SHAH: BoJack Horseman can make us better people


Opinions Column: The Progressive's Hot Take


I have to start with an important disclaimer that this article is likely to spoil some aspects of "BoJack Horseman." If you have not already seen it, what are you waiting for? I have seen a lot of TV shows, and though I am by no means qualified to say this, "BoJack Horseman" is the most poignant and thought-provoking piece of television there is. 

"BoJack Horseman" follows former 90s sitcom and now critically acclaimed actor BoJack, voice by Will Arnett, who has since spent his days in a drug- and booze-induced stupor of self-pity and depression. While BoJack is phenomenal at portraying absurdist animal humor and self-loathing addiction, it is equally skilled at crafting political commentary that is nuanced without sounding preachy. 

Released on Sept. 15 on Netflix, season five of BoJack dives headfirst into our society’s most controversial issue — the #MeToo movement. We are introduced to Vance Waggoner, voiced by Bobby Cannavale, who starts off as a near-perfect replica of Mel Gibson but turns into an amalgam of all the untouchable bad men of Hollywood. To launch his comeback after years of offensive behavior, Vance vies for the role of the gritty anti-hero, on BoJack’s new show "Philbert." Diane, a writer on the show and BoJack’s closest confidant, is outraged that people are willing to forgive an irredeemable man. When she is asked what Vance can do to gain forgiveness, Diane maintains that he does not deserve redemption regardless of what he does. Moments after, in an ironic yet realistic turn of events, Vance is publicly forgiven. Examining the danger with which pop culture normalizes bad behavior, BoJack reminds us that in Hollywood forgiveness only takes a matter of time and star power. Over and over again, powerful men walk away unscathed with little to no consequences.

After Vance refuses the role, it becomes obvious that BoJack himself is the gritty anti-hero of "Philbert," having committed many morally reprehensible acts (even coming uncomfortably close to sleeping with his friend’s teenage daughter). This arc ends up being a self-reflection on whether BoJack himself normalizes toxicity, glamorizing famous people cyclically doing bad things. While we all love BoJack, we often experience cognitive dissonance supporting someone who has continually done bad things. 

Cognitive dissonance is a particularly powerful drug, and in the midst of the #MeToo movement, we have easily forgiven stars whose actions we found despicable just months ago. Mirroring real-life, this feels painfully true as iconic comedians like Aziz Ansari and Louis C.K. return to the spotlight to uproarious applause after months of hiding. Their typical comedy shticks fall short as we watch them purposely side-step acknowledgement of the real reasons for their break from comedy. Their ability to return to their careers like nothing happened feels highly symbolic of the nature with which we allow our celebrities to get away with anything, as long as we love their work. 

Nothing has changed, and it hurts. 

The season’s climax hits when we discover BoJack’s lethal addiction to painkillers. In drug-fueled hazes, the lines between his real-life and “Philbert” become blurred, and on a particularly visceral trip, BoJack chokes his co-star and love interest Gina, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, while filming, nearly killing her. Gina quickly and publicly absolves BoJack, refusing to let the instance define her career, and we see a very simple, outright depiction of why women do not report assault. In a moment of complete self-loathing, BoJack begs Diane to write an expose about every single thing he has done. Diane refuses, rationalizing that public opinion will let him off easy, just as it has let stars like Waggoner off the hook in the past. Until BoJack holds himself personally accountable for his actions, nothing will change. 

BoJack’s inability to hold himself accountable is indicative of the major issue the mobilization of the #MeToo movement has: a lack of abusers who truly feel guilt and remorse about their actions, and not their fall from grace. A public shaming of abusers can only put a Band-Aid on a festering wound. Season five proves to be incredibly timely, as our culture’s confrontation of sexual abusers reaches a climax with Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s perhaps inevitable confirmation onto the Supreme Court. After a powerful testimony from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s responding testimony displayed a man who feels entitled to a spot on the Court despite any wrongdoing. And while we can hold all of the demonstrations we want to keep Kavanaugh off of the Court, the same bad people will continue to do worse things until we force abusers to hold themselves accountable. 

Nothing has changed yet. But it can. 

Our forgiveness and second (third, fourth, fifth) chances when it comes to sexual misconduct only enables a culture in which it is acceptable for boys to be boys when they are young — as long as they grow up. Sexual assault cannot be marketed as a teenage boy phase. It ruins lives. 

I am not a horse with raging addiction problems, and I assume no such horse exists in real life, but somehow all of us find ourselves in "BoJack Horseman." And sometimes, we just need a dark, animated comedy to push us to break our storied cycles and truly be better. We deserve better — for ourselves and for our daughters. 

Anjali Shah is a Rutgers Business School sophomore, contemplating her primary major but minoring in political science and philosophy. Her column, “The Progressive’s Hot Take,” runs on alternate Fridays.

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