I want to see “BoJack Horseman” succeed at writing a nuanced portrayal of a person of color and their culture.
By Linh Cao
“I stepped outside of the Ho Chi Minh airport and felt the humid air envelope me. Palm trees taller than any I’d ever seen in California pierced the skies. In between them were two flags: a red flag with a yellow star and another with a hammer and sickle. People of all complexions, size, age, and nationality bustled around me, calling for their relatives or trying to hail a cab — all in Vietnamese. I was finally back in Vietnam.”
This was the first paragraph of my personal essay “Getting Back To My Roots” for Femsplain, back in 2016. It was the first time I had visited Vietnam in 10 years and I was overwhelmed across all of my senses: the sight of folks who looked like me, the bustling sounds of a city and its motorcycle-riding citizens, and the smell of cigarette smoke, and sweet and spicy food dancing amongst musky floral fragrances. When Diane Nguyen decided to go soul-search by visiting her homeland in “Dog Days Are Over”, a recent episode of “BoJack Horseman”, I couldn’t help but feel deeply connected to her journey in a way that no other character has made me feel. Not only that, but she was also writing an article for Girl Croosh, a fictional online publication for women in the “BoJack Horseman” universe similar to real websites I had been published on before. “Where is my content, Diane?” asks Stefani Stilton, Diane’s boss at Girl Croosh. The urgency that Stefani places on Diane mirrors my deeply internal struggle of turning my personal experiences into clickable content in order to continue to be published, to continue to make a difference in the world with my words. I was so excited for the episode in store.
Unfortunately, the second Diane landed in Hanoi and the background music started playing, that feeling of connection disappeared. It had no resemblance whatsoever to real Vietnamese folk music, the kind my mom would sing and hum aloud while she cooked and cleaned. What sounds like a Chinese wooden flute plays ambient music that gives me the impression that the sound guy in the studio simply googled “Oriental music” and picked the second one on the list. I’d like to say they tried, but if you search “Vietnamese folk music” on YouTube, the first result will show that our traditional music is mostly centered around strings, specifically instruments like the đàn bầu. Even if there are examples of folk music that use wind instruments, they are flourishes on top of the plucky, playful, and emotional string parts, and by no means the star of the show.
This disappointment set the tone for the rest of the episode.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Diane is voiced by Alison Brie, who is a white woman. Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator and showrunner for “BoJack Horseman”, has since stated that if he were to cast the show today, he definitely would not have cast an entirely white cast. When I saw this tweet and the resulting interviews around it, I was eager to see how Bob-Waksberg and his team would deal with this creatively-limiting decision. I understood why he chose not to replace Alison Brie with a Vietnamese diaspora voice actress. Diane has a distinct voice and character now that Alison Brie has brought to the character over the past five seasons and to change it now might seem too risky to fly in the face of contracts and executives. But this means the team behind “BoJack Horseman” has to step up in every other way in order to overcome the limitations of her whiteness. You might be wondering — a white voice actress playing a character of color shouldn’t matter in animation, right? It shouldn’t matter as long as the job went to the best person, right?
Brie just doesn’t have the range to perform as a Vietnamese American woman. And because there has not yet been an episode explaining why Diane’s family is the way they are, her ethnicity feels tacked on and poorly researched, given the historical context of what it means to be a Vietnamese American.
I won’t disparage the nuances and depth that Brie does bring to the character at certain points, but I have to explain what she can’t possibly bring. And these shortcomings become clearer and clearer as this episode goes on.
A Vietnamese diaspora person’s broken Vietnamese sounds entirely different than a non-Vietnamese person. We grow up listening to it and for many of us, it’s our first language. While Vietnamese folks can tell we’re Việt Kiều (“overseas Vietnamese”) because of our American accent when speaking, our American accent is different than a white person’s American accent — even if we aren’t fluent in Vietnamese and haven’t spoken it in decades. Hearing Alison Brie say số hai in her harsh, grating accent over and over again was just a painful, stabbing reminder that this character with a Vietnamese face, name, and history is voiced by a white woman. Non-Vietnamese viewers probably couldn’t tell the difference, but Vietnamese viewers can. And if you think that shouldn’t matter, you have to ask yourself which audience Diane’s character is meant for and whether that counts as true representation.
Her Vietnamese accent wasn’t the only thing that hurt about having a white woman play Diane in an episode that centers her Vietnameseness. Brie can’t possibly have been the best person to play this character because she lacks the experience and insight to bring life to the role. When Diane rants about social justice or gets into a fight with her partner, one can argue that a white woman can voice these parts just fine — to be honest, any person of any race can. These are generally universal experiences, sure.
