Amanda Zhang: What society can learn from “Bojack Horseman”

Tuesday, November 13, 2018 - 6:16pm

Amanda Zhang

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On its surface, Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman” simply looks like an absurd cartoon about a celebrity horse, but anyone who has seen the show can attest that its themes extend far past just whimsical animal puns (though they are admittedly one of my favorite parts of the show). Despite centering around the lives of mostly anthropomorphized animals, “Bojack Horseman” is perhaps the most honest portrayal of the human condition currently on television, and its most recent season fearlessly explores the complex facets of addiction, the marginalization of women and the lack of accountability in our society.

Season five of “Bojack Horseman” follows Bojack as he balances a demanding acting job on the set of his new action drama “Philbert” with growing depression and drug addiction. This season focuses largely on the theme of accountability, or more specifically, a lack thereof. We get a taste of this early on with Vance Waggoner, a remorseless former “Hollywood” star who has a history of horrible behavior involving sexual harassment, assault and anti-Semitism. After a few years out of the spotlight, Vance lands a gig as Bojack’s co-star on “Philbert,” a role that is meant to revive the “reformed” actor’s career.

Though as viewers we can laugh at Vance’s excessively dark and endless transgressions, we must also recognize that Vance is just an exaggerated version of the celebrities and public figures whom we constantly forgive in our society. This cycle is one we all know far too well — a celebrity scandal breaks the celebrity apologizes and spends some time out of the public eye and shortly after, the public welcomes the “new-and-improved” celebrity back with open arms.

Waggoner’s character holds obvious relevance to the #MeToo movement that has taken our society by storm. With so many once-beloved public figures shockingly exposed as sexual assaulters and harassers, a number of them have inevitably slipped through the cracks back into the public's warm embrace. Perhaps most notably, Louis C.K., who just last year was at the center of the #MeToo movement, and has now already kickstarted a return to the stand-up stage. It is instances like these that reveal just how fickle the public is. Louis C.K. is funny and affable, so naturally, mere months after we discovered his history of sexual misconduct, we have already begun to forget.

Though Vance Waggoner’s character is a blunt social commentary on society’s inability to hold the rich and famous accountable, it is merely a precursor to the season’s much darker climactic ending. Throughout the season, we witness Bojack gradually spiraling out of control as his dependency on painkillers takes over his life. Eventually, his sense of self becomes so warped that he mistakes a scripted action scene for real life and violently chokes his co-star Gina while filming. Not wanting her best shot at a successful acting career to die in the shadow of such a massive scandal, Gina publically “clears things up” in an interview, covering her bruises with makeup and assuring the public that it was just good acting.

This interview scene is incredibly honest and powerful. Not only does Gina illustrate an often overlooked barrier to survivors of assault who contemplate coming forward, but the situation also represents a very real instance in which a powerful and destructive force once again escapes the consequences of his actions.

There is a scene in the 10th episode in which Bojack rationalizes that everybody does regrettable things, that, “We’re all terrible, so, therefore, we’re all OK.” This quote embodies every reason our society habitually fails to hold people accountable. We adopt this mindset because it is easy. It is easy to believe that, “We’re all terrible, so, therefore, we’re all OK” because a lack of agency means that we never had any control over our actions in the first place. It means that we are not responsible for ourselves, so, therefore, our transgressions are not our fault. These rationalizations are simply a coping mechanism. But in this case, we cannot just cope — we must respond.

With the #MeToo movement in full force, I can only hope that we as a society have begun to realize that we must hold others as well as ourselves truly accountable. The trauma suffered by survivors of sexual assault is too painful for us to remain complacent. We cannot simply rationalize wrongdoings with the same old justifications like “Boys will be boys” or “It’s just locker room talk” because these excuses normalize attitudes and beliefs which should unequivocally be condemned. An apology is not enough to warrant forgiveness because redemption is not a binary state, but instead a gradual and continuous effort. Yes, we all do terrible things sometimes, but this fact is not some equalizer that justifies all wrongdoings.

Season five of “Bojack Horseman” closes on a hopeful note as Bojack checks himself into a rehabilitation facility for his addiction. He realizes the changes he himself must enact in order to be better — it’s time society does the same.

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