If any of you have had the pleasure of viewing Netflix original series, BoJack Horseman, you are probably wondering exactly how much accidental exposure I’ve had to cleaning products this week to draw such a conclusion as the title of this article. But, don’t swipe left yet, do hear me out.
If you think too much, like I do, it is really easy to get offended by mainstream comedy ideas. One of these which particularly gets my apron-strings in a knot is how it is funny for men to avoid, lie to and treat with contempt, the women in their lives, particularly their significant others, from “the unfunny girlfriend” in beer and snack ads, to the long-suffering wives of Jim, Raymond and their brethren. So ingrained in our culture is the woman-is-the-ball-and-chain concept that I very recently had to listen to a prominent speaker at a railway conference, spend a reasonable portion of his speech likening wives to the role of the Rail Regulator (i.e. the fun police) and inviting jovial heckling from the blokes in the audience about how painful their wives are. In general, I find it hard to fit in at engineering conventions, but being made to feel an outsider because I don’t identify with the jokes that are supposed to build rapport with the audience due to my lack of annoying wife (and/or other appendages) is quite isolating.
But back to how BoJack is changing this.
You may not yet have become acquainted with this addictive animated stoner sitcom, possibly because, as some of my contemporaries have mentioned to me, the target audience appears to be late-teenaged boys, so let me give you a quick rundown. Anthropomorphic horse, BoJack Horseman, a has-been actor, substance abuser and self-loather, lives a slovenly, irresponsible and affluent existence in Hollywoo (that’s not a typo, the D is no longer with us), interacting with his agent Princess Caroline (a pink feline), roommate Todd (a human), frenemy Mr Peanutbutter (a golden labrador) and biographer Diane (a human). Think of BoJack as the lovechild of Charlie Sheen and Mr Ed, but with better supporting characters.
There are elements of this show which I am finding difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to express in words, such as how humans and other creatures exist in an alternative universe where they are societal equals with no regard for actual size, interspecies breeding and the ethical consumption of meat. I’d suggest watching the trailer to get a better understanding.
So, there is no doubt that the character of BoJack is far from espousing the values of #heforshe in his usual dealings with the fairer sex, exhibiting behaviour typical of his archetype – treating his one night stands with contempt, objectifying (occasionally underage) women and generally being a selfish pig (figuratively, obviously, because he’s a horse). However, I find myself much more drawn to this show than others of its genre (that I’ve been exposed to) and I believe that its due to its positive portrayal of females with whom I can identify.
As a teenager and young adult, I asked myself the big questions like “Why do you like American Dad so much more than Family Guy?” and “How can you binge watch Futurama but cringe at The Simpsons?” In Family Guy, the character closest to me in demographic was Meg, who everyone, even her mother, passionately loathes. The daughter in American Dad, Hayley, is much more appealing, fighting for feminist causes as much as her sobriety will allow. In the Futurama verses The Simpsons debate, pilot Leila is admired for her awesomeness while, victim, Lisa is usually mistreated and misunderstood. So, without really thinking too much about the reasons, I had self-applied Bechdel-like principles to my adolescent program choices.
While it seems that all of the women in BoJack Horseman’s sphere are quire fierce characters, particularly his mother and his lesbian indy film director, I’m going to focus on talent agent, Princess Caroline, network executive, Wanda Pierce, and writer, Diane Nyguen.
Princess Caroline is an almost 40 year old cat, who is a senior ranking talent agent at Vigor, representing an accomplished array of A-list actors. Princess Caroline, like many of us, is incredibly passionate about her job but (hopefully unlike many of us) she will go to any lengths to make sure she lands on her feet (did you see what I did there, because she’s a cat!) In most comedies, or outdated work environments, Caroline would either be shunned as a b*tch or have her brilliance completely overlooked (think Alice in Dilbert), but in the BoJack Horseman universe she is neither. Her competence and success is not a long running joke. It just is what it is.
Owl, Wanda Pierce, is Head of Programming at fictional network MBN, who, after 30 years of being in a coma, found herself waking up on the top side of the glass ceiling. Wanda plays a girlfriend role in most of her appearances in the second season but, in contrast to her live-action sitcom GF sisters, she is portrayed as level-headed, reasonable, and actually fun to be around. For a bird with a brain injury she is refreshing lacking in, as the kids say, “cray cray”.
Diane Nyguen is my favourite character. She is a self-depreciating, former ugly-duckling, fiercely feminist, open-hearted, Vietnamese-American writer who dresses moderately on the hipster scale. Something that is particularly significant for me is that Diane, despite being of asian descent, is drawn with the whites of her eyes showing and doesn’t speak with an OTT accent used for mispronouncing words for comedic effect. In fact, Diane has actually toppled Mulan from her 17 year reign as my favourite asian animated character in mainstream media. Diane survived her (comedically) emotionally abusive childhood to become the author of several acclaimed books. She mixes with the who’s who of Hollywoo but yet has a social conscience and desire to derive meaning from her existence. While professionally, she’s pretty put together, throughout the show she does struggle with her relationship and a bout of depression. She is an incredibly three-dimensional character who resonates deeply, strange for a creation drawn in only two dimensions.
Perhaps what I’ve highlighted may not seem particularly significant. These characters’ professions are essential to the show’s plot lines that’s why they have jobs and are liked by the male characters. But remember, BoJack Horseman is largely watched by impressionable young men. Constant exposure to female characters, who succeed in their chosen field, and who are not just out to be b*tches dragging you down, withholding your god-given right for a place to sheath your sword, will subtly create a cultural change.
When BoJack Horsemen (that’s what i’m calling his followers) grow up, they will accept professional women as the norm, and as their peers and equals, because they have been exposed to them during binge-watching sessions. The influence of this show, and others like it, will chip away at the mob psyche, replacing I-hate-my-wife jokes with witty puns and intertextual allusions (check out BoJack’s faux 90s style website for an example: http://www.bojackhorseman.com). While it may not be possible to re-create the extent to which interspecies diversity is embraced in the BoJack reality, it is certainly possible to achieve the gender acceptance which it (possibly unintentionally) promotes.