But what Brie cannot deliver is a captivating performance centered around the #1 thing on Diane’s listicle: “Reconnecting with your ancestral roots.” The transition from that to #2 (“You can be a tourist here!”) felt too sudden. Even though it’s established that Diane is a character who has trouble knowing what her true emotions are, a Vietnamese American voice actress definitely would have added more raw emotion and gravitas to that scene. Diane knows she’s Vietnamese American, and no matter how “American-ized” she is, it will hurt and hurt deeply to know that she will never truly belong in Vietnam. This hurt will linger, making the transition to accept that she’s just a tourist more painful to accept. Even if Diane is a character who isn’t in tune with her emotions, we see time and again how her repressed emotions bubble to the top. The writer could’ve taken this recurring trait of hers and really run with it this episode, but instead she brushes off her Vietnameseness as if it was never an important part of her identity in the first place. This is something a white person can easily do, but not a person of color.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg has stated in an interview for Slate that this episode was written by mixed-race Latina Joanna Calo and they also consulted briefly with Vyvy Nguyen, a voice actress on the show, to hear her experiences of being a Vietnamese American visiting Vietnam. This is a big reason why I haven’t totally disparaged this episode. I truly appreciate that they asked a Vietnamese American woman to share her personal experiences. I admire Joanna Calo’s enthusiasm towards doing a story that obviously means a lot to her and, on some level, is a story that many second generation, and onwards, diaspora folks of color can relate to.
However, it just wasn’t enough. It’s ironic that Diane has worn the consultant hat a couple times throughout the entire show — as a consultant on the Secretariat movie in Season 2 and on the show Philbert in Season 5 — but a proper consultant wasn’t hired to make sure Diane’s story, history, and even the location of Vietnam, was accurate. At the very least, the writers could have done some basic research about Vietnamese American history.
The Vietnamese refugee crisis began around 1975. Because Diane turned 35 in Season 2, which took place in 2015, this sets her canon birth year to be 1980. She grew up in Boston. So if we assume she was also born there and we look to some of Diane’s earliest memories of her parents, they will have only been in the US for at most 15 years by the time she’s in high school. It would be near impossible to learn to speak English not only without a Vietnamese accent, but with a Boston accent as well. Her parents might have been upper-class Vietnamese folks who learned Western languages like English and French at a young age. But if they did, they would have migrated to Europe, where there has been a sizeable Vietnamese population for centuries, instead of take the much more perilous trip to the US. Regardless of her parent’s upbringing, this timeline would mean her brothers were most likely born in Vietnam and spent their childhood there, which would likely have resulted in some form of a Vietnamese accent as well.
However, I have doubts that the writers have given this much thought into Diane’s parents and family history. After all, Bob-Waksberg mentioned to Uproxx that Diane is “second or third generation immigrant, if not more.” It is very unlikely that, in the historical context, Diane, a 35 year old woman, is a third generation (or “more”) Vietnamese American. Third generation Vietnamese Americans do exist, but they are very rare. Given the showrunners’ track record of representing Vietnamese Americans on the show, I highly doubt they put this much thought into her family history. The casual way he tacks this onto her character in order to justify how “American” she is shows that he created a Vietnamese character with little to no knowledge whatsoever of how we even came here in the first place. While third generation and more, Asian American immigrants do exist in the US, particularly Japanese and Chinese diaspora folks, conflating their unique histories such as the Meiji Revolution for Japanese Americans and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad for Chinese Americans, respectively, with Vietnamese Americans’ is offensive and willfully ignorant.
The first wave of Vietnamese American migrants were also not immigrants — they were refugees, and their children are the children of refugees. To call her an immigrant erases that history and, again, conflates her identity with other Asians. It’s frustrating to have to repeat this in 2018, but not all Asians are the same.
We learned in the Season 1 episode “Live Fast, Diane” that Diane hates her abusive family so much that she has tried to look up whether she was adopted before (and found out she wasn’t). If she was that dedicated to find out who her nonexistent “real” family was, then she would have also put effort into finding out who her extended family is. This would be very easy to do given the average Vietnamese person, in the diaspora and in Vietnam, uses Facebook like Americans use Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Almost all of my family members in Vietnam have accounts and post daily. My mom livestreams even the most mundane chores and activities to her Facebook friends list of almost 5000, of which almost 500-600 always tune in and send their emoji reacts her way. Trust me, Diane would have found her family in Vietnam. And she would have visited them during her time there.
