Serial Misogyn-Neigh: The New “BoJack” Explores How We Let Famous Men, And Horses, Off the Hook

Season five of BoJack Horseman turns a critical eye on its characters and itself.

Sady Doyle September 20, 2018

In BoJack Horseman's new season, feminist writer Diane Nguyen (L) tries to hold harmful men to account. (Netflix)

Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s ani­mat­ed Net­flix sit­com, BoJack Horse­man, nom­i­nal­ly a Hol­ly­wood satire about a depressed actor who hap­pens to be a talk­ing horse, con­structs jokes and tragedies alike as Rube Gold­berg machines. A BoJack plot is a cas­cade of unlike­ly events, each trig­ger­ing increas­ing­ly ridicu­lous devel­op­ments until the punch­line lands — always just a lit­tle bit soon­er or lat­er than you antic­i­pat­ed, always leav­ing you jolt­ed and vul­ner­a­ble, like going down a stair­case and find­ing one more stair than you remembered. 

This is Season 5’s abiding preoccupation: bad men in entertainment, and how easily we forgive them

Take the exam­ple of bit char­ac­ter Vance Wag­goner. Wag­goner is caught on a cop’s dash­board cam yelling I HATE JEWS,” then makes a movie with a Jew­ish actor to prove” he’s not anti-Semit­ic, then, in the process of pro­mot­ing that movie, is ques­tioned by a jour­nal­ist about the time he beat a woman, then, in the process of giv­ing an inter­view intend­ed to down­play the inci­dent, is sur­prised with a tape of a phone call in which he threat­ens to mur­der his 14-year-old daugh­ter and tells her, I hate Swedes.” (“Bet you didn’t see that com­ing!” Wag­goner adds, evi­dent­ly thrilled by the chance to unveil a new eth­nic prej­u­dice.) That was the set-up. Here’s the punch­line: For all this, Wag­goner is offered a life­time achieve­ment prize at the evi­dent­ly pres­ti­gious We For­give You Awards.

This is Sea­son 5’s abid­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tion: bad men in enter­tain­ment, and how eas­i­ly we for­give them. To its cred­it, BoJack cov­ered this years before #MeToo. Its fan­tas­tic 2015 episode Hank After Dark,” in which fem­i­nist writer Diane Nguyen tries to report on alleged sex­u­al assaults by talk show host Hank Hip­popopalous, only to have Hank quash her sto­ry, was read at the time as a sim­ple Bill Cos­by dig. It now res­onates with at least a dozen recent cas­es — most notably Har­vey Wein­stein, who alleged­ly manip­u­lat­ed the press to kill sto­ries about his wrong­do­ing. (Thanks to Lisa Hanawalt’s indeli­ble char­ac­ter design, Hank — thick­set, stub­bly, big chin bust­ing out of his suit — looks eeri­ly like a hip­po Weinstein.)

We know how this ends,” Diane acknowl­edges. Our core read­er­ship eats it up, a bunch of dude­bros call me a dumb slunt, and Vance’s career chugs right along.” The world is a nev­er-end­ing con­vey­or belt of preda­to­ry men, and we still for­give them. But this time around, BoJack is hold­ing itself accountable. 

BoJack is cen­tered on a glam­orous­ly bad man — BoJack, the alco­holic self-med­icat­ing emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive nar­cis­sis­tic man-horse. And BoJack is fas­ci­nat­ed by its lead’s bad­ness, and the pain that fuels it — a fas­ci­na­tion it shares with a long line of anti-hero dra­mas, from The Sopra­nos to Mad Men. At their best, these shows chal­lenge us to broad­en the scope of our empa­thy. At their worst, they pass off half-baked moral rel­a­tivism as insight: We’re all ter­ri­ble,” BoJack explains, so there­fore we’re all okay.” 

But we are not all equal­ly ter­ri­ble; actions have con­se­quences, preda­tors have vic­tims, and we as a cul­ture have more urgent tasks than to spin com­pli­cat­ed fic­tion­al ratio­nal­iza­tions for wealthy (usu­al­ly white) men’s hurt­ful behav­ior. (“He didn’t mean it!” reads a sign for Vance Waggoner.) 

So, in Sea­son 5, BoJack eats itself, crit­i­ciz­ing the tra­di­tion of TV to which it belongs: BoJack is now play­ing a tor­ment­ed detec­tive on a painful­ly bad anti-hero dra­ma. Diane is work­ing as a con­sult­ing pro­duc­er on that show, and find­ing that every­thing she writes to besmirch BoJack’s char­ac­ter makes view­ers like him more. And she also finds her­self caught up in a famil­iar cru­sade — to deny an abu­sive man, Wag­goner, his plat­form. It’s what fem­i­nists do. It’s what Diane has always done. It’s who she is. 

And then the actu­al premise of the sea­son hits: Diane receives a tape of her best friend, BoJack Horse­man, con­fess­ing to inap­pro­pri­ate sex­u­al behav­ior with a teenage girl. We, the view­ers, saw it in a pre­vi­ous episode. Diane didn’t know, but BoJack hasn’t giv­en her rea­son to expect bet­ter. Diane, a self-appoint­ed fem­i­nist avenger, has been giv­ing BoJack god­damn Horse­man, the most obvi­ous­ly tox­ic man-slash-horse in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, a pass every day. 

And so have we. We have even less of an excuse than Diane, since we know more about BoJack. The call is com­ing from inside the house: We thought we were root­ing against Vance Wag­goner, we laughed at the idiots hand­ing out We For­give You Awards, and here we were, tak­ing yet anoth­er bad man’s side. For­giv­ing him every­thing, just so we can be entertained. 

What did I tell you? The punch­line nev­er hits you where you’d expect. 

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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