthur Grant for my zine about how all the girls at school were bitches.” A MacArthur Genius Grant joke! Alison Bechdel would be so proud (sidenote: is the Bechdel Test ever applied to TV shows? BoJack Horseman would definitely pass).

She knows there is more to her life than being someone’s wife, but she’s happy to marry because she’s in love:

Leading up to her wedding, Diane struggles with the idea of marriage and its lifelong commitment. She doesn’t feel immediately sure just because she’s wearing a ring. When her fiance bugs her about the wedding registry, assuming she’ll be the one to take care of it, she reminds him that she is working on a potentially career-defining book. When it comes time for her to say her vows, she honestly says, “I never thought I wanted to get married. It’s so weird, this idea of dedicating yourself to something for the rest of your life. Like how could you know, right? But then I realized it’s okay to not know everything. Some things take a leap of faith.” She doesn’t marry because it’s what she is supposed to do as a woman. She marries because it’s a choice she wants to make as the next step in her relationship.

Post wedding, she reflects, “I mean I guess I got a happy ending, but every happy ending has the day after the happy ending, right, and the day after that. So the wedding was so much fun. It was the happiest day of my life. But, you know, what does that say about all the days I have left?” Instead of the credits rolling over the woman’s life culminating in that “one special day,” it keeps going, you know, like in real life. She’s married, but what does that mean when her career takes off and she has new opportunities she now has to consider in light of having a partner?

She gives one of the best speeches about a contemporary woman’s struggle with third wave feminism:

In episode three, “Prickly Muffin” the always off-kilter and entertaining Kristen Schaal guest stars as Sarah Lynn, BoJack’s former co-star turned recording artist. She’s a Britney Spears/Miley Cyrus type who transformed from innocent child actor to sexualized pop star. When BoJack asks for Diane’s opinion on Sarah, her response eloquently explains what is at the heart of so many current debates on feminism and sexuality:

“Oh, I don’t really think about her all that much. I mean, obviously, I’m a fan of her early work, which both satirized and celebrated youth culture’s obsession with sex. But I do wonder as a third-wave feminist if it’s even possible for women to “reclaim” their sexuality in this deeply entrenched patriarchal society. Or if claiming to do so is just a lie we tell ourselves so we can more comfortably cater to the male gaze. On the other hand, I worry conversations like this one often dismiss her as a mere puppet of the industry, incapable of engaging in this discussion herself, an infantilization which is itself a product of the deeply misogynistic society we live in. But like I said, I don’t think about her that much.”

These are conversations sparked by Beyonce and dissected by bell hooks. That they are happening on a satirical cartoon that features a dog-man named Mr. Peanutbutter, says there is room in pop culture for serious and smart conversations about what it means to be a feminist now. Diane Nguyen is a great character to voice these concerns.

Photo courtesy of Netflix.
Photo courtesy of Netflix.

With the arrival of season two of BoJack Horseman, Diane has more opportunity to dissect what it means to be a feminist. She has the potential for an interesting season two arc as she balances married life with her burgeoning career. Let’s hope she isn’t relegated to the standard love interest with nothing to do but react to the main character, what the show was quick to avoid in season one. In the words of season one guest star Naomi Watts (who plays a version of herself), “Isn’t this town sick of creating three-dimensional roles for women?” Hopefully not.

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