But, again, because there wasn’t a Vietnamese writer on the team how could the writers possibly know this niche cultural fact about Vietnamese social media use? And how this keeps the diaspora and homeland in touch? And see the potential it might bring to Diane’s character development? They could have written a story centered around her visiting her family. She could find comfort in seeing people that look like her and feeling love from family who is actually kind to her. But in the end, she would still feel isolated because she’s American and they’re not — because she’s Việt Kiều and they’re not. That is a representative and true Vietnamese American experience.
On the topic of family, I’d like to again address Diane’s parents, Ma and Pa Nguyen. Pa Nguyen makes a brief appearance in a flashback where Diane asks him about Vietnam and despite him being a professor of Vietnamese history at Tufts University, he refuses to tell her anything because it’s “his day off,” and reminds her that she’s no different than anyone else. While it is possible that a second generation Vietnamese-American might have parents who would be reluctant to speak too much about what it was like in the homeland due to trauma from the Vietnam War and the refugee crisis that ensued, I find it very unrealistic that her parents would have assimilated to the point where there would be absolutely no trace or discussion of their Vietnamese heritage in their home.
In a country that made the war in Vietnam worse, which has residents that might not even accept you because of your race and ethnicity, and whose citizens have a history of not being kind to refugees, assimilating is survival. Covering your differences is survival. Pa Nguyen clearly understands this. But most first generation Vietnamese diaspora folks didn’t leave Vietnam because they wanted to.
They left because they had to.
And when you’re forced to leave a place you grew up in, the only place you’ve ever known, it’s hard to shirk off your culture entirely and refuse to ever pass that onto your children. No matter how much you try to assimilate, no matter how much trauma you have, and no matter how abusive that all makes you, I cannot possibly imagine Vietnamese parents sounding and acting the way Diane’s parents do.
Does this mean all hope is lost? Never. I think “Dog Days Are Over” is an unfortunate misstep, but I believe there is still space within the “BoJack Horseman” canon for these wrongs to be righted by the creators behind the show.
We need them to hire a Vietnamese writer and do their research. If you are going to do any justice for a Vietnamese main character, you have a moral obligation to hire someone who can understand the nuances of how we move in the world. At the very least, hire a proper consultant or do the research needed to translate an entire diaspora culture to the screen. I highly recommend Vietcetera’s YouTube channel as a place to begin learning about the modern day Vietnam and Vietnamese diaspora. However, since they’ve had five seasons to do the research and failed, I think the only option now is to hire one of us to write for Diane.
We need an episode that centers Diane’s parents. This shouldn’t be too hard since we’ve had similar episode done already about Princess Carolyn and BoJack’s parents. I think if we were given a glimpse into why they are the way they are, it might better humanize them and give us insight into what Diane’s upbringing was like.
I can sense some love and worry in Pa when he tells Diane that she’s like everybody else, but those words also come from a place of deep trauma. How did Pa and Ma and the brothers Nguyen come to America? Was it via boat? Did they stay at a refugee camp in Thailand or the Philippines? Where did they stay when they made it to the US? What were their early experiences in America like and how would that affect how they raised Diane and her brothers? What is their relationship with their family back home like? Do they send money back home or are they estranged? Do they not have family because they died in the war? If her brothers spent their childhood in war-torn Vietnam, how does that trauma translate to the way they treat Diane? The writers are clearly very clever and creative and I’m sure they could come up with a wacky, heartfelt, and authentic story even if it requires suspending our disbelief.
And finally — We need them to listen to us. Diane Nguyen speaks to so many Vietnamese-Americans. Rarely has there ever been this wonderful character for Vietnamese-American women to identify with in animation! I encourage the writers to see her ethnicity not as a hindrance to hide in order to make her more relatable or as seasoning on a character who might otherwise be read as white — but as an opportunity.
Just as the show has been lauded for its nuanced portrayals of mental health, intergenerational trauma, and asexuality, I want to see “BoJack Horseman” succeed at writing a nuanced portrayal of a person of color and their culture. After all, if the writers could create and portray a nuanced fictional underground culture of ants, they are more than capable of putting in the same effort at portraying my people.
Until then, Diane Nguyen will read as a white woman with the name and face of a Vietnamese one, because at the end of the day, that’s who she is. That’s just the “original sin” that we’ll have to live with. But it doesn’t have to end there. We can learn from and apply one of the central themes of this season to this very situation: Endless guilt over the bad things we’ve done won’t change those things. Like Diane says in the last episode, there’s no such thing as good guys or bad guys, we’re all just guys trying to do fewer bad things and more good things. Time’s arrow marches forward, and all we can do is learn from our past and do more good in the future.
Author Bio: Linh is a Vietnamese-American writer based in the Bay Area. Her work has been in online publications such as Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Femsplain. In her free time, she likes watching anime and playing video games.